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General News    H4'ed 12/19/20

Barbara H. Rosenwein on Anger (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 19, 2020: First, a confession. I have not read Barbara H. Rosenwein's book Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 2006) or her book Generations of Feeling: A History of Emotions, 600-1700 (Cambridge University Press, 2015) or her book, co-authored with Riccardo Cristiani, What Is the History of Emotions (Polity Press, 2017).

Consequently, perhaps I should never have ordered her book Anger: The Conflicted History of an Emotion (Yale University Press, 2020), which strikes me as a short (230-page), breezy survey that lurches all over place. For example, Rosenwein peppers her breezy text with seven references to President Donald Trump (see the index for specific page references) and to other contemporary persons and events.

In short, everything in Rosenwein's new 2020 book is breezy - just one hop, skip, and jump after another, after another, after another. If you have not heard of any of these things before, she may seem informed. Indeed, she is not uninformed, but she is breezy. It may be inarguable that earlier authors did not work with Rosenwein's conceptual construct of emotional community. But her breezy survey comes across as scatter shot.

Moreover, at times, Rosenwein seems to be writing a kind of self-help book. She does intimate that the thoughts about anger that she surveys have somehow helped her to understand herself (that is, her memory of her three-year-old self beating her doll) and what she refers to as her Jewish emotional community as a young child. But she stops well short of explaining in convincing detail just exactly how she as an adult has supposedly benefitted personally from the intellectual journey she recounts in the book.

At the outset of the book, Rosenwein's Jewish emotional community includes three-year-old Barbara and her mother (and presumably her father also) in Chicago. Her parents were Jewish, but they rejected synagogue-based religion. Both of her parents had attended the University of Chicago - as did Barbara herself later in her life (B.A., 1966; M.A., 1968; and Ph.D., 1974 - according to the Wikipedia entry about her). She also reports that her parents adhered to Freudian psychoanalytic assumptions "with the fervor of converts" (page 6).

In any event, her memory of her three-year-self beating her doll and her mother's comment about her daughter's anger runs through Rosenwein's new 2020 book like a leitmotif.

Now, I do not have any comparable memories from when I was three years old. To be sure, I remember certain vivid stories my mother often told. At times, it may even seem to me that I recall the events from my early childhood that I so often later heard her describe vividly.

But my mother's vivid stories about my early years never included any details that somehow tied into Freudian psychoanalytic assumptions. Besides, my mother and father were not college graduates, and I seriously doubt if they knew anything about Freudian psychoanalytic assumptions.

Consequently, in Rosenwein's terminology about emotional community, I find it hard to relate my early childhood Roman Catholic emotional community experience to her early childhood Jewish emotional community experience when she was three years old.

Therefore, if I consider her book to be a kind of self-help book about her own personal intellectual journey later in her life that somehow has supposedly helped her as an adult and may now help me as an adult if I undertake a similar intellectual journey, I just do not find her book interesting enough to find her breezy survey helpful.

Let me now be a bit more specific about Rosenwein's intellectual journey in her breezy survey by briefly discussing her critique of certain works by Martha C. Nussbaum (see pages 50-53, 217, and 220). Rosenwein correctly notes that Nussbaum does not work explicitly with the conceptual construct of emotional community. Fair enough. Nevertheless, Nussbaum's ponderous 2001 750-page book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge University Press) strikes me as significantly related to Rosenwein's own enterprise.

Next, Rosenwein's discussion of "Aristotle and His Heirs" (pages 82-95) also leaves something to be desired. She is not uninformed about Aristotle's thought.

For Aristotle, virtue is defined as the mean between the extremes of over-doing something and under-doing it. Rosenwein's book is published in the Vices and Virtues book series edited by Richard G. Newhauser of Arizona State University and John Jeffries Martin of Duke University, who supplied the "Foreword" to her book (pages xii-xiii). In the terminology used in their book series, over-doing something is a vice, and so is under-doing it. But for each pair of vices, there is only one virtue, according to Aristotle.

For example, the cardinal virtue of courage (also known as fortitude) is the mean between the two corresponding vices of over-doing the courage thing (known as brashness) and under-doing it (known as cowardice). But Rosenwein says nothing about Aristotle's complexity of thought about the two vice positions in her discussion about the virtue position pertaining to anger.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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