Nameless Emotions

When the celebrated film editor Walter Murch was working on the movie adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he would receive dailies from the director, Phil Kaufman, every two weeks. Murch made a series of photographic stills from the various filmed scenes sent him, in an attempt to locate what he considered the decisive emotional moment.

As he recounts in his book In the Blink of an Eye, Murch regarded those stills gathered together as “hieroglyphs for a language of emotions,” but a language that didn’t necessarily include any known words.

“What word expresses the concept of ironic anger tinged with melancholy?” Murch asks, describing a scene featuring the actresses Lina Olin and Juliette Binoche, and then answers himself, “There isn’t a word for it, in English anyway, but you can see that specific emotion represented in this photograph. Or the photo may represent a kind of nervous anticipation: The character is scared and lustful at the same time, and yet she is confused because that lust is for another woman. And that woman is sleeping with her husband. So what does that mean?”

Murch used those stills to locate for the director the emotional complexity a given scene needed to be built upon, a complexity that can be seen but not necessarily be easily expressed in words: “If you can simply point to an expression on an actor’s face, you have a way around some of the difficulties of language in dealing with the subtleties of nameless emotions.”

Are they so nameless, though? When writers dig deeply into their imagined characters, that route offers branching possibilities and a call for a more careful attention.

José Saramago, speaking in an authorial sotto voce in his novel The Double, identifies what he calls “subgestures”:

“People say, for example, that Tom, Dick or Harry, in a particular situation, made this, that or the other gesture, that’s what we say, quite simply, as if the this, that or the other, a gesture expressing doubt, solidarity or warning were all of a piece, doubt always prudent, support always unconditional, warning always disinterested, when the whole truth, if we’re really interested, if we’re not to content ourselves with only the banner headlines of communication, demands that we pay attention to the multiple scintillations of the subgestures that follow behind a gesture like the cosmic dust in the tail of a comet, because, to use a comparison that can be grasped by all ages and intelligences, these subgestures are like the small print in a contract, difficult to decipher, but nonetheless there.”

Of course single words can never express the full range of our reactions–they conceal as much as they reveal. Writers who don’t yet understand this settle for presenting a reader with the “banner headlines” of their characters’ inner lives. How much more difficult to locate, in ourselves as well as in our creations (because the interior drama of our lives is a well from which we draw), the fine print of emotions. How much of my anger contains fear, which is laced with envy and the shame that envy brings? How much of my joy contains relief, a certain smug self-satisfaction, and a touch of regret I can’t quite place? Squinting at fine print like this can edge us closer to naming the unnameable.

Photo credit: Undead Backbrain.

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    1. Rich F says:

      Philip,

      Thanks for posting this. I’ll have a more articulated version of my lecture by next packet, but it seems to me that emotion is such a fundamental component of art. I loved this line: “How much more difficult to locate, in ourselves as well as in our creations (because the interior drama of our lives is a well from which we draw), the fine print of emotions.” I might be borrowing soon!
      Rich

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