Is Feeling Subjective and Can it be Learned?

One regularly comes across exhortations by Argentine traditionalists to heed the feeling in tango, as though some people have feeling and others don’t. But this raises several questions which seem to make the issue intractable for the typical tango student, namely:

  1. Are the feelings in tango objective or subjective? That is, are the feelings that one has in tango something that is personal, individual and unique to me, or is there an objective fact of the matter what I should feel, how I should respond? If feelings are merely subjective then you may feel something different from me, and there is no fact of the matter whether either of us has the right feeling. So, for example, you may find the flowers beautiful and I might find them repulsive, and in the end “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”;
  2. Are feelings learned? The question is whether feelings are spontenous, something that you simply have, or whether they can and should be taught? And then the question is, if they can and should be taught, how should they be learned/taught?

For the exhortation about feeling in Tango to be meaningful we must accept that

  1. There are objective feelings which are correct, that is, they are objective and universal, and not merely subjective or relative; and
  2. These feelings can and should be learned/taught, that is, people do not naturally or spontaneously feel the right way, otherwise exhortations about feelings would be unnecessary.

These positions go quite contrary to the contemporary Zeitgeist which prefers the idea that

  1. Feelings are personal and subjective such that what I feel is neither right nor wrong; and
  2. Feelings neither can nor should be learned/taught because feelings are spontaneous, something that you simply have naturally without any training, that you might at most either express or repress.

In other words, for the exhortation about feelings to make sense we have to assume that feelings are objective and in some way universal, but that nonetheless feelings do not emerge spontaneously but are a product of education or training. By contrast, contemporary Zeitgeist sees feelings as spontaneous but relative to the individual who has them and not subject to formative training of any sort.

In my research I have found two authors who hold the first position, namely, that feelings are in some way objective, and that they can and ought to be learned/taught.

C.S. Lewis on Sentiment and Debunking in Education

In The Abolition of Man C.S. Lewis offers a critique of a modern approach to English education in which the authors promote to debunking or critiquing traditional sentiments and feelings expressed in literature. He argues that such an approach leads to what he calls “Men without Chests”. Wikipedia summarises Lewis’s view thus:

Lewis begins with a critical response to “The Green Book”, by “Gaius and Titius”, i.e. The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing, published in 1939 by Alexander (“Alec”) King and Martin Ketley. The Green Book was used as a text for upper form students in British schools.

Lewis criticizes the authors for subverting student values. He claims that they teach that all statements of value (such as “this waterfall is sublime”) are merely statements about the speaker’s feelings and say nothing about the object. Such a view, Lewis argues, makes nonsense of value talk. It implies, for example, that when a speaker condemns some act as contemptible, he or she is really saying: “I have contemptible feelings.” By denying that values are real or that sentiments can be reasonable, subjectivism saps moral motivation and robs people of the ability to respond emotionally to experiences of real goodness and real beauty in literature and in the world. Moreover, it is impossible, Lewis claims, to be a consistent moral subjectivist. Even the authors of The Green Book clearly believe that some things (such as improved student learning) are really good and desirable.

Lewis cites ancient thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle and Augustine, who believed that the purpose of education was to train children in “ordinate affections,” that is, to train them to like and dislike what they ought; to love the good and hate the bad. He says that although these values are universal, they do not develop automatically or inevitably in children (and so are not “natural” in that sense of the word), but must be taught through education. Those who lack them lack the specifically human element, the trunk that unites intellectual man with visceral (animal) man, and may be called “men without chests”.

Now we can see that this goes against contemporary Zeitgeist because the modern education system is the product of the likes of Gaius and Titius who promote “critical literacy” if there is any literacy at all. In fact, it is possible that the contemporary product of the obligatory 12 years of schooling is only semi-literate having been trained to perform in a white-collar office job. Such training over-develops the cerebral-regurgitative capacities together with the ability to conform to a cycle of 8 X 60 minute intervals and regular performance assessments that determine their ability to progress in schooling and subsequently to get a promotion in employment. If that sort of an education and mode of living does not produce “Men without Chests” I don’t know what does. The typical semi-literate degree-holder is, perhaps contrary to what would be expected, arguably the least cultured, and hence the least educated, members of humanity. As C.S. Lewis puts it:

Where the old [education] initiated, the new merely ‘conditions’. The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.

It is to their credit that Gaius and Titius embrace the first alternative. Propaganda is their abomination: not because their own philosophy gives a ground for condemning it (or anything else) but because they are better than their principles. They probably have some vague notion that valour and good faith and justice could be sufficiently commended to the pupil on what they would call ‘rational’ or ‘biological’ or ‘modern’ grounds, if it should ever become necessary. In the meantime, they leave the matter alone and get on with the business of debunking.

But this course, though less inhuman, is not less disastrous than the opposite alternative of cynical propaganda. Let us suppose for a moment that the harder virtues could really be theoretically justifed with no appeal to objective value. It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism (such as Gaius and Titius would wince at) about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use. We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which Gaius and Titius could debunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the state- ment that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (C.S. Lewis “The Abolition of Man”)

In questioning and critiquing all traditional values and sentiments, modern ‘critical’ education requires that values be justified, with the result that such values are held merely intellectually with no actual emotional commitment that would be required for us to be able to say that we really believe in them and are therefore able to act on them. This is the post-modern condition and Zeitgeist in which we have choices but no real Chest-level commitments.

Kristin Linklater on Actor’s Training

C.S. Lewis provides us with the idea that feelings are objective and universal, but that they nonetheless need to be learned/taught. We can see that the discussion concerned literature and thus we must assume that the training involves the reading of literature which takes the feelings and sentiments at face value and does not seek to obliterate such feelings with some sort of a critical reading which debunks.

An area in which feelings and emotions need to be cultivated so as to be able to perform effectively is acting, and we find that the topic is discussed in Kristin Linklater’s book on voice training for actors Freeing the Natural Voice: Imagery and Art in the Practice of Voice and Language. Linklater focuses on vocal training but points out that a balanced development of the actor must also include the balanced development of other parts of the organism:

Perfect communication demands from the actor a balanced quartet of emotion, intellect, body, and voice. No one part can compensate with its strength for the weakness of another. The actor who plays Hamlet with his emotional instrument dominant but his voice and intellect underdeveloped will only communicate the generalized tone of Hamlet’s pain and agony. The audience will think, “He’s suffering a lot — but why?” The emotionally available actress who plays Ophelia may tap a vein of madness that is authentic, but without the voice and textual understanding to shed light onto the situation she will be dismissed by the audience as incidental to the story. In contrast with these emotionally driven performances are those of two actors in whom the thought process dominates their work: a too-powerful intellect can also unbalance the actor’s quartet. These actors intelligently argue the case for Hamlet and for Ophelia but fail to move their audience. They are bound to fail in fully communicating their characters if their emotions are not involved. A very athletic actor might dominate the quartet with his physical instrument: playing Henry V he might choose to do a back flip off the battlements and breathlessly launch into, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more / Or close the wall up with your English dead…” The audience will be transfixed by his physical prowess but pay no attention to what he is saying. Without intellect, voice, and emotion, physical energy is mere flashiness. Communication is skewed because the quartet is again unbalanced.

The same kind of imbalance happens when an actor’s voice is his strongest instrument: the audience may be moved by the sound and rhythm of his speech, but without physical embodiment, clear thought, and emotional truth that voice, despite its strength and beauty, is counter-productive to perfect communication.

The causal conductor of the actor’s quartet is the creative imagination, and the actor’s training must deliver to that conductor a voice, a body, intellect, and emotions that can serve the creative impulse without being distorted by personal habit. (Linklater, Freeing the Natural Voice)

What we find here as in C.S. Lewis is the idea that the human being comprises of parts which require development such that proper training must aim at a proper balance among them. Excessively intellectual (‘cerebral-regurgitative’) training will leave the body and the emotions underdeveloped (sadly, a very common situation these days). Alternatively, one might respond emotionally in the right way and yet lack physical strength or intellectual understanding which are still required in dancing. Lack of physical strength in people coming to tango is evidenced in ‘spaghetti limbs’. On the other hand, one may have the physical prowess and yet lack the ability to intellectually understand or emotionally connect to the material. Sadly, an inability to either think or feel is the norm among the leg-flinging tango masses.

So when people find the exhortation to attend to feeling in tango somewhat puzzling this may well be due to the contemporary Zeitgeist in which feelings and emotions are a foreign language that we have no idea how to get started on. Having been subjected to the stupefying 12-years of schooling in being cool, distanced, rational and conformist we have no idea how to approach the language of affect, feeling and emotion. We do of course respond emotionally, but these responses are vague, disordered, unshaped and inarticulate. More often, people view tango as a physical activity that requires physical training with little intellectual or emotional engagement at all. Regardless what style they dance, whether it’s traditional ‘milonguero’, salon or nuevo, it amounts to a DanceSport-like activity in practice.

So how can we set about correcting this situation and get started on acquiring the language of feelings that are objectively there in tango, that yet have to be learned? My proposal is to develop a habit of collecting and listening proper tango music—at home, on a good quality sound system, and using high definition FLAC files [1]— from the Golden Era (roughly 1935-1950). Regular focused listening to high quality tango music, as with classical music, allows us to develop a sense of the feelings that are expressed in the music that goes beyond the experience of music at a milonga venue, but that will translate to our experience of the music at tango events (perhaps for the worse if we find that we become better judges of the music).

While as Nietzsche believed music is the language of affect, the other universal mode of affective expression is poetry. The  lyrics of tango are its literature, its poetry. The language of poetry has throughout human history been the language of affect, the objectification of feeling that resists critical reading or debunking, and that speaks universally to all. Perhaps then developing our Chests in tango might be a better investment than anything a technique workshop can provide!

Few Words (1941)

I won’t even try to clear away
the ashes from yesterday,
that unforgettable yesterday
I just want to make you see
that even if you want to deny it,
there are loves you can’t erase.

After so long I’ve found you again
and I feel this emotion when I look at you:
I feel a crazy thumping
in my old heart
and at the end I’ve found you again.

Few words, old friend,
few words are better.
As you see, the world still turns
without our romantic union.

Few words about what came before,
let’s not talk anymore of love
of that love that has already past
but that still, still has not died.

Pocas palabras

No pretendo remover
la cenizas del ayer,
de ese ayer inolvidable—
solo quiero hacerte ver
que aunque no lo quieras creer
hay amores imborrables.

Después de tanto vuelvo a hallarte
y esta emoción siento al mirarte:
siento un loco palpitar
en mi viejo corazón
y es que al fin te vuelvo a hallar.

Pocas palabras, vieja amiga
pocas palabras es mejor.
Ya ves, el mundo sigue igual
sin nuestra unión sentimental.

Pocas palabras de lo de antes,
no conversemos más de amor—
de aquel amor que ya pasó
pero que aún, aún no murió.



[1] A great source of Golden Era music is TangoTunes (no affiliation). I strongly suggest purchasing the music in FLAC format (definitely not either MP3, ACC or AIFF as tango music suffers severely from all lossy formats) and using a high fidelity FLAC player such as Audirvana and a good quality DAC (Digital to Audio Converter) and good studio monitor speakers (eg., KRK VXT4 or 6) or a good amp-speaker set up. PA systems and most bluetooth speakers are not recommended because they accentuate the low frequencies (deep bass) which distorts tango music. Tango requires speakers with either a flat response or a strong response in the mid-range. KRK VXT are the best budget priced speakers that I have found that satisfy this requirement. There’s the added benefit that a single VXT6 is powerful enough for a small venue such as a small cafe and is fairly sturdy and portable being designed for professional studios.