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Old 02-16-2017   #1
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Topic Nominated Oldest and/or Strongest Emotion

Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature opens with the famous quote, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." In my review of the literature, this proposition seems to go largely unquestioned. On what basis can one say that fear is the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind? Is it possible there might be other contenders?

I think it's conceivable that another fear may be as old and just as strong - if not stronger - than fear of the unknown. It is the fear of being alone. By this, I'm not referring to the aloneness of a pleasant morning, afternoon or evening by oneself with a good book or some other pleasure, escaping the noise and demands of the crowd. I'm referring to the kind of alone that I've experienced at very dark moments. The kind of alone where one feels like one is completely and eternally cut off from the possibility of all contact with any other being. A thoroughgoing loneliness that feels like it has no beginning or end. It is something I fear and something that drives my own fiction.

Given mankind's nature as a social animal, it makes some sense that we would experience a great fear from being cut off from our fellows. Moreover, it seems to be a strong theme in the alienation arising from modernity.

So, I ask you. Is fear necessarily the oldest and strongest emotion? Are there stronger and perhaps older fears than fear of the unknown?

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Old 02-17-2017   #2
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Re: Oldest and/or Strongest Emotion

Chronologically, no - the oldest and strongest emotion is some kind of primitive attachment/desire/love (note I mean "love" not in a sentimental sense here, more like an animal one) towards one's mother. Arising from,

"This warm thing is feeding me."

Again, not romantic or sentimental - the mother is literally feeding the child and before that was incubating it inside her. The child doesn't perceive much difference between its mother and itself at this point. Infants are demanding, not afraid.

Fear seems to require more consciousness. Humans are communal animals, so infantile attachment/desire predates conscious fear.

Lovecraft I believe was speaking metaphorically in order to have a cool opening line for his essay.
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Old 02-17-2017   #3
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Re: Oldest and/or Strongest Emotion

Now re-imagine the entirety of Lovecraft's oeuvre as if prefaced by the statement "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is LOVE."

"What can a thing do with a thing, when it is a thing?"
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Old 02-17-2017   #4
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Re: Oldest and/or Strongest Emotion

I have actually often wondered why this completely unsubstantiated assertion of Lovecraft's has gone so long uncontested, and I think the answer is that, basically, it sounds good.

I don't know what the oldest and strongest (human) emotion is, but I have sometimes thought to myself, "What if it's not some grand emotion such as love or fear? What if it's one of those that we think of as among the minor deities of feeling, like embarrassment?"

Indeed, for much of my life, I have felt embarrassment to underlie all things, not so much like a Great Black Swine Wallowing in Darkness, as like a cringeworthy pink worm dancing in an excruciatingly toe-curling manner that just makes you wince and want to look the other way.

And could it be that the Big Bang was the result of feelings of squirming and intolerable awkwardness in the Great Void? The expanding universe is a great blush of shame and sheepishness upon the face of the shy, gender-confused God.

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Old 02-17-2017   #5
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Re: Oldest and/or Strongest Emotion

Reelevant Eckhart Tolle quote: Basically, all emotions are modifications of one primordial, undifferentiated emotion that has its origin in the loss of awareness of who you are beyond name and form. Because of its undifferentiated nature, it is hard to find a name that precisely describes this emotion. "Fear" comes close, but apart from a continuous sense of threat, it also includes a deep sense of abandonment and incompleteness. It may be best to use a term that is as undifferentiated as that basic emotion and simply call it "pain."

But yes, Lovecraft's assertion is really more of a factoid, not unlike that one which proclaims prostitution is the oldest job on earth.
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Old 02-17-2017   #6
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Re: Oldest and/or Strongest Emotion

Quote Originally Posted by qcrisp View Post
I have actually often wondered why this completely unsubstantiated assertion of Lovecraft's has gone so long uncontested, and I think the answer is that, basically, it sounds good.
China Mieville challenges and makes fun of it here. He goes way too easy on Chavez but otherwise it's a fun talk.

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Old 02-17-2017   #7
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Re: Oldest and/or Strongest Emotion

Interesting conversation.

There's little doubt, though, that infants suffer in the process of being born, which--not unlikely--is surely a kind of fear. As sentience develops in a child, however, I imagine that the "strongest" emotion varies depending on the quantity and quality of care s/he receives.

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Old 02-17-2017   #8
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Re: Oldest and/or Strongest Emotion

To be eternally alone can be called a type of fear, definite in this case instead of unknown. And perhaps it could be said to be the strongest of fears. My own thinking on this tends to state that since we have eluded nature in a way, not by escaping natural processes but by being cognizant of them, we no longer have the luxury of ignorance in the world. So for most, ignorance is the subconscious desired state. For people that enjoy some solitude, to be alone is only tolerable if one knows that such a state will end, that they don't have to consider the world or be alone in their own mind forever. The Sartrean dread of considering how you are seen through the eyes of others is also a large part of this fear I'd argue. Being alone can give rise to all sorts of unpleasant thoughts.

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Old 02-17-2017   #9
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Re: Oldest and/or Strongest Emotion

Quote Originally Posted by Ibrahim View Post
Now re-imagine the entirety of Lovecraft's oeuvre as if prefaced by the statement "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is LOVE."
I'm okay with the idea that the desire to be loved is primordial, though I don't think it could ever be satiated.

"In a less scientific age, he would have been a devil-worshipper, a partaker in the abominations of the Black Mass; or would have given himself to the study and practice of sorcery. His was a religious soul that had failed to find good in the scheme of things; and lacking it, was impelled to make of evil itself an object of secret reverence."

~ Clark Ashton Smith, "The Devotee of Evil"
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Old 02-17-2017   #10
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Re: Oldest and/or Strongest Emotion

Quote Originally Posted by Justin Isis View Post
Chronologically, no - the oldest and strongest emotion is some kind of primitive attachment/desire/love (note I mean "love" not in a sentimental sense here, more like an animal one) towards one's mother. Arising from,

"This warm thing is feeding me."

Again, not romantic or sentimental - the mother is literally feeding the child and before that was incubating it inside her. The child doesn't perceive much difference between its mother and itself at this point. Infants are demanding, not afraid.

Fear seems to require more consciousness. Humans are communal animals, so infantile attachment/desire predates conscious fear.
I think to some extent, this goes to what the definition of an emotion is. According to Wikipedia, "Emotion, in everyday speech, is any relatively brief conscious experience characterized by intense mental activity and a high degree of pleasure or displeasure. Scientific discourse has drifted to other meanings and there is no consensus on a definition. Emotion is often intertwined with mood, temperament, personality, disposition, and motivation. In some theories, cognition is an important aspect of emotion." My own bias is that there's a distinction between an instinct, which is not experienced as having meaning, and an emotion, which is.

Quote Originally Posted by Ibrahim View Post
Now re-imagine the entirety of Lovecraft's oeuvre as if prefaced by the statement "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is LOVE."
Very interesting proposition. One can also make the argument that fear is a product of love and the potential for losing it.

Quote Originally Posted by qcrisp View Post
I have actually often wondered why this completely unsubstantiated assertion of Lovecraft's has gone so long uncontested, and I think the answer is that, basically, it sounds good.

I don't know what the oldest and strongest (human) emotion is, but I have sometimes thought to myself, "What if it's not some grand emotion such as love or fear? What if it's one of those that we think of as among the minor deities of feeling, like embarrassment?"

Indeed, for much of my life, I have felt embarrassment to underlie all things, not so much like a Great Black Swine Wallowing in Darkness, as like a cringeworthy pink worm dancing in an excruciatingly toe-curling manner that just makes you wince and want to look the other way.

And could it be that the Big Bang was the result of feelings of squirming and intolerable awkwardness in the Great Void? The expanding universe is a great blush of shame and sheepishness upon the face of the shy, gender-confused God.
You do understand that a story almost has to flow from this beautiful description of cosmic embarrassment?

Quote Originally Posted by ramonoski View Post
Reelevant Eckhart Tolle quote: Basically, all emotions are modifications of one primordial, undifferentiated emotion that has its origin in the loss of awareness of who you are beyond name and form. Because of its undifferentiated nature, it is hard to find a name that precisely describes this emotion. "Fear" comes close, but apart from a continuous sense of threat, it also includes a deep sense of abandonment and incompleteness. It may be best to use a term that is as undifferentiated as that basic emotion and simply call it "pain."
Interesting - but I wonder how pain gives rise to positive emotions, such as joy?

Quote Originally Posted by Dr. Locrian View Post
There's little doubt, though, that infants suffer in the process of being born, which--not unlikely--is surely a kind of fear. As sentience develops in a child, however, I imagine that the "strongest" emotion varies depending on the quantity and quality of care s/he receives.
One of my scariest dreams involves attempting to pass through a passage that seems much to small and in which I am sure to get irretrievably stuck.

"On the background of my nights God with clever hands
Sketches an unending nightmare of many forms.
I'm afraid of sleep as one is of a great hole . . ." Charles Baudelaire

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