Recently, the question about emotions and their role in historical research has crossed my path several times and in several disguises. First, there was Aoife Monk’s piece in the Times Higher Education where she describes the two distinct ways how research may provoke complicated feelings. The act of research itself is an emotional roller-coaster and the object of research evokes a number of different feelings as well. Then, there was the graduate research seminar where a paper about nineteenth-century emotional expressions in a biographical context inspired a lively discussion about an emotional engagement in writing history. All this propelled me back in time to the early stages of my Ph.D. research when I, totally unprepared, encountered a perplexing web of emotions that historical research can cause. Only slowly I realized that establishing an emotional bond to the topic of my research might have methodological benefits, no matter what the critics may say. Sentiments and scholarship is still a topic that the majority of the academic community prefers to keep quiet about. Hence, saying out loud that emotions are an important part of the process of understanding history may deem me utterly unprofessional in the eyes of the ardent defenders of scholarly detachment. Even with that risk, or with a risk of appearing self-indulgent, here are some scattered thoughts about how emotions can be beneficial for historians.
Having been trained in a rather conservative fashion, I seemed to be stuck in an obscure late-nineteenth-century time zone where detachment, the passionless observation of facts, and calm critical inquiry reigned. I had even applied the word “objectivity” in my master’s thesis, and I believe that I had not heard once the name Hayden White mentioned during the course of my studies. So, just like the nineteenth-century historians who turned their backs to Romantic ideals that underlined emotional engagement as a key to historical understanding, I had been educated to believe that emotions and research were incompatible. Although men had let their feelings run high in archives during the nineteenth century, emotions were strictly guarded when the facts were arranged into a disinterested historical account. To these apostles of professional history emotions were a sign of weakness of character and a feminine quality that prevented any rigorous intellectual activity. Because of the naturally uncontrollable sentimentality, women were unable to conduct impartial historical research. The gendered bias had gradually faded away by the mid-90s, and the content of the methodological courses in my alma mater was simply outdated.
As my thesis was to be about an independent and strong minded woman, I read myself into biographical theories, and especially sought after literature about feminist biography. A whole new world opened up to me. Intersubjectivity, dialogue, and deep level involvement between a subject and an object were reoccurring methodological concepts, and although the focus was largely on “positioning” the author in terms of race, gender, sexuality, religion and so forth, the emotional positioning was there as well. Passions were discussed less openly than the other “positions”, but reading between the lines revealed that emotions were enlisted as part of a research process. For me, understanding and accepting this gave a license to form an attachment first to Liisi Karttunen, and later on, to that annoyingly handsome and irritatingly intriguing Henry Biaudet as well.
The topic of my study provided me with an endless source of emotional turbulence. The contradictions and unconventional choices Biaudet and Karttunen made in their scholarly and private lives guaranteed a life-story filled with passions in every shade of grey. The story of their lives disclosed joy, affection, love, gratification, compassion, respect, excitement, and thrill. There was also a hefty dose of disappointment, anger, frustrations, agony, jealousy, envy, desperation, sadness, and eventually, of immeasurable grief. Even though my focus was not in their emotional expressions, it was not hard to identify the different passions that stared at me in their letters. In the quiet solitude of archives, the letters made me feel deeply connected with them. One day my heart was filled with warmth and joy, the next my poor heart sank from sadness. And then there was the day when I discovered the sad, sad letters Liisi had written soon after Henry’s untimely death from typhoid fever. The passionate lives they lived evoked in me a range of feelings. The intensity of my own experiences together with some unexpected emotions shook me profoundly. I was not prepared for the shame and pity that some of their letters made me feel. The first time I sensed the shame and pity remains one of the strongest emotional recollections that historical research has so far provoked in me.
Undoubtedly, the research and its topics prompt a host of feelings, but it less obvious how this may benefit research. Critics are quick to point out that the kind of close intersubjectivity that the feminist theories advocate may easily lead into a narrative self-absorption that overshadows the voice of the subject. Frankly, I am less concerned about this, than about confusing the emotions of an object and a subject in the process of writing history. The distant emotional expressions of our historical actors may appear familiar, but the familiarity is deceptive. Emotions and their fashioning are historically conditioned and constructed. Of course it was tempting to draw parallels between the excitement, thrill, pleasure, frustration, disappointment, agony, and gratification that Karttunen and Biaudet experienced in the archives and with the feelings that my own research process inspired. As their letters unveiled a set of emotions that anyone who has conducted archival research could recognize, I had to remind myself time and again to be careful in drawing hasty analogies between now and then. Yet, this familiarity was not without importance: the letters inspired me to reflect my own research and helped in forming a more comprehensive understanding about the art of historical research.
In spite of the scruples about merging the emotional expressions and interpretation, I believe that emotional dialogue with those who we research about can have beneficial methodological impact. The emotions may offer a key to understanding and narrating history. This is particularly valuable in, but certainly not limited to, biographical topics. For me, the recognition of emotional participation paved the way to empathetic writing. As the story of Biaudet and Karttunen was packed with emotionally loaded events and turning points, it was necessary to recognize the reactions these caused in me and their potential impact on how I interpreted and explained them. Particularly, the repulsion that Biaudet’s infidelity provoked, the powerful feelings of shame and pity, and any other strongly negative reaction that the topic provoked required careful analysis and tactful narrative strategies. As it was not my duty to morally castigate Biaudet or to turn Karttunen into a helpless victim or a saintly figure, I had to find ways to make their lives comprehensible to readers whom I knew of having strong opinions about the couple. In order to accomplish this, I made a clear choice to adopt a compassionate and empathetically critical voice. Drawing on the myriad feelings the couple provoked helped me to understand the topic more profoundly, and to translate this comprehension into a text that aimed to grasp their choices and the meaning of the decisions they took without being undiscriminatingly apologetic or unsympathetically critical. How did I succeeded in this, is of course left to my readers to judge.
Emotions are an inseparable part of historical research. The act of doing research itself rouses numerous feelings. Historians may agree with this, but less confident they are when the discussion is directed to those feelings that the subject of their study stirs. Refusing to recognize any emotional engagement with topics that are located in a distant past or statistical data is not unheard of. However, I dare to doubt that emotions are a privilege (or burden) of those who work with modern biographies. Historians deal with humans in historical contexts. Even if some topics and sources may appear neutral or void of any personal touches, this is just an illusion. What historians are primarily interested in are the human experiences and the marks humans have left in history. Even behind the statistics there is always an individual with her hopes, dreams, ambitions, intentions, and emotions. Lived lives are filled with sentiments and these sentiments touch and shape us historians when we plunge deep into our topics. Perhaps the time has come to admit that emotions may hold real merit for researching, writing, and understanding past.