Thomas Dixon tears away bubble wrap to reveal his Lost Emotions Machine: a five-foot-tall cabinet with levers and switches that click with satisfying solidity. It’s a tool he and his colleagues at Queen Mary, University of London, use to teach people about extinct emotions. He believes that feelings are the products of place and time: just as the Welsh feel hiraeth (longing, usually for one’s home) and Arabic speakers tarab (a heightened sense of emotion induced by music), so the Lost Emotions Machine teaches that people in 1215 felt acedia, a kind of spiritual malaise, and in 1080, the medieval mania of “frenzy”.
I’m hoping that Dixon, author of a history of British weeping from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era, might be able to explain why 250,000 people felt compelled to join The Queue, stoically shuffling along the Thames and past the catafalque of Queen Elizabeth II. Was this the stiff upper lip, quivering on a vast scale?
For starters, Dixon says the stiff upper lip is long gone. The idea that English gentlemen didn’t cry was a Victorian and Edwardian “blip” in the British history of feeling, instilled at boarding schools that trained the administrators of empire. “The ability to control your emotions was emblematic of your right to control other people, especially people who are ‘less civilised’.” It was, he says, “explicitly a racist ideology.”
He thinks we now live in a “hyperemotional” society in which social media algorithms reward exaggeration and all emotions are considered “valid”. This worries him, too—anger that immigrants to the UK drain resources should not be rewarded as “valid” if the opposite is true.
In the days after the Queen’s death, Englishmen did express emotion. Media coverage was sentimental; newsreaders had tears in their eyes. The King referred to his “darling mama”—striking a very different tone to the stilted public grief of his mother when she was, as Dixon puts it, “hounded into emoting on television” after Princess Diana’s death in 1997. Astonishingly, 44 per cent of people asked by YouGov said they had cried for the Queen.
Emotions are rarely, perhaps never, spontaneous
To republicans, this was baffling. As citizens, we didn’t know her, and many seemed surprised by their compulsion to queue as if we did. Should we be worried that the public’s emotions were somehow manufactured by media coverage and a state determined to create continuity?
The idea of manufactured emotions doesn’t bother Dixon: “All of our emotions in one way or another are generated by our culture,” he says. We learn what love means—and how to say it—from films, books, and the stories we are told as children. “Emotions are rarely, perhaps never, spontaneous,” he says.
The Queen was around so long and—born in the age of the stiff upper lip—so restrained in her own emotion that she was able to be a symbol of something to everyone. And symbols, Dixon says, “are the containers and vehicles of our emotions.”
Some poured grief for mothers or grandmothers into her; others nostalgia for a time gone by. Some poured anger about inequality and empire. When “this powerful symbol hit the ultimate fact of human existence—death,” as Dixon puts it, the container shattered; the emotions were released.
These emotions are instructive. Dixon reminds me that Audre Lorde said “anger is loaded with information and energy.” Emotions aren’t the opposite of reason, but tools to help us discern what we think about the world. What we believe is reasonable, or not.
Unsurprisingly, Dixon is acutely aware of his own emotions—of the moments when he becomes frustrated with his children and of the behaviours they learn as a result. He’s also aware that not everyone has a nuanced understanding of their own heart: the Lost Emotions Machine is part of a wider educational mission. Near the end of our interview, Dixon starts telling me about a moving piece of music (the Welsh song Myfanwy) but can’t finish because he doesn’t want to cry thinking about it. I listen to it later and—though it’s in a language I don’t understand—weep.
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