Garrick’s Scale of Emotions

There’s a famous passage in Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comédien, where he describes Garrick’s ability to portray a sequence of emotions. I’m going to be using it in a forthcoming presentation, and, as part of my preparation have prepared a little visualisation of the passage in question.

Garrick passe sa tête entre les deux battants d’une porte, et, dans l’intervalle de quatre à cinq secondes, son visage passe successivement de la joie folle à la joie modérée, de cette joie à la tranquillité, de la tranquillité à la surprise, de la surprise à l’étonnement, de l’étonnement à la tristesse, de la tristesse à l’abattement, de l’abattement à l’effroi, de l’effroi à l’horreur, de l’horreur au désespoir, et remonte de ce dernier degré à celui d’où il était descendu. Est-ce que son âme a pu éprouver toutes ces sensations et exécuter, de concert avec son visage, cette espèce de gamme ? Je n’en crois rien, ni vous non plus.

Or in English,

Garrick puts his head between two swinging doors, and, every four or five seconds, changes the expression of his face, from mad joy to moderated joy, from this to tranquillity, from tranquillity to surprise, from surprise to astonishment, from astonishment to sadness, from sadness to despondency, from despondency to fear, from fear to horror, from horror to despair, and then back from this last degree to his starting point. Could his soul have experienced all these sensations and still executed, in concert with his face, this scale of emotion? I don’t believe it at all, and neither do you.

And now, the visualisation, for which I have made use of the drawings of Charles Le Brun, who – strikingly (but perhaps not surprisingly) – has sketches of all the emotions Diderot lists, except for ‘surprise’ and ‘tranquillity’, which I’ve replaced with roughly appropriate images from Le Brun’s oeuvre.

Images from archive.org and artstor; changing at 3 secon intervals: 1) Mad joy, 2) Moderated joy, 3) Tranquility, 4) Surprise, 5) Astonishment, 6) Sadness, 7) Despondency, 8) Fear, 9) Horror, and 10) Despair
Images from archive.org and artstor; changing at 3 secon intervals: 1) Mad joy, 2) Moderated joy, 3) Tranquility, 4) Surprise, 5) Astonishment, 6) Sadness, 7) Despondency, 8) Fear, 9) Horror, and 10) Despair

Do try to follow along with the images. If you do, and maybe still if you don’t, you’ll notice that although Diderot talks about a ‘scale’ (gamme) of emotions, the sequence Garrick employs here is in fact only occasionally between neighbouring passions. It is easy to go from mad joy to moderated joy, or from the neutral tranquility to shock, but despondency to fear or astonishment to sadness are very tricky indeed. All the more proof of Diderot’s point: it takes real skill and reflection, thought and not feeling, to portray emotion so clearly…


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