To have a few or none at all?

February 3, 1995

Regret is so much part of human experience that not to feel or express it may mean courting trouble. Norman Lamont, for instance, when Chancellor of the Exchequer, had to learn the hard way: when reported to have said after the devaluation of the pound on Black Wednesday 1992: "Je ne regrette rien'', he gave hostages to the media which duly savaged him so that he may well have regretted ever making that remark.

Of course regret, as Janet Landman in her extensive study of this experience points out, can take many forms. They are often culturally determined, though invariably based on an awareness of past personal experience, in which modern Americans, she claims, are mainly not interested. But nonetheless regret, she maintains, is persistent and pervasive. She therefore seeks to explore the phenomenon by discussing its character, by questioning its right to existence and by proposing actions to cope with its impact. To undertake this task she has written a wide-ranging book, full of interesting observations. She shows courage in using an inter-disciplinary approach. Literature, economic theory, logic, the history of ideas and her own academic subject, psychology - she teaches psychology in the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - are called upon for support and evidence.

The breadth of her enquiry is admirable, but also leaves one with the suspicion that she frequently skates over difficult ground, quantum mechanics for instance, without the proper equipment. Still, much of what she says is stimulating, even if it is often not new.

In order to explore the nature of regret adequately she has recourse not only to methods and theories of the social sciences but also to literary criticism. (For a literary historian like myself it is gratifying to find that a social scientist is willing to look at literature for insights to further her investigation, to understand what Landman calls "the complex experience of 'felt thought'''.) To that end she makes use of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism: in particular she accepts his claim that there exist four archetypal stories only in imaginative literature - the romantic, the comic, the tragic and the ironic. Landman looks at works which, in her view, exemplify these modes of writing, namely Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, Henry James's The Ambassadors, Fjodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway which are said to represent the romantic, the comic, the tragic and the ironic world views respectively. Northrop Frye is of course a well-known literary critic and theorist whose writings have made their mark, but that particular classification which Landman borrows from him is, in my view, not helpful at all. These terms are, of course, not altogether useless but have to be used with much care and can at best only point to certain features in a work. To seek to give literature exclusive labels of that kind forces complex works into a procrustean bed. In her discussion of these works she comes across the problematic nature of any classification of literature and discusses Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons which, according to her, belongs to the "mixed mode'' of romantic irony. (It is fortunate that in that context she does not resort to the unhelpful theory of "Romantic irony'' expounded by the German Romantic literary theorist Friedrich Schlegel, which would have further obstructed her argument.) She refers to many other works of literature, mainly English ones, to illustrate her argument. But her approach to literature is, sensibly old-fashioned, rewarding; she need not have been apologetic for eschewing structuralist or deconstructionist approaches.

Landman seeks to define regret, to delimit it against other experiences, such as disappointment, sadness, remorse, and guilt. There is little to fault in her account, though, perhaps unavoidably, she runs up against the problem of labelling areas of experience with words which are very slippery customers indeed. She usefully distinguishes the destructive aspects of regret from the constructive ones and points to the pragmatic, ethical and social benefits. She also launches into an analysis of the logic of regret. Regret cannot be eliminated since in life it is impossible satisfactorily to weigh all the pros and cons of a decision. Therefore, in her view, the classic Decision Model is not helpful since, as Stuart Hampshire pointed out, situations can be described in an inexhaustible number of ways and we cannot possibly spell out all possible courses of actions or possible outcomes entailed in a decision. In other words, we can never predict the future adequately, though we can hazard sensible guesses in a limited field of enquiry. Not surprisingly, Landman finds fault with those economic models which emphasise the maximisation of utility and takes a swipe at market economics, which she finds misleading. Admittedly, the almost invariable inaccuracy of Treasury forecasts, for instance, confirms the well-known dictum that economics is an inexact science, but this does not mean that it is not a valuable intellectual activity.

Landman rightly maintains that the experience of regret is partly intellectual and partly emotional and that emotions have a logic of their own. But that is hardly a novel conception. Indeed, throughout much of the book Landman traverses well-known ground. She argues convincingly that regret has little respect for rulebooks, manuals of etiquette and the like. Regret usually depends on personal values and concerns, among which self-esteem, ambivalence, weakness of will and self-deception play a part. She also believes that it is more frequent among older people because they have more to look back upon. She also seeks to discuss the transformation of regret and sets out, sometimes with skilful reference to literature, ways of coping with the experience of regret and transmuting it into a positive stance, by taking people away from themselves and returning them to activity within the world of others. These observations appear sensible.

However, Landman is on less secure ground when she ventures into the history of ideas. For instance, she claims that the Enlightenment is marked by a blind faith in reason. While some minor thinkers of the Enlightenment over emphasised the power of reason, that view by no means prevailed. A look at Immanuel Kant's philosophy of history, for instance, would correct her mistaken view, and was it not David Hume who stated categorically that reason is the slave to passion. Or, when she writes that the dialectic as defined by Hegel can help us to cope with problems caused by regret, dissent is called for. Furthermore, someone who is not a practising social scientist like myself may well wonder whether the reactions of some of Landman's students to questions put to them by her provide sound empirical evidence. Indeed, the book raises the question whether some of the social science cited by Landman is scientific at all.

To sum up, the book is a valiant attempt to cross the boundaries of several disciplines, but it would have gained from being more concise. It would have also been more rewarding if Landman's boldness had at times been restrained by greater caution and knowledge; but at least her account does not depart too much from common sense, though much of what she says is merely commonplace.

Hans Reiss is emeritus professor of German, University of Bristol.

Regret:: The Persistence of the Possible

Author - Janet Landman
ISBN - 0 19 507178 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £17.95
Pages - 366pp

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments