Monday, January 4, 2010

On Sentimentality: A Christmas Essay

Once upon a time – (last year) – I was having drinks with a friend.  It was Advent, we were talking about music, and I asked him ‘Hey [friend], have you ever heard [band name]?’ to which he curtly replied, ‘Yes, but they’re a bit too sentimental for my taste’.  My spirits were quietly deflated.

They’re sentimental?
I like sentimental music?
I have a kitschy taste in music.

It was not unlike the moment your older, more mature friend informed you that, well duh, of course Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

Mr. Webster defines sentimental as ‘marked or governed by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism; resulting from feeling rather than reason or thought; having an excess of sentiment or sensibility’.  In the mid-18th century, the word ‘sentiment’ commonly meant ‘a thought colored by or proceeding from emotion’.

It would seem, then, that this vicious attack on the sentiment and all things sentimental is yet another iteration of the age-old war between Plato and the poets.  The poets kept putting the (philosophical) cart before the horse(s).  Plato had had quite enough of the spontaneous overflow of their powerful feeling.

But haven’t we, as good postmoderns, moved past all that tripartite soul rubbish, giving up the grail-quest for the rational man who dispassionately governs his passions?  Can we remain so conspicuously aloof to the human mind in the wake of Nietzsche and Freud?

Or perhaps pursuing that line of argument is to overshoot the target.  Maybe the fact of the matter is that the ‘war on sentiment’ is being waged not on thoughts proceeding from emotions per se, but thoughts proceeding from emotions that have no basis in reality.  As we are in the midst of the so-called ‘holiday season’, I present to you a very relevant Exhibit A: the song ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’.

I would not be overstating my case were I to maintain that the lyrics of this song are the very essence – nay, the quintessence – of what is both loved and loathed about sentimentality.  This ubiquitous ditty is not to be avoided in the month of December, even by the mighty rigors of the strictest anti-sentimentalist.  Not one verse of this holiday jingle lacks a sentimental touch: ‘From now on, our troubles will be out of sight’, ‘From now on our troubles will be miles away’, ‘Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore’, even the closing verse ‘Through the years we all will be together’.  No basis in reality at all.

Its excess is enough to make us laugh, were we not stayed by the quick realization that these lines audaciously skim over the weighty pangs of human brokenness.  This is not to say that the song doesn’t have a catchy tune, or that I don’t sometimes enjoy singing it; rather, when you extract the holly-jolliness from it, the words on the paper do not seem to mesh very well with the ‘situation on the ground’, as it were.

This has always been the case, but it is especially keen this year.  There are those of us who have lost homes, jobs, and insurance against astronomical medical bills.  Some relationships have ended in divorce, or fester in silent bitterness.  A close friend, relative, or spouse has died.  Those who have suffered in these or other ways have no use for pep talks, nor should they be encouraged to repress their grief with a bit of ‘holiday cheer’.

That there could be a connection between sentimentality and wickedness had never occurred to me until I read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  Early in the book, the narrator calls the debauched father Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov ‘wicked and sentimental’.  His ability to loose chaos upon his family in one moment and utter drunken, repentant inanities in another is the hallmark of this arch-buffoon.  While the sentimental Fyodor Pavlovich may not resemble most of the people we encounter in reality, his character highlights the quality of surreptitious carelessness that can accompany sentimentality: empty nostalgia combined with a willful ignorance of others’ pain.

If there is the need to unmask sentimentality as apathy with a , there is also the need to protect certain things from being masked as sentimentality.  In the classic It’s a Wonderful Life, protagonist George Bailey struggles to save the family business providing home loans for the working poor from a takeover by the avaricious slumlord Mr. Potter.  Potter insists that the services of the Bailey Building and Loan result in ‘a discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class’.  George lambasts Potter’s view as smoke in mirrors, concealing his motive of financial benefit at their expense:

Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.  Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?  Anyway, my father didn’t think so… people were human beings to him.

Potter’s retort is a crisp two words: ‘sentimental hogwash’.  And so it may be, for a business to forsake the precepts of profitability to invest in the common good.  Such a suggestion is about as foolish as Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  Is charity tantamount to sentimentality?  Perhaps it is.  After all, since when was caring for your neighbor as much as yourself a maxim which proceeds coolly from reason or thought?  Out in the world, beyond the confines of this essay, such a suggestion is just plain foolish.  If that’s what sentimentality is all about, maybe what’s needed is to restore it to its rightful place; write it on a banner and carry it around with us; parade it about for all the world to see.

At this point in the essay, I might be expected to conclude by picking a side, and stake my claim unequivocally either for or against sentimentality; hot or cold, lest like lukewarm holiday eggnog I am spat from the mouth, spurned by all.  But based on what has already been said, I see no way of proclaiming judgment one way or the other, but only on certain kinds of sentimentality; hardly a categorical imperative.  Perhaps coming to this conclusion is merely a confession that, in these thousand words, nothing of substance was actually accomplished.  Even so, at least I can go on living with the knowledge that I apparently enjoy sentimental music – so long as it’s not that kind of sentimental.
– D. Moore