Emotion and the Arts

By Mette Hjort; Sue Laver | Go to book overview

14
In Defense of Sentimentality

ROBERT C. SOLOMON

A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.

-- Oscar Wilde, De Profundus

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass!

The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!

It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

-- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

"What is Wrong with Sentimentality?" That question already indicates a great deal about a century-old prejudice that has been devastating to ethics and literature alike. According to that prejudice, it goes without saying that there is something wrong with sentimentality, even if it is difficult to "put one's finger on it." To be called "sentimental" is to be ridiculed, or simply to be dismissed. Sentimentality is a weakness, a personality flaw. It suggests hypocrisy, or, at any rate, an exaggerated, distorted sensibility. Or, perhaps it is the fact that sentimental people are so . . . so embarrassing. (How awkward it is talking or sitting next to someone weeping or gushing, when one is oneself dry-eyed and somber.) Or perhaps it is the well-confirmed fact that sentimentalists have such poor taste. Sentimental literature is, above all, literature that is tasteless, cheap, superficial and manipulative -- in other words, verbal kitsch. Such mawkish literature jerks tears from otherwise sensible readers, and sentimentalists are those who actually enjoy that humiliating experience. Perhaps that is why Oscar Wilde thought that sentimentalists were really cynics. ("Sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism.") 1 Or, perhaps what bothers us is what once bothered Michael Tanner, that sentimental people indulge themselves in their feelings instead of doing what should be done ( 1976, 1). It is often said that the problem is that sentimentality and sentimental literature alike give us a false view of the world, distort our thinking, and substitute a "saccharine" portrait of the world in place of what we all know to be the horrible realities.

-225-

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