Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sentiment and Sentimentality

I'm writing today because I'm sick and tired of looking at my McDonald's grumble. It may be well written, but I've gotten all the notice I'm ever going to get. Another rose petal tossed down the infinitely deep well of the Internet, and I have yet to make a splash.

There are topics (topoi) that the old Rhetoric classes used to teach. I'm currently teaching a very elementary writing class, and so I've been reacquainted with the concept of the "prompt." The "prompt" is what the topos became, only with a great deal less poetry and metaphysics than in the past. Where students used to write on, "What is a just war?" or "What is the difference between the naked and the nude?" or "Does the citizen have a right to rebel?" (I know no one ever clicks on any links, but that last one is very tricksy, as it is Melville bragging about a particularly illegal naval battle), we now ask them to write about "What makes you happy?" and "What is your favorite room?"

When I went off to seminary, to become a priest of geeks, and when I stood in the antechamber to the tabernacle, I noticed that there were many there with me, and these persons, having intelligence for piety, were judged fit. However, I regarded them as loathesome. They were in their mid-twenties and obsessed with being cool for once in their lives. Having been the oblongs and conic sections in their high schools, and therefore being robbed of being fit enough, manly enough, pretty enough, or smoothe enough, they had a lack they carried about with them. They needed to be cool now. Now, the competition was similar people. Now, they could open the cover of their chests and let the vaccuum of their egos go at full blast.

We all agreed, or had it agreed for us, that the contest would be aesthetics. Who had best taste won. Who had the coolest stuff won.

These people were, I thought, on the verge, at any moment, of giving one another swirlies. (Don't believe me? Look here, and you can see someone actually agreeing to have one in order to be cool.)

They had big hierarchies of cool bands and uncool bands, and they had huge arguments of how awful particular things were. One of the things they hated was Simon and Garfunkel. A person couldn't listen to that. On the other hand, Nick Cave was cool. Don't even mention Harry Chapin.

Well, you know, I think it's time to innoculate people and revive the topos tradition. There is a vast difference between sentiment and sentimentality.
"Gazes mournfully at trees
And barely a sound until tomorrow" ("See Emily Play," Syd Barret)
Those lines are phonetically brilliant, and they're also very pathetic. The "cool" Syd and the sentimental are married in one there, if a person has ears to listen. A person can make fun of Paul McCartney all he wants (and he wants to quite a bit), but the man who wrote "For No One" while in his twenties has more soul than any detractor. "Eleanor Rigby" is supposed to be saccharined drivel, but it sure as hell isn't.

What is the difference, then, between sentiment and sentimentality? Sentimental writing plays up easy emotions and is coercive and achieves commonplace emotions. An artist should write "What oft was thought but ne'er so well express'd" concepts, but if it's commonly expressed as well as commonly felt, then the result will be sentimentality. A good author hits either complex emotions (ambivalence being the top of the pyramid and poignancy being just below that) or finds an emotion that we feel but which we don't know we feel.

Is "Eleanor Rigby" a common emotion? It evokes loneliness, yes, but it also evokes despair and wishes that the world weren't so cold. It combines two lonely people with their fates, and it mourns the fact that they never had connections. Certainly it's not the only time that sentiment has been expressed, but it's not common. No song, and hardly any poem, though, has hit the complete sensation of a person whose girlfriend is crying as she's completely over her love for him as compactly as "For No One."

Even Harry Chapin's "Cat's Cradle" isn't commonplace. It's coercive because it's a narrative, but the sentiment it aims for is not unalloyed. Yes, the speaker is rueful and full of regret, but he also couldn't help it. "Taxi," which is often cited as Chapin's most egregiously sentimental, sins only by its recourse to the silly "flying when I'm stoned" imagery. The situation it evokes is plenty complicated. Yes, the man is sad that he lost his girlfriend, but the situation he is in is uniquely emasculating. He is now her servant, and so his regret is tinged with an utter loss of manhood, too.


Leave me alone. I'm not that far from the fourteen year old who thought that "The Sounds of Silence" was the deepest poem ever. I still think its evocation is deft and its language is precise, and I still think that "Eleanor Rigby"'s tombstone is worth fresh flowers.


A.M. said...

You just know that I will now have to play the collected songs of Harry Chapin and Simon & Garfunkel Collection now, don't you?

Well done again. Thanks.


The Geogre said...

Well, both did get sentimental from time to time, but I loathe the idea that my old "friends" used to have that, just because these people elicited an emotion from their perma-cynic hides, they were "sentimental." It was as if they were angry at the artists for ever having made them feel. They acted like youngsters talking about a rejected lover.

Just had students reading a Bobbie Ann Mason story, and I was right on the edge of bringing in "For No One" to explain the story to them. As I told them, "If you have never had someone say, 'I don't love you anymore, and it's nothing you did,' then God's blessings upon you."