Volume 13, Issue 6: Poetics
Instinct helps us to pick out a sentimental person or artwork, but it's harder to specify the features that make something sentimental. And once you start trying to figure out what those features are, you see that the questions turn out to be quite serious and pervasive. Sentimentalism isn't just a cute or annoying personality quirk; it's a wide-ranging negative claim about God and His world.
We often think of sentimentalism as plain emotionalism, an excess of public emotion. We might point to a weepy teenage girl as a proper bearer of the charge. But I suspect we're really pointing at something narrower. Good drill sergeants and coaches are also given to strong public displays of emotion, usually painful to someone, and yet we don't classify them as sentimental.
Building off an insightful essay on sentimentality by Michael Tanner, Roger Scruton suggests
that "sentimental people are attempting to have their emotions `onthe cheap.'" They want the pleasure of a strong emotional life without paying the price. The sentimentalist is really trying to attract admiration for himself as a person with a warm heart and generous feelings. Scruton notes that "a sentimental friend is not a friend: indeed he is a danger to others. His instinct is to facilitate tragedy, in order to bathe in easy sympathy; to stimulate love, in order to pretend love in return. He enters human relations by seduction and leaves them by betrayal."
This seems genuinely insightful on many fronts, but it can only be part of the story. To begin with, it appears too broad. It seems to raise sentimentalism into merely a kind of lying or hypocrisy. But not all sentimental people are hypocrites. The vast majority are simply too naive to be that calculating and seditious. Many are indeed Judases and Robespierres, feigning concern for the poor, but many others are just genuinely too cutesy and nice (though still dangerous).
More specifically, our understanding of sentimentalism has to be able to capture something common to Elsie Dinsmore and Judas, Precious Moments figurines and Robespierre, and stories like
Dances with Wolves, Gorillas in the Mist, Schindler's List, and Sleepless in Seattle. At a recent Little League game, the boy at third base tripped in reaching for a grounder. A woman (not his mother) let out a pitying "aaaaawh," as if he were a toddler who got a boo-boo. This struck me as one of the key evils in the world. What would lead someone to respond in that way?
At least part of the answer is that sentimentalism is first and foremost a complaint. Why didn't the woman see the boy's pain and error as something positive? Something healthy? She just wanted to eliminate it. She wanted a world without tripping. To her, such thingsare unnatural intrusions into life. Everything is supposed to be complete and perfect as it is, and evil messes up that pristine place.
Sentimental people, then, end up pretending that evil isn't really part of the world and are big-eyed when it rears its head. Sentimental Christians are closet pagans, pretending that evil is maya, a pervasive illusion. They spend their whole lives aiming to avoid pain. If this is right, the opposite of sentimentalism isn't the lack of emotion; it is cynicism.Sentimentalism sees nothing as bad; cynicism sees everything as bad.
But more importantly, sentimentalists respond to pain and evil with resentment. When it shows up, they complain about it (the eternal "aaawh too bad") and wish God would not have allowed this suffering at all. It serves no good purpose, since the world is fundamentally good anyway. They don't attempt to conquer pain, transform it, or drink health from it. It can only get in the way of "real" living. It's not surprising that sentimentalism often shows up alongside perfectionistic traditions, like much of modern evangelicalism and Jacobinism in politics.
Sentimental stories and movies have characters that resign before evil and submit to the pain, but they don't master it. The world of Precious Moments and Elsie Dinsmore is a world that resents sin and the Fall. Political sentimentalism resents oppression, but it doesn't use it for improving the health of a people.
Sentimentalism is not only a denial that pain and evil have positive life-enhancing roles to play. One could be a perfectionist about life without being sentimental. The additional ingredient that gets us to sentimentalism is a positive assumption about good: it loves the nursery; it loves primitivism; it loves immaturity. Sentimentalists view the nursery world as the place yet uncorrupted by civilization and adults, the roots of all evil. The nursery is the
place where no one gets hurt, adults lisp, everything is cute and pastel, and knowledge is kept small. Evil is an illusion, and immaturity is exalted. That is the sentimentalist's paradise. Sometimes this nursery is youth itself, sometimes it's "love," and sometimes is a primitive tribe. But it's always a delight in immaturity.
From within that immature frame, sentimental people can then go on to express the sorts of "emotions on the cheap" that Scruton begins with. But it all starts with a complaint against God, a complaint against the way He runs the world. Yet, "If there is calamity in a city, will not the Lord have done it?" (Amos 3:6).