Sentimentality and Apocalypse

Despite the effort of feminist critics, Eve Sedgwick most notable among them, fear of sentimentality (one of the most persistent hallmarks of a modernist mindset) still rules the roost in almost all “serious” fiction.  I remember figuring out around age 14, when I first started reading classics like Hemingway, Joyce, and Hardy, that I could be sure that I was reading the “good stuff” if it all ends badly.  “Poetic justice” and “happy endings” belong to the Victorians and Hollywood.  They were banished in any fiction post 1890 that aspired to “high” status—and such seems to still be the case.  Bad things happening to good people is the rule.

One reason for abandoning sentimentality, one I find myself very much in tune with, is the determination to avoid any hint that suffering pays dividends.  The classic Christian plot, of course, reveals how redemption is won through suffering.  And classic fictional plots offer all kinds of variants on the ways that characters grow in wisdom or strength or sympathy through various trials, physical and/or mental.  Not to mention suffering that serves as atonement for various faults, thus washing them clean and making the character “worthy of” a happy ending.

The modernist sensibility is that suffering is meaningless.  It does not make people better—and it does not make the world better.  Suffering is just outrageous, all too common, and offering nothing but the cup of bitterness.  In fact, there is something obscene about all efforts to turn suffering to account, to make it serve some purpose.  One must resolutely turn one’s back on any sentimental way enlisted to make suffering pay dividends.

The sentimentalist, in other words, lies.  He makes the world out to be better than it really is because he takes suffering, which is inevitable, and makes it palatable.

Anti-sentimentalism, as many have pointed out, comes with a kind of machismo pride: I am man enough to face up to the harsh truth that others try to shirk. My objection is that manning up seems to also entail admitting there is nothing that can be done about it.  It becomes sentimental to think there are ways toward a more just world.

Anti-sentimentalism also alters the form of narratives.  Traditional plots often turn on character development.  To put it most simply: they show characters learning from and being changed by experience.  As Aristotle put it way back when: characters are shown as moving from good fortune to bad, or the reverse.  It doesn’t have to be that schematic, but the point is that experience matters, that neither character nor the world are eternally the same.  Things and people change—and plots are ways of registering and accounting for those changes.  The anti-sentimentalist view tends toward stagnant, determinist, fatalism.  Things are always just about the same: the good suffer, injustice prevails, there is nothing much in the way of improvement to expect or hope for.

It’s this hopelessness that makes me like the John Dewey quote about sentimentalism that I offered a few posts back.  Here it is again:  “Education and morals will begin to find themselves on the same road of advance that say chemical industry and medicine have found for themselves when they too learn fully the lesson of whole-hearted and unremitting attention to means and conditions—that is, to what mankind so long despised as material and mechanical.  When we take means for ends we indeed fall into moral materialism.  But when we take ends without regards to means we degenerate into sentimentalism.  In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost”(Reconstruction in Philosophy, 73).

No surprise, of course, that Dewey, optimist that he is, believes change for the better is possible.  But I want to take up two different thoughts prompted by his statement.

First, that grand ideals like “justice” and “equality” are sentimental if unmoored from concrete ideas about how to put them into practice.  And such sentimentalism leads directly to preaching and exhortation, along with fuzzy thinking that avoids all consideration of means.  I have no more to say on that score.  If the shoe fits . . .

Second, if one has no concrete steps to be taken, I think the form “magical thinking” takes is apocalyptic.  The writer cannot imagine how to transform the world of injustice and suffering he presents.  But the writer also declares this state of affairs is unsustainable and, therefore, will come down with a crash at some unspecified point in the future through some unspecified chain of events.  This is the dream of revolution, but it has become the garden variety claim that current levels of inequality must lead to drastic political upheavals, that current levels of greenhouse gases must lead to transformative environmental disaster, and (of course) to the well-worn belief that economic crisis must lead to the collapse of capitalism.

Waiting for the apocalypse is not a politics.  “To profess to have an aim and then neglect the means of its execution is self-delusion of the most dangerous sort” (Reconstruction in Philosophy, 72-73).  Kant’s categorical imperative gets all the attention, but I have always preferred the “hypothetical imperative” myself.  Basically, Kant says we fail one test of reason when we don’t will the means toward an end.  As I explain it to my students, if your goal is to pass the test on Friday morning, the hypothetical imperative says you must study on Thursday night.  If you go out to the bars, you are being irrational by Kant’s account.

Now, it is true, neither Kant nor Dewey pay enough attention to the case where one wills the means (after having thought carefully about them) but is powerless to put those means into action.  Apocalyptic thinking is a delightful refuge for the powerless, for those who can’t make their desired courses of action a reality.

But there is no reason for such powerlessness to rule supreme in fiction.  We seem to be suffering from a debilitating case of fatalism (suffering and disaster are inevitable and there is nothing we can do about it) combined with a severe lack of imagination (an inability to entertain, at least in thought, pathways toward a better future).  The only means of transformation we seem currently able to credit is catastrophe.  And Dewey would claim that predilection is every bit as sentimental as an Austen or Dickens novel that offers its characters a happy ending.

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