Monday 16 September 2002

A metaphysical brothel for emotions

Joseph Duemer wrote:

Ad captandum: I finally figured out what it is about the warbloggers—like this one, who is typical: they are sentimentalists. The problem with sentimentality is that it obscures reality in a haze of ill-defined & manipulative feeling. And the Rottweiler’s sentimentality is no less sentimental because it is violent & vulgar. [cf warblogger watch]

I immediately recalled a Salon review of two biographies of film director John Ford in which Allen Barra asked: “How can an intelligent person be expected to react to the thick, rich blend of sentimentality, brutality, chauvinism and homilies in Ford’s films… without cringing just a little?”

And what are warblogs if not a thick blend of sentimentality, brutality, chauvinism and homilies? In Koestler’s phrase, a “metaphysical brothel for emotions.” Later in the review, Barra cites an anecdote that reveals much about Ford and the warblogging personality:

Both Eyman and McBride [Ford biographers] relate the story of a character actor named Frank Baker who came to Ford begging for money when his wife was in the hospital; Ford screamed at Baker, publicly humiliating him, and then punched him. Then he sent a man to see that Baker’s hospital bills were taken care of, proving once again that sentimentality is often found on the other side of the same counterfeit coin as brutality.

It turns out that Barra was paraphrasing Carl Jung, whose aphorism—Sentimentality is a superstructure covering brutality—Joseph later added, before pointing to his “long pissing contest with the warblogging community” (in the comments on this post at Warblogger Watch).

I spent a dispiriting twenty minutes reading the 73 comments. What struck me most forcefully was that Joseph Duemer’s opponents, who argued in favor of an invasion of Iraq (with or without UN sanction) failed to comprehend the meaning of sentimentality, even after Joseph carefully defined it for them:

Sentimentality is the substitution of emotion for intelligence; sentimentality requires of the reader assent to heightened feelings not legitimated by the matter at hand; sentimentality seeks to manipulate the reader’s emotional response by calls to conventional wisdom or attitudes; sentimentality seeks approval by reference to the vast warm blanket of majority opinion; sentimentality never, ever risks the disapproval of any member of its intended audience.

And the aesthetic expression of sentimentality is kitsch, as Kundera explains in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.

The feeling induced by kitsch must be a kind the multitudes can share. Kitsch may not, therefore, depend on an unusual situation; it must derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories: the ungrateful daughter, the neglected father, children running on the grass, the motherland betrayed, first love…

In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden beneath it.

“Children running on the grass,” “the motherland betrayed,” “husbands kissing their wives goodbye”—this is the emotional clip art with which the warbloggers attempt to mask the essential brutality of their cries for war. What’s entirely missing from their rhetoric is the compassion with which, as I’ve argued before, every great soldier balances a necessary ruthlessness.

To be sure, Saddam Hussein is an odious tyrant. But so are dozens of other leaders whose corrupt governments have the direct support of or have been placed in power by the United States. It’s this selective morality—which the warbloggers trick out as “moral clarity”—that needs to be questioned. Instead a morality of convenience is being endorsed in a heady rush of sentimental claptrap.

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At least part of the problem here is that Duemer's, and Jung's, definition of "sentimental" is contrary to the definition held by 99% of Americans.

"Sentimental" has positive connotations, not negative ones. We associate it with things we know are not necessarily true but things we would love to believe.
Things like Santa Claus, things like joyous Thanksgiving reunions with loved ones, even if we only love them at a distance, are considered "sentimental." Even when we consciously know these things are not entirelytrue, we would like to believe them an dsee nothing wrong in believing in them.

Kitsch at least comes closer to the meaning Duemer is assigning to "sentimentality" because it has somewhat negative connotations for most, though certainly not all, people.

People are going to resist transforming a word they have positive connotations with into a negative idea, even if they might otherwise be convinced that the argument itself is sound.

Posted by Loren on 17 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Only the supremely confident toss off the insights of Jung. A genius of the psyche. Besides, I don't think the average person is all that reverent to sentimentality... think of Hallmark cards and Whitman candy. Schlock. A routine you go through because you are suppossed to. My biggest dose of sentimentality was from my grandmothers. Fake feelings and obligatory love. That, as Jung says, is brutal.

Posted by Pan on 25 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour