The Case Against Sentimentality
The French Catholic philosopher and playwright Gabriel Marcel may be the 20th century’s great diagnostician of (and prophet against) one of modernity’s besetting sins: abstraction. Trained as an idealist, he began to feel hemmed in by the great Hegelian systems of the turn of the century. Even while attending lycée, he tells us, he grew anxious:
What, indeed, could have been more abstract than our relationship with our masters or even with one another, not to speak of the notions which were inculcated in our minds? There was hardly anything in all this that could touch our sensibility or fulfil our most pressing inward needs.
Eventually Marcel developed, in his own words, “a growing horror of the spirit of abstraction,” a horror that had a tripartite solution in his life. First, he began to write plays, the most concrete form of literature, which allowed him to work out his ideas in the shape of more or less true-to-life human characters. Second, in 1929, when he was 39 years old, he converted to Catholicism, the most physical, concrete form of Christianity. And finally, he dedicated his philosophical writings, in texts like The Mystery of Being and Man Against Mass Society, to combating the scourge of abstraction in the world around him.
For Marcel, abstraction (in its philosophical, scientific and political forms alike) seeks objectivity, but in doing so, it demands “a preliminary, and complete, elimination of the subject as such”—and with the subject, everything vital and essential in the human being. In short, the objectivity demanded by abstraction eliminates me and you. It is fundamentally inhuman, even anti-human. Against this abstracted objectivity, Marcel offers intersubjectivity, by which we transcend our own subjectivities not by aiming at objectivity but by merging with other subjectivities, by connecting our own perceptions with those of other people.
Abstraction is fundamentally inhuman, even anti-human.
Such a merger becomes possible by means of what Marcel calls “presence,” the mysterious aura that every individual carries with him or her. In our abstracted culture, most of our interactions with one another are not marked by presence. They are dissatisfying and even alienating. When encountering a stranger with something other than presence, Marcel says, he “interposes himself between me and my own reality, he makes me in some sense also a stranger to myself.” We further abstract each other by hiding our full presences from each other. But when I encounter a person with my presence, something life-giving and revelatory happens: “it can refresh my inner being; it reveals me to myself, it makes me more fully myself than I should be if I were not exposed to its impact.”
Another way to say this is that we love each other—and it ought to go without saying that I can love only a presence (a grounded and particular someone), and I can love them only with my own and whole presence. To love means refusing objectivity in the Cartesian, Marxist or scientific senses. It means insisting on the subjective reality of the beloved and thus on my own subjective reality. And because of this, we will have a remarkably difficult time theorizing it because all theory (even this one) abstracts to one degree or another.
Abstraction takes many forms: the “absolute knowledge” of the Hegelians; the inexorable march of historical progress offered, in various forms, by Condorcet and Marx; the epiphenomenal false consciousness of contemporary materialist neuroscience. But one of abstraction’s subtlest and therefore most pernicious guises is sentimentality.
Most of us probably know the term from aesthetics, in which it signifies false or superficial emotion. Sentimentality is false specifically because it is removed from the real current of human vitality; it is false, in Marcelian terms, because it has no presence. From aesthetics, the sentimental spreads throughout human life. It takes over ethics and politics, where, ironically, it often appears under the guise of a rationalist utilitarianism. One can easily trace the roles of sentimentality and abstraction in three historically connected areas: aesthetics, ethics and politics.
Sentimentality in aesthetics
Real art offers us something genuine; it engages with the world around the artist, filters it through their consciousness and re-presents it to the viewer, listener or reader. The goal of art, in this sense, is truth—but in our data-driven culture that word may be too beholden to facts to be terribly useful for our purposes here. Artistic truths are not objectively verifiable, and for the most part, they do not make statements in direct ways. (For this reason, political art often fails to rise above its immediate origins, though it can be quite eye-opening in the here and now.)
Most of our interactions with one another are not marked by presence. They are dissatisfying and even alienating.
The truth of art is the truth that Martin Heidegger designates as aletheia—“uncovering,” let’s say, or “disclosure.” An artistic truth pulls back the fabric of the world for us and shows us things we could not see without it. For that reason, I think it more helpful to think about the goal of art as revelation rather than truth. The world of a work of art is our world, the world, the world we really live in. But it’s twisted 15 or 20 degrees, so that we see our world from an angle we otherwise would not be able to. (In this sense, art is also apocalyptic in the original sense of that word.) As Frederick Buechner says, the ultimate message of every work of art is “pay attention.” And as Simone Weil knew, attention is one of the highest forms of prayer.
I am not necessarily asking for realism in the Flaubertian mode. Flaubert’s fiction does what art should do—his detailed descriptions of his physical environments force us to pay attention to things we might otherwise have missed. But his is not the only way. Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness in Mrs. Dalloway shows us a housewife’s interior world in a way that would otherwise be inaccessible to us. John Barth’s metafictional experiments show us the truth about our postmodern alienation and the limits of art itself. Instrumental music is the most abstract of all art forms, but all of us have had encounters with genuinely revelatory music, be it “Kind of Blue” or “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” or Beethoven’s late quartets.
I have a painting in my office. Wispy clouds dominate its top half, their undersides red. A bright orange stripe runs horizontally through the middle; a series of road maps have been pasted to the bottom third or so of the canvas and painted brown. This painting is quite obviously not “realistic”; nor can it be said to “mean” anything. But it hands the world back to me. When I look at it, it transports me to Atlanta, where I grew up, and I feel the oppressive heat of the July interstate. And even more remarkably, that experience—sitting in a traffic jam on I-85 while the pavement warps in the heat—is deeply unpleasant, but this painting makes it beautiful. When we talk about aesthetic beauty, in fact, we are talking about this sort of transformation, which is ultimately revelation: the truth of that interstate was always there. I just didn’t realize it until I looked at this painting.
In this sense, the otherwise abstract painting is very concrete indeed: It has a real, concrete, individual presence. I encounter it just as I encounter a person, and like a person, it calls on me to love it. I don’t love “a painting” or “paintings” or “art”—I love this painting. And I love it more or less the way I love the people whom I love: for the irreducibility of their existence. I love them for the way my life becomes shaped around theirs, for the way the world looks different to me because they inhabit it. This painting—this book, or this symphony or this film—has ceased to be an object for me, an inert thing to be used any way I would like. It is a presence, not a breathing presence to be sure, but living in its way, and as such, I cannot control it; I can only encounter it, engage with it.
Until we treat the work of art as a more or less autonomous presence, until we recognize that it has equal agency in our encounters with it, we will misunderstand it.
My lack of control over the genuine work of art matters here. Lionel Trilling tells us that great literature speaks to us but at its own leisure: “Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me and to understand my hidden meanings.” Until we treat the work of art as a more or less autonomous presence, until we recognize that it has equal agency in our encounters with it, we will misunderstand it.
Sentimentality looks like art, but it does not actually do any of these things. The sentimental work of pseudo-art fails to become a presence and remains an inert object, a mere thing. I cannot encounter it because encounter requires presence. And yet it can move me and can in that way feel quite powerful. Emotion, I should say, is frequently part of the revelation of real art; we are quite rightly moved when our world is opened up for us. But emotion can exist without revelation—an emotion that I can only call false—and this is sentimentality. I cannot love the sentimental, as Roger Scruton notes: “For the sentimentalist it is not the object but the subject of emotion that is important.”
When teenagers fall in love with their young classmates, they engage in a kind of sentimentality, in that their “love” for each other has little to do with concrete, existing individuals. They do not love the ostensible object of their affections, though they are typically too young and inexperienced to know the difference. Instead, they feel disgust at the empty parts of themselves, which they have convinced themselves only this person can fill. In reality, no one can fill them, and one attempt is virtually identical to any other, which is why a certain sort of teenageer rockets through years of obsessive crushes, replacing each idealized image, once it’s used up, with another, magically identical to it.
Real love changes shape depending on the two parties who share it, but sentimentality is a plastic shell that warps anyone whom we try to enclose in it. Real art, likewise, speaks to me as one soul speaks to another, and I am not the same afterward; sentimentality flushes me with emotion, then quickly drains away, leaving me ready for the next quick fix. The emotion it engenders means nothing the instant it disappears.
When my relationships with other people are marked by sentimentality instead of love, the difference may not be immediately apparent. I may speak very highly of them—but below the surface, I merely admire them the way one admires a well-constructed bridge. Admiration costs nothing; it is inherently objectifying, like Kantian aesthetics, which treat beauty as something utterly without stakes for the observer. The emotions stirred by my relationships with people whom I admire are often shallow and impermanent because the presence of these people is hidden from me (perhaps because I ultimately want it to be hidden). We admire qualities, but we can only love people, who are more than the sum of their qualities and certainly more than the sum of their admirable qualities. (The people whom I love frequently fail to be admirable, and they would certainly say the same of me.)
I can abstract qualities from these holistic presences and create images no less dehumanizing than the teenage boy’s idealized “perfect woman.” A certain shallow sort of hatred works the same way. The vast majority of time when I think I hate someone, I have merely abstracted his distasteful qualities from their holistic presence. Distaste is as sentimental as admiration. True hatred, like true love, takes place only between presences, but most of us, thank God, will never truly hate someone in this way. It would do permanent damage to our souls in such a way that we could rightly call it demonic.
Sentimentality in ethics
In his telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus, having been asked how to “inherit eternal life,” asks his interlocutor what the law says, affirming the answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27). Note the concreteness of these rules: Both involve our relationships with individuals, not with abstractions, and both involve a personal existential engagement with those individuals. We are not to admire God and our neighbor; we are to love them with everything in us, with our full presence. The lawyer who is questioning Jesus obviously understands this because his next question—“And who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29)—rather transparently attempts to add restrictions to the concept of neighbor. In the heated nationalist political environment of first-century Judea, conservative Judeans commonly limited their responsibilities to their fellow Jews rather than to the variety of “outsider” ethnic groups also inhabiting the area.
The parable of the Good Samaritan accordingly expands the sphere of responsibility. It is the Samaritan—a member of a hated half-caste ethnic group—who takes the effort to help the man who has been beaten and robbed; the respectable priest and Levite ignore him. Christ’s question is cutting: “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robber’s hands?” (Lk 10:36). The answer, of course, is the outsider. Christ asks his interlocutor to empathize with one of the most scorned groups in his culture. Jesus puts the ethical impetus not on the Jewish officials, who should really know better, but on the Samaritans, whose worship is only semi-connected to Judaism. Not only does he expand the circle of responsibility—he actually relocates its center.
But he does not at all abstract it. The Samaritan’s ethical responsibility is not to “the poor” or “the Jews” or even “the suffering”—it is to this particular man, whom he just happened to come across. Our neighbor is not the whole world. But they are every person whom we come across. And Christ himself operated this way. As Madeleine L’Engle points out in The Irrational Season,Jesus could easily have healed the diseases of everyone in the world, but he didn’t. Instead, he healed the people whom he just happened to come across. He tells us to feed and clothe the stranger, true, but not every stranger, not the abstract notion of The Stranger—the actual particular strangers whom we see and who need us.
The Good Samaritan’s ethical responsibility is not to “the poor” or “the Jews” or even “the suffering”—it is to this particular man.
We must not limit ourselves to strangers who look like us, but neither can we think in terms of utilitarian solutions to global suffering. “The poor you always have with you” (Mk 14:7), Jesus tells Judas—but we do not get to turn our backs on them when we encounter them. We do not get to go out of our way to avoid encountering them, as so many of us would like to do.
It is easy for us to sentimentalize human suffering when we remain at distant from it. Utilitarian solutions often seem designed to keep us at a distance from human suffering. The Good Samaritan does not have that option. He bandages the stranger’s wounds himself—he must have gotten the man’s blood on himself—and personally takes him to an inn, paying for his further care and promising to return. We get no hint that the stranger even thanks him.
Dorothy Day points out that caring for the poor is often unsatisfying because, far from the suffering masses who inhabit our sentimental imaginations, the flesh-and-blood poor are often dirty and ungrateful. Our charity will go unnoticed sometimes, and we will not be able to pretend that the people we help would worship us for our charity, as we might be able to pretend with the distanced utilitarian solutions that threaten to abstract suffering people into “the suffering.” It is no accident that Catholic social teaching relies on solidarity, which involves (apart from and in addition to larger-scale political action on the national and international scale) com-passion,sufferingwith the suffering stranger, feeling what he feels, getting his blood on our clothes. So, too, with the other great Catholic social principle, subsidiarity, which demands that problems be solved as close to the ground level—that is, as unabstractedly—as possible.
Sentimental ethics sometimes manifest themselves in the ethical system—formulated, tellingly, by the great theorist of capitalism, Adam Smith—called “sentimentalism” or “moral sense theory,” in which a moral agent has an inborn faculty that allows her to feel when a given action is right or wrong. (David Hume compares this moral sense to aesthetic taste and suggests that it must be developed if it is to work properly.) From here we slide quite easily into what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “emotivism,” a conception whereby ethical judgments express the positive or negative feelings of the person making the judgment. Emotivism quickly turns into Jedediah Purdy’s pejorative “Prozac morality,” for which my moral judgments (“It is wrong to abandon your family in search of your own self-fulfillment”) say nothing at all about the moral status of an action or agent and everything about my own psychiatric failures. (“Why are you so hung up on what I do? You must have some serious daddy issues.”)
These ethical phenomena certainly have something in common with sentimentality, but a truer manifestation of sentimentality in ethics comes veiled in a certain sort of modern-day utilitarianism. It was on full display in the Alfie Evans case in April 2018, in which the United Kingdom courts decided, backed by medical opinion, that the parents of a brain-damaged toddler would not be allowed to seek further medical care for him, even after Pope Francis procured Italian citizenship for the child and even though it would cost the U.K. and its taxpayers nothing.
The language used by the defenders of this position predictably centered on Alfie’s “quality of life.” This language is sentimental because it pretends to be based on love but works by abstracting away from the actual human being—given dignity by his complete irreplaceability—to whom it ostensibly refers. The phrase “quality of life” is, in fact, almost always sentimental, in that it is meant to conceal the reality that what we are talking about is killing a child. The phrase is, not incidentally, usually ableist as well, since it makes decisions about whether or not the life of a person with disabilities is worth living, often from a great height and without the input of the (again, irreplaceable) person.
In this sense, the sentimental arguments for killing Alfie are parallel to the medicalized, statistical language that allowed Iceland to announce that it had eradicated Down syndrome—when in truth it had eradicated all the Icelandic people with Down syndrome. Sentimental ethics, specifically because they are concealing rather than revelatory, can justify all manner of inhumanity, as Flannery O’Connor knew well. “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness,” she wrote, “its logical conclusion is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”
There exists, it must be said, a parallel sentimentality more common among pro-life people, in which people with disabilities are trotted out not to be gassed in the name of tenderness but to inspire the able-bodied. This sort of “inspiration porn” is certainly less immediately destructive, but it is just as abstracted. In both cases, we move away from the dignity of a person’s irreplaceable, revelatory presence and turn them into the object of our pity. My wife, who has cerebral palsy and thus a visibly altered gait, was once stopped by a stranger in the entryway of a grocery store and told that she was “brave”—the implication being that Victoria’s disability makes everyday activities the equivalent of a hero’s journey undertaken for the emotional benefit of everyone around her. She asked the woman what exactly made her brave, and when the woman couldn’t provide an answer, Victoria left her cart in the entryway and walked out of the store. Only later did she realize that the impulse that made this woman, apropos of nothing, call her brave was the same impulse that leads doctors to suggest aborting her and other people with cerebral palsy.
Sentimentality in politics
Whenever politics appeal to something abstract—when they try to make us love something abstract—they lead us toward some sort of dangerous dehumanization. Conservative politics, for example, are at their worst when they are based on a kind of sentimental antiquarianism that is worse than nostalgia, since nostalgia at least exists, in however corrupted a form, in individual memory. When we are told about the “good old days,” we are being asked to love a specter, a false and geometrical Disneyland history. (Ironically, it is pretty easy to love Disneyland itself, which is a real place, as long as you don’t confuse it with the world outside its gates.) When we love that antiquarian vision, we love an ideal, one that excludes vulnerable groups and then papers over that exclusion. These groups are composed of real people with dignity and presence; those political good old days are not.
Whenever politics appeal to something abstract, they lead us toward some sort of dangerous dehumanization.
The liberal sentimental vision, on the other hand, is about the future rather than the past, an idealized future in which all marginalized groups have been set free from the powers that oppress them and are allowed to exercise their autonomy however they would like (with no apparent effect on the social fabric). To love such a future is to ignore the degree to which it would require the unchosen suffering of the real people with dignity and presence who have alternative visions. Marx’s worker’s paradise, Silicon Valley’s globalized corporate Shangri-La, the American dream of exporting democracy and capitalism to every country in the world—all of these are abstract, sentimental and ultimately dangerous visions.
The most unfortunate thing about these tendencies is that concreteness and presence represent the best in both conservative and progressive politics. True conservatism does not ask us to love antiquarian, abstract “good old days.” It tells us to look around and love what we see: our families and friends; the trees, lakes and animals that share our world; our churches, synagogues and mosques; our communities, shops, restaurants and bars; our culture as it is manifested in particular books, songs, statues, films. Marcel tells us that loving someone means wishing for his or her immortality. Likewise, loving these individuals and institutions in our lives means wishing for their preservation, even though we understand that human culture will never be fully immortal. To love the world around us—natural and human alike—is not only to fight to keep it alive but to think it worth sharing (though not worth forcing on people).
The best progressivism, meanwhile, begins not with a utopian vision or a conception of its opponents as inhuman bigots but with actual, existent people—people who have been wounded by the state of things as they are. Progressives also loves their community, and that love makes them want to make it a more just place, more welcoming to strangers. True progressives recognize that the best sort of progress takes place less through executive and federal fiat than through human encounter. We should not downplay the role of national law in, for example, the civil rights movement, but we should also recognize that a big turning point took place when the nightly news began showing video of peaceful protesters being attacked by fire hoses and police dogs. To see those protesters as human beings is to begin to love them, and to love someone is to wish their immortality and for justice to be done.
Whether we are “conservatives” or “progressives”—and, despite the efforts of our two-party system to divide us, most of us are some combination of the two—we must begin our political theorizing and action with a love for our community as it currently exists and a love for the people whom it excludes. Otherwise, we risk sentimentalizing where we have come from and where we are headed.