It is generally agreed that sentimentality, whether in novels, films, plays or whatever, is a Bad Thing, but there seems little agreement on what precisely constitutes sentimentality. When we try to define it, when we try to state clearly the criteria that differentiate that which is mere sentiment from that which is genuine emotion, we flounder. We sometimes try to take our lead from the word “genuine” and define sentimentality as “false emotion”, but that really won’t do, as real emotion, and even perhaps profound emotion, can easily appear sentimental when vitiated by indequate expression. Neither is there any agreement on what works are sentimental, and what aren’t: for instance, I find the closing chapters of Great Expectations almost unbearably moving, although I know there are those who dismiss it as mere sentimentality; on the other hand, what I perceive as toe-curling sentimentality in so many of the classic Disney films is perceived by many others as charming. There are even cases where I find myself enjoying that which I can acknowledge is, indeed, sentimental – like, say, the operas La Bohème or Madama Butterfly: these are unashamed tear-jerkers, but I can, without any embarrassment at all, have a good cry while listening to them, and feel all the better for it afterwards. But why I should enjoy the sentimentality of Puccini but deplore that of Disney, I do not know: is it possible that there are such things as “good sentimentality” and “bad sentimentality”? If so, what criteria differentiate between the two? Or is it merely the case that it is all entirely subjective, and that sentimentality is merely sentiment of which one does not personally approve?
In a book I wrote about recently on this blog, the author Mark Dietz, in a digression from his principal themes (the passage in question appearing only in a footnote), defends sentimentality:
Now, according to a rather curious definition, sentimentality is false emotion; however, if we take a closer look at sentimental emotions what bothers us is not their falseness, but a tendency to represent emotions that are too large, too close to the surface, too awkward, too cloying, too freely expressive. In none of this is falsehood really at blame; were falsehood present, we would have another complaint altogether – chicanery, deceit, subterfuge – all of which suggest a second level to the emotion, a something underneath the surface, an irony, perhaps. Sentimentality is thus, to my mind, if it is true sentimentality, to be valued as sentimentality (and frankly, I do think we ought to learn how to value sentimentality, for without it the world is missing a rather common and surprisingly varied ingredient), an emotion that resides on the surface of life –untempered, unalloyed, unprofound – large, voluble, broad, impersonal, awkward, and vast.
“Too large, too close to the surface, too close to the surface … too freely expressive … untempered, unalloyed, unprofound …” All of this takes us close, I think, to the heart of the matter, but the heart of this matter is worthy, perhaps, of even closer examination. “An emotion that resides on the surface of life”: ay, there’s the rub. It lies on the surface, or, at least, too close to the surface: one need not dig too deep to access it. It is too easily accessed, too easily found without being earned. And that, I think, is why we so often think it to be a Bad Thing: certain emotions do, we feel, need to be earned. But only certain emotions: we do not feel this way about the emotion of mirth, for instance. A man slipping on a banana-skin may be considered a cheap laugh because the emotion of mirth has been too easily accessed, but we would not describe this as “sentimental”. No, we reserve the term “sentimental” only for those types of emotion we think worthless unless they are hard-earned – and these are the feelings of grief, and of sweetness. It’s almost as if the lachrymose and the sweet are qualities so valuable that they must be hard-earned, and that if they were too easily accessed, if they were too close to the surface of life, then these valuable emotions are necessarily cheapened. It is for this reason that a cheap laugh can be more easily forgiven than a cheap tear.
But none of this gives us objective criteria to determine what is sentimental, and what isn’t; and neither does it explain why La Bohème and Madama Butterly move me, while Pinocchio and Bambi merely irritate. I find this particularly troubling, as, when I survey those works that mean most to me, I can see that I respond strongly to direct expressions of powerful emotion. The emotional upheavals in Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, the heartbreak of the final scene of Chaplin’s City Lights, the despair of Othello when he knows that he has thrown away a pearl richer than all his tribe, the emotional turmoil of Lady Dedlock when she realises her daughter is still alive, the interlocking passions and the pity of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the final bars of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony in which the throbbing phrases disappear into silence … this is the kind of thing I find myself responding to keenly. Are all these examples sentimental? Are only some of them sentimental, but not others? If so, what are the criteria to determine which ones are sentimental, and which ones aren’t? And if we can’t tell, are we entitled to use this word at all in a pejorative sense?
I have to end this post with these unanswered questions because, even after years of pondering them, I haven’t come across answers I find satisfactory. But nonetheless, these questions remain important for me because I find myself valuing deeply works that project powerful emotion, and which some, at least, may consider “sentimental”; and, conversely, I often find myself unengaged by works in which human emotions are kept at a decorous distance, despite recognising artistic merit in many such works. In the immortal words of Boney M, “show me emotion, tra-la-la-la-la”.