Follow Me On
The Woman in White Marble

{Click Marble or visit Books in the main menu}

Dis-Ease: Living with Prostate Cancer

{Click or visit Books in the main menu}

« I Think Someone’s Watching Me | Main | Overcoming Devil Mountain »

The Great Sentimentality Hoax

I recently read a collection of essays by Milan Kundera entitled Encounters. In a  piece entitled The Total Rejection of Heritage, or Iannis Xenakis, when discussing “sentiment as justification for human cruelty”[1], Kundera recalls Carl Jung’s essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses. The essay was published in 1932 and in it Jung said

Atrophy of feeling is a characteristic of modern man and always shows itself as a reaction when there is too much feeling around, and in particular too much false feeling. From the lack of feeling in “Ulysses” we may infer a hideous sentimentality in the age that produced it. But are we really so sentimental today?…there is a good deal of evidence to show that we actually are involved in a sentimentality hoax of gigantic proportions. Think of the lamentable role of popular sentiment in wartime! Think of our so-called humanitarianism! The psychiatrist knows only too well how each of us becomes the helpless but not pitiable victim of his own sentiments. Sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality…[2]

I’m not interested here in Jung’s take on Ulysses. I can’t read the damn book, though goodness knows I have tried more than once.[3] I am interested in the phrases “we actually are involved in a sentimentality hoax” and “sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality...”

I think a distinction needs to me made between sentiment and sentimentality:

Sentiment: of or prompted by feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia. (There is nothing wrong with having feelings of tenderness and sadness, though nostalgia - a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past - is indeed a slippery slope sliding us right into the middle of sentimentality.

Sentimentality: exaggerated and self-indulgent tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia. (There is a lot wrong with exaggerated and self-indulgent feelings and thoughts.)

So to be clear, here I am talking about sentimentality.

It has often fascinates me, and equally as often disturbs me, that we use sentimentality to cope with, justify or even glorify human brutality. As Jung notes in his essay, the most obvious example of this is our response to war: our preparation for war, conducting of war and remembering of war. Sentimentality may help survivors and mourners cope, but it also builds a superstructure, as Jung says, which holds the entire war industry in place. Without war sentimentality coupled with nationalism sentimentality, how could such utter brutality and destruction industry not collapse under its own weight: death weight, mutilation weight, destruction weight, financial weight?

I experienced my first Remembrance Day in England as a minister in a small church in Cumbria some 26 year ago. The Church of England of course led the event. I was asked to read scripture in the C of E church, which I was happy to do. Of course I was asked to read Isaiah 2:4

And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Flags were paraded into the church. Military symbols and representatives were in show. Dignitaries were present. The sermon was appropriate for the occasion, though not necessarily appropriate for Isaiah 2:4. After the service we proceeded outside to a World War I memorial honouring local men who had died in that war.  I had nothing to do so simply observed.  

I saw an elder woman crying. Next to her stood her daughter with her right arm around the older woman’s shoulder. The daughter’s left arm was around her young son. To their right were six boys age ten to sixteen, I guessed, standing erect in military type uniforms. The C of E minister was sombre. The band played. There was, of course, remorse and loss, but remorse and loss that played their proper roles in the event. There was honour, there was glory, both of which were necessary to prepare those at attention boys to go to war. There was a great sentimental hoax. It embraces us all.

It’s politically and socially heretical to suggest that the powerful feelings, indeed, waves of sentimentality experienced while commemorating war are not only unhealthy but destructive, that they blind us to the true reality of that which our sentimentality is directed. The hoax, freely embraced and shared, is that the brutality is actually what we imagine it to be, after the fact, in the glow of our remembrances and ceremonies. Sentimentality transforms reality and enables us to both weep for a husband, father, grandfather and dress up our young boys and girls in military uniforms, congratulating them on their imitation of the noble national warrior. Sentimentality transforms brutality into a particular expression of tenderness, sadness, glory and celebration. It hides the cruelty and destruction, or if they must be remembered, sentimentality reifies our transformed memories. It’s a great big self-imposed self-indulgent con. And it asks, indeed encourages, the boys and girls to prepare to sacrifice their lives on someone else’s future battlefield.

My uncle had a horrific World War II experience and came home as a very traumatised survivor. He became an alcoholic and a violent one at that. Once when I was very young, when we were visiting my uncle’s home, he became drunk and violent. I learned that night that he took it out on his wife. My dad took me outside to protect me from the violence and tried to explain. Years later my uncle was found drunk and beaten in an alley. Once it was discovered he was a veteran they took him to veterans hospital. While there he requested drawing paper, pencil, pen and water colours. He created a series of images all utterly devoid of sentimentality. He was simply not capable of such a thing. The images he created were no great hoax, but his response to human brutality. I have include one pencil and one pen drawing of he did while recovering in hospital.

No sentimentality. No superstructure. No hoax.








Copyright © 2014 Dale Rominger

[1] Kundera, Milan. Encounters. London: Faber and Faber, 2009, p.76.

[2] I searched in vain for the actual essay but did find numerous essays on the essay. This quote can be found in all of them or standing on its own when you google Jung on Ulysses.

[3] Ulysses is one of the greatest novels ever written, though very few people can actually read and understand it. I have a friend in California who took a whole class on l how to read the book and still couldn’t understand large parts of it. Obviously I’m no fan of Ulysses and can’t resist this quote from Jung in his 1932 essay: "...I read to page 135 with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way. The incredible versatility of Joyce's style has a monoto-nous and hypnotic effect. Nothing comes to meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter."

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>