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Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 207-215

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Notes and Fragments

Poetics of Sentimentality

Rick Anthony Furtak

IN HIS MAJOR WORK, The Passions, Robert Solomon argues that emotions are judgments. 1 Through a series of persuasive examples, he shows that emotions are best understood as mental states which involve certain beliefs about the world. This means that every emotion has an object: if I am angry at John for stealing my car, the object of my anger is the fact (or what I take to be a fact) that my car has been stolen by John. If I find out that this is not the case, that my car has not even left the garage, then my anger should vanish along with its justification. 2 The key point here is that anger, like any other emotion, may be reasonable or inappropriate depending on the situation. If there is nothing to be angry about, then it would be irrational for me to cultivate anger simply because I enjoy having this particular emotion. In general, emotional responses are cognitively flawed whenever they are at odds with the properties of their objects. If we want our judgments to be realistic and not delusional, then we must avoid this kind of error.

It is curious, then, that Solomon has written an essay in which he categorically declares that "there is nothing wrong with sentimentality." 3 For it would appear that his theory of emotion provides precisely the terms needed in order to specify what is wrong with it. If emotions are judgments, then "sentimentality" ought to be an important critical term to designate the habit of having emotions that involve either impaired or mistaken judgment. Nevertheless, Solomon is willing to defend any and every episode of tender emotion, of the kind associated with the [End Page 207] death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (S, p. 240). He suggests that the more we can muster up this sort of response to literature or life, the better. What he seeks to encourage, in other words, is what Hume would call "delicacy" of (aesthetic) taste and of (ethical) passion. 4 But while Hume acknowledges that sensitivity to beauty and to ugliness are two sides of the same coin, such that anyone who is susceptible to lively enjoyments is also liable to undergo pungent sorrows, Solomon wants to promote only the tender aspect of emotion.

On the principle of passionate maximization, it is good if I can be tenderly affected by a poem—any poem! The problem with such crass emotion-stoking is that it precludes the possibility of distinguishing between, for instance, the two stanzas below. Both are by Wilfred Owen: the first was written in 1914 and the second in 1918. 5


O meet it is and passing sweet
         To live in peace with others,
But sweeter still and far more meet
         To die in war for brothers.


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Only if emotions did not involve rational judgment could a person's passionate response to these two stanzas be a matter of indifference. But it seems that, on the contrary, an essential component of understanding them is recognizing that they express irreconcilable cognitive attitudes. The tone of the 1918 stanza is strikingly different from that of the earlier one, even though they share roughly the same topic. The latter stanza is stark and ominous, and filled with vivid detail; the one from 1914 is sweet and vague. Clearly, we might describe the earlier of the two as "sentimental"—the question is, what kind of judgment does [End Page 208] it involve? I suggest that its insipid jingles endorse the view that war is a delightful opportunity to nurture brotherhood and gain...


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