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Robert C. Solomon IN DEFENSE OF SENTIMENTALITY "A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it." —Oscar Wilde, De Profundis. 66TA That's Wrong with Sentimentality?"1 That tide of Mark JefV V ferson's 1983 Mindessay already indicates a great deal notonly about the gist of his article but about a century-old prejudice that has been devastating to ethics and literature alike. According to that prejudice , it goes without saying that there is something wrong with it, even if it is difficult to put one's finger on it. To be called "sentimental" is to be ridiculed, or dismissed. Sentimentality is a weakness, it suggests hypocrisy. Or, perhaps it is the fact that sentimental people are so ... so embarrassing. (How awkward it is talking or sitting next to someone weeping or gushing, when one is dry-eyed and somber.) Or, perhaps it is the well-confirmed fact that sentimentalists have such poor taste, and sentimental literature is, above all, literature that is cheap, superficial, and manipulative—in other words, verbal kitsch. Such mawkish literature jerks tears from otherwise sensible readers, and sentimentalists are those who actually enjoy that humiliating experience. Perhaps that is why Oscar Wilde thought that sentimentalists were really cynics ("Sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism").2 Or, perhaps what bothers us is what bothered Michael Tanner, that sentimental people indulge themselves in their feelings instead of doing what should be done.3 It is often said that the problem is that sentimentality and sentimental literature alike give us a false view of the world, distort our thinking and substitute a "saccharine" portrait of the world in place ofwhat we all know to be the horrible realities. Moreover, as Jefferson more than merely suggests, the "simple-minded sympathies " ofsentimentality might actually promote fascism and racism. Mary Midgley similarly suggests that sentimentality leads to brutality.4 But Philosophy and Literature, © 1990, 14: 304-323 Robert C. Solomon305 even where sentimentality is a harmless diversion—a Daphne du Maurier novel on a sad Saturday afternoon—it seems to be all but agreed that sentimentality is no virtue even ifit is not, like cruelty and hypocrisy, intrinsically vicious. Something is wrong with sentimentality; the only question is, what is it that is wrong? In this essay, I will argue that there is nothing wrong with sentimentality . Of course, like any quasi-ethical category, it admits of unwarranted excesses and hypocritical abuses, and is prone to various pathological distortions. But the prejudice against sentimentality, I want to argue, is ill-founded and in fact is an extension ofthat all-too-familiar contempt for the passions in Western literature and philosophy. Our disdain for sentimentality is the rationalist's discomfort with any display of emotion, warranted as well as unwarranted, appropriate as well as inappropriate. It is as ifthe very word, "sentimentality," has been loaded with the connotations of "too much"—too much feeling and too litde common sense and rationality, as if these were opposed instead of mutually supportive. It is as if sentimentality and its sentiments are never warranted and always inappropriate. The word has come to be used as the name of a deficiency or a weakness if not, as some critics have written, a malaise. But I take sentimentality to be nothing more nor less than the "appeal to tender feelings," and though one can manipulate and abuse such feelings (including one's own), and though they can on occasion be misdirected or excessive, there is nothing wrong with them as such and hence nothing (in that respect) wrong with literature that provokes us, that "moves" us, to abstract affection or weeping. Sentimentality implies no deficiency in one's rational faculties and does not imply any inappropriateness, unwillingness, or lack of readiness to act. Sentimentality does not involve any distortion of the world and it does not impede but rather prepares and motivates us to react in "the real world." It is not an escape from reality or responsibility, but, quite to the contrary, provides the precondition for ethical engagement rather than an obstacle to it. Historically, I want to trace the fate of sentimentality to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 304-323
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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