Feelings, Wo Wo Wo Feelings
In Defense of Sentimentality
by Robert C. Solomon
Oxford University Press; 297 pp. $49.95
Robert Solomon is a Professor of Philosophy ("and Business" — go figure) in the University of Texas at Austin. His particular beat is the philosophy of emotions ("and business ethics" — this must surely be some kind of brazen play for corporate funding). His latest book is a collection of eleven essays loosely united by inquiries into the place of feelings in the human world. To put it broadly and crudely, Professor Solomon thinks that recent philosophers have had far too much to say about reason and it is time to redress the balance. He plants his standard firmly in the Preface:
Whether or not life is reasonable, it is most certainly and essentially emotional. That is what this book is about: defending the sentiments and the emotions, and thus defending much-abused "sentimentality" as well.
This is most encouraging. Many of us believe that the gibberish filling too many of our academic departments — "Critical Race Theory," "Queer Legal Theory," and the like — has left actual human nature so far behind that some kind of rescue operation is called for. That, I think (while not being altogether sure what Solomon would say about the thought) is the wider context in which this book should be read: as part of a program to recover from the ideologues some understanding and appreciation of actual human nature.
Sentimentality has had a very bad press. Solomon gives us a great deal of that press, from Oscar Wilde on Dickens ("One must have a heart of stone to read of the death of Little Nell without laughing") to Clement Greenberg on kitsch ("vicarious experience and faked sensations … the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times"). This is a mighty strong current to swim against, and one must admire the author's audacity.
I can't say I think Solomon has altogether succeeded in his endeavor, though. His arguments are strong and based on wide reading in philosophy, but they acted on me rather like one of those metaphysical exercises to prove that the material world does not exist: consistent, coherent, and perfectly convincing — except that, at the end of it all, my desk is still here, solid as ever!
Any particular instance of sentimentality, after all, divides the human race cleanly into two distinct groups, generating different emotions in each. Those susceptible to its effects experience tender feelings; those not so susceptible experience disgust or contempt, or at best cold indifference. Why two such opposed responses to the same stimulus? How can one cause have two such different effects? I did not feel that Prof. Solomon really got to grips with this conundrum.
In his essay on kitsch, for instance, using Bouguereau's sentimental painting Two Girls as an example, he ticks off the various explanations for the esthetic unsatisfactoriness of this kind of art object. The object manipulates our emotions; the emotions it provokes are excessive; they are false; they are self-indulgent, steering us away from right living and towards solipsism; they are distorting, interfering with rational thought. Solomon tackles each of these explanations at great length, demolishing each in turn; yet at the end of it, as I said, we look at the painting and feel just what we felt before — not disgust in this particular case, but amused scorn. Why?
Nor does the author tackle some of the knottier manifestations of sentimentality. Consider bel canto opera, for example, an art form for which this reviewer has a particular weakness. Quite a lot of it leaves one with the thought that it really ought to be classed among kitsch. No more than Oscar Wilde could read of the death of Little Nell without laughing could any sensible person contemplate the plot of, say, I puritani with anything approaching — anything within a thousand miles of! — the utter seriousness with which, we know, the composer assembled it. Why is I puritani not kitsch? I suppose the answer is: because the music is surpassingly beautiful. So sublime artistic achievement can apparently coexist with, and transcend, kitschiness in a single art object. I should like to have seen more discussion of points like this.
Not that the author restricts himself to esthetics. There are chapters on grief and gratitude, spirituality, the role of feelings in justice, and of course love, erotic and otherwise. I found him particularly lucid on spirituality, which he is at pains to disentangle from, on the one hand, organized religion, and on the other, New Age flapdoodle. Also from ritual, of which Solomon is generally approving in an indulgent, Confucian sort of way. Following some remarks about weddings, for instance, he says:
[O]ne might well consider the sentiments that accompany ritual to be sentimental, and thus spirituality as sentimental as well, meaning that they are defined neither by strong … passions nor by motivating emotions, but by those "sweet" feelings which might well make people uncomfortable. Guests cry at weddings, and, of course, at funerals. And from an outsider's viewpoint, such sentimentality may indeed appear unseemly. But here we are reminded of Kierkegaard's observation that, to a third party, two people making love is an absurd performance.
Unfortunately he goes off the rails at the end of this piece, denouncing all partial and restricted manifestations of spiritual enthusiasm (patriotism, sectarianism) because "the 'us' is always defined in contrast and often in conflict with a 'them,' and this exclusivity is what makes it not spiritual."
This strikes a false note, as if a convivial and instructive dinner-table conversation with Hume, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche had been gate-crashed by old Baruch Spinoza. A thing I have noticed in myself and other religious believers as I get older is a diminishing of my scorn for the cheesier aspects of popular worship — the relics and icons, hundred-armed Hindu statuettes, fake-gilt Buddhas, and similar oggetti religiosi. We cannot all hope to Merge with the Cosmic Essence, and probably should not. Of his own attitude to spirituality, the author says: "I don't yet have a grasp on the real thing, but I'm creeping up on it." From the wrong direction, possibly. Surely a person who can dismiss the spiritual dimension of patriotism just because a special esteem for one's country involves a lesser esteem for other people's, is missing something important about human nature.
Solomon is engaged in a worthy enterprise here, and I wish I could have liked this book more. Some of the failing is undoubtedly mine. For one thing, I have not much patience with the diction of professional philosophers, in which most of this book is written, so that large parts of it left me with no impression other than that of having eavesdropped on some professional in-group chuckling over private jokes. The author's academical liberalism — more precisely, the unspoken assumption that no educated person could possibly hold any other attitude towards public affairs — also irritated me. There is a very good chapter on the Seven Deadly Sins, for instance; but it is marred at the outset by a gratuitous swipe at William Bennett ("Mr. Virtue himself") in its second paragraph. A differently disposed reader might have better luck with In Defense of Sentimentality. I don't believe, however, that Prof. Solomon's efforts will suffice to rescue our sweeter and lower emotions from the contempt in which they are held by the reflective portion of humanity.