A child is killed by a live-in boyfriend—isn’t he frequently the culprit? The “Looky-Lous” drive slowly down the street, feasting their eyes on the house where the murder was committed. They may park a half-block away to exchange predictable comments with others, but they would like to become more involved, perhaps even to move onto center-stage. This is easily accomplished: the little memorials of dolls and flowers appear with their hand-painted signs, “we will always remember you” and “we love you always.” These are often the sentiments of complete strangers, but if you think that they won’t outlast the paper they are written on, you are wrong: they will provide a gratifying topic of conversation for some weeks. A few of the people leaving these tributes are given the ultimate reward of a television interview, and we are treated to their vacuous platitudes.
The announcers solemnly tell us that these remembrances show us how much the community is united. Nonsense. What we are seeing is little better than voyeurism. It is on par with the supermarket tabloids—which also love these occasions: for a day or two the signs, dolls, and flowers may replace the boy who is half crocodile and the most recently discovered end-of-the-world prophecies. What we are seeing is not actually admirable, but indecent—people indulging in little orgies of sentimentality with the notion that the bystanders are admiring them for it, which they probably are.
Sentimentality may be the only vice with a high public-approval rating, but students of literature have long agreed that it is without merit. It belongs with Cleanth Brooks’ “bastard muses” (which also include propaganda and pornography), and every English teacher will probably warn her students against it. Why? To begin with, it is dishonest. Instead of being a direct response to a believable situation, it is a contrived emotion. Are we really supposed to believe that the people who put their signs on the memorials were consumed by such feelings of love for relative strangers years ago, before the practice had begun? Are we to believe that people who have their own problems with income, erring spouses, their children’s performance in school, the need for a new car, the need to replace the roof, supporting youth soccer . . . whatever . . . have suddenly become founts of altruistic love for people they might not even know? The reason for it is obvious. Putting up the signs and leaving the dolls is the exhibitionistic counterpart of the National Inquirer, People Magazine, and Soap Opera Digest—a kind of release. Instead of peering undetected into someone’s life in the magazines—vicariously reveling in someone else’s emotion—they can now project themselves into it.
Sentimentality has been with us almost forever. It is there in The Odyssey more than twenty-five hundred years ago. When Odysseus returns home in disguise after twenty years, his aged dog recognizes him and wags its tail before expiring. Sure, it could happen that way. But this dog has lived for 10,771,221 minutes, and is it likely that Odysseus appears in this one last minute of its life? That is like winning the lottery or being struck by lightning. Is this moment of pathos not contrived? Are the readers (listeners) not being manipulated so as to produce a tear? (There is no sentimentality in The Iliad, which is a much greater poem—in part because of that.)
E.T. is one of the worst offenders, a movie of superficial charm that conceals something repellent. It is an early film in the evolving tradition which characterizes the government by black-clad people in black vans. The adults are concerned only with their activities in the adult world, one that is crass and unsympathetic. Kids stand apart from them in openness and empathy—despite the fact that children are far more likely to commit acts of wanton cruelty to frogs, and to other animals as well. E.T. is full of sentimental clichés such as the children riding their bicycles across the sky. They don’t merely ride across the sky, but across the face of the moon, and it is, of course, a full moon so as to show them to their best advantage. Worst of all may be the “snap your fingers for Tinkerbelle” scene when E.T. is dying—a blatant rip-off—but of course he isn’t dying: this is just another way of manipulating the audience’s emotions.
Such fraudulent or exaggerated emotion was enormously popular in the Victorian period, and we can find it in the old songs. There is “I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl that Married Dear Old Dad.” Of course, we should love mother, but there is something revolting—if not downright incestuous—in the notion that we would want to marry someone just like her. (At the very least, it shows that we have learned nothing from experience!) And we have “Grandfather’s Clock,” “Silver Threads among the Gold,” “Everybody Works but Father,” and my personal favorite “She is More to be Pitied than Censured.” Part of the pleasure we find in these songs, now, is their camp quality.
In America, every Victorian parlor had to have its print of “The End of the Trail,” which showed an Native American warrior slumped over his horse’s neck on a tall bluff, a fitting sentimental accompaniment to the dried arrangements of flowers and feathers, the ornately patterned wallpaper, the swags on the curtains, and the self-congratulatory, genteel stuffiness that pervaded everything.