Monday, February 20, 2012

On sentimentality

Philip Larkin once said he didn't understand the word "sentimentality," figuring that Dylan Thomas's definition of alcoholic—"a man you don't like who drinks as much as you do"—worked as well for "sentimental:" "someone you don't like who feels as much as you do."

The Pleiades symposium, led by Joy Katz, on "sentimentality" (PDF of the forum here) occasions a reprieve of the following various reflections on the subject from an earlier post on this blog.


- from Oscar Wilde,"The Critic as Artist":
the real artist is he who proceeds, not from feeling to form, but from form to thought and passion. He does not first conceive an idea, and then say to himself, 'I will put my idea into a complex metre of fourteen lines,' but, realising the beauty of the sonnet-scheme, he conceives certain modes of music and methods of rhyme, and the mere form suggests what is to fill it and make it intellectually and emotionally complete. From time to time the world cries out against some charming artistic poet, because, to use its hackneyed and silly phrase, he has 'nothing to say.' But if he had something to say, he would probably say it, and the result would be tedious. It is just because he has no new message, that he can do beautiful work. He gains his inspiration from form, and from form purely, as an artist should. A real passion would ruin him. Whatever actually occurs is spoiled for art. All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.

Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people's ideas of concrete objects in the world (click link for details).

Because of the growth of entropy, we have a very different epistemic access to the past than to the future. In retrodicting the past, we have recourse to “memories” and “records,” which we can take as mostly-reliable indicators of events that actually happened. But when it comes to the future, the best we can do is extrapolate, without nearly the reliability that we have in reconstructing the past... -- via 3 Quarks Daily

Even for the one — before all for the one — for whom the encounter with the poem belongs to the quotidian and self-evident, this encounter has to begin with the darkness of the self-evident, [that which] makes every encounter with a stranger strange.: “Camarado, this is no book, who touches this, touches a human.”

Only from this touch — which is not a “making contact” — comes the way to intimacy. Aisthesis is not enough here, man is more than his sensorium. It is a question of conversation, as it is a question of language: (noesis does not suffice; it is a question of the angle of inclination under which one came together; it is a question of fate, as is the case with every real encounter, of the Here and Now, this place and this hour. -- Paul Celan, via Pierre Joris

Our reaction against the sentimentality embodied in Victorian and post-Victorian writing was so resolute writers came to believe that the further from sentimentality we got, the truer the art. That was a mistake. -- Richard Hugo

Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. -- G. K. Chesterton


t is therefore plain that the culture of transgression achieves nothing save the loss that it revels in: the loss of beauty as a value and a goal. But why is beauty a value? It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict. Maybe the degeneration of beauty into kitsch comes precisely from the postmodern loss of truthfulness, and with it the loss of moral direction. That is the message of such early modernists as Eliot, Barber, and Stevens, and it is a message that we need to listen to.

To mount a full riposte to the habit of desecration, we need to rediscover the affirmation and the truth to life without which artistic beauty cannot be realized. This is no easy task. If we look at the true apostles of beauty in our time—I think of composers like Henri Dutilleux and Olivier Messiaen, of poets like Derek Walcott and Charles Tomlinson, of prose writers like Italo Calvino and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—we are immediately struck by the immense hard work, the studious isolation, and the attention to detail that characterizes their craft. In art, beauty has to be won, but the work becomes harder as the sheer noise of desecration—amplified now by the Internet—drowns out the quiet voices murmuring in the heart of things.

One response is to look for beauty in its other and more everyday forms—the beauty of settled streets and cheerful faces, of natural objects and genial landscapes. It is possible to throw dirt on these things, too, and it is the mark of a second-rate artist to take such a path to our attention—the via negativa of desecration. But it is also possible to return to ordinary things in the spirit of Wallace Stevens and Samuel Barber—to show that we are at home with them and that they magnify and vindicate our life. Such is the overgrown path that the early modernists once cleared for us—the via positiva of beauty. There is no reason yet to think that we must abandon it. -- Roger Scruton on "Beauty"

And here's a link to Kevin Prufer on "Sentimentality & Complexity."



Cf. Philippians 1:9 in the New Testament:

kai touto proseuchomai, hina e agape humon eti mallon kai mallon perisseue en epignosei kai pase aisthesei
(And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment
) aisthesis from aisthánomai = to apprehend by the senses, to perceive and in NT speaks primarily of spiritual perception; our English = aesthetic; the root verb is aio = to perceive) refers to the capacity to understand referring not so much to an intellectual acuteness but to a moral sensitiveness. It thus speaks of moral perception, insight, and the practical application of knowledge--the deep knowledge Paul had already mentioned. Aisthesis therefore is more of an immediate knowledge than that arrived at by reasoning. It describes the capacity to perceive clearly and hence to understand the real nature of something. It is the capacity to discern and therefore understand what is not readily comprehensible. It refers to a moral action of recognizing distinctions and making a decision about behavior.

It is interesting to note that the meaning of aisthesis is almost the opposite of the English word “aesthetic” which is derived from the Greek word. Aesthetic speaks of one who is appreciative of, responsive to, or zealous about the beautiful. It has largely to do with personal taste and preference. Paul calls believers to put aside personal tastes and preferences and to focus instead on achieving mature insight and understanding.

The English dictionary states that discernment is the power to see what is not evident to the average mind and stresses accuracy as in reading character or motives.

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