Roxane Gay has a reliably invigorating take on the recent man-writer-finds-himself-superior-to-women fracas. Her post, and the ensuing debate in the comments section reminded me how baffling and irritating I find our aesthetic coding of the sentimental as a uniquely feminine category.
In The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, in which concise definitions of aesthetic terms sometimes grossly undersell those strategies, but which is nonetheless a useful book, sentimentality is:
(1) poetic indulgence in the exhibition of pathetic emotions for their own sake; (2) poetic indulgence of more emotion (often self-regarding) than seems warranted by the stimulus; (3) excessively direct poetic expression of pathos…without a sufficient artistic correlative.
As with most entries in the tome, the majority examples of sentimental verse come from men writers–fine evidence that men perform the sentimental. Its feminine example is Dickinson’s “If I can stop one heart from breaking.” NEP calls her imagery “trite” and “vapid,” and notes that the sentimentality of the verse “manifest[s] an unconvincing hyperbole.” This reading insists on that sentimental, narrow, and biased narrative of Dickinson’s life we all know too well. Gentle Emily in the attic, in her white dress, weeping over fallen birdies.
Hint: we can tell that while the majority of its practitioners are men, sentimentality is about to get coded feminine because of all the excess. Indulgence! Hyperbole! More than warranted! Excessively! Psst–hiss-hissssss-hysteria!
Historical data: the NPE notes that sentimentality “seems not to have entered poetry much before the 18th C…” and that its popularity at the time owes to “the writings of Shaftsbury and Rousseau.” Dudes, both, but even without their names, we know that in the 18th C (19th, 20th, now for goodness’s sake) there are simply more men than women in circulation. If an aesthetic category is going to get off the ground, men are gonna have to put their weight behind it. Men get first crack at sentimentality. They get to define it, they get to establish the baseline. (Plus the part where we’re all, y’know, products of the patriarchy. Everything’s coded masculine because the code is masculine. ‘member?)
Logic: it’s a perfectly logical possibility that sentimentality could be introduced to literature by fellas and then usurped by or relegated to ladies. But that never actually happens. Never does half the population (particularly the half with the leg-up in a particular power dynamic) give up an entire aesthetic category. An entire strategy never has and never will become property of women. It doesn’t even really happen with tropes. Men come and go as they like in the domestic. They’re perfectly content to remind us who owns fashion (Carlyle!), to appropriate childbirth (Benjamin!), to write diaries, daydream in gardens, nurture children, adore their kitties, and so on. Consider: my six-year-old puts down a toy that’s become exceedingly dull, beneath notice, embarrassing to play with. My toddler picks up the toy. We imagine that glint in the toddler’s eye is knowledge of the power with which the toy was once invested, perhaps a buzz from the ghost of power the toy still retains. Or else, the toddler knows that with even the most meager of tools a platform can be fashioned. 5-4-3-2-1. What has the six-year-old done? Clocked the toddler? Grabbed the toy? Shrieked that the toy is the six-year-old’s own, favorite, not for babies?
1. John Boehner engaging in the NEP’s definition of sentimentality:
2. Jack Bauer. 24 is perhaps my all-time favorite soap opera for dudes. Explosions, conspiracies, and plenty of male-gazed female forms allow for men to get a powerful dose of the sentimental sans emasculation. Wait! you might say, when Jack Bauer cries, his expression of pathos is perfectly scaled to the stimulus! And that would be so if we were meant to believe that the stimulus was the overwhelming loss of life, the threat of nuclear winter, the betrayal of a nation he’s tirelessly served, or even the gaping huge bullet wounds he so often suffers. More often than not, though, the stimulus is the more domestic loss of a lover, his failure to perform as husband or father, a drawing from his granddaughter. Sentimentality is primly compartmentalized within the action and horror, neat vignettes of crying Bauer in his SUV, at his lover’s bedside, framed by CTU’s cameras.
3. Novels by men. Unless they’re written by Bret Easton Ellis, they contain masculine characters who perform NEP definitions 1, 2, and/or 3. Following that, unless they’re written by Bret Easton Ellis, they often perform those definitions. Because, guess what? Sentimentality is one of the ways we interpolate ourselves into the world. Look: men are cultured to not just insert themselves seamlessly into the world, not just seek out a niche into which they can fit (cram) themselves, but to alter the world by this insertion. And to believe that you can alter an entire world by the insertion of your one small self into it requires a performance grander than its stimulus warrants, demands an excessive performance. Think big, act big, feel big.
4. My undergraduate Romantics professor cried when he reiterated Keats’s life story. With little attachment to this professor, and little attachment to Keats (though I did like Keats’s poems), I found this sentimental. In his class on Nabokov, this professor would later tell me that my sentimental interest in the character Lolita was “boring.” Jeremy Irons might disagree–ohmyword, please visit the Jeremy Irons Crying tumblr.
Having done all this casual thinking aloud, here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: sentimental is the accusation we lob when we think that the subject displays emotion in excess of her social importance and relevance to us. Sentiment is acceptable when the subject who displays it is central in our esteem.It moves or touches us because its grandeur is scaled to our investment in the subject. Sentiment is unacceptable when it’s displayed by a subject remote to our concerns, or, eghads, by an object that shouldn’t have feelings at all, more less display them publicly–like one of those baby dolls that cries “Mama, Mama,” piteously as its battery runs down.
To be sentimental is to risk being at large in the world. Its potential for failure appeals to me more than its potential for success. It occurs to me that several of my women students this spring noted their fear of embarrassing themselves via sentimental or melodramatic writing, via excess. But all I want to do is embarrass myself that way! What a girl! What a kid! How embarrassing for a grown thinker, how obvious for a woman.
At our wedding, we danced to the Coltrain & Ellington ”In a Sentimental Mood.” My sentimental dude chose it. I chose Talking Heads “Naive Melody” for our recessional. We don’t put ourselves at large in the world without a certain self-aware candor, do we? We don’t expect our big feelings about our small capacity to mean the world to each and every, except insofar as we send the invitations out and then we do. “Or help one fainting robin / Unto his nest again.”