In a Sentimental Dude

by on Jun.03, 2011

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?

Exemplary moments:

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.”

18 comments for this entry:
  1. Roxane

    This is just a sublime post. I especially like what you said, when you noted that “sentimental is the accusation we lob when we think that the subject is displaying emotion in excess of her social importance and relevance to us.”

    Also, the recessional song choice = excellent.

  2. Danielle Pafunda

    Aw, thanks, Roxane! Is my comment showing up at HTMLG? I think I did something weird–but the important part is I’m so glad you wrote that super smart post. A link to it can now be deployed every time one of these snores mouths off!

  3. adam strauss

    I, too, am glad you have discoursed on the sentimental; and, too, I am glad for the distinction you make between sentiment and sentimental. Sentimentality interests me because I love happy endings and “women’s” popoular lit; and, I’m interes5ted in the way sentimentality, as a master narrative or trope, has major power (well currency): if one is an identity that is not often sentimentalized, then that–I’d argue–could qualify as a representational dissenfranchisement. I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt most would automatically equate lesbian representation to the sentimental (mmm, at-least not contemporary representation; the 19th century and homosociality–sure); in other words, if an identity formation has not attained a certain critical-mass, then I’m guessing it may fall outside sentimentality’s ken. Maybe I am riffing regarding cliche not sentimentality: two women (and not on stage at the Grammies or a teen flick etc) kissing, I’d argue, is a long way from being cliche and that is sort of a problem (as well as “blessing”).

    I hope all’s well for everyone!

    The Talking Heads signify on sentimetnality so delightfully: “I’ve got a girlfriend….”

  4. Adam

    At least the NPE definition relies on context rather than some absolute idea of inappropriate emotional expression. So the sentimental is like a dandelion or agricultural runoff, inappropriate because of where it is not what it is; emotion out of place. What they don’t say that you fortunately do is that the correct placement of a performed emotion depends entirely on the place of its performer. So something sentimental is irritating because someone is stepping out of place — here’s V.S. Naipul to put them back in it.

    The lovely music there maybe offers a chance to push the spatiality of sentimentality further. “In a Sentimental Mood” is a reflexive performance, it announces its sentimentality. If I tell you ahead of time I’m going to be sentimental, the available appropriate space in which to express an emotion opens up; I think this is the space of Jack Bauer, Garrison Keillor and the whole nine yards. I know I’m being sentimental, I have marked it as such, and claimed the right to be appropriately inappropriate. The listener acknowledges that right and feels a double charge, the performed emotion and the selective acceptance of its sentimentality, the authorized deviation. Kitsch.

    The fact that the players on “In a Sentimental Mood” are black men lends something extra to that space. Both performances are incredibly tender — Ellington is barely brushing the keys, while Coltrane’s playing sounds like breathing. This from a man whose other performances had at this time been roundly criticized: “angry” jazz, “anti” jazz, screaming, noise. The angry black man is another kind of emotion out of place — and one which Coltrane denied his entire career. Here, the playing is sentimental by way of intimacy, a staged kind of vulnerability that draws the listener in. The phrase “black male interiority” keeps coming to mind and I can’t remember why, except to say that there seems to be a whole lot more complexity to this kind of sentimentality than in the Boehner/Bauer axis.

    And it’s all dudes — I can’t think of a woman player in jazz (not that there are so very many) who could get away with the range of unvarnished sentimental performance that Coltrane did, from vulnerable whispers to cosmos-melting screams. Think instead of Billie Holiday or Nina Simone, whose performances of both rage and vulnerability were clearly more calculated, layered and ironic. Or contemporary women instrumentalists like Geri Allen, Susie Ibarra, or Myra Melford, who avoid both sentimental extremes in favor of tangents, angles, games and surprises.

  5. Joshua Comyn

    I loved this article – thank you Danielle. Check this out for a look at a Nationally (South African) dude directed use of sentimentality as propaganda, wish-fulfillment, political occlusion, and many other things besides:

    Then check out the following article if you’re at all interested in what it all means:

  6. Sarah Sarai

    What a great, funny title and of course — thank you for this expose on the word sentimental. I”m pretty sure Kiefer Sutherland is an inferior clone of a feeling human. As for Mr. Big Time Nobel Winner, I have read some V.S.N. way way back in some day but that’s all I can say. I can’t remember titles. I can’t remember liking, not liking. I certainly can’t remember feeling crushed because I had to leave the books behind when I moved. And I’m not even close to 200 years old.

  7. Johannes

    Im babysitting but will respond later in more detail. Eve sedwick talks abt this in epistemology of closet , even the trope of the crying macho man tracing back to nietzcshe. But mostly i want to say how sentimentality along with kitsch (amygism etc) becomes antithesis of the kind of rigorous masculine modernism rhetoric we still see in say ron silliman and marjorie perloff.


  8. Danielle Pafunda

    Thanks ever’body! Joshua, looking forward to following those links in more detail when I get a quiet minute!

    @ Sarah, ha! maybe that’s what I love so much about Kiefer Sutherland–and also when his jawline gets all smushy in high definition when he’s making out when he’s supposed to be saving the world. It’s very convincing human-like skin he’s got!

    Johannes, looking forward to more–I’m thinking some connection between the rigorous masculine modernism and its preference for / anxiety about the mechanized. Like in the Helvetica documentary…

    & thanks, pal, great stuff about Coltrane, the sentimental field, etc. I’m thinking there might be some parallel to the LeRoi Jones stuff I was thinking about this spring. Also, totes romantic when we co-analyze our wedding music ;).

  9. Danielle Pafunda

    Oh–interesting, Adam, about sentimentality and lesbian work. I wonder if what would happen if we traced the Victorian bosom friend relationship to contemporary representations of women’s intimacy (lgbtq or otherwise…). I’m a bit scattered here, today, but am teaching an LGBTQ lit class this fall, so will definitely be thinking about your comment, and hope you’ll post if you have further thoughts.

    “When we get older and stop making sense, you won’t find her anymore”!

  10. adam strauss

    Very cool about the fall class! I’d love to see the reading list!

    It’s interesting how G Stein, to my heartmind, almost fits the sentimental but then, ultimately, doesn’t; and of course much of her work is farrrrrrrrr away from such tonalities.

    In some ways the sentimental seems to me a facet of the didactic–another maligned tone, and one which surely affords much unexplored space.

    I hope all’s well with all of ya’ll!

  11. adam strauss

    It could be, too, that lgbq work is already sentimental via being implicitly improper/out of balance. Still though I tend towards wondering if the sentimental mode could be a good way to put unlit feeling on stage. It feels to me that much of what’s so difficult about not being heterosexual is the “small things,” not the more conventional barometers of disenfranchisement; for example: wanting to pet or hold hands in public; state so and so is hot in a non-homosexual space; state one is not heterosexual whenever it feels relevant and not just in sanctioned forums; sigh and pine for cliché romance experiences, for moments of cliché, banality. There’s power in cliché, in predictability, as it implies legibility, recognition, popular status.

    I’m sure many LGBQs would bark at my interest in de-heterosexual zing the mainstream or homosexual zing the center; but I tend towards believing that’s exactly the most threatening move. By keeping to the periphery, one can be ignored, and also confort: ahh, good, so this position is formly within the esoteric and not be dealt with; but meat and potatoes can be tougher: such blandishments are eaten across the nation several times a week.

    So here-here to the lesbian sentimental, to Sapphic gals taking center stage and being bestsellers, going on Oprah, airing on LifeTime television, being in Disney movies.

  12. Joshua Comyn

    Danielle – in case you don’t get a chance to watch the video/ read the article… the link I’m making is an instance of something quite different to this Naipaul thing, that is, where sentimentality in the male, rather than being denied as a feature of masculinity, is instead wielded politically, or is politically symptomatic – Stalin and his love of musicals for instance (this is caught up with questions of kitsch…)or, to give a more recent example, an image I have of Bill Clinton shedding a media timed tear while Hilary was speech making during the lead up to the democratic primaries.

    So sometimes sentimentality is something the dudes deny in themselves (while fobbing it off onto the gals), but sometimes its a thing they deploy, only too well, for their own nefarious ends.

  13. Danielle Pafunda

    Oh, yes, Joshua! Definitely. There are times when crying (in particular) is the most masculine performance possible, reiterates one’s masculinity. I think that’s what Boehner’s doing, too, though it’s a more pungent outrageous performance, and I’m not totally sure why it works.

    I think, too, that when Hillary Clinton cried in New Hampshire, it boosted the nation’s affection for her not because she was showing her ‘feminine’ side, but because she had effectively jumped up a level in masculine politicking. A fissure in the leader’s hard shell that makes the leader all the more cohesive. The paternal love our leader has for us, etc.

    & @ Adam, cannot wait until Disney gives us that princess! Will immediately visit Disney World and attend breakfast at her queer palace! As for the fall reading list–since the course is online (discussions online!), I went with some standards of the genre: Stone Butch Blues, Angles in America, the Black Like Us anthology, & Fun Home and Looking for Normal to mix it up. We’ll also do the queering language issue of EOAGH and lotsa online vids and such. In fact, I should be building the platform & syllabus right now :).

  14. Adam Henne

    I don’t know if it’s a quality reference, but the politics of sentimentality were my main take-away from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where kitsch is the emotional register of totalitarianism.

  15. Corey

    I think two different models of the sentimental have been offered, both compellingly explored by Adam, Roxane, Danielle, and Joshua. Danielle says that the sentimental is the name for that which exceeds audience expectation of social and intellectual worth, excessive then in a similar way to kitsch. Adam has located, rather, the announcement of the sentimental, the “I’m going to use the sentimental for my own means”, pernicious in the hands of John Boehner (the perfect name), a performance of intimacy and awareness in Coltrane.

    Is it the lack of announcement of sentimentality that makes the ANC video so pernicious, then? The phallocentric fantasy of the sentimental spoken about at length is one half of the problem of the ANC video, but perhaps the other half is the secret of the sentimental. The fists in the air, the veneer of semi-rural tranquillity supplanting semi-rural abject poverty, the voluptuousness and health and elation of a saccharine political optimism: all act defiantly ignorant of their sentimentality, a violent nostalgia that is literally running its pageant of phallocentric fantasy through town. Perhaps this fantasy of the voluptuous nation, a pasture, Joyelle, if I ever saw one, would not be such a dangerous illusion if it were announced as sentimental. In fact, if such an announcement were made strategically using the previous model of sentimentality and excess, and we saw Chomee crying, and then all the crowd crying and the people marching on to parliament, including all of those real malnourished people of the semi-rural, all the death and disease, perhaps that excess would announce the sentimental in a meaningful way.

  16. Joshua Comyn

    To Adam (Henne) – Kundera is a touchstone, absolutely yes, and if you follow the link to the Mahala article in one of my previous posts you will see the connection made there…

    Danielle – fascinating comment about Hilary becoming masculine, becoming sentimental.

    Corey – I don’t think it’s about revealing the sentimentality, because in a way it’s already revealed in an authorized way in fact, as Adam (Strauss?) pointed out: ‘authorized deviation… kitsch’ (beautiful man!).

    And I think Danielle’s comment about Hilary together with Adam’s formulation really pries this mystery wide open – that it’s about place and about configuration – that given the right occasion, a women can perform sentimentality and have it be efficacious in a way that it could only otherwise be for man, because she is occupying a space of such highly charged masculine configurations. So again, as Adam has already pointed out, it’s not about showing or not showing the sentimentality, because that’s what kitsch does already, flagrantly. Rather it about finding some other way of being, perhaps sentimental, perhaps not, that is not authorized, and putting it in the place of the authorized. Again, Adam’s example of homosexuals speaking and enacting their homosexuality in times places that are not sanctioned is an excellent example and a fact which makes one question the efficacy of things like pride marches in the present day…

    But I do see, how actually at the end of your post (Corey) you are enacting exactly this, a great melodramatic upping the ante performance of sentimentality as it already exists, sanctioned, in the ANC music video, and how in this new configuration it couldn’t possible be condoned. Get the disenfranchised to perform their disenfranchisement, ironically – and this is precisely what ‘Die Antwoord’ do is it not?

    Great discussion everyone!

  17. Spencer

    Provocative. I think there is another zone of sentimentality that is stereotypically male: the “overripe” sentimentality of the drunk. There is also (obviously) considerable overlap between our notions of “excess” in emotion, intoxication and poetry. In many cases, each of these are permitted in moderation, but frowned upon when they are made “central.” I don’t think I realized how strange it was to others to be a “poet” until I was no longer primarily identified as one.

    I’m also interested in how we think about sentimentality in combination with melodrama. For instance, we have the big, “overripe” melodramas of Douglas Sirk. This overripeness is literal: the films are saturated with color. Movies made by men specifically *for* women, designed to be perfect sentimental machines, built to churn out tears. But they do more than that, as a generation of film critics have noted. They played to “convention” to deconstruct convention.

    But we also have the peculiar French melodrama of, say, Un Coeur en Hiver, where the events swirl around a fixed-but-unknowable center (Daniel Auteuil’s Stephane). There, rather than emotional crescendo at the moment of climax, the audience is presented with retreat or absence. Of course, this absence is all about excess: it’s an acknowledgment of the very too-muchness of emotions and a rejection of their unruliness.

    I have some ideas about ways we might approach lyric poetry through these lenses, but that’s for another day. Anyway, thanks. Great read.