Perhaps the decline of western culture begins with the realization that portrayals of emotion have great selling power. Nothing is more marvelous or beautiful, or disturbing, than a depiction of human emotions that is apt and skillful enough to capture the nuances, contradictions, and complexities of sentiment. However, the dark side of that coin usually bears the brand of “sentimentality.”
The difference between the two is that a work of art that deals with sentiment sets its end as the exploration of human emotion, whereas the sentimental work aims only at the elicitation of a particular response from the audience. The creator of a sentimental work complies with all the laws of probability, avoids all complications and contradictions that arise in human relations — all to ensure that the audience is unflinchingly certain of the emotional response expected from them. The classic example is the romantic comedy with the destined and expected happy ending. The happy-go-lucky romance, although somewhat degrading to the intellect, is harmless enough since the expected response is merely joy at the heroine’s happy union.
But what about the sentimental work that deals with something tragic or real-life based? The issue becomes much more serious since actual lives and actual suffering are being objectified and bent in accordance with the sentimental drama code in order to become pity whores. Perhaps worst of all is when the realm of theatrical sentimentality goes beyond entertainment into what is described as “reality.” The reality mentioned is not any less theatrical, but assumes gravity and importance that movies and books don’t dare take on. This is the realm of political speeches, news media coverage, etc.
Over a year after September 11th, I am overcome with a feeling that the horrific event has been turned into a joke. No, it’s not funny, but the daily media mention of the event is so contrived, so predictable, so similar to a bad TV movie that it dilutes, to the point of losing any association with seriousness or a sense of real tragedy. All that is left are tricks of the sentimental trade. I refuse to believe that Bush feels the same exact emotional response every morning causing to him to utter the similar lines day in and day out. Human emotions don’t function that way.
Every day we face September 11th not as a tragedy but as a tool — a trope to elicit better ratings, support for an irrelevant military agenda, or perhaps to strengthen chances for reelection. None of this is new, most people rightly consider politicians to be, as a wise professor once said, “social and moral cripples.” Yet what happens to our own memory of tragedy as a result of our crippled leaders? Just how much insult are we adding to the deaths of innocent people by allowing politicians to reduce death into trite tricks of some sentimental game?
It is no easy task to separate tragedy from the voices that have inadvertently narrated it for us. When dealing with this presented reality, too many are uneasy to critically condemn our narrators, because after all, “This is about real lives, it isn’t fiction.” Sadly the rules governing the narration of reality and fiction are similarly faulty, but it is our reality we cannot forget.
Archived article by Maxim Pozdorovkin