Monday, July 03, 2006

Great Books (III): Dante

The most interesting moment in Michael Tanner's influential essay, "Sentimentality", occurs at the very end:
I am inclined to think that nothing can secure us against sentimentality to anything like the degree we need. Most of our basic attitudes and feelings are sentimental, on the analyses I have adumbrated of the concept. For my answer to the question whether sentimentality is a historical phenomenon is that it is, to this extent: enormous numbers of our feelings and attitudes towards the most basic issues are based on some more-or-less traditional Christian outlook. But we are no longer living in a Christian society, in any serious sense, and most of us are not Christians. Our general view of the world is not at all like Christ's. And yet we depend for much of our emotional and spiritual succour on art and teaching that not only presupposes the truth of Christianity, but actively propagates it. Many an atheist thinks that the B minor Mass is one of the greatest works of art; that is what I feel. But I am not at all clear that I should. The brevity with which I have mentioned this matter means not that it is an after-thought, or tangential to the subject-matter of the paper, but that I am too disconcerted by it to know what to say.
Tanner's "analyses" are in fact quite hard to make out. Certainly, he regards a feeling as sentimental only if it is inappropriate or unwarranted. There is also a tentative connection with pleasure; for when painful emotions like grief are sentimental, as they can be, they are also in some way consoling. But it is hard to be more specific. Thus:
Sentimentality […] is the name of several kinds of disease of the feelings, in which the elements of feeling 'in the void', of unfocused emotion, and of being prepared for huge bouts of emotional response to virtually random, or alternatively, direly predictable stimuli, are all closely connected.
As well from being (perhaps forgivably) vague, however, this definition seems to miss the valence of sentimentality. As it stands, the account would apply to many cases of depression. But depression is rarely sentimental, even when it is inflected with the pleasures of self-pity, because – roughly speaking – its distortions do not turn on seeing the world as sweet or gentle or tender in ways that it is not. A hard emotion like anger can be sentimental, but only when it is, say, righteous indignation at an offence that the tough-hearted would merely expect.

The atheist's reaction to religious art is sometimes sentimental in this sense, as when Denby reads the Torah in Contemporary Civilization:
I looked around me and struggled to take in what was happening. Not just Jews and Christians but also Muslims, who recognized the Old Testament prophets as their ancestors, had long contended with this ornery, ungovernable text. Suddenly, I was extraordinarily happy. […] We were in this place, at this moment, with one another. We were also part of an endless chain of such discussions, a link of immortality. The core curriculum was a secular manifestation, but it had become, this day, part of that eternal chain.
The sentimentality of these remarks lies in exploiting the Biblical resonance of immortality and eternity outside of the context in which it makes sense.

But this is not inevitable. It would be wrong to say that an atheist who is deeply moved by Dante's Inferno is being sentimental. Whatever is disproportionate in his feelings, it does not turn on seeing the world as more forgiving than it is.
No barrel, even though it's lost a hoop
or end-piece, ever gapes as one whom I
saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart:
his bowels hung between his legs, one saw
his vitals and the miserable sack
that makes of what we swallow excrement.
Why does Tanner over-estimate the scope of sentimentality? In part, I think, because he is interested in something at once more narrow and more general: the emotional impact of art that rests on false beliefs. The problem is hard to formulate. In reading fiction we routinely work with propositions that we know are not the case, ways of seeing things we do not share; we enter into them as make-believe. But Tanner is right to think that there are limits here. For Denby, the gate of hell is where the limit is passed: "the violence [of the Inferno] was too exact, too thorough; one had to believe in it or reject the poem altogether."

The question is not confined to religious art, where reading as fiction can feel irreverent. It is about the extent to which appreciation makes demands upon belief.


Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Here is a link to a recent review by Tanner, of a book In Defense of Sentimentality. Yet another one for the list.

1:35 PM  

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