In my last post, "Children's Books About Love," several readers mentioned books that make them choke up when they're reading them aloud. Isn't that the worst? I don't know who suffers more, the teary parent, or the kids writhing in embarrassment: "Ma-ma, it's just a rabbit!"
I've been thinking lately about the things that get to us, and why. Like many people, I get indignant when I come across a book or piece of art that's specifically designed to elicit tears. I resent being manipulated -- all the more so when it works too well. They press the button; I cry. Argh.
There is a difference, though, between manipulating emotions and evoking them -- between demanding tears and eliciting them.
I stumbled across these words by Laurence Perrine from his book Sound and Sense:
Sentimentality is indulgence in emotion of its own sake, or expression of more emotion than an occasion warrants ... Sentimental literature is 'tear-jerking' literature. It aims primarily at stimulating the emotions directly rather than at communicating experience truly and freshly; it depends on trite and well-tried formulas for exciting emotion; it revels in old oaken buckets, rocking chairs, mother love, and the pitter-patter of little feet; it oversimplifies; it is unfaithful to the full complexity of human experience.
In other words, sentimentality is the younger sister of pornography (a connection made by Flannery O'Connor, among many others). There is the same inappropriate separation from "the full complexity if human experience," and the same disastrously deadening effect, over time, for the consumer: after a while, you prefer this short cut, this parody, to the real thing. It's easy and fast, and doesn't demand anything from you -- it just gets the job done.
There's no moral problem with indulging in sentimentality, as there is in indulging in pornography. But there is a danger in it. Part of informing your emotional faculties is using some self-discipline, and not allowing yourself to wallow in sentimentality -- because it is addictive, and it is cheap. We should make an effort to learn to distinguish between what is sentimental and what is appropriately emotionally evocative. When a book or a movie makes us cry, we should think about why.
We often have an uneasy disgust for certain works, even as we can't help feeling the feeling we're supposed to feel: we know, deep down, that these things are not supposed to come out of no where. When I was in second grade, my teacher read aloud The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. When she got to the part where the tree died, I laughed. I didn't even know why -- it certainly wasn't funny! I just remember feeling angry and uneasy, and what came out was loud laughter. The teacher furiously said, "It's not funny!" at which point I began to cry. I loved my teacher desperately, and was always crying when no one else was -- and now I was laughing when everyone else was crying. Argh, argh.
So that's why I don't like The Giving Tree. It doesn't have room for anything other than one single response, and if you don't follow through, you are left feeling like there's something wrong with you. It's a business transaction, and if you don't hold up your end (by weeping, or at least sighing heavily), you feel stupid, like a guy who hires a hooker and then just wants to chat.
What's the difference, then, between a tear-jerker and a work that effectively and reliably elicits tears? Several readers brought up Oscar Wilde's "The Selfish Giant," which I agree is both a wonderful story about love, and very painful to read. Try to read Ivan's description of unanswerable evil in The Brothers Karamazov without ice in your heart. And it doesn't have to be great literature: scenes from certain movies that get me every time: the "Chava" sequence from Fiddler on the Roof; the scene from The Iron Giant where the Giant murmurs "Superman . . . " to himself as he blasts up into the heavens; and even "Baby Mine" from Dumbo. (And yes, it's a little grotesque to string together these tragic clips one after another without context!)
So what's the difference between these (which, I assert, are genuinely tragic and moving, without crossing that dangerous line) and the merely sentimental?
One thing that separates the obscenely sentimental from the genuinely sad is that, when we walk away from a sentimental work, we feel a tiny sense of self-satisfaction: Whee-oo, I did real good with my sadness there! I responded the right way! Whereas a really tragic work leaves us with a little dark spot of sadness that won't be washed away by coming to the last page: we feel, perhaps, like there is some unfinished business. We feel that something is demanded of us in our actual lives, as if we could alleviate some of the suffering of the fictional characters we just witnessed -- or else we are just suddenly more aware of the general sadness, the fallenness of things. We are reminded that, for a long while yet, there are things we cannot change.
So when a book or movie or song makes us cry, we might stop and try to figure out why. Was it just a quickie? Or was it an encounter that latched onto something real?
Of course, when we're dealing with human emotions, there's always a vast middleground of mystery -- things that move us against our will because of who we are, what we've been through, what fears and weaknesses and half-forgotten childhood associations we have, or even which hormones are currently flooding our poor brains. For instance, when I was quite young and pregnant with my second baby, I was reading Arnold Lobel's Mouse Tales to my first baby. I got the part where the Old Mouse's pants have fallen down, and he goes to his wife for help. But she just gives him a hit on the head with a rolling pin and says what are surely the cruellest words uttered in the history of mousekind: "You look silly in your underwear."
Yeah, I cried. I mean . . .THAT POOR MOUSE!