On Wednesday, I posted a list of things Highly Sensitive People have a low tolerance for and things we can’t get enough of. The most controversial item on both lists (based on the number of comments I received) was the inclusion of sentimentality on the list of things for which we have a low tolerance.
What is sentimentality?
Based solely on the definition of sentiment as a feeling or emotion, sentimentality is the expression of feelings and emotion.
This is not the type of sentimentality I have a low tolerance for. I call that being emotional and I wrote a post in defense of it.
Sentimentality, as I think of it, means something else.
If you Google “sentimentality”, the definition that comes up is “excessive tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.”
The online Oxford English Dictionary defines sentimentality as “exaggerated and self-indulgent tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia”.
(In literature, sentimentality) is both a device used to induce a tender emotional response disproportionate to the situation at hand, (and thus to substitute heightened and generally uncritical feeling for normal ethical and intellectual judgments), and a heightened reader response willing to invest previously prepared emotions to respond disproportionately to a literary situation.
“Meretricious” and “contrived” sham pathos are the hallmark of sentimentality, where the morality that underlies the work (of art) is both intrusive and pat.
The best and my favorite description of what sentimentality is comes from James Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel”, his critique of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty. ” I don’t think sentimentality is a “signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty” but I feel as strongly as Baldwin does about it.
The definitions above provide the criteria I use to define intolerable sentimentality. It is sentiment (specifically tenderness, sadness or nostalgia) that is:
I also want to make clear that I wrote “low tolerance” not “no tolerance”. I like Forrest Gump, a movie that is basically about sentimentality. I love Cole Porter’s sappy and extremely well-written love songs.
What I have a low tolerance for is excessive, exaggerated, showy sentiment and a culture that encourages it.
Let’s say you’re on a beach at dusk and you’re awed by the natural beauty of the sunset. Sentimentality is taking a 1000 pictures of the sunset and sending it someone with the note “You’re as beautiful as this sunset.”
Another example: if genuine sentiment were a fruit, it would be a juicy, ripe peach.
Sentimentality would be peach flavored candies.
I could eat five peaches and never get sick. It’s real food. I would get sick after eating two peach flavored candies because it’s not real food.
Sentimentality is overly and nauseatingly sweet. It’s not real emotion. I never get sick of authentic emotion.
The amount of sugar and sentimentality one can tolerate varies from person to person. At what point does sentiment turn into nauseating sentimentality? It doesn’t take much for me. W. Somerset Maugham wrote that “sentimentality is the only sentiment that rubs you the wrong way”. Someone saying “I love you” is lovely. Someone hiring a plane to write “I love you” in skywriting rubs me the wrong way. It’s excessive and ostentatious.
Do most highly sensitive people have a low tolerance for sentimentality?
I don’t know. I put it on the list to find out. But, there are characteristics on Elaine Aron’s HSP Self-Test that do not even remotely apply to me like “I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows”. I wrote a post on violence in movies and how it doesn’t affect me. Just this week articles with titles like “Are you a Cry-Baby?” and “Do Sad Songs Make You Cry?” were published summarizing research Elaine and Arthur Aron are doing on HSP. These headlines are associating crying with high sensitivity. I do not cry easily but that doesn’t mean being quick to tears isn’t part of the high sensitivity trait.
Sentimentality, to me, is as annoying as noises that are too loud, lights that are too bright and scents that are too strong or foul. Doris Lessing wrote that “sentimentality is intolerable because it is false feeling” and it is stressful to me to encounter, resist, and reject false feelings. I have to defend myself against them and that is sometimes overwhelming to me.
My biggest problem with sentimentality
In the essay “Phantasmagoria and Dream Grotto”, Robertson Davies wrote “people who prate of sentimentality are very often people who hate being made to feel”. Davies was arguing for sentimentality but in this sentence he provides the best argument against it. It’s the words “made to feel”. That’s what sentimentality does. It forces (or highly suggests) you feel a certain way and respond in a certain way.
I do not want to be told how to feel. Ever.
Davies and all the others who use sentimentality assume people don’t feel enough so one better lay it on thick.
I wake up in the morning feeling. I experience intense emotions while asleep. I don’t want or need prodding or instruction on how to feel. Being alive makes me feel.
J.D. Salinger, in his book Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction: “I mentioned R. H. Blyth’s definition of sentimentality: that we are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it. I said (sententiously?) that God undoubtedly loves kittens, but not, in all probability, with Technicolor bootees on their paws.”
Those bootees on the cat in the image on the right rub me the wrong way. I don’t even see the cat.
Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Dardenne said the “problem with sentimentality is that it kills emotion.”
Maybe that’s why sentimentality is rampant in our culture.