The Spice of Life and Other Essays/Sentimental Literature

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We shall never attain to a serious and complete school of criticism so long as the word `sentimental' is regarded as a term of depreciation. That `passionate' should be a complimentary form and `sentimental' a hostile one is as utterly unmeaning and ridiculous as it would be if `blue' were complimentary and `green' hostile. The difference between passion and sentiment is not, as is so often assumed, a difference in sincerity or wholesomeness or reality of feeling. It is a difference between two ways of looking at the same unquestionable facts of life. True sentiment consists in taking the central emotions of life not as passion takes them, personally, but impersonally, with a certain light and open confession of them as things common to us all. Passion is always a secret; it cannot be confessed; it is always a discovery; it cannot be shared. But sentiment stands for that frame of mind in which all men admit, with a half-humorous and half magnanimous weakness, that they all possess the same secret, and have all made the same discovery. Romeo and Juliet, for example, is passionate. Love's Labour's Lost is sentimental. No man, perhaps, was more sentimental than Thackeray; a certain kind of cynicism is akin to sentiment in that it treats the emotions openly and lightly. To the man of passion, love and the world are new; to the man of sentiment they are infinitely old.

It is absolutely necessary to have some such clear idea as this in our heads before we can do justice to the immense flood of sentimentalism which is one of the heaviest items in the actual output of popular literature. If sentimental literature is to be condemned it must emphatically not be because it is sentimental, it must be because it is not literature. To complain that such literature is sultry and relaxing, that it melts the character for a time into mere receptivity, that it has scarcely more practical nourishment in it than the sugar off a wedding-cake - to say all this is to complain that Othello is tragic or that the Mikado degenerates into frivolity. Sentimentality ought not to be anything but a passing mood; people who are sentimental day and night are among the most atrocious of the enemies of society. Dealing with them is like seeing an interminable number of poetical sunsets going on in the early morning. If sentimental literature is a curse, it is not so much because it is read widely, as because it is read exclusively.

There is a certain class of human feelings which must be indulged, but which must not be trusted; to deny them is to become a prig, but to confide in them is to cease to be a man. There has, for example, arisen of late years in literature and philosophy that craving for the strong man which is the mark of weakness. To jeer at the philosophy of force and supremacy would be abominable, it would be like jeering at biliousness or toothache. One of the most brilliant men of the nineteenth century was the philosopher of force and supremacy, Nietzsche, and he died in a madhouse. There have been many things, friendly and hostile, said about Nietzsche's philosophy, but few so far have pointed out the basic fact that it is sentimental. It yields utterly to one of the oldest, most generous, and most excusable of the weaknesses of humanity, the hunger for the strong man. If any of Nietzsche's followers wish to find the fullest and heartiest acceptance of their master's doctrines, the most unrestrained prostration before masculine pride and violence, they will always find it in the novelettes. In these slight and periodical forms of sentimental fiction we find pre-eminently developed the tendency to give to the hero that kind of humour which dishonours the giver. Just as nations crown their despots in their periods of weakness, so human nature in its periods of weakness craves for despots, more than it ever craved for liberty. It is a foolish feeling, and, perhaps an immoral one, but it has one quality which may slightly interest us, it is absolutely universal: nor are the most advanced or intellectual of mankind in this respect one scrap less sentimental than the rest.

Indeed, there are, perhaps no circles in which women are so sentimental and subservient as in unconventional circles. The tendency which leads the popular novelette to deify mere arrogance and possession is emphatically one of those kindly sins which must be repudiated without being despised. It is Literary Imperialism, and it is as old as the fear of life, which is older and much wiser than the fear of death. To the same class as this idolatry of bone or brain belongs the idolatry of title or class or calling, which is exhibited in sentimental literature. It is snobbish, and it is a snobbishness which is vital as the blood, and seems almost as old as the stars. It is vulgar, but this kind of vulgarity at least fulfils its name, and is indeed common. The problem of sentimental literature is the problem of whether there must not be somewhere an outlet for these follies which one would call pardonable if they did not seem too mighty and eternal to be pardoned. It is the problem whether one must not expect that people will be sentimental if they are neither old enough nor wise enough to be passionate.

This much, then, can be said about the vices of popular sentimentalism: that at least they are old and wholesome vices. Sentimentality, which it is fashionable to call morbid, is of all things most natural and healthy; it is the very extravagance of youthful health. Whatever may be said against the novelettes and serials which foster the profound sentimentalism of the man in the street, there is no count against them which bears any resemblance to the heavy responsibility of the polished and cynical fiction fashionable among the educated class. It does not bring into the world new sins or sinister levities or passions at once savage and artificial. The novelette may basely grovel before strength, but at least it does not basely grovel before weakness. It may speak openly and without reticence of emotions that are sacred and should be kept in the heart, but at least it does not speak openly and without reticence of emotions that are despicable and should be spewed out of the mouth. Its snobbery and autocracy are kindlier than many forms of emancipation; it is at least human even where it fails to be humane.

And of its merits there is surely something to be said: that the tired sempstress or the overworked shopgirl should only have as it were to open a door and find herself in a new room in which new and outrageously elegant figures are performing new and outrageously dignified actions is a gift that outweighs many stories of magic. That the actions of the figures are singularly languid and inevitable, that the characters are endowed with a very simple stock of virtues and vices, that the morality of the story is never for a moment mingled or perplexed, that over the whole scene broods the presence of an utterly fatalistic optimism, all this only makes the matter richer and quieter for tired intellects and tortured nerves.

That these dreams sometimes lead the dreamers to exaggerate and blunder, to overestimate or to underestimate life, may well be. The same troubles arose in connection with Christianity, that stupendous triumph of sentiment. Christianity also has led the weak, who were its care, to expect both too much and too little of life. But the supreme fact remains, that we can never estimate the value of a dream; that we can never know whether the ascetics, who drugged themselves with visions and scourged themselves with rods, were not the happiest of all the children of men.