“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Accused of Sentimentality

Many friends have accused or hinted at me for the sentimental nature of my writings, be it poetry or prose. I therefore look at what I write critically and I find that I am to be blamed of honesty, emotion, frankness and titillating sentiments. But in the simple, straightforward narration, I scatter little crumbs of self-realization ,which I think the readers might find useful too. I find meaning in the too ordinary, mundane matters of living. I write about personal matters, of my family, friends and my take on many issues. Invariably, there is a lot sentimental stuff in it. I stand accused and plead guilty.

But I ask thee, my judges, why are you afraid of sentiments? Why are you trying to hide the true nature of your feelings? Why are you afraid of being judged? Sentiments. Passion. Come on, sirs, let’s have it. I know a friend who refuses to comment on my posts, who denigrate them for being sentimental. I sense his fear. Fear of opening up.

I read the blogs of many. In several I find this reluctance to display their true selves. And there is a kind of smugness – Ha, I am not a sentimental idiot!

To be sentimental is to be human. To be sentimental is to laugh, to love, to cry, to be angry , to be passionate and to be wise. . To be sentimental is to respond from the heart. Robots do not have hearts.

For those who wouldn’t mind reading or glancing through a rather long article, I reproduce here one from New York Times, on Dickens.

*********** Balachandran V , Trivandrum, 18.09.2010

In Defense of Sentimentality


WWell over a century ago, Dickens gave his first public reading of "A Christmas Carol"--it was just two days after Christmas and 2,000 people gave the author their rapt attention (and frequent applause). The reading took three hours, though in later years Dickens would prune "A Christmas Carol" to a two-hour performance; he liked it well enough that first time, however, to repeat the reading three days later--to an audience of 2,500 almost exclusively composed of working people, for whom he had requested that the auditorium be reserved. He thought they were his best audience. "They lost nothing, misinterpreted nothing, followed everything closely, laughed and cried," Dickens said, "and [they] animated me to that extent that I felt as if we were all bodily going up into the clouds together."

I wish I could have been there. I try to imagine it, every Christmas, when I watch the new and old television versions of "A Christmas Carol"; some are better than others, and in some I can imagine Dickens himself--who loved to act--taking the part of Scrooge, or playing the Ghost of Christmas Past. Dickens might have enjoyed the mesmerizing popularity of television, though he surely would have detested the lifelessness of television's language; it was at his insistence that the price of "A Christmas Carol" was held to five shillings--so that it might reach a wider audience.

In his biography of Charles Dickens, Edgar Johnson writes, "'A Christmas Carol' is a serio-comic parable of social redemption, and Scrooge's conversion is the conversion for which Dickens hopes among mankind." Indeed, it is the hopefulness of that inspired dream of a book (Tiny Tim is spared, and Scrooge sees the error of his ways) that makes "A Christmas Carol" ever-appropriate for Christmas. "Against Scrooge and the orthodox economists," Mr. Johnson writes, "Dickens insists that no way of life is sound or rewarding that leaves out men's need of loving and being loved."

And, in the spirit of Christmas, who could fault "A Christmas Carol"? "Who can listen," Thackeray said, "to objections regarding a book as this? It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness." It is surprising, however, how many readers reserve Dickens--and hopefulness in general--for Christmas; it seems that what we applaud in Dickens--his kindness, his generosity, his belief in our dignity--is also what we condemn him for (under another name) in the off-Christmas season.

The other name is sentimentality--and, to the modern reader, too often when a writer risks being sentimental, the writer is already guilty. But as a writer it is cowardly to so fear sentimentality that one avoids it altogether. It is typical--and forgivable--among student writers to avoid being mush- minded by simply refusing to write about people, or by refusing to subject characters to emotional extremes. A short story about a four-course meal from the point of view of a fork will never be sentimental; it may never matter very much to us, either. A fear of contamination by soap opera haunts the educated writer--and reader--though we both forget that in the hands of a clod, "Madame Bovary" would have been perfect material for daytime television and a contemporary treatment of "The Brothers Karamazov" could be stuck with a campus setting. Dickens took Christmas risks all year round.

"I must make the most I can out of the book," he said, before beginning "Great Expectations"--"I think [it's] a good name?" he said. Good, indeed, and a title many writers wish were free for them to use, a title many wonderful novels could have had: "The Great Gatsby," "To the Lighthouse," "The Mayor of Casterbridge," "The Sun Also Rises," "Moby Dick"--all great expectations, of course.

Yet the hopefulness that makes everyone love "A Christmas Carol" draws fire when Dickens employs it in his best novel; when Christmas is over, Dickens's hopefulness strikes many as mere wishful thinking. Dickens's original ending to "Great Expectations," that Pip and his impossible love, Estella, should stay apart, is thought to be the proper (and certainly the modern) conclusion-- from which Dickens eventually shied away; for such a change of heart and mind, he is accused of selling out. After an early manhood of shallow goals, Pip is meant finally to see the falseness of his values--and of Estella--and he emerges as a sadder though a wiser fellow. Many have expressed how Dickens stretches credulity too far when he leads us to suppose--in his revised ending--that Estella and Pip could be happy ever after; or that anyone can. Of his new ending--where Pip and Estella are reconciled--Dickens himself remarked to a friend: "I have put in a very pretty piece of writing, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration." That Estella would make Pip--or anyone--a rotten wife is not the point; they are linked: happily or unhappily, they belong together.

Biographically, it is difficult to resist the association of Pip's trapped worship of Estella with Dickens's own sad adoration of the young actress, Ellen Ternan. Although the suggestion that Dickens revise the original ending came from his friend Bulwer Lytton, who wished the book to end on a happier note, Edgar Johnson wisely points out that "the changed ending reflected a desperate hope that Dickens could not banish from within his own heart." That hope is no last- minute alteration, tacked-on, but simply the culmination of a hope that abides throughout the novel: that Estella might change; after all, Pip changes. The book isn't called "Great Expectations" for nothing. It is not, I think, meant to be an entirely bitter title.

In fact, it is the first ending that is out of character--for Dickens, and for the novel. Pip, upon meeting Estella (after two years of hearing only rumors of her), remarks with a pinched heart: "I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for in her face, and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham's teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be." Although that tone--of self- congratulation and self-pity--is more modern than Dickens's romantic revision, I fail to see how we or our literature would be better for it.

The revised ending reads: "I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her." A very pretty piece of writing, as Dickens noted, but eternally open--still ambiguous (Pip's hopes have been dashed before)--and far more the mirror of the quality of trust in the novel as a whole. It is that hopeful ending that sings with all the rich contradiction we should love Dickens for; it both underlines and undermines everything before it. Pip is basically good, basically gullible; he starts out being human, he learns by error, he keeps on being human. That touching illogic seems not only generous but true.

"When people say that Dickens exaggerates," George Santayana writes, "it seems to me that they can have no eyes and no ears. They probably have only notions of what things and people are; they accept them conventionally, at their diplomatic value." And to those who contend that no one was ever so sentimental, or that there was no one ever like Wemmick or Jaggers or Bentley Drummle, to name a few, Santayana says: "The polite world is lying; there are such people; we are such people ourselves in our true moments, in our veritable impulses; but we are careful to stifle and hide those moments from ourselves and from the world; to purse and pucker ourselves into the mask of conventional personality; and so simpering, we profess that it is very coarse and inartistic of Dickens to undo our life's work for us in an instant, and remind us of what we are." Santayana is also brilliant at defending Dickens's stylistic excesses: "He mimicks things to the full; he dilates and exhausts and repeats; he wallows," Santayana admits, though he adds, "this faculty, which renders him a consummate comedian, is just what alienated him from a later generation in which people of taste were aesthetes and virtuous people were higher snobs; they wanted a mincing art, and he gave them copious improvisation, they wanted analysis and development, and he gave them absolute comedy."

Christmas--or any other demonstration of giving--is no time for "a mincing art"; we should learn that there is really no good time for such cramped elitism. "God bless us every one!" cried Tiny Tim. But this Christmas, since we're so familiar with "A Christmas Carol"--in its several versions-- we might well read "Great Expectations"; it is a book many of us read last when we were in school, when we were too young to appreciate it. For its Christmas spirit--its open-hearted and forgiving qualities, and its feast of language--it is the best of novels by a writer of no mincing art.

And when we writers--in our own work--escape the slur of sentimentality, we should ask ourselves if what we are doing matters.

Copyright The New York Times Company


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Dickens robbed the world of literature very early with the title, 'Great Expectations', which would have been a perfect title or rubric for many a creation in literature..And Xmas .. ha for the ones who love and cherish all that are beautiful and wonderful in creation,around in the world what better times to revel and be sentimental too other than during Christmas times!

    I do not understand this a kind of offended repartee from you. If anybody accused you of being sentimental you must see it as a compliment rather.
    However you wrote in the post comment on 'Seasons'
    "...... The posts, unlike what some readers might think, are not sentimental, self-congratulatory notes.
    (August 16, 2010 7:23 PM)
    In fact I already posted my opinion on that , that you are sentimental and that is a quality to be lucky about.
    Bals you are sentimental and that is a quality which you should be proud of. Do you want to be morbid like a cadaver???
    If not do not bother to fret and explain your position.Everybody has the right to judge and let them do in what ever way they heed.
    Go on being sentimental that will bring creative in your lines and in your verses.

  3. @Anil: I try to explain my position - and through that, the importance of being sentimental! Rationalism and objectivity is a gift from Western thought, but unless that is laced with sentiments and humaneness, like Irving says, - we should ask ourselves if what we are doing matters.

  4. Dear Sir,

    I second you. My point is, it takes a strong individual to remain sentimental. It’s easy to be a cynic, it’s easy to be unsentimental…but to remain sentimental is to have faith in sentiments, in others.

    Thanks for the New York Times article. Happy Onam.

  5. Dear sir,
    I'm not sure if I am wise enough to comment on a delicate post like this(especially when it comes from an experienced author).
    I'd say being sentimental is humane.Even those who criticize this habit of yours are also more or less sentimental. Nobody can live with full sanity unless we pour down our feelings, right?
    Rationalism and objectivity are not exactly Western.Looking into the past, we have such glorious examples like Bhaskara and Aryabhatta whose rational thoughts have given a new dimension to the sciences.

  6. @Neta: Thank you for visiting. The rationalism and objectivity I mentioned is not of the scientific variety ( Aryabhatta and Bhaskara were scientist/mathematicians) but the literature that is shorn of sentiments and subjective perspective. That kind of bleak writing has its beauty and strength but what I object to is their view that sentimentality is weak. For contemporary writers, this is more or less a gift of Western style.

  7. what should i comment to this post, dear Balan. i have been a very sentimental chap and am still one. i respond to emotions the same way as you do, or any one else does. we are all made up of the same elements. watching myself over a long period of time, especially during times emotional trauma, i have realised the working of the mind to change the dimension of my emotional response to a given situation. i have also realised that giving the word to a sentiment is the cue for the mind to start working. then the mind takes over and i am virtually lost. there is a kind of intoxication in this process, but i no longer see the truth as it is, in its proper dimension, and i lose the beauty of being in this world with you, everyone else. i know the danger of giving the word to a sentiment and this is what i have now and again hinted to you. it will aid the process of writing poetry, but i should also exist at that parallel level from where i could see the turmoil from outside, to place it in the larger perspective of existence.

  8. I can never even try to be a cynic..I am extremely happy being a sentimental person..and feels good to know that Dickens was one too.

  9. @venu: you are but one among the several who have advised me to desist from the 'sentimental' quirks in my writing. In reflecting on my writings, I feel that I have been more 'sensitive' rather than 'sentimental'.

    What I ask my friends is not to be afraid of emoting. When you are afraid of opening up your mind, you tend to be untrue to yourselves and then there is a lot of pretending. Thats all I am against. Blog circles are a kind of group therapy. One discloses one's experiences and what one learned from it so that it encourages others to open up as well as discover kindred souls among them. Like when I wrote about my financial/health/ family issues, the moral support offered by by friends among the bloggers have been tremendous. Some even telephoned me. It gave me courage and faith in myself and it would be no exaggeration to say their words continue to be a source of strength to me. My experiences are not unique; nor are the realizations of truth. But I have become wiser by sharing my feelings with the bloggers. So, I merely ask them too, to be unafraid and come out into the open fields of love and camaraderie.

  10. @Sujata: Yes, the article helped me look at Dickens afresh!

  11. you are right Balan. blog circles are a kind of group therapy. i have also gained tremendously being in the blog, sharing with others. i started the blog at a time when i was in an emotional trauma and have tended to use it as a technique to watch myself, because i found my mind taking me drifting. it was like taking hold of the steering wheel and navigating through heavy traffic. much of what i write on my blog is for myself, things only i can fully understand. it is like when, as i journalist, i scribble down notes for doing a report to be filed later on. even the handwriting, only i can understand. some of our friends make out something here and there, but i am uncommunicative. Vijayan, who comes occasionally to put in a comment, has been sharing this with me deeply and you not so deeply because we don't frequently sit down and talk. my intention in this blog is not writing poetry, but keeping the eyes open as a kind of self theraupy. so there is a veil around me, whereas you are totally out in the open, which is as it should be among friends.

  12. Balan, as a writer myself,I know from whence you hail.. I can easily establish, in my own mind, that the majority of people, men and women alike, fear that they truly are sentimentalist down deep in their inner being and are afraid that it makes them less attractive in others' eyes. It is much harder to show the real you, sentimentality and all.. Fakery comes easy. Write what you are...as I do...Forget what anyone else thinks...In the end, you will be THE man of many hats and you can be proud of that. I, as a published author of three books, and many great compliiments, find you to be a Brilliant Writer in everything you have penned..KEEP IT UP....................

  13. @Sandy: Thanks for your understanding and support! :)

  14. dear balanji, yes u'r sentimental n being sentimental u'r very sensitive to others...to understand them.... congratz....

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