Sentimental Hygiene

Sentimental Hygiene

I’ve been following the bashing of sentiment for a few days, headache-filled, and unable to enter the fray. Like Loren, I like the word, and interpret it much the same way that he does. I am not a Modernist— I have a tendency to blame them for most things that are so perverse these days, for example the conventions that declare words like romantic and sentimental to be evil. I do have post-structuralist leanings, but I never lean so far into it that I allow it to destroy the humanist that I am at the core. I think that the current usage of the word, with the spin that Duemer puts on it in particular, is just a manifestation of the modernist hangover. The now terminally-ill Warren Zevon puts it pretty well:

Every day I get up in the morning and go to work
And do my job whatever
I need some
Sentimental hygiene
Everybody’s at war these days
Let’s have a mini-surrender
I need some
Sentimental hygiene

Everybody’s had to hurt about it
No one wants to go without it
It’s so hard to find it
Sentimental hygiene

Delacour sounds almost like John Locke in his appropriation of Duemer’s definition to soundly condemn sentimentality as a fallacy of argument. My, how things change. Looking at the OED, I see an interesting progression. Beginning with Chaucer, in 1374, sentiment was:

1. Personal experience, one’s own feeling.

2. Sensation, physical feeling. In later use, a knowledge due to vague sensation.

3. Sensible quality; in quot. = flavour.

4. Intellectual or emotional perception.

5. in sentement (Lydg.) = ‘in sentence’: see SENTENCE n

Beginning in the renaissance, it develops these senses which carry over into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

6. What one feels with regard to something; mental attitude (of approval or disapproval, etc.); an opinion or view as to what is right or agreeable. Often pl. with collective sense.

7. A mental feeling, an emotion. Now chiefly applied, and by psychologists sometimes restricted, to those feelings which involve an intellectual element or are concerned with ideal objects. In the 17-18th c. often spec. an amatory feeling or inclination.

Ah ha! It’s connected with sex. We can’t have that now, can we! The transition is complete by the late eighteenth century into the senses in which Duemer uses it:

8. a. A thought or reflection coloured by or proceeding from emotion.

9. In generalized use. a. Refined and tender emotion; exercise or manifestation of ‘sensibility’; emotional reflection or meditation; appeal to the tender emotions in literature or art. Now chiefly in derisive use, conveying an imputation of either insincerity or mawkishness.

But the word refuses to surrender without a fight. I doubt that Warren Zevon had read Charles Lamb’s essay “On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century” when he wrote “Sentimental Hygiene,” but the plea seems much the same to me:

We have been spoiled with— not sentimental comedy— but a tyrant more pernicious to our pleasures. . . the exclusive and all-devouring drama of common life; where the moral point is everything. . . We carry our fireside concerns to the theatre with us . . . All that neutral ground of character, which stood between vice and virtue; or which in fact was indifferent to neither, where neither properly was called into question; that happy breathing-place from the burthen of perpetual moral questioning. . . is broken up and disenfranchised, as injurious to the interests of society.

I intend to remain unabashedly sentimental. I need the breathing space— the sentimental hygiene, if you will— to believe that there are things that are neither virtue nor vice, life nor death, but rather merely pleasant and diversionary. I like art that “appeals to the tender emotions” myself. You can keep the high (and dull) seriousness of modernism.

Oh, and there was a second alternative to the ninth definition listed above— it didn’t live long, only from 1851-1908 (death by modernism):

b. Emotional regard to ideal considerations, as a principle of action or judgment.

Of course, that’s just the humanist in me surfacing again. I tend to think that there is no intellect which can be fractioned off, sucked dry of the regard for human emotion— but the poststructuralist in me sees those “ideal considerations” as verbs, not nouns.

1 thought on “Sentimental Hygiene”

  1. you remember, i’m sure, aristotle saying that the intellect informs the passions & the passions drive the intellect? even such a logician as aristotle realized the futility of one without the other, whatever names one chooses to apply … chthonic & apollonian, body & mind, whatever.
    and where is this fusion, this balance to be found? maybe in that place to which the poet rumi referred when he issued an invitation to a lover … i think it was something like this: “meet me in the field out beyond right and wrong.” of course, to get to that place, you have to know where it is, make the trip, etc. and probably will find that for various reasons, you won’t be able to stay in the field for very long on any particular visit.

Comments are closed.