What’s Wrong with Sentiment?

While visiting the trailers page on Apple’s website today I saw the poster of the film The Father of My Children. On it is a quote from Gavin Smith, editor of Film Comment magazine which reads — “Deeply Moving. Incredibly tender and heartbreaking without ever getting sentimental.”

I am, admittedly, a bit picky about some words. One of these words, especially pertaining to art, is sentimental. Why am I picky about this word? Because I am never quite sure what the person using it means. In an attempt to cure myself of my own ignorance I have decided to try and solve this matter once and for all.

Let us look to the definition as provided by Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.

Main Entry: sen·ti·men·tal

Pronunciation: \ˌsen-tə-ˈmen-təl\

Function: adjective

Date: 1749

1 a : marked or governed by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism b : resulting from feeling rather than reason or thought <a sentimental attachment> <a sentimental favorite>
2 : having an excess of sentiment or sensibility

Let us assume that people like Mr. Smith take issue with the second definition of this term. How then is sentiment defined?

Main Entry: sen·ti·ment

Pronunciation: \ˈsen-tə-mənt\

Function: noun

Etymology: French or Medieval Latin; French, from Medieval Latin sentimentum, from Latin sentire

Date: 1639

1 a : an attitude, thought, or judgment prompted by feeling : predilection b : a specific view or notion : opinion
2 a : emotion b : refined feeling : delicate sensibility especially as expressed in a work of art c : emotional idealism d : a romantic or nostalgic feeling verging on sentimentality
3 a : an idea colored by emotion b : the emotional significance of a passage or expression as distinguished from its verbal context

I am assuming again but I believe Mr. Smith is using definition 2d and the real issue here is sentimentality. Merriam-Webster does not have a definition of this term so I have gone elsewhere.

Wikipedia has given a rather long-winded definition of the term.

Sentimentality is both a literary device used to induce a tender emotional response disproportionate to the situation,[1] 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.

The article quotes Oscar Wilde as defining a sentimentalist as “one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”

So we all get it, a sentimentalist relies on a short-hand of sorts to elicit responses from the viewer/reader/audience that their work does not necessarily merit.

The article on Wikipedia goes on to say “Complications enter into the ordinary view of sentimentality when changes in fashion and setting— the “climate of thought”[7]—intrude between the work and the reader.”

That is to say that sentimentality is relative.  The article concludes, “The example of the death of Little Nell in Charles Dickens‘ The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), “a scene that for many readers today might represent a defining instance of sentimentality”,[7]brought tears to the eye of many highly critical readers of the day.”

So here is what we have learned – Mr. Smith is pleased with the film because it does not take any cheap, emotional shortcuts to achieve its goal of being moving, tender and heartbreaking. What undermines his statement is that in the future it is entirely probable that critics and viewers alike will find the work contrived, sappy and emotionally manipulative.

To my mind the use of this term by critics is as useful as other popular phrases such as “tour-de-force” and” adrenaline-fueled” because it is nothing more than an editorial shortcut that desires to have the impact of a critique without earning it.

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