Sentiment and Sentimentality

Sentiment and Sentimentality

            If we want to abandon our daydreams, we must look at the other thing these ornaments are hiding and put ourselves in a state of methodical doubt in regard to them. (Merleau-Ponty, 1955:225, italics the text’s).

            The third of William James’ legendary set of Gifford Lectures is entitled ‘The Reality of the Unseen’. In it, he reminds us that reality is matched in human consciousness by ‘unreality’, or at the very least, a set of realities is balanced by a similar set of unrealities. Such a term, ‘unreal’, during the fin de siécle period meant less the uncanny or surreal and more simply the sense that it lacked agreement and rationality. The first due to its generally unobservable character, the second due to its resistance to being subject to reason. Yet James did not find the idea of unreality to be in itself unreasonable or even unempirical. Regions of the brain, separated only by ‘the filmiest of screens’, were either occlusive in their contiguities or were yet unexplored in their potential. Mapping the brain, as Broca had accomplished in James’ own time, was not the same thing as understanding exactly how these different regions managed their internal affairs. Consciousness itself was thus constructed by apparatuses and architectures unseen yet real.

            The reaction to Enlightenment transparency, the ideas of the individual, of free will, of sovereignty of thought, and their belated early Victorian offspring, progress, democracy, positivism, feminism, shared one powerful leitmotif. Evolution moved through unseen means. Phenotypes could be observed – even in our own time, when the genome is itself observable, the dynamic between genes and environment as well as mutation, genetic drift and so on, are not to be directly ‘seen’ – as the outcomes of a process the reality of which eluded Darwin though not, of course, Mendel. Consciousness, now radically remade as a ‘social product’ in Marx and Engels 1846 work – not published until 1932, mind you – also contained, or was yet contained by, an unseen reality. When Janet first proposed the idea of the unconscious he did so quite unconsciously, if you will, with none of the glaring threat and radically primordial overtones of Freud’s later reworking. Perhaps it is better to describe Janet’s efforts as ‘unself-conscious’, given the latter’s deeply self-reflective and philosophical construct. For our present purposes, however, we want to merely note that whether it is evolution, consciousness, empiricity as phenomenologically inclined, or structuralism in linguistics and later the social sciences, it is the ‘reality of the unseen’ that dominates post-enlightenment discourses.

            Now is this the same unseen as James had in mind? Not at all, or at least, not entirely. If the Enlightenment, in its brash rationalism and its common-sense empiricism, had made the old idea of unreality flee into the cultic or rustic mindsets alone, it ran the tables for only a scant three generations before it itself began to be displaced. Like any revolution, the old regime – in this case, of thought in general and not specifically politics, though these seismic shifts are related – while defeated and in flight, doubles back upon the victors. It does so not by a pure counteroffensive, but by altering its self-conception. The old must displace itself from its own customary sentiments in order to reappear, through the back door, as it were, in a new set of guises but with the same basic principle in hand. What the unseen was to the religious worldview, James’ ultimate topic, became the unseen within that scientific. Science, that paragon of Enlightenment practice, its ‘application’ of both reason and observation as redefined and reminted by the eighteenth century becomes, by the end of the nineteenth, a fertile field of occlusive discourses. From organismic evolution to psychology to phenomenology to structuralism, the conception of the unseen, of ‘unreality’, ensconces itself perhaps even more deeply than it had ever found itself to be in religion alone. For after all,  however mysterious was the invisible hand of the divine, all would ultimately be revealed to human consciousness. There would be, in truth, no truth untold.

            Can one say the same for the unseen that animates many of our most profound conceptions of modernity? Certainly, the race has been on, following the second world war, to both provide a ‘grand unified theory’ in cosmology but also a unity of scientific understanding – sometimes referred to as ‘levels theory’ – regarding all human and non-human existence. Pike’s 1957 opus attests to the reach of such a sentiment; that science can only overtake its predecessors by explaining as much as did these older forms of thought. In a word, science must both become the new religion and the end of religion. And it would do so by finally uncovering the conception of the unseen within its own novel discourses.

            Yet this sentiment is a self-conception. If religion had its primal mover in unreality, its symptom in the uncanny but with the foreknowledge that the hand of God was ultimately a canny one – ‘everything happens for a reason’ becomes the mantra of the believer; the phrase is itself at best trivially true but the acolyte transforms such ‘reason’ into a connected plan – then science has the same in the surreality of cosmological evolution. It is, to our sensibility, just as unbelievable that the entire known universe should be as a point of light, that for eons nothing but cosmic background radiation should exist, that no other explanation need be given for existence entire, as it was to believe that a superior being with unexplained provenience and the more so, origin, should have simply created existence out of inexistence. At some level of reflection one is bound to ask, ‘what’s the difference?’.

            And yet there is a difference, stark, stolid, and still as stunning as it must have been in 1859 or would have been in 1846; and that is, science presents a cosmos that is non-teleological; it has no final purpose. This differs in as radical a manner as possible from the previous metaphysics, wherein a final goal was assumed. And while Hegel attempted to preserve the telos of history, of spirit, in his phenomenology – such a dynamic was also unseen in its primacy, one can note – by the 1840s this had been rejected by the entire swath of younger thinkers, from Mill to Marx to Martineau to Darwin himself. In art, the difference between Beethoven and Wagner might be cast along similar lines, the difference between Goethe and Dickens perhaps as well. But most importantly, it was the concept of evolution – in spite of its own ultimately unexplained origins; what sets the serial universe in motion? – that departed from the sentiment that existence entire should have a purpose beyond itself.

            In this, we are confronted by the whole question of the difference between sentiment and sentimentality. The one is customary, assumed, unseen. It is part of the social stock of knowledge at hand and is a lynchpin of contents for any phenomenology of culture or even of consciousness ‘itself’. But the second is contrived, fashionable, observable and indeed, desires itself to be observed at all times and in all places by as many as possible. Sentimentality is as much a flaneur as is sentiment retiring. The one lives to see and be seen, the other would die before giving up its unseen reality to either science or religion. With the overturning of telos as reason, sentimentality overtakes sentiment as the compelling force animating human consciousness in its self-refracting lens.

            Travelling alongside the conception of nothingness, a concept aberrant like no other to Western consciousness, ‘atelos’ provides a perverse reassurance that our worst selves need not concern themselves with the final ends given impetus by our egregious acts. The world could end, yes, but by our own hand. We own the end, we ourselves are the end entire. Perverse, yes, but such a term hardly begins to describe such a sentimentality as this. While it is mostly the case that mere sentiment cannot provide for either human freedom or authentic being, let alone thought – the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’, another one of James’ famous phrases, is demanded by any set of traditions, customs, doctrines or doxa, not only those religious in character – it is rarely the case that traditions alone provoke the apocalypse. In our fear that revealed religion might self-construct self-destruction for all, believers and non-believers alike, have we not stepped too far away from the equally customary sensibility that a culture must simply be reproduced at all costs? We have, in our Enlightenment liberation, excised divinity and its teleological children from our sentiments only to be faced with a gnawing sense that without ultimate purpose, meaning too disappears.

            Does this then also suggest that meaningfulness is no longer extant at all, or is it only hidden from us, a final effect of the transfigured conception of the unseen in our new reality? Merleau-Ponty asks us to consider this ‘other thing’, this otherness that now can only be other to us by maintaining itself ‘underneath the ornament’ of none other than sentimentality. I want to suggest that meaning does not necessarily have to be hitched up to purpose, and that just because we now live within a non-teleological modernity and live through and by an ateological consciousness, this does not demand either the reality of the unseen or the sacrifice of the intellect. Indeed, reality is all the more meaningful if it has a depth which is at first occluded, and the intellect is all the more real if its meanings emanate from both a fully conscious sensibility and an equally real unconscious sensitivity. If anything, the liberation of human freedom of the will frees up not so much humanity as a whole – perhaps each one of us tends in her own direction on this point; we each of us are thrown upon the pathless landscape of the purposeless truth and this is the meaning of ultimate freedom – but rather the ability for meaning to come to its own fulfillment freed up from final purposes and ends alike.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books on ethics, education, social theory, aesthetic and health, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.