Just Call Me Sentimental, Right Dawn?

The other day I suggested in the comments on Jonathan Delacour’s site that most people have positive feelings, or positive connotations, associated with the word “sentimentality.” My main point was that because a word like “sentimentality” generally has positive connotations rather than negative connotations that applying that word to another situation with negative connotations is likely to lead to unnecessary arguments and confusion. It’s best to switch to a synonym that doesn’t have such connotations.

Generally, we are "sentimental" about the things we most desire in life, precisely because we do desire them. For most people they are a goal, not necessarily a realistic expectation.

In my discussion, I suggested that most people are sentimental about things like Christmas and Thanksgiving, even though they’re aware their expectations are probably unrealistic. A good example of that would be my favorite Christmas movie “A Christmas Story” where the boy with the amusingly dysfunctional family still fulfills his dream and receives a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas. Another example might be “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” where everything possible goes wrong because the father wants to do too much, but the Christmas spirit still somehow survives.

Jonathon suggests the role of art is to show the truth about life, to strip away sentimentality, but I would argue that revealing the “truth” in this sense is only one aspect of art. An equally important role is to show what life “can be,” to hold up models of what we want our lives to become.

Despair is obviously a part of everyone’s life. The truth, though, is that my own life has been as much joy as angst. For instance, as a child my parents fought to overcome poverty, and I only got toys once a year, at Christmas. My mother even gleaned and cracked walnuts most of the year so we could have Christmas presents.

Looking back I can certainly remember many disappointing Christmases because my expectations were too high. After all, what child would be overjoyed at receiving his year’s supply of socks wrapped up as gifts? I didn’t know that that we were "poor." I just wanted the same toys my friends got, poor or not. For some reason, eating often came ahead of toys.

However, I still have fond memories of receiving the Fort Apache that became my favorite toy, and, later, the Lionel train that I can still hear running downstairs every Christmas Eve. Is it surprising, then, that I’m still sentimental about Christmas and have gone out of my way to make Christmas as special for my children and grandchildren as it was for me?

So, what’s more “real,” the years when I was disappointed that I didn’t get the perfect gift that I was longing for, or the years when I did get those presents that I still remember years later? Are the years I remember any less “real” than the ones where I was disappointed?

I would argue that both are real, and both are the domain of the true artist. The artist does not have to choose one or the other to be an “artist,” though contemporary art critics certainly seem to have come down on the side of angst and despair. Emphasizing one at the expense of the other, though, seems to be a distortion of reality, a distortion of truth, whatever that might be.