Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Indecent Sentimentality

It is no longer the sexual which is indecent, it is the sentimental.”

That’s the Roland Barthes statement that Zoe Heller and Leslie Jamison were asked to comment on in The New York Times Book Review of September 28.

The word sentiment was originally rooted in the senses. We had a sensory experience to which our body responded with an appropriate emotion and action. We labeled that sensation a sentiment.

All well and good. That’s how the human body operates. But we seem to have wanted to separate our identity as humans from our bodies for centuries. Since Plato, for sure, and by the time Descartes declared “I think, therefore I am,” the separation was complete. The first philosophical wanderings in that direction were probably to answer the question, How do humans differ from other species? But as we began to identify ourselves as human because of our thought processes, rather than our physiological processes, to be rational became the ideal state. Other tribes, other peoples who did not think the way we did were barbarians who should be ruled by us, their lands taken away, their bodies enslaved. Colonialism, nationalism, caste and class systems all arose from differences in thinking, differences in what it meant to be rational.

Rationality became the province of educated men in Western cultures. Sentimentality became the province of women, who were not considered educable. As so often happens with words that become associated with the feminine, “sentimental” acquired a  derogatory definition - a superficial manipulation of the emotions. Unfortunately, “emotional” still carries some of the stigma associated with sentimental.

But by elevating the rational, the mind, above the sensory experiences of the body, we’re completely disregarding all the scientific evidence about how the mind works. Sensory information initiates an emotional response first, then physical, then mental.

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