Friday, February 03, 2006

On the Connection Between Sentiment and Idea

In response to George Hunka's question, which has been echoed rather frequently in the blogosphere: "[J]ust why [does] Scott thinks artists should say anything at all?," I will offer a few quotations from critic Lionel Trilling:

"Goethe says somewhere that there is no such thing as a liberal idea, that there are only liberal sentiments. This is true. Yet it is also true that certain sentiments consort only with certain ideas and not with others. What is more, sentiments become ideas by a natural and imperceptible process. 'Our continued influxes of feeling,' said Wordsworth, 'are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of our past feelings.' And Charles Peguy said, "Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique' -- everything begins in sentiment and assumption and finds its issue in political action and institutions. The converse is also true: just as sentiments become ideas, ideas eventually establish themselves as sentiments.

If this is so, if between sentiments and ideas there is a natural connection so close as to amount to a kind of identity, then the connection between literature and politics will be seen as a very immediate one. And this will be especially true if we do not intend the narrow but the wide sense of the word politics. It is this wide sense of the word that is nowadays forced upon us, for nearly it is no longer possible to think of politics except as the politics of culture, the organization of human life toward some end or other, toward the modification of sentiments, which is to say the quality of human life."
The Liberal Imagination

"[M]y own interests lead me to see literary situations as cultural situations, and cultural situations as great elaborate fights about moral issues, and moral issues as having something to do with gratuitously chosen images of personal being, and images of personal being as having something to do with literary style..."

"The rest [of my students]...move through the terrors and mysteries of modern literature like so many Parsifals, asking no questions at the behest of wonder and fear. Or like so many seminarists who have been systematically instructed in the constitution of Hell and the ways to damnation. Or like so many readers, entertained by moral horror stories. I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: "interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.'"

"...a power which will lead a young man to say what Goethe thought was the modern thing to say, "But is this really true -- is it true for me?"

"On the Teaching of Modern Literature" (in Beyond Culture)

With Trilling, I would say: theatre is not "harmless," as Allison Croggon says. It is sentiment that leads to an idea, and those ideas and sentiments shape reality. The stories we tell about life shapes that life and the way we see and respond to it. The values we express, and the techniques we use to represent those values, affect people. I have written extensively about this, especially in my post "Corrupting Young Minds." Computer programmers use the phrase "garbage in, garbage out" when referring to data crunching. The same could be said of the sentiments we ingest.

Joshua writes, "It's not the crudeness or the confrontational that matters, but what you accomplish with it that counts." In other words, the ends justifies the means. I disgree. In the 1960s, the Free Speech Movement promoted free speech by shouting down anyone who disagreed with them. This is a contradiction. You have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. If you dislike brutality, then using brutal means to make your point is a contradiction. Fighting fire with fire leads to more fire.

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