Rebecca West on Sentimentality

But the sentimental artist is becoming nothing, he has ears, he has eyes, he is being intelligent, he is playing a game, he is moving certain objects according to certain rules in front of spectators. Those objects one may take as the isolated units of his material which he has passed through his imagination by an unfortunately discontinuous process. He sees that one of these objects occupies a certain position on the ground, and knows that he will score a point if he can remove it to another position; he therefore sends another of these objects rolling along to displace it. Shock…one hears that ugly sound.

Rebecca West, “That Strange Necessity”

Impossible for me not to think immediately of my beloved Musil essay Black Magic:

In a somewhat less propitious time, the poet X would have become a popular hack on a family magazine. He would then have presupposed that the heart always responds to certain situations with the same set feelings. Noble-mindedness would always have been recognizably noble, the abandoned child lamentable, and the summer landscape stirring. Notice that in this way, a firm, clearcut, and immutable relationships would have been established between the feelings and the words, true to the nature of the term kitsch. Thus kitsch, which prides itself so much on sentiment, turns sentiment into concepts.

As a function of the times, however, X, instead of being a good family magazine hack, has become a bad Expressionist. Consequently, his work causes intellectual short-circuiting. He appeals to Man, God, the Spirit, Goodness, Chaos; and out of such big words he squeezes his sophisticated sentences. He could not possibly do so, were he to imagine the totality of their meaning, or at least grasp their utter unimaginability. But long before his time, these words had already taken on connotations meaningful and meaningless, in books and newspapers; our Expressionist has often seen them wedged together, and the words need only be loaded with the least little bit of significance for him to perceive sparks flying between them. This, however, is only a consequence of the fact that he had not learned how to think based on the experience of his own imagination, but rather, with the aid of borrowed terms.

Robert Musil

I like West’s mechanistic cause-and-effect imagery, though; it invokes the sheer cheapness of the devices employed and the effects achieved. That the slightest variation in the manipulation of these objects (and concomitant alteration in surface effect) is applauded as an innovation: this indicates the creative impoverishment of the whole culture surrounding an artistic scene, as fake innovation is taken for real innovation and real innovation is taken for flawed aberration. (Such was the case with techno sub-genres in the 1990s; the best stuff was at the fringes and mostly ignored as people leapt to anoint new scene-leaders.) This has been a noticeable downside to genre-beholden literature like mysteries and science-fiction, where the task was explicitly to conceive of new variations within a preconceived structure (does anyone remember that Columbo episode where the killer himself is murdered?), but we can be assured the same goes for literary fiction as well. There’s just more effort being made to disguise the circuitous variations as stunning advances in form and content. Good thing we have short memories….

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