In Search of Feeling

Joshua Reynolds congratulated Oliver Goldsmith on 'feeling with exactness', and it is true that Goldsmith himself - a benevolentist rather than a sentimentalist - found something offensively theoreticist about the cult of feeling by which he was surrounded.

Only a man who has drawn his ideas from books, he thought, 'comes into the world with a heart melting at every fictitious distress'.

[Sentimentalism] is really a devious form of egoism, in which what you appear to bestow on another is secretly conferred on yourself.

The benevolentist hopes to stop having to feel the discomfort of pity by coming to the aid of the victim who occasions it; the sentimentalist is rather less eager to see off his agreeably sadomasochistic sensations by binding the other's wounds.

David Fordyce writes of the sentimentalist as finding 'a sort of pleasing anguish' in human misery, one which culminates in 'self-approving joy' [...]

what the sentimentalist feels most keenly is the need to feel.

By and large, benevolence is a matter of laughter, while sentimentalism is a question of weeping. Sentimentalism is really a sympathy with one's own act of sympathising, a self-devouring affair in which the world is reduced to so much raw material for one's lust for sensation, or to so many occasions for exhibiting one's moral munificence*.

You can thus exchange the objects of your affections from moment to moment, with scant regard for their use-value.

It is the mode of feeling appropriate to those who are not much practiced in emotion in everyday life, and who can thus manage only a theatrical, over-the-top version of it on the rare occasions when they are called upon to display it.

Rather as the child in the mirror phase is cajoled by an idealised reflection of itself, so the sentimentalist misrecognises an exalted image of himself in the act of coming to another's help.

[...] forever frigging his own imagination, dreaming up scenes of distress in order to relish the orgasmic pleasures of pity.

[Terry Eagleton]
Trouble With Strangers: A Study of Ethics, p.26-8

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