“Sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality…”

Note added, 9.15.14:

It’s come to my attention that a link to this post is making the rounds of a white supremacist SubReddit.

I’m amazed, though I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised. Anything can be taken out of context, and this indictment of sentimentality could, conceivably be stretched and distorted to be used as an excuse for cultural violence. This can only happen if those wanting to support their own stereotypes and hatred of others remain blind to the shadows that underlie their own fears and hatreds.

People will abuse and distort anything to suit their purposes. This note is here to declare that any use of these words for those purposes is rejected by this writer.

If you read this as an apology for YOUR brand of hatred over somebody else. YOU ARE FAILING TO UNDERSTAND WHAT IS WRITTEN HERE.

Take your hatred somewhere else.

*  *  *

A quote from an essay by Carl Jung on James Joyce’s Ulysses.

It’s jarring to read his reaction to Ulysses written in the early thirties. Jung is a creditable witness. We’re accustomed to the old story. Philistines don’t appreciate an avante-guarde work while those in-the-Know nudge and wink. Jung berates himself as a Philistine – a sure sign, he ain’t one! This gives us pause as he reacts to the ugliness he finds there,

Atrophy of feeling is a characteristic of modern man and always shows itself as a reaction when there is too much feeling around, and in particular too much false feeling. From the lack of feeling in “Ulysses” we may infer a hideous sentimentality in the age that produced it. But are we really so sentimental today?…there is a good deal of evidence to show that we actually are involved in a sentimentality hoax of gigantic proportions. Think of the lamentable role of popular sentiment in wartime! Think of our so-called humanitarianism! The psychiatrist knows only too well how each of us becomes the helpless but not pitiable victim of his own sentiments. Sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality

This was written in mitteleuropa in 1932. It brings involuntary chills to read it. To anyone open to their surroundings this was quite late in the game, even then.

His statement is profoundly true. One that shouldn’t have surprised anyone even then.

Our chills have a double cause. The consequences of so much false feeling masked the horrific brutality breaking out even as he wrote. Even today, so many are blind to his insight’s application to our own time.

Not to lay-on the hapless Nazis. Our perennial bogeyman, only the most openly insane hate-mongers admit to embrace. Cutting them out of the flock has worked all too well to throw the weight of evil far from its natural center of gravity and to allow their enemies to bask in a mantle of goodness. The Nazis are irredeemable! But, they are not so different from those who’ve carried on after their defeat in 1945.

What Dwight Towers refers to as “Godwin’s Law” describes the inevitability of a descent into calling one’s opponents Nazis. This sport tends to obscure more than it clarifies. Any drive to make false distinctions does that. All segments of the political spectrum use this ploy to distance themselves as much as to vilify their enemies. Brutality fans the “hoax of sentimentality” to obscure the complicity all share.

No political entity I know of accepts and asks for the repeal of the ground of brutality beneath civilization. The spectrum runs from those who deny the brutality by an hypocrisy of naked aggression hidden beneath a cloak of patriotic “hideous sentimentality” on the right, to those on the left who deny complicity by an hypocrisy of caring – another form of “hideous sentimentality” – hiding a naked aggression supporting them as surely as it does their opponents. We have neo-fascists on the right arrayed against Green Confucians, Good Germans, and Western Buddhists on the left.

Disclaimer: This is about attitudes, not people. It’s a shame this has to be explicitly declared! Too bad it is even then rarely believed. Again, this is connected to our “hideous sentimentality.”

An “atrophy of feeling,” let’s not forget, is behind Jung’s critique. A “hideous sentimentality,” bringing us so easily to tears. Or, into a blinding rage at the drop of a hat. This emotionality inhibits our ability to feel.

True feeling has to do with empathy for others. Sentiment has to do with turning this upside down. Sentiment takes something we might respond to and turns it into something we use as an excuse to wallow in our reactions. We insist on maintaining the focus on how it affects us.

Even then, we aren’t looking at a “By the Grace of God so go I!” sort of empathetic response. Instead, it’s, “Look how much this upsets, enrages, excites ME!”

A Narcissistic response. Sentiment takes any criticism, real or inferred, and turns it into an excuse for a reaction. Anything to keep our focus where we demand it belongs.

I find Ulysses filled with a fragile beauty. Weighing my view while taking Jung’s statements into consideration is a valuable exercise. Here is the end of Ulysses final paragraph, quoted by Jung:

O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. 1

Jung doesn’t discount the work. He said in part,

There is so little feeling in ‘Ulysses’ that it must be very pleasing to all aesthetes.… the consciousness of ‘Ulysses’ is …an ego that possesses judgment, understanding, and a feeling heart. …the long road …would be a …Calvary; and the wanderer, …would sink down …into the arms of …the beginning and end of life. Under the cynicism… there is hidden a great compassion; …the sufferings of a world …neither beautiful nor good …rolls on without hope through the eternally repeated everyday, dragging with it man’s consciousness in an idiot dance…. Ulysses has dared …take the step …to the detachment of consciousness from the object; he has freed himself from attachment, entanglement, and delusion, and can therefore turn homeward.

…all that is negative …all that is cold-blooded, bizarre and banal, grotesque and devilish, is (here) a positive virtue…. Joyce’s inexpressibly rich and myriad-faceted language unfolds itself in passages that creep along…, but the very boredom and monotony of it attain an epic grandeur that makes the book a ‘Mahabharata’ of the world’s futility and squalour…. Ulysses shows himself a conscientious Antichrist …(thus he) proves …his Catholicism… holds together. …not only a Christian but – still higher title to fame – a Buddhist, Shivaist, and a Gnostic.

He found a kind of redemption in Ulysses. Jung responds to Joyce’s focus on perception and language that make no attempt to,

meet the reader, everything turns away from him, leaving him gaping after it. The book is always up and away, dissatisfied with itself, ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter….

His characterization connects the work to its roots. Roots we’ve explored throughout the intervening years whenever we’ve tried to make sense of our time, as Jung tells us Joyce did.

What brings all of this to a clarifying conclusion is to see how far along we’ve gone since the day when a cosmopolitan like Jung, familiar with art and literature, could react with revulsion to something I now find poignantly beautiful.

Our current entertainments have outstripped Kitsch in their celebration of unfeeling hidden behind sentiment. Our popular, ubiquitous forms, go so far beyond this to revel openly in a choreography of the most banal brutality. They are truly unfeeling, not just numb. They actively challenge us with a will-to-deny true feeling any room to exist. Through them, we send up a challenge to Fate, daring our inner situation” to manifest itself in vengeance to expiate our guilt.

Even in our wish for clarifying fire, for an Apocalyptic End; we insist, “It’s all about US!”

This is the bedrock of toxic self-regard on which our brutality rests. A foundation for sentimentality, insulating us from true feeling.

‘Who is Ulysses?’ Doubtless …a symbol of …the totality, the oneness, of all …single appearances… Mr. Bloom, Stephen, Mrs. Bloom, and the rest, including Mr. Joyce. …imagine a being who is not a …colourless conglomerate soul …an indefinite number of ill-assorted and antagonistic individual souls, but …of houses, street-processions, churches, the Liffey, several brothels, and a crumpled note on its way to the sea – and yet possesses a perceiving and registering consciousness! Such a monstrosity drives one to speculation, especially as one can prove nothing anyway and has to fall back on conjecture. …I suspect Ulysses of being a more comprehensive self …the subject of all the objects on the glass slide, a being who acts as if he were Mr. Bloom or a printing shop or a crumpled note, but actually is the ‘dark hidden father’ of his specimens.”

I keep returning to the time of Joyce, of H. G. Wells, of Picasso and Braque; as a moment when a few saw from within a “more comprehensive self.”

Bloomsday, August 1, 1914, between the two we stood at a tipping point from which we have yet to recover. To reconcile my view of Joyce with Jung’s is a step along the path to reconnecting with the promise that briefly flared then before it was buried by the horrors of the Twentieth Century. Ulysses is a “half-way house” to an attitude towards feeling that seems so far out of reach.

1 Compare this to “Harry Met Sally” for a sad reminder of how far we’ve slipped into sentimentalized unfeeling irony.

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Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

38 thoughts on ““Sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality…”

  1. Tis way past time I read Ulysses!! And then Jung on Ulysses.

    Have you read Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”?
    “Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”
    Thanks as ever for your perception


    1. Benjamin sees the double-bind. Now we need to find a way not to be blocked by it. That’s not the same as ignoring it, Jung’s warning…. And it’s not the same as cutting through it in an Alexandrian rage at the Gordian Knot. Ego gets frantic at the very idea of limits and falls to either of these gambits.


  2. Tony, this post knocked me sideways.
    I previously thought of sentimentality as a response to numbness; an abortive attempt to feel something (much like self harm, excessive risktaking or misdirected sexuality).
    To consider atrophy of feeling as a response to sentimentality puts that idea in loops. Considering setimentality as onanistic self-regard (“I feel” becomes “I watch myself feeling!”) put loops on the loops.


  3. I think a good chunk of what you’re saying is self evidently true.. what is not clear to me is if sentimentality is ALWAYS the superstructure erected upon brutality.

    I’m not sure When Harry Met Sally is a fair comparison.. I haven’t read Ulysses but my sense of it is that it is of the great works of its time.. I don’t know that When Harry Met Sally is one of the great works of our time.. well that and it’s actually a film from more then 20 years ago.

    That all said.. It does feel to me that sentimentality is at least swallowing America alive.. and laying the ground work for ever greater brutality.

    “No political entity that I know of accepts and asks for the repeal of the ground of brutality beneath civilization.” — I would tend to say “well no political entity that is actually in power” or.. I imagine that it does in limited degrees… But I think so much of it lies in shadow.. and different political entities are able to see some things and not other things.. in differing ways.


    1. Matt,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Certainly “When Harry Met Sally” is an ironic comparison. I do believe all sentimentality is erected upon brutality. That’s been my own experience as well as having Jung’s weight behind it. Just follow any call to sentiment, whether internal or from the outside, and trace it back. It is a false feeling. A way to make what might awaken compassion into a consumable reaction that revels in adding another layer to the violence it supposedly responds to.

      I would also say that it is true of any political position, not just those in power. This comes from the entanglements of intention and consensus eroding any ability to remain in touch with what is. If you search for “Movements” on this site you’ll find a number of essays that touch upon this.



  4. I read Ulysses too young to appreciate it fully, though the rhythms of the language (especially some of the recorded passages I heard obsessively for a while) lingers. So I’m guessing: Was Ulysses, then, telling the same story of European cultural exhaustion that Magic Mountain and Der Radetskymarsch and others told as a more objectively approached story? Something closer to Eliot’s Wasteland or The Hollow Men in effect. Jung’s comments (wonderfully insightful) make me think he saw Ulysses as the frothy (weightless, feelingless) crest of the tsunami that was WW I – marking the final self-willed (perhaps) collapse of a culture topheavy with tired manners (“shape without form”) that had nowhere else to go but self reference, turning in on itself, eating away at its own sickness through excess and absurdity, like a mammoth wave turns in on itself before crashing. It was a culture (like ours maybe) in search (if this isn’t too sentimental) for ways to die, because every death wish seems to harbor an unconscious or confused longing for rebirth. To Joyce, perhaps, the only artistic response to this tired old world was to call attention to it, to bring forth its state of froth and sentiment to its frothymost. And it’s understandable that such a response would strike Jung, then, as both a stunning artistic culmination and sad product of this moment (now in some ways, perhaps, our own moment)?


    1. One of the core themes throughout my ruminations has had to do with an assertion that the Twentieth Century was in great measure a detour and a reaction. A reaction to the bankruptcy of civilization, of the various death-wishes at its heart, and to the turmoil this brought forth as the shadow was denied. A detour in that every means imaginable was turned to to avoid the underlying conclusions so we might face what was at first only clear to a few, but which then manifested itself in so many forms of horror.

      Our moment has appeared to me to be a return to this turning point, roughly one hundred years ago, 1906 to 1914. John Berger calls this “The Moment of Cubism.”

      I see this as an opportunity. We’ve run out of dodges that can be considered unforeseeable in their consequences. We can’t run down any of those old rabbit-holes and still claim an innocence based on ignorance.

      This applies to artists, to all of us.

      In this light, it’s relevant to look at the high-points of art in the Twentieth Century and its traditions and consider how much our frame of reference has shifted.

      Their stories are not our stories. Unless we blunder into a state of confusion we have ample evidence to help us avoid.

      It’s sobering, culturally as well as in every other realm, to see what has been lost. What has become, and continues to be, out of our reach.

      We can’t count on subsisting off an abundance of nature. We also have to see and understand – take in – how great swaths of cultural production can no longer be taken at face value.

      This process is resisted by the drive to sentimentality. To see how so much talent and so much effort has led to so many dead-ends without turning that realization into an excuse for self-pity. It’s not about how it makes us feel a violent emotion in reaction. It’s about how these habits of emotional reaction block us from feeling, from seeing, from being able to respond and not simply react.


      1. Yes, that’s good. In fact, I read these essays (only a half dozen or so to date), and all the wonderful detours to other essays, and I’m filled with a kind of sentimental froth of my own — a desire to SAY something, anything, just to enjoy the ideas, to roll around in them like a dog in the sun. But I usually hesitate to respond because all I really find meaningful at this point is “off the page.” We’re always living in the challenge of these dead ends and sentimental traps. And I sometimes wonder what use saying anything has anymore. For me, Beckett was the author who most clearly drew me off the page. It was a proprioceptive reading if any there was. He is the closest thing to me to Krishnamurti in that neither of them offered any way out, but showed the dead ends without remorse. What do we use writing for now? There is so much crap spewed by tongues. It would be nice to find a true calling for the voice. How can it be made to refer to its own limits?


  5. I shouldn’t say “all I find meaningful” — your essays are meaningful, and so much is meaningful. But then what, sang Plato’s Ghost. The call of the word is temptress. The best written thing is read by me in the end wrongly perhaps.


    1. To fall speechless is yet another trap! It’s another symptom of our insistence on “easy.” The pandering of marketeers insistent on selling us what we don’t need by claiming we “deserve” whatever we wish for – so long as we can afford what they’re selling!

      It’s part of the difference between art and craft, and our expectations of technology. Art and craft are hard, but we learn to meet the challenges. Technology promises us power so that everything will be easy. Deadly, oversimplified, and easy.

      Sure, words are slippery. Meaning is elusive. It’s only once we take that in that we can begin to find and articulate anything meaningful!


      1. I also think this particular situation (our entrapment in the Chinese finger trap of effort) requires learning to walk away from the words at a certain point. This is not an easy thing, but a kind of death. I feel words have a great power to bring us to the limits of their own domain. They can point out their own movements – the movement from image (past) to image (goal), the scampering of the mice to the higher end of our perpetually sinking psychic ship. They can identify the moment of error, negating themselves, but they are a series of still frames, no matter how skillfully strung together. In fact, the more convincingly alive the narrative becomes, the more trapped in imagery we end up.

        So I’m not against words, but I want words to serve more than just artistry, but crash against their own limits and extinguish themselves in “Ahnung”, or proprioception, which is imageless.

        I think this can be done and it’s a great craft and noble role for words to play.

        What I want from words is their attention to how they themselves drift away into content-filled “dreaming” – ideas of movement, rather than movement itself. It’s a distinction that words need to recognize as not fitting inside themselves – this distinction between movement as word and movement of words (content and function) can’t really fit inside words themselves. They need to know this, know their limit, in order to fulfill their destiny.

        My project is trying to keep words anchored to their own movement, and the challenge is similar to trying to stay awake when you’re really tired. Suddenly you find yourself dreaming you’re awake. The transition from function to “content about function” goes unnoticed. You enter the cloud without remembering encountering any edge to the cloud.

        So I mean something less easeful than abandoning words. I mean to turn them on themselves, to make them know their own death.


      2. “…I mean something less easeful than abandoning words. I mean to turn them on themselves, to make them know their own death.”

        Exciting! There’s an ambition! A place to exert one’s energies.


  6. Everything I enjoy has an element of this crashing against limits. But the challenge is huge. We crash imperfectly. Ro me, Beckett in The Unnameable came closest. I mean, within the world of art.


    1. How do we get beyond the sense of being imprisoned?

      It’s where the Twentieth Century left us. With a thorough sense of the encircling trap.

      But unless we can frame it differently this still keeps us in opposition. Holds us to a duality where there is an infinity of possible poles, or more like a valent cloud than a magnetic field.

      Tragedy appears an egotistic reaction, and not the only response to difficult, even fatal, no-way-out situations. The focus remains on, “How it makes me feel!” Instead of “How can I integrate this into being?”

      Tragedy is a reaction to your finger trap. A response is to let go of resisting and discovering a range of freedom that was thought impossible. One that only appears in the doing, but writing, or painting, or talking are forms of doing. Can be. When they’re not merely taken as excuses to pose.

      Catharsis is important, but what do we do with it? That’s where we can/might find something new.


      1. Yes, the juice flows –it’s downright enjoyable — when writing boils itself down to trying to “frame it differently.” Right, it’s not about how it makes us feel. That is already aiming for a goal (a new image), which takes us into content, and away from function. That’s already “moving away” (fight/flight) from movement itself.

        The enjoyment comes in finding the trap itself interesting – in writing about the movement away.
        It’s a wonderful paradox that Doing (reacting) is not in fact a trap at all. The trap is reacting to it as if it were a trap.

        The moment it’s perceived that frustration or hope is already a movement away, there is no problem to overcome. The link in the chain of cause/effect is only ever one link long. It’s the reaction to the reaction that smithies the single link in the non-existent chain.

        The paradox is that any movement away from the fact of reaction is not a problem. The moment it’s not a problem, there’s no movement away from moving away.

        Likewise, I think writing (which even at its best is a movement away) is not a problem to be “gotten around.” A piece of writing that confronts its own limitations is dissolving itself in a movement off the page. It’s this collision of word (action) with non-reaction (silence) that is indescribable.


  7. Are we disagreeing? That would be fine, but it seems to me we’re not. But I can’t quite tell how you’re reading this exchange. It seems almost as if you’re trying to say something you think I’m leaving out. And maybe so. Or maybe I haven’t yet made our common ground clearer. Because I see in what you’re writing a similar vector.


    1. This is a particularly trying form of engagement, comment and reply!

      I do agree.

      Looking for ways to express alignment with what I’m reading in your comments while bringing up a “yes, and.”

      Very much enjoying this exchange and it makes me want to have more of a conversation than this medium allows!


    2. The wonderful challenge of writing includes recognizing common ground from all these different vantage points. Good night.


  8. This is all quite interesting, but we should also bear in mind that Joyce declined Jung’s offer of analysis and this may color the good doctor’s view of the novel.
    Also, I don’t understand the comment about August 1, 1914. A portentous day certainly, but not Bloomsday, which is June 16, 1904.


    1. Thank you for the clarification. Or, shall I say the chance to clear up a poor construction.
      Did not intend to conflate the two. Perhaps this says it better: ” Bloomsday, August 1, 1914, between the two we stood at a tipping point…”

      On your other point, I know we all tend to project. Somehow I think Jung was probably pretty good at not letting something like that get in the way….


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