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.”
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.