Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Pornography of Sentiment

Here's a post from a few months back that explains a bit more what Flannery O'Connor and I were talking about yesterday ...


The burning of the Theater Royal, Exeter, September 3, 1887.

The older I get the less I trust sentiment, the less I think sympathy is genuine.

We love having our feelings stirred up.  Much of religion is like this.  For many, religion is like a romance novel or like a Hallmark movie without the horses.  Prayer is only valid if you "feel" it; worship only worthy if it "moves" you.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with feeling or with being moved - but such things are supposed to indicate something deeper: faith, love, loyalty.  And often they don't.  Often we have feelings for feeling's sake.  Sentiment is supposed to be a means to an end, not an end itself.

And this popular habit of indulging in feeling for feeling's sake is a kind of pornography - we want the feeling without the obligation that the feeling implies, without the commitment that the sentiment indicates.  When feeling is divorced from consequence, when sympathy is felt without paying the price that sympathy demands - such is the pornography of sentiment.

Even certain friendships can be like this.  There can be lots of good times, apparent affinities of mind and soul, camaraderie - but then one friend betrays the other or walks away when the chips are down or finds someone more fun to hang out with when you become inconvenient.  Nobody likes Job when the sores break out, or Timon of Athens when he loses his fortune, or even Charlie Brown when he loses the big game (which is often).  Most of our acquaintances are fair weather friends, shipmates that abandon ship when the seas get rough.  And only such rough weather shows us who will stay and who will jump.

There is something in the Christian tradition that addresses this.  It's the notion of the purification by fire, of light and heat and suffering revealing the truth about who we are and burning through our false pretenses.

Every man's work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire; and the fire shall try every man's work, of what sort it is. (1 Cor. 3:13)

And if our works are revealed, our characters are revealed.  Our identities - sometimes our secret identities - shine through.  We are what we do, and that is revealed by fire.

For there is nothing hidden, except that it should be made known; neither was anything made secret, but that it should come to light. (Mark 4:22

This is true not only of God's mysteries, but of man's.  Every literary comedy is about masking and unmasking, and sometimes the pauper is revealed to be the king in disguise, while sometimes the emperor is revealed to be a naked strutting fool.  Sometimes a best friend is revealed to be a false friend, sometimes a Sam Gamgee is revealed to be a hero.

And in life, as in fiction, it is the adventure that tests us, the trial that tries us, the fire that unmasks us, showing our deeds and our true selves for what they really are.

For when all of time ends and the skies roll up like flimsy backdrops, the hidden love will survive it all.  The two-dimensional scenery and paper mache props of wealth, of showmanship, of falsely plighted trust, of mutual abuse masquerading as affection, of arrangements of convenience, of posturing, of grandstanding, of hypocrisy - all of that will burn to ash as the footlights give way to a stronger and a fiercer light, a light of burning fire, the light of love that overcomes our precious darkness.

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