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Subjectivity Overload

Dec 30 2013
The problem with sentimentality, porn, and emotion for emotion’s sake.

Among all the top and best-of lists, I noticed two lists in particular, celebrating publication covers: the first offered the worst Christian book covers of the year, and the second documented 60 years of Playboy covers.

It would seem that lists couldn't have less in common than these two. However, different as they are, both lists are partly rooted in a single problem: our culture's abandonment of objective beauty. We no longer distinguish between what Roger Scruton in his lovely book, Beauty, calls "aesthetic interest" and "mere effect." If beauty is entirely subjective, the only thing that measures its worth is "mere effect"—how it makes us feel.

Consequently, we have seen—as in these covers—the increasing acceptance of two art forms that produce divergent, but parallel effects: the sentimental and the obscene.

Catholic novelist and short story writer Flannery O'Connor offered a startling similarity between sentimentality and pornography. Sentimentalism is defined as an indulgence in emotion for emotion's sake, apart from the purpose of emotions. It is an indulgence like that offered by pornography. In her 1957 essay, "The Church and the Fiction Writer," published in the Jesuit journal, America, O'Connor explained the problem for the man (or woman) seeking either indulgence:

By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him.

He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment, usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence; and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite.

In our tendency to ignore the "slow participation" of our salvation in the flesh-and-blood sacrifice of Christ on the cross, O'Connor said, modern Christians too easily gloss over the pain of that sacrifice in order to arrive quickly at the pleasurable parts. We do this with sex and with emotions, in our art and in our lives. O'Connor explained:

Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. Pornography, on the other hand, is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purposes, disconnects it from its meaning in life and makes it simply an experience for its own sake.

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