Sentimental Man Expresses Himself

Oscar Wilde wrote that “a sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” Wilde’s century was rife with the luxury of unpaid-for emotion, which is the special indulgence of the comfortable class. Our own time, however, has elevated this romantic weakness for claiming unearned emotion to an artform — and then, as is typical in democracy, mass produced this luxury for the widest and cheapest possible consumption.

Ours is thus the age of ubiquitous violent expressions of extreme feeling in the name of nothing but “talking points,” or the right of infantile self-absorption, or the evocation of great passions that last three weeks, or those endless exhalations of correct attitude that we hope may almost begin to look sincere, if only we posture and effuse strongly enough to lose ourselves completely in the haze of the crowd’s approval. A billion people flood the ether every day with “their” feelings, which are merely everyone else’s feelings regurgitated without coherence or personal reflection, which is to say that they are no one’s feelings, but only the gaseous expulsions of non-souls, swishing through our atmosphere with only collective force, directed entirely by the currents of prefabricated language to which unindividuated “individuals” lend their vacuous voices in a desperate and self-defeating universal cry for significance.

Evidence of this collapse into generic sentiment is that thanks to our “social media” world, almost everyone today thinks he is a writer, and yet almost no one has any idea how to write. Consider that for the past five years, one of the most prolific and popular writers on social media was a man who held the distinction of being the most functionally illiterate man to serve as any kind of political leader since the age of savages. His stock in trade, of course, was literally trading in stock — stock phrases, stock exclamations, stock talk-radio-inspired rants, stock talking points, stock fearmongering, and of course the stock whining and foot-stomping of a childish sore loser. This is communication today: Saying what one is expected to say by one’s preferred audience; saying what that audience itself is saying, in the same words if possible; saying what they want to hear, so they will adopt you, love you, accept you, and protect you — in other words, sucking up to people by emulating their tone and posturing until they are flattered by your agreement with them, and agree to absorb you into their flow.

No literacy is required to achieve such goals. On the contrary, literacy is essentially undesirable in this context. For literacy, the ability to translate one’s pre-linguistic thoughts and feelings into communicable language, and to understand another’s attempts to do the same, demands that one first have “one’s own” thoughts and feelings, and a will to communicate them. But having one’s own thoughts is anathema to the goals of acceptance and immersion within the crowd, and therefore it is best to use language in a manner that is fundamentally incommunicative, in the sense that it should never distinguish one from others, but only ingratiate one to them. Social media, social communication, social empathy, social action, social consciousness — all these are various terms expressing the essence of sentimentality in the totalitarian age. “Social” has become nothing but another stock adjective, specifically a lexical mask for the sentimentalism of what we may call “group-feel,” since the old-fashioned term “group-think” is already too exalted a notion for the level of pseudo-discourse that dominates “social life” today.

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