August 5, 2009
Superheroes and sentimentality
My Watchmen post below generated some interesting combox feedback, much of which I agree with. Thinking about the subject further, it occurs to me that there might be yet another factor at work in the phenomenon I described.
In The Aesthetics of Music, Roger Scruton (building on some ideas of Michael Tanner) puts forward a brief but illuminating account of sentimentality. A sentimental person, according to Scruton, tends to be quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, will appear to be pained but will enjoy his pangs, will respond with equal violence to a variety of stimuli in succession, will nevertheless avoid following his emotional responses up with appropriate actions, and will respond more readily to strangers and to abstract issues than to persons known to him or to concrete circumstances requiring time, energy, or personal sacrifice. In short, a sentimental person is one whose emotional life becomes an end in itself and loses its connection both to the external circumstances that would normally shape it and to the behavior that it ought to generate. Feelings of moral outrage, romantic passion, and other emotional states become valued for their own sake to such an extent that the actual moral facts, the well-being of the beloved, etc. fade into the background. Sentimentality thus involves having one’s emotions “on the cheap” – enjoying them, as it were, without paying the costs they entail. For that reason, Scruton says, it is a vice.