This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Robertson Davies.

Sentimentality is a flaw in a work of art, certainly, but the word is often thrown at great and overpowering works of art that embarrass critics who live, emotionally, in St. Ogg’s, though intellectually they have journeyed south as far as Cambridge. The ending of The Mill on the Floss moves me to tears, though I am not an easy weeper. It is not the immediate pathos of the death of Maggie and Tom that thus affects me: it is rather that a genuine completion of human involvement has been attained, but attained only through Death. A happiness beyond mere delight has been experienced – a happiness as blasting and destroying as an encounter with the gods.

To my mind, this is anything but sentimental. People who prate of sentimentality are very often people who hate being made to feel, and who hate anything that cannot be intellectually manipulated. But the purgation through pity and terror which is said to be the effect of tragedy is not the only kind of purgation that art can bring. The tempest in the heart that great novels can evoke is rarely tragic in the strict sense, but it is an arousal of feelings of wonder at the strangeness of life, and desolation at the implacability of life, and dread of the capriciousness of life which for a few minutes overwhelms all our calculations and certainties and leaves us naked in a turmoil from which cleverness cannot save us. Sentimentality is sometimes used by critics as a term to rebuke artists who seeks to sound this terrifying note; if the artist fails, he is probably merely sentimental, but if he succeeds, the critic would be wise to slink back into his kennel and whimper till the storm passes.

–Robertson Davies

I’ve re-read this quotation hundreds of times, particularly when I was writing about Winston Churchill in Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. Churchill was often accused of being sentimental, and this passage helped me understand why I didn’t think he was sentimental.

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  • I think many critics are scared of feeling (they are often academics). When united with thought and form then feeling is certainly not sentimental.
    But it is easy to hide behind a label than look foolish. It is also easier to adopt a tone of light irony than make a commitment.
    When so much of art focuses on style then not being stylish (showing real feeling, making a mistaken judgement) becomes a sin. I think we live in a mannerist epoch in the arts at the moment (with it’s dilemma around meaning).
    Great art always has feeling that comes through its form. Anything else is just arid – it may please the (academic) critics but it doesn’t feed our souls.
    Thanks for a great post on a really important issue.

  • P.S. I love Robertson Davies’ novels.

  • Hi Gretchen, Great to see your still working on this.
    Keep going,
    Alison x