I am too fond of the sentimental. Fortunately, I have developed a pretty effective defense. It’s not exactly a filter; in fact, it’s the opposite of a filter. Only the big things get through.
Pretty effective, but not totally.
For example, as a rule, I’m immune to tearjerkers, but every once in a while I lose it at the movies (pace Pauline Kael). My eyes watered once or twice while watching Almodovar’s Talk to Her, as they did at the closing scene of von Trier’s Melancholia. (And I felt like walking out of his first big movie, Breaking the Waves, whose blend of pretentiousness and exploitation was making me morally nauseous).
As a prepubescent, and well into adolescence, I wallowed shamelessly in manufactured sentimentality whenever I encountered it in books and movies. (Not on television, though. Television, which we watched in a little den – a card room, pre-TV – between the kitchen and the living room, never completely absorbed me. I remained attuned to what else was happening in the house.)
The aesthetic experience for me then consisted of bursts of feeling. My critical approach to art was quantitative. The more bursts of feeling – of any sort – the better the book or movie. Art was dramatic expression. I didn’t see anything else in it but that. It didn’t occur to me, for example, when I discovered Dostoevsky and began to binge-read the four big books, that Dostoevsky had ideas. I couldn’t ignore them when it came to The Possessed, but they just seemed to get in the way of the plot. My favorite book, although I would not have admitted it to anyone, was Winesburg, Ohio.
I had felt the anguish of unhappy endings before, but when, at fourteen, by chance I chose Victory as my first Conrad novel, I could tell right off that, unlike other unhappy endings I had had to deal with, nothing – no heroic sacrifice, no brave steadfastness, no lovers’ troth - was going to mitigate the awfulness of the one that was approaching.
Most dramas that lead up to a sentimental denouement make clear from the beginning exactly what is coming. Victory is no different. Triangulating three sensitively humanized archetypes and skillfully particularizing the archetypical relationships between them, Conrad telegraphs the precise sentimental structure of his tragedy. To protect myself from an unhappy ending that threatened to be unbearably painful, I began to read Victory rhetorically, instead of literally. Unable to deal with sad, doomed Axel Heyst as an imaginary character, I pulled back from identifying with him, and began to view him simply as an element of the story. When at last fate, failure and villainy cruelly finished off virtue, sincerity and innocence, I found myself moved, but without suffering distress. I felt I had accomplished something. It felt like a victory.
Music didn’t get to me then in the same way that books and movies did. Music was too abstract to resonate with my sentimentality, which depended on dramatic bathos. Even the sentimental words of sentimental songs – and 95% of the music I heard was sentimental songs – lost whatever sentimental power they might have had as prose or poetry by their role, as I saw it, as adjuncts to melody. And, compared to the dramatic heights to which books and movies took me, the feelings inspired by melody seemed insipid.
At Camp Mah-kee-nac, at the final campfire of the summer, after the toasted marshmallows, Uncle Don’s scary story, and a little speech by Uncle Joe, Mah-kee-nac’s owner, we would all sing Now is the Hour (“...when we must say goodbye”), the mournfulness with which it was rendered bemused me.
I liked Mah-kee-nac all right, just as sometimes I liked school, and unconditionally loved vacations at my grandfather’s farm or a Saturday afternoon’s sleigh riding down the hill behind Mrs. Reed’s house. Yes, I might feel sad when these things were over, but the despondency displayed by everyone – campers, counselors, the nurse, even Uncle Joe, and Aunt Fran from the office – as they intoned that lugubrious song at the final campfire struck me as histrionic, as phony as the whiney I-love-you’s of a zillion songs.
Then, at one farewell campfire during an especially funereal rendition of Now is the Hour, I glanced at Lenny Zamore, our cabin’s sly, potty-mouthed boor, who slept in the bunk next to mine and who one night had whispered to me the actual facts of life, the mechanics of sexual intercourse, which I immediately dismissed as just another of Zamore’s dirty-minded spiels. He was crying. I was dumbfounded.
It took an emotional blockbuster – César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, programmed by whoever at WKIP had landed the easy classical music hour slot that evening – to break through my resistance to the sentimental pleasures of music.
I was catholic in my lack of sensitivity to music and listened to all sorts on the radio when I couldn’t get a mystery or comedy or quiz show to come in clearly. I would listen to classical music sometimes but, unlike the other music I listened to, I had no clue as to what it was about. There were no words (intelligible words, anyway), and not even a catchy title (just “Symphony in This” or “Concerto for That”) to give a hint about what was on the composer’s mind.
I was able to distinguish the classical style from romantic and modern music (although I couldn’t have identified them as such). Music of the 18th century and earlier sounded like a sedate, tinkly version of the instrumental bluegrass (which I also would not have been able to identify) I heard on Grand Ole Opry late at night, when the local stations shut down and WWWV (“from Wheeling, West Virginia!” as the announcer never tired of proclaiming) found its way to my bedside radio.
The rest of classical music seemed to be exactly the same sort of music played in cowboy movies as the hero and his sidekick galloped across the prairie pursued by outlaws or a misguided posse, or as they snuck up on the cabin where the schoolmarm was being held hostage, or as a band of stoical equestrian redskins suddenly appeared, as if out of nowhere, on the crest of a high ridge. It was the same sort of music: composed by men schooled in the European classical tradition – of two minds, probably, about the strange fate that had landed them in Hollywood – who, to accompany the melodramas to which they had been assigned, drew on the most flagrant and grandiose elements of that tradition, like Franck’s Symphony in D Minor.
Today, I can laugh – jeer, really – at the way that Franck pulls out all the stops in his symphony (literally pulls out the stops, since the symphony features an organ), but it was just the thing to captivate and enrapture a tone-deaf (“tone” in its broadest sense) thirteen-year-old.
I was stunned, I was carried away, I was uplifted; I began to dance. I flung myself around my bedroom, as the bloated and sententious music flung itself from agony to exultation, leaping from one bed to another, assuming all the postures assumed by heroes of the screen – not just in their brave, triumphant and patriotic moments, but in their despairing, humiliated and lovelorn ones, as well.
After that, in the evenings, when everyone else was still downstairs, I would worry the dial looking for the right music, then dance to it, exhilarated, liberated.
Until one day my mother, casually, as if out of the blue, asked me if I ever thought of taking ballet lessons. A cold shard of shame penetrated my heart, my stomach, my groin. She had been peeping through my bedroom door. I had no doubt. She had done it before, when I was younger.
That was the end of my dancing.
It was probably about that time that my parents added to their concerns that I was not the normal boy they had imagined they would produce together, the worry that I might be a fairy.