Topical Guide 7
Cynics, Cynicism; Sentimentalists, Sentimentalism
I once overheard someone—let’s call him Mister X—describe Peter, in Peter’s presence, as a “sentimental cynic.” Peter laughed. Mr. X then asked whether the sentimentalist or the cynic was doing the laughing. I didn’t catch the answer.
Here’s a dictionary definition of cynic:
1. a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.
2. (cap.) one of a sect of Greek philosophers, 4th century B.C., who advocated the doctrines that virtue is the only good, that the essence of virtue is self-control, and that surrender to any external influence is beneath human dignity.
3. a person who shows or expresses a bitterly or sneeringly cynical attitude.
[I’ve forgotten the source for this definition. I recorded it in an early notebook for the Topical Autobiography, at a time when I was less meticulous about citation than I am now.]
And here’s Nabokov on the hardhearted cruelty of some sentimentalists:
We must distinguish between “sentimental” and “sensitive.” A sentimentalist may be a perfect brute in his free time. A sensitive person is never a cruel person. Sentimental Rousseau, who could weep over a progressive idea, distributed his many natural children through various poorhouses and workhouses and never gave a hoot for them. A sentimental old maid may pamper her parrot and poison her niece. The sentimental politician may remember Mother’s Day and ruthlessly destroy a rival. Stalin loved babies. Lenin sobbed at the opera, especially at the Traviata. A whole century of authors praised the simple life of the poor, and so on. Remember that when we speak of sentimentalists, among them Richardson, Rousseau, Dostoevski, we mean the non-artistic exaggeration of familiar emotions meant to provoke automatically traditional compassion in the reader.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature
Speaking of provoking traditional compassion, consider this:
This recording of “Love Letters” was released in 1945. It would have been popular at the time that Peter’s recalling in “My Mother Takes a Tumble.” What makes me think that? Well, Peter tells us that he was still sleeping in a crib at the time he’s recalling, but he was standing in the crib at one point, so I think he would have been about ten months old, and that would make it late in the summer of 1945. The recording reached #11 on the Billboard chart, so it would have been played over the radio. I doubt that Dudley Beaker listened to popular music over the radio—wait—I’m wrong. Of course he would have. It would have been a way to bring himself closer to his audience, “to develop the trait that would make him so successful in this line of work: an uncanny knack for echoing, in Mary Strong’s replies to her many correspondents, the tone, style, and yearnings of each of the men who wrote to her.” Okay. Then he probably would have heard this song. Eliza Foote would have heard it, too, I think.
How would each of them have reacted to the idea of “love letters straight from the heart,” considering the letters they were writing?
Each would have laughed, I think.
Were they a couple of sentimental cynics?
If they were, who would have been laughing, the sentimentalists or the cynics?
The Topical Guide continues after Episode 8 of the Personal History.
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