Wilde said that sentimentality is the desire to have the luxury of emotion without paying for it.
When, as in my case, you have identified what you think is a social trend—the increasing sentimentality of public discourse, which brings with it disastrous practical consequences—you begin to see examples of it everywhere.
On Thursday of last week, for example, I happened to be reading an article in Le Monde while waiting for a plane at Charles de Gaulle airport. The article took up a whole page and was titled “Las Vegas Inferno.” “Inferno” was written in letters an inch tall.
I hold no particular brief for Las Vegas. I would like to see it, but only in the sense that I wanted to see North Korea (and did): One should experience all that one can of the world, and Las Vegas is surely unique.
The inferno of the article was that of the homeless of the city, 300-500 of whom live in the concrete-and-steel tunnels built in the 1970s as drains for the torrential rains that often afflict Nevada. The article says of the people who live in them that they are “the poorest of the poor, poverty-stricken rejects in the entrails of the gilded city.”
Poverty-stricken rejects in the entrails of the gilded city: The words suggest a terrible and cruel injustice done to them. But who, exactly, has rejected them, and thereby forced them into the entrails? This way of putting it inevitably turns them into victims of a cruel world.
Three cases are mentioned—those of Craig, David and Medina. Craig has lived in the tunnels for five years, and his belongings have been washed away three times in the past few months. His food is paid for with food stamps; he gathers money left behind in the one-armed bandits in the casinos above-ground to buy cannabis—”my only drug,” he says. No further details are offered as to why he resorted to living in the tunnels in the first place.
David, who has a long scar on his face that is ravaged by alcohol, came to Las Vegas attracted by “the eldorado of greenbacks and the promise of endless job opportunities.” Then, in the words of the article, he knew “that slow decline when gambling debts become insurmountable and drugs replace friends.”
On this view of things, the gambling debts and the drugs that replaced friends had an existence independent of his behavior. They had agency in his life, unlike him. The debts came and took his money away and the drugs arrived and forced him to take them, contrary to the wishes of his friends. David is therefore a victim, and nothing but a victim.
Medina, aged 36, is an Indian woman, and she has recently escaped the tunnels. Her beauty has been destroyed by “abuse and maltreatment.” She has five children, whom she hardly knows. I hope I shall not be accused of cultural insensitivity when I write that she must nevertheless have known where they came from.
It was her lover, Manny, “who first dragged me down there into the tunnels.” She thought at first that he was going to kill her, but she went nonetheless, and they stayed there a year. New building works in the tunnels rendered their situation untenable (though previously in the article we have learned that there are 300 kilometers of such tunnels to choose from) and “then I believed that I wanted to see my children again.”
What is startling about all this is that the author of the article evinces no curiosity about how the three came to be in the situation he describes. Why not? The questions to ask are so obvious that one must wonder why he did not ask them.
Part of the problem is that he sees Las Vegas as a manifestation of “the American Dream,” though actually it is a perversion of that dream, and he wants to demonstrate the badness or cruelty of that dream. No doubt the authentic dream—that of individuals endlessly free to reinvent and advance themselves—also has a dark side, as American literature records. But the tunnels under Las Vegas are not it.
The main reason that the author does not ask the obvious questions is that to have done so would have been to reduce the sentimental reaction that he wanted to evoke in his readers. And a little reflection shows that this reaction depended on a rather cruel premise: that if people are to any considerable extent the authors of their own misfortunes, we should exclude them from our pity. Instead, we turn them into the passive victims of circumstance.
Does it matter that we do this? I think that it does. Sentimentality allows us to congratulate ourselves on our own warmth and generosity of heart. Oscar Wilde said that sentimentality is the desire to have the luxury of emotion without paying for it. It turns the people on whom it is bestowed into objects. It attempts, often successfully, to disguise from them their own part in their downfall. It suggests solutions to problems that do not, because they cannot, work. Sentimentality is the ally of ever-expanding bureaucracy, for the more a solution doesn’t work, the more of it is needed.
Theodore Dalrymple is the pen name of Anthony Daniels. His latest book is “Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality” (Gibson Square, 2010).