In Defense of Saccharin(e)
“Human speech is like a cracked pot on which we beat out rhythms for bears to dance to while we are striving to make music that will wring tears from the stars.”
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Saccharine is our sweetest word for fear: the fear of too much sentiment, too much taste. When we hear saccharin, we think of cancer: too many cells bubbling forth into the body. When we hear saccharine, we think of language that has shamed us, netted our hearts in trite articulations: words repeated too many times for cheap effect, recycled ad nauseam. Ad nauseam: We are glutted with sweet to the point of sickness.
Some Ideas About the Thing:
1. I have an entire trashcan in my kitchen full of empty artificial sweetener packets.
2. I used to like Sweet’N Low, but now I use Equal.
3. The trashcan is small.
4. It’s not that small.
5. I keep it next to the stove, out of sight from visitors.
6. If “sentimentality” is the word people use to insult emotion—in its simplified, degraded, and indulgent forms—then “saccharine” is the word they use to insult sentimentality.
7. Scientists fed their lab rats loads of saccharin before they started getting bladder tumors. They were taking the human equivalent of hundreds of sodas per day. Hundreds!
8. My roommate took a photograph of me the night before a physics final during my sophomore year of college. In this photo, I am lying on my bed. She has piled empty cans and bottles all over my body to show how much soda I’d consumed that day.
9. You can only see my face and hands. Everything else is covered.
The Thing Itself:
is just a powder, so light that a little bit dusts my counter each time I rip open another packet.
When I was young, I lived in a house whose walls were windows. During the long days of summer, I sat on our deck and watched jaybirds fly into the glass, knock themselves out, drop stone-like to the redwood planks below. Mostly they were trying to get inside but sometimes—and this was the worst, the most painful to watch—they had gotten trapped and were trying to get out again. I told my mother that the birds mistook our windows for the surface of the sky and she took my hand, showed me a bush growing near our front door, and said the birds got drunk on its berries, which were orange like rust stains and full of sugar. She said the birds couldn’t stop eating them. That’s why they kept on crashing.
I didn’t know about fermentation back then but I did know about sweetness, its shameful thrall. I knew things about those birds, even as a child: The glass sky was flatter than they imagined, and through it they could see a world it wouldn’t let them reach.
[I’ve been sweetening things for my entire life. Somewhere along the way, I simply learned to loathe my need to sweeten them.]
I want to talk about the time when I was eight and my parents gave me some wine at a dinner party, and it was $200 wine but I didn’t know that, and I snuck into the kitchen and dumped in a spoonful of sugar to make it taste better. When my brother found me doing this, I felt ashamed but could not think of how to defend myself, or why I would need to.
I want to talk about the moment in Madame Bovary when we first meet Félicité the maid. She is always blushing or running off to meet some boy or scuttling towards some new abuse at the hands of her self-involved mistress. Before we learn any of the sources of her pain, we learn her single consolation: “Since Madame always left the key in the sideboard, Félicité took a small supply of sugar every night and ate it when she was all alone in her bed, after she had said her prayers.”
I want to talk about why sugar might come after prayer—why it might offer some salve closer to the heart—and I want to discuss the unspeakable sadness of two women living in the same house, both hungry to import small increments of pleasure, both doing this in secret because they are ashamed to admit their various hungers.
I want to talk about what I would steal from Emma’s sideboard, the indulgences I tuck away from others’ sight. I want to talk about the shame of bending over my lattes so that nobody will see how many packets of aspartame I’m dumping into them.
I want to talk about what makes books feel emotional, too saturated with feeling or not saturated enough. I want to talk about what makes their language sweet—what makes me want to read their sentences out loud, taste their cadences on my tongue.
What does any of this have to do with the fact that I hated Madame Bovary when I was 16, and its heroine too? I thought they were too emotional, too overt with their passions. But I love it now. And that? What does that mean?
How and when did Félicité’s sugar become my sweetener? Why do I think that sweeteners are related to literary sentimentality at all, that they offer a better metaphor than sugar itself? I think it has something to do with their intensity and their artificiality, the fact that we are intrigued and repelled by these qualities at once.
This is not to say that sweetener is the same as sentiment—or even a perfect symbol for it—but simply to suggest that a similar fear is operative in different spheres of taste. Entire echelons of the elite coalesce around their opposition to certain notions of shallowness, and these resonant notions of shallowness, in turn, find resonant names in the realms of the literary and the oral. Our gut reacts towards and against. We cast around for a vocabulary to contain excess, to name and accuse and banish it: too much sentiment, unmediated by nuance; too much sweet, undisciplined by restraint. We are greedy for unmitigated and uncomplicated sensation, but we hate ourselves for this greed.
In my turn, I’m full of anger at this hatred. We dispatch entire works, entire genres in the clean guillotine strokes of these words: saccharine, syrupy, sentimental. It’s as if sentimentality is something we don’t need to define. We only need to hate it, shield ourselves from it, articulate ourselves against it—thus asserting that we are arbiters of artistry and subtlety, an elite so sensitive we don’t need the same forceful quantities of feeling. We will subsist more delicately, we say. We will subsist on less.
In this, we make sure we’re not mistaken for the rest of the world, whose sensibilities are too easily moved by crude surfaces of feeling or meaning. We don’t examine the contours of sentimentality, we simply eschew them. We don’t worry about the fine line between melodrama and pathos, we simply assert that we’re camped on the proper side of the divide.
Some Essays Against Sentimentality:
“Notes On Camp,” by Susan Sontag (1964)
“Sentimentality,” by Michael Tanner (1977)
“Brutality and Sentimentality,” by Mary Midgley (1979)
“Sentimentality,” by Anthony Savile (1982)
“What is Wrong With Sentimentality?” by Mark Jefferson (1983)
“Guilty Pleasures: Aesthetic Meta-Response and Fiction,” by Sally Markowitz (1992)
Mark Jefferson assumes that we need to guard ourselves against sentimentality. His questions—posed lucidly, addressed with intelligence—are simply Why? and How?
“Of course,” he says, “we know that it is expressive of (or in itself) an ethical or aesthetic defect; but we don’t know...why it is that certain emotion types are more likely hosts for it than others.” He says “hosts” as if we are talking about a parasite, a worm coiled in our stomachs and waiting, perpetually hungry, for whatever kind of melodrama we find to feed it. I have recurring dreams about parasites, alien creatures that hatch from eggs beneath my skin, and I imagine Jefferson showing up inside the dreams, shying away as I explain my condition: “I’ve got a bad case of the sentimentals.”
Before Jefferson, Tanner also spoke about sentimentality in contagious language. He called it a “disease of the feelings,” as if we could find its ungainly tumors of excess inside of us, metastasizing like cells inside a lab rat’s bladder. Sontag talks about sentimentality like internal machinery: “You can’t imagine how tiring it is. That double-membraned organ of nostalgia, pumping the tears in. Pumping them out.”
I’m not the first crusader on sentimentality’s behalf. Before I’d even learned how much some people despised it, others had already defended it with eloquence and passion.
Robert Solomon’s recent volume, In Defense of Sentimentality, takes up the train begun by David Hume’s philosophy of moral sentiment and carried by most of the 19th century, by Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, by Charles Dickens’s tales of innocent orphans and ghostly holiday pageants. More recently, in a 1979 op-ed also called “In Defense of Sentimentality,” John Irving examines the legacy of A Christmas Carol, stressing the importance of what he calls “Christmas risks:” earnest attempts to say something that matters, something human, without cloaking its pathos in cleverness or wit.
Solomon is helpfully lucid in teasing out the differences between various critiques of sentimentality—often lumped into a single campaign. Is the problem of sentimentality primarily ethical or aesthetic? Solomon cites the oft-referenced example of Nazi commander Rudolf Hoess, who wept at an opera staged by Holocaust prisoners. This kind of “sentimentality” is clearly troubling, but the issue at hand (presumably) isn’t the artistic caliber of the operatic production; it’s the fact that Hoess was having any kind of aesthetic reaction while ignoring actual suffering so close at hand.
While its moral critics tend to attack sentimentality because it accords an undue agency to emotions—distracting us from “reason” and tenable ethics—its aesthetic opponents attack sentimentality from the opposite direction, claiming it does our emotions a disservice by flattening them into dual oblivions of hyperbole and simplicity.
Wallace Stevens called sentimentality a “failure of feeling,” but his syntax is ambiguous: Does he mean that we’ve failed our feelings or that they’ve failed us?
This ambiguity seems to circle back to Solomon’s distinction—is the idea that “feelings” are not enough, that they will fail us if we rely on them too exclusively (for ethical decisions) or milk their excessive impact (for aesthetic value)? Or is the idea that our language is often not enough for “feelings” themselves, that sentimentality forces them into artificial vessels or cheap bulk-good volumes?
If these are the charges implicitly being leveled each time somebody uses the word “sentimentality” as a derogatory shortcut, then it seems they need to be specified: At what volume does feeling become sentimental? How obliquely does feeling need to be rendered to be saved from itself?
If we attack sentimentality for supplanting emotional complication with fictions of emotive simplicity—and part of this critique is grounded in a sense of the “artificiality” or the “shallowness” of these fictions—it seems we need to ask ourselves: Aren’t we sometimes shallow creatures? Isn’t our truth sometimes shallower than we’d like to admit? When and how does artificiality signal trouble? Isn’t artificiality the premise of literature anyway?
In Stevens’s “The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade,” a group of guerilla soldiers stand “flat-ribbed and big-bagged” in the glare of day. Their captains tell them not to sing in the sun, but they imagine anyway: “a song of the serpent-kin,/Necks among the thousand leaves,/Tongues around the fruit.” The poem is about art in the midst of conflict, the value of trivial aesthetics amidst wreckage, the taste of something simple and sweet asserting itself into history. First the orangeade, then the rebellion. First the bad singing, then the good fight. And what if the flavor of orange is mimicry? What if the words of the song aren’t true? The poem dares to make a case for the refuge of artificiality, its ability to lead us back to the actual: “There is no pith in music/Except in something false.”
A memory: I am drinking a shot of Johnny Walker Red in a bar three blocks off Bourbon Street. I’m drinking this shot because I’d like to become some different version of myself. This desire is directed towards the poet I’ve recently fallen in love with, who is drinking the same kind of whiskey that I am. He shares its initials, JWR, and jokes about what this means for his destiny. When he isn’t making jokes, he’s talking about the role of the epic in our time. He talks about wanting poetry to tackle the grand sweep of human events. He also sometimes talks about living in purgatory, inside the curse of his life. He tells me he used to know a serial killer.
“I mean,” he says, “it’s not like I knew him that well.”
You have to understand a few things about my relationship with John. He was darkness and I was light. I was innocence and he was experience (he was big-time into Blake). I wrote fiction and he wrote poetry. I lived in what he called “the real world” and he didn’t, quite. I was young, younger than I’d told him. He wasn’t exactly old, but he was just coming out of a three-year relationship with a girl who’d gotten cervical cancer that he hadn’t been able to cure. This added years. The girl was also vaguely superhuman, or so he claimed, and mentally ill. She made him feel a kind of “total emotion” he hadn’t felt since. She’d once channeled the spirit of James Merrill outside a donut shop in rural Wyoming. She was lots of things I’d never be.
So this serial killer worked the after-party hours at a pizza place near John’s college. He was a big guy, a real whiz with the rolling slicer, and a friendly face to all. He kept working his shift right up until they found a body on his property, and then another, and then a third.
“It’s just strange to know you were that close to total evil,” John says.
I think about that for a moment: John’s pride at brushing against darkness, my pride at having sex with a man who’d brushed against darkness like that.
Then I think about this: How I’d like a different drink than what I’m drinking. I am one of the revolutionists, thirsty for orangeade by the side of the road.
I decide to confess: “I want to drink something slushy from a huge plastic...”
I pause. I want to say “sippy-cup,” but that isn’t right. That’s what toddlers drink from.
Everybody knows the things they drink from on Bourbon Street, bright plastic mugs full of frozen daiquiris that taste like they’re trying to trump the flavors God intended. My sister calls these artificial fruit flavors, “Obsequious Watermelon,” “Obsequious Apple,” “Obsequious Banana.”
Obsequious seems right: Attempting to win favor by flattery. Isn’t this the problem of saccharine literature? That it strokes the ego of our sentimental selves? That we’re flattered when something illuminates our capacity to feel? That this satisfaction replaces genuine emotional response? I turn to John, rephrase my desire in simpler terms: “I want to drink something sweet.”
This is okay to admit because I’m a woman, and we’ve learned to accept the links between “sweet” and “female” and “drunk.” “Girly drinks,” we call them, which can be a term of endearment or disdain. But right now I’m talking about really girly drinks, big monster cups with purple straws that my poet would be ashamed to hold between his beautiful pale hands. These drinks are called Twisters and Hurricanes. They exist before Katrina but not before irony, so we will know how to make the right kind of jokes about their prescient names once the dams break and the city floods.
It matters to me that New Orleans no longer exists as it once did, when I shared it with a man who no longer exists to me as he used to. Perhaps this is nothing more than the simple pleasure of the pathetic fallacy: the loss of love writ large, demanding the submersion of an entire city. But why is it that my memories offer me back to myself in my most trivial moments? Why do I hunger for significant barometers but find myself tethered to banality instead?
I remember demanding a Hurricane and feeling ashamed to want one. I remember talking about drinks rather than serial killers. I remember secretly dismissing phrases like “total evil” and “grand sweep of human events” and “total emotion,” because I felt they were too large and vague to do much good. But I was also afraid of those phrases. I remember that too.
In a reconstructed laboratory somewhere in downtown Baltimore, two mannequins are having an argument: “It makes my blood boil to see the lies of that scoundrel Fahlberg!” one says, then interrupts his own recorded self: “Pardon my outburst. I am Dr. Ira Remsen.”
The stiff-limbed figure of Constantine Fahlberg defends himself quickly, a taped voice clogged with heavy Russian inflections: “He didn’t have anything to do with the manufacturing process!” He jerks his arm a bit, to show genuine emotion.
These automatons are fighting about Sweet’N Low, its crude test-tube ancestor. It’s lovely, really, that their feelings have been rendered with such robotic strokes, imitating the discovery of an imitation: saccharin (nee cameorthobezoyl sulfamide). Their conflict is not the first of its kind: they both discovered the thing, or think they did. It happened in Remsen’s lab, but it was Fahlberg’s sleuth work. Remsen took the credit for the paper. Fahlberg took the profits on the patent. But who cares about all that, really? I care about the sly and dirty birth itself, the myth of saccharin’s broken-ruled origins. It happened like this:
One day Fahlberg was working with coal tar and got some chemicals on his sleeve. That night, his bread tasted sweeter than usual and he got curious. He went back to the lab and started tasting residues on white coats, sampling chemicals straight from their tubes. These were unsafe lab practices, made possible by unsanitary conditions. But he managed to discover a kind of sugar the body refused to metabolize. At last, we would be able to taste something without finding its residue lodged in the girth of ourselves.
This is part of what we react against in sweeteners, I think, the fact that we can taste without consequences—indulge without paying the price in calories or weight. Our capitalist ethos loves a certain kind of legibility—insisting we can read sloth and discipline tallied in bank accounts and inscribed across the body itself—and artificial sweeteners threaten this. They offer a way to cheat the arithmetic of indulgence and bodily consequence, just like sentimentality offers feeling without the price of complication. Oscar Wilde summed up this indignance: “A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” This speaks to a privileging of the Horatio Alger ethos within our aesthetic economies: you need to earn your reactions to literature, not simply have easy sentiment handed out like food stamps across the boundaries of the text.
How do we earn? By parsing figurative opacity, close reading metaphor, tracking nuances of character, disseminating real world repercussions.
We are disgusted when anything comes too easily. But also greedy. We want to have our cake without eating it too. Many women describe heaven as a place where food doesn’t have calories. And now we’ve done it here on Earth: liberated our bodies from the sins of our mouths.
Some Important Dates in the History of Our Great White Hope:
1879—In Remsen’s Baltimore lab, Constantine Fahlberg forgets to wash his hands and discovers saccharin.
1937—Michael Sveda tastes something sweet on the end of his cigarette at the University of Illinois. Enter cyclamate.
1965—James Schlatter licks some amino acids off his fingertips. Bingo! Aspartame!
1976—An assistant researcher at the Tate & Lyle sugar company misunderstands instructions and stumbles into sucralose.
The scientists behind our major artificial sweeteners compose a motley crew of dilettantes, a catalogue of Ways-To-Fuck-Up-In-The-Lab. They aren’t the Alexander Flemings of our scientific mythologies, our accidental heroes. They aren’t the guys we’re proud of.
Apparently, Michael Sveda put down his cigarette in the lab (His what? Seriously?) and when he picked it up again it was sweet with cyclamate. Fahlberg couldn’t keep his lab jacket clean, and so we’ve got Sweet’N Low. Across an ocean several decades later, Shashikant Phadnis was told to test some chlorinated sugar compounds. His English was pretty rough around the edges and so he tasted them instead of testing them. His broken language gave us sucralose, a fine white crystal that lay sweet along the edges of a tongue that could not speak our words.
I often find myself retreating from words into something sweet. So many times during the course of this essay I have risen from my computer to dump six small blue packets of Equal into a fresh cup of tea. The residue of their powder makes a fine silt over my counters. I am like Fahlberg, always tasting sweet where I don’t expect to find it: on my wine glasses and my vegetable knives, the edges of my ballpoint pens.
I sometimes wonder how my descendants would make sense of the relics of my existence a thousand years from now. What would they think of my small trashcan full of small blue packets? Would they wonder why nobody else had one? Why do I assume that no one else does?
Donald Barthelme’s “Wrack” is about a man who disavows everything he owns: a dressing gown, a woman’s shoe, a single slice of salami sandwiched by two fat mattresses. “You mean to say that you think I would own a bon-bon dish?” he asks an undisclosed appraiser. “A sterling silver or whatever it is bon-bon dish? You’re mad.”
One item that he doesn’t immediately disavow is this: a giant sack of saccharin.
I was delighted to read this. Finally! A more surprising reaction to the fact of sweeteners.
If anyone was going to be defending artificiality from its most dubious corners, it would be Barthelme himself. But his defense is abandoned almost immediately: the man explains his sack by way of a “condition” that forbids the intake of sugar. Indeed, who ever heard of getting on a diabetic’s case about their Sweet’N Low? The man continues to back away from the specter of the sweet sack: “I just remember, I put sugar in my coffee, at breakfast...it was definitely sugar. Granulated. So the sack of saccharin is definitely not mine.”
If I could choose one item from my entire apartment, what would I disown? It might be my Equal trashcan, which might mean that its pile of empty packets is my most honest expression of self.
Saccharin manages to function as a pretty ubiquitous locus of disavowal. A New Yorker “Talk of the Town” from 1937 describes a woman who finds a tiny platinum box at Saks but can’t figure out its purpose. The piece reports the following exchange:
“‘That?’ the [sales]girl said. ‘Why, that’s used for saccharin. Or for birdseed.’ She thought for a moment or so, seemingly a little startled by her own explanation, then repeated, more firmly, ‘Or for birdseed.’”
There’s a message here, right? It’s okay to feed the birds but not to glut ourselves, at least on something so tacky. One imagines the box as a secret tool of indulgence: a kind of culinary vessel for “slumming it” or else the deliciously clandestine machinery of classier mischief, some high society debutante sniffing Sweet’N Low like bumps of coke. What is written by these other lines of clean white powder? The shamefully legible notes of our least complicated desires?
John and I relocate to Bourbon Street, where we drink bright pink shots from test tubes as middle-aged revelers dance through our peripheral vision. I pull out some praline I bought that afternoon while he walked along the river alone. He needed a break from me, he said, but not unkindly. I know I am tiring: Always buying candy, speaking too abstractly.
We have ongoing arguments about the expression of sentiment. These arguments are ostensibly aesthetic but really they are personal, the same old fights that couples who don’t write poetry or fiction have every single day, yelling across their molded aspic salads, beneath angelic painted cottages: You say too much about your feelings. You don’t say enough. When you speak, it’s in the wrong language.
One time when I was sulking, John told me: “Being with you is like trying to charm a cobra with a stethoscope.”
I probably squinted at him. I have a habit of squinting when I get confused but I’m pretty sure it’s the other person’s fault.
This is what he meant: That my moods were not hard to see but they were hard to read, and even harder to diagnose; that my opacity demanded he dangle his stethoscope like a snake charmer; that I was a complex creature and so was he; that he became even more complex in his attempt to bridge the gap between our complexities; that he could create a complicated image to house this complex of complications. This is how writers fall in love: They feel complicated together and then they talk about it.
Figurative language often functions as an avenue into the saccharine, drawing from its familiar grab bag of tearjerker props (“voice like honey,” “porcelain skin,” “waterfall of tears”), but it can also offer an escape hatch out of the predictability of sentiment. Metaphors are tiny saviors leading the way out of sentimentality towards fresh territories of expression, small disciples of Pound, urging “Say it new! Say it new!” It’s hard for emotion to feel flat if its language is suitably novel, to feel excessive if its rendering is suitably opaque. Metaphors translate emotion into surprising and sublime language, but they also help us deflect and diffuse the glare of revelation. Stevens describes this shyness: “The motive for metaphor, shrinking from/The weight of primary noon,/The ABC of being.”
John was afraid to speak in simple language—the ABC of being—so he spoke about cobras instead, insisted that the vocabulary of our relationship bear new fruit at every level. This was not cowardice exactly, but rather a distaste for the bald and unexciting phraseology of relationships: The kind of thing that anyone might say to his girlfriend, rather than the particular thing that John could say to me.
What do we flee when we retreat into metaphor? What scares us about the “primary noon” of our existence? Milan Kundera claims that “kitsch moves us to tears for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel,” and I think our fixation with complication and opaque figuration has something to do with an abiding sense of this banality, creeping constantly around the edges of our lives and language. Perhaps if we say it straight, we suspect, if we express our sentiments too excessively or too directly, we’ll find that we are nothing but banal.
There are several fears inscribed in this: The fear of interior simplicity, the fear of melodramatic actuality, and—perhaps most deeply felt—the fear of commonality: That our feelings will resemble everyone else’s. This is why we want to dismiss sentimentality, to assert that our emotional responses are more sophisticated than “other people’s,” that our aesthetic sensibilities testify—iceberg style—to an entire landscape of interior depth.
There is another kind of landscape familiar to all of us, a landscape we love to ridicule—full of cozy country cottages and gardens strewn with wild roses, where star-sparkling rivers run beneath sturdy brick watermills, backlit and glowing like angels. If ever sentimentality had a homeland, it would be this: The world of Thomas Kinkade: Painter of Light.
The institution of this man’s aesthetic has become synonymous with the syrupy tropes of unimaginative fantasy. People enjoy his mass-produced paintings because they like to buy into the cheap thrill of an easy fetish: bucolic bliss, pastoral peace of mind. We picture his paintings hanging in hotels, hung in suburban living rooms like demolition notices: All taste has died here.
But the institution of Those Who Loathe Kinkade has become almost as ubiquitous as the institution of Kinkade himself. When we mock his moonlit woods—and the people who have tucked their fantasies into these clearings—how are we constructing ourselves? We don’t want perfect worlds. We’re too sophisticated for tranquility. We’d rather live in something chaotic and obscure, pitch our tents amidst the wet-paint constellations of a Pollock or the dripping topographies of Dali.
What rarely gets discussed with Kinkade is the issue of class, the fact that the people who mock his country cottages are the people who already have country cottages of their own. Let’s face it: Somebody who mocks a Kinkade painting is far more likely to have certain things—education, disposable income, a summer home—than somebody who buys it. From inside his cottages, we can hear the lilting voice of the meanest bully on the American aesthetic playground: “You can dream about this cottage, but you’ll never live here! You can call this cottage beautiful, but I’ll mock you for saying so!”
This voice is a familiar one. We’ve already seen it through the pages of this essay. It scoffs at any woman who keeps a Saks box full of saccharin. It scoffs at the faceless masses of lower-class America while they pump diet soda into their veins and embark on their futile aspartame-fueled forays into weight loss. Oh sure, plenty of rich people use artificial sweeteners, but their place in the cultural imagination is still tinged by a sense of superiority: We look down at people binging on artificial junk, people who can’t control their monotonous appetites.
Even the iconography of artificial sweeteners speaks to some sense of the public as an easy sell. Indeed, most advertising operates on a similar set of presumptions, but there’s something about the almost supernatural nature of sweeteners—“They make us taste! But they don’t exist inside us!”—that makes their marketing particularly important. When they released NutraSweet, G.D. Searle & Co. knew that they needed an icon to assert singularity and familiarity at once. They were thinking basic shapes, vague connotations, comfort colors. In a way, they were looking for the opposite of Stevens’s motivated metaphor; they wanted a symbol that could descend into the belly of the “primary,” eschew complication and mystery in favor of assurance.
Searle hired two people who hadn’t—by their own report—tasted sugar in a decade. They were wary of choosing an image that was too sugary, too obviously rummaged from that old grab bag of tropes. The New Yorker quotes one of them on this dilemma:
“We’d have a meeting with the agency people, and someone would say, ‘What about hearts? Hearts are friendly. Hearts are sweet’...They were talking about things that would have been absolutely saccharine.”
Even here, at its birthplace, saccharin(e) is still at the bottom of the heap.
The company eventually settled on a red and white swirl so strongly reminiscent of peppermint it seems unabashedly resigned to symbolic mimicry. As if saying: Yes! We know! We’re nothing but sugar on steroids! We’re simply mocking actuality! Beneath its public face, this cheery swirl seems like little more than a flag of surrender.
The internet is full of saccharin-savvy doomsday prophets. They’ve got the dirt on cancer and FDA cover-ups. Their tone is ruthlessly dull. Their counterparts are scarcer, fighting the dubious fight on sweeteners’ behalf, but their tone is infinitely more entertaining. Saccharin nut and blogger Katie Kinker has this to say about our modern world:
“Without artificial sweeteners, what would life be like today? Would their [sic] be tastey [sic] diet drinks, fruit juice drinks, chewing gum etc.? There wouldn’t be any pink or blue packets to dump into your iced tea. Things would be bland, and honestly, it is hard to imagine a society without artificial sweeteners. They are everywhere! Thank goodness for serendipity!”
Her voice seems born of an elite fantasy, as if she’s striving to be the perfect apotheosis of a lower-class “other.” She’s got a fearsome sweet tooth, but she can’t spell for shit. If she ever found a tiny platinum box, she’d be tacky enough to load it up with Sweet’N Low. She probably reads Harlequin romance novels and cries at movies about dogs rescuing their injured owners. There is a nasty subtext linking these presumptions: She’s got an underdeveloped palate, an overdeveloped appetite, and an oversized heart.
I am trying to remember when and how I first learned that sentimentality was what we—we authors, we intricate souls—should be running away from. Our collective fear takes root in the oldest myths. Even the end of the world starts with a saccharine text. Witness the Book of Revelation, where John is warned of an apocalyptic book. He is told: “It will be as sweet as honey in your mouth.” He is told: “It will make your stomach bitter.”
I think my own fear traces back to the Harvard Advocate, a literary magazine where I spent countless nights smoking cigarettes in a wood-paneled sanctum and bantering with other smokers about the clichés we found amidst the wreckage of our generally trite submissions.
Last night, I sat at my computer and searched the internet for the Advocate’s most vehement dismissals of shameless sentiment. I typed “Harvard Advocate + melodrama,” thinking I would find some collection of scathing reviews, accusations steeped in irony and leveled against art that dared to feel too overtly or unabashedly.
In the end, I found only one entry.
It was something I’d written two years prior: A story where I’m clearly afraid to assert anything about human emotion. Everything is couched in hesitant speculations: “She imagined him as an executioner during childhood, probably only of bugs, possibly a few small or particularly deserving mammals. She guessed that he still lay awake some nights, haunted by the memory of these acts. He would never say haunted, though, she was sure of that. He seemed like the type to find that kind of melodrama unseemly.”
A year after writing this story, I packed off for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I had a set of pretty vague ideas about what I wanted to be writing. I knew I didn’t want to write anything sentimental. I wanted to write things that were smart and funny and ruthless, but I hadn’t found the stories I wanted to tell. My primary rudder was a morbid fear of anything too tender, too “touchy-feely.” So I created characters who hated themselves and disavowed pretty much everything around them. One of the first stories I wrote at the Workshop was about a girl named Sophie, whom I’d bequeathed with abysmal self-esteem and a slew of circumstances to justify it.
In response to my piece, one guy wrote: “I know someone’s going to want to kick me in the balls for saying this, but there are times when it seems like the author is just lining up Sophie’s misfortunes: She has a facial deformity that has crippled her self-esteem, she is sexually assaulted, guys don’t like her, she may have an eating disorder, and she’s a transfer student. Does anything ever go right for Sophie?”
It was a fair point. Sophie hated herself because I hated her too, and hated myself for making her hate herself so much. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Another man’s critique began like this: “I should start by saying that I did not find any of the characters likable at all...I had to follow characters I had trouble caring about while they did things I had trouble believing they cared about.” It was true: I’d been wary of giving Sophie much agency at all. I knew the events of her story hovered at the brink of melodrama, and feared that if I let her do anything, she might fling herself over the edge. So I wrote her tragi-pathetic tale in language described as a “passive voice epidemic.”
My fear of too much emotion—and my secondary fear of this fear—had joined forces to yield an utterly embittered hybrid. I had somehow managed to weave the failures of sentimentality and anti-sentimentality into a single story, summoned an exaggerated string of tragedies, and used them to make sure everybody felt nothing.
There is a common sense that simply making people feel something can become a cheap trick, and another sense that making people feel something is the noblest purpose of literature itself. These ideas are not particularly hard to reconcile, at least on their surface. It simply becomes a question of mechanism—if the tropes are too easy, the narrative too predictably mannered, the sentiments exaggerated for the sake of emotional manipulation, the language cloying rather than fresh—these make the eliciting of emotion into something cheap and ultimately (at least aesthetically) worthless. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera observes: “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass.”
This is truly the “obsequious watermelon” of child-sized pastorals—an image offering itself too effusively, charming us into submission by coaxing out the vision of ourselves we’d most like to see. Our tears become trophies and emblems of our compassion.
But doesn’t anti-sentimentality simply offer an inversion of the same kind of emotional indulgence? We dismiss “sentimentality” to sharpen a sense of ourselves as True Feelers, arbiters of complication and actual emotion, and it’s the smug satisfaction of this dismissal that really gets us off. It’s a kind of masturbatory double-negative.
Even if there’s nothing aesthetically redeemable in the eliciting of this prepackaged double-tiered (double-teared?) response, might it have some other value? How do we reckon with the fact that formulaic self-help books bring consolation to millions of readers? How do we account for the pleasure people take in trashy romances? Are these functions of entertainment and consolation entirely divorced from our conceptions of aesthetic value?
I am convinced that we cannot disentangle them. In both cases, we’re talking about people using text to imagine themselves across the distances of separate lives. We’re talking about universality of feeling—how this makes us newly aware of ourselves in contact with a world beyond our own. It’s a fact that bad writing and easy clichés still manage to make us feel things towards each other. Part of me is disgusted by this. Part of me celebrates it.
This is the same part of me that listens to woeful songs on repeat—often for hours at a time—but will never admit this to anyone, because I’m afraid it will make my consciousness seem too monotonous, my sense of sorrow too single-surfaced. I once spent an hour and a half listening to Buffy Sainte-Marie on repeat: “For better your pain, than because of codeine...An’ it’s real, an’ it’s real, one more time.” I sat there smoking and thinking: Why am I like this? So content to hear the same notes of sadness, so many times in a row? Why does this make me feel something when all the other words I know—all the wise friends in my life and authors on my shelf—seem too profound to make me feel anything at all? Or perhaps it’s just more work to feel things their way, to translate myself into their difficult languages.
Now picture this: John and I are running through the cobblestone alleys of the French Quarter, paint peeling off the buildings around us to show the pastel snake skins of walls beneath. I’m riding piggyback. We are both screaming a lot, because we are alive and in New Orleans and incredibly drunk and also—though we wear this knowledge lightly—in love with the person we’re riding (in my case) or the person who’s riding us (in his). We might have argued about how to get drunk, but now there’s nothing left to dispute. This is sweet. It asks no questions of us. We ask no questions in reply.
After breaking my heart, a poet (another poet!) wrote these words: “We drank coffee with so much cream we tasted only cream.” When I read them, I wondered if that had been our downfall. Maybe it has always been my downfall: Too much cream. Too much sweetener in my coffee.
Perhaps I let myself believe too easily or fully in the surface of joy without attending to the complications of its underbelly. Perhaps this is why I tend to break up with men just before we’ve spent a year together. Perhaps I have committed myself too absolutely to honeymoons to reckon with their aftermath. I have never been “sweetie” or “honey” to anyone. Whenever some boyfriend called me “sweet,” it made me nervous: Was I nothing more? It seemed so limited, seemed to state conclusively that something was lacking or wrong.
In all these words, as well, the same sticky threads knit one vocabulary to the next. Honeymoon: Days that are too sweet to last, to be “real” or “deep” in the ways we are accustomed to understanding depth or reality, in terms of nuance and continuity. Intoxicated by the taste of honey—addictive, cloying, consuming—we find ourselves unable to engage in the harder task of contoured human relation. But is this the whole sad truth of sweetness? Its saturation point? Its ceiling?
How can I express my faith that there is something profound in the single note of honey itself? In our uncomplicated capacity for rapture, the ability to find our whole selves moved by something infinitely simple? I’m not sure how to say it right, with the kind of language that would be sentimental enough to affirm its subject but not too sentimental to damn it.
I wonder why I’m even trying to say this at all.
Perhaps I’m still talking to the poet, long after he stopped talking to me. Perhaps I am writing to justify myself, or else surrender completely: I could make you another cup of coffee, I swear! I could make this one without so much goddamn cream!
When Mark Jefferson released “What is Wrong With Sentimentality?” his essay was seminal in a limited and highly academic sense: It changed the way a small and highly intelligent fraction of the world talked about a particular topic.
Three months before his essay appeared, I was born.
I have built a kind of Old West mythology around this coincidence: Perhaps Mark and I have been spoiling for a fight since 1983, a showdown whose existence is entirely unknown to him. I imagine us pulling guns on each other to settle the question once and for all: What is wrong with sentimentality?
I mean honestly, why shouldn’t I drink my coffee with as much cream and aspartame as I please? Why did that poet break my heart?
You see: I come to this showdown with quite a few pistols, and all of them are loaded but only some of them are relevant. I am clamoring for a fight, but Mark has already sealed himself—almost mythically—into the insular dissection room of his argument. At the end of his article, he signs off from someplace that sounds like a kind of consonant-buttressed fortress: “Llywyngronw, Penrhyncoch, Dyfed, Wales.”
As it turns out, I’ve got a few Welsh tales of my own: Spent a summer there. Wrote a story there about a guy who couldn’t stand melodrama. Published that story in a magazine that couldn’t stomach much sentiment.
Perhaps all of this means something, the fact that I circled back to Mark’s home territory to wrestle with the terms of his argument. Or perhaps I am simply one of his “wondrous men,” a personality type he identifies by the “specialized indulgence” of delighting in the mysterious: “He seeks out remarkable correlations and the like but, in order to preserve their sparkle, he may take to declining any sort of account of them that isn’t equally provocative of wonder.”
So we were fated for this moment. Or we weren’t. I’ve got things to say either way.
Mark claims that sentimentality involves distortion, which I agree with. He claims that it involves a choice, that people choose to engage in distorted representations of reality so they can feel things. I agree with this as well. He describes sentimentality as a particular kind of inherited distortion, a “fiction of innocence” that demands complementary fictions of villainy, and claims that these fictions create a “moral climate that will sanction crude antipathy and its active expression.” I agree that sentimentality permits these fictions, but I don’t think these fictions always create the kind of moral climate he fears, nor do they necessitate the unequivocally reductive aesthetic response (“crude antipathy”) assumed by his argument.
Here’s my deal: I think we’ve talked about sentimentality too much for it to occupy the same place in our collective aesthetic that it did in 1856, or 1977, or 1983. I think that Mark’s own assertions about the chosen nature of sentimental response are the very things that undermine his argument about its relationship with brutality. The presence of choice—in our responses to sentimental fiction, in our chosen submission to simplifications that will allow us to feel—is precisely what has created a new kind of sentimental guilt, a sense of shame at the sentimentality of our responses.
This guilt is modern, a phenomenon born of our retrospective relationship to the generations of sentimental literature we’ve inherited. I think this guilt obstructs any kind of direct translation of sentimentality to the real world. We can no longer import the “fictions” of sentimentality without interrogating them, so our responses to saccharine moments are necessarily a staged process, a multi-course meal: The heart flutters and the brain responds. We cry and then we think about why we’re crying. What if this sequence—of sentiment and guilt—comprises a kind of Gestalt response whose totality is more valuable and authentic than any arithmetic combination of its terms?
We have seen the reign of irony. We want to feel things again. We want authors to take Christmas risks, and we want to respond to them. Perhaps we’ve got some nostalgia for the days when we could indulge in uninterrogated sentimentality, but we know those days—and their dangers—are past.
So maybe this harkens the return of the saccharine. Our self-awareness has carved a new place for excess, for words that could wring tears from the stars. If the saccharine offers us some undiluted spell of feeling, oversimplified and unabashedly fictive, then perhaps its sharpest value is located in our emergence from its thrall.
We shudder against the evaporation of our illusions, but we know they will inevitably dissolve, leaving us to stare down the barrel of those complications we always knew lurked further back. And yet! We’ve got the memory of glimpsing something unequivocal, some exaggerated vision of tenderness or sorrow. We carry these visions of excess through the murkier territory of reality and its ambiguities.
Put another way: After the sugar high, there is the sharpened sense of everything that is not sweet. After the saccharin, there is a sense of shame at our consumption. These moments of guilty aftermath aren’t more valuable than the moments of indulgence that precede them, it is simply that the tension of this sequence can bring us into contact with the full range of ourselves, as carriers of sentiments both heartfelt and cerebral.
We want to feel ourselves hurt by sentimentality, betrayed by its flatness, wounded by the hard glass surface of its sky. This is the only way we know to approach Stevens’s primary noon. We crash into wonder—fling ourselves upon simplicity—so it can render us heavy and senseless, deliver us finally to the ground.
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