On Sentimentality, or Why Christmas Confuses Me
The hed is a false promise; I couldn’t care less about Christmas. I usually flee the country if I can - there’s a lot of death in the family around the Holidays, and my parents have this demonic Christmas tree that has animated eyes and a felt mouth that sings carols when it’s on and you pass it by. It has tormented me since childhood, and I hope it goes to robot hell!!!!
Anyway. I do want to talk about forced sentimentality, and what it can mean to not be sentimental. This isn’t the same as not being earnest, or not being vulnerable.
Around this time last year I was at Yaddo (I love you, Yaddo) and I’m getting back into my notes I made there. There was this one book I devoured there I keep thinking about nowadays, Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil. Here are the particular quotes I’m thinking about:
If facts alone could lead us to the promised land, then we already live in a paradise of facts. The problem is not that we do not know what is happening but that we cannot bear to be changed by that knowledge. We should be changed, however much we give up in the process.”
I like this because it summarizes why my favorite writers are my favorite writers… they demand thoughtfulness, not sympathy. Knowledge of conditions can’t be mistaken for the knowledge of what suffering does to people, which would relegate individual sufferers to a species of victim. This is the poverty of optics.
The courage one hopes to stimulate in facing facts is paradoxical: we are meant to yield to them. Yielding should not equate to passivity, however. Instead, yielding is being open to altering, which is genuinely painful. . . in place of cleverness, intellectuals must risk perplexity and lack of mastery, trading rhetoric of certainty for one of speculation. . . since encountering facts is a discipline of perception, not a onetime event. She is demanding that the intellectual and the liberal partisan enter a process of self-alienation that is not only genuinely painful but never ending.
(This is in reference to Arendt.)
I wrote this on an index card and almost prayed to it, reverently. McCarthy:
Even though it is difficult to say exactly what a fact is, by looking at the contexts facts are presented, it is possible to say what a fact does. What makes a fact seems to be less its informational content than its capacity to alter the observer.
Under that, I had some questions I sat on for awhile. Am still sitting on, actually:
What does building an ethics consist of? Is it a problem of power, or a problem of duty? What divides those ideas?
What makes me uncomfortable writing is the expectation put upon writers nowadays to know what the stuff they’re witnessing and writing about is supposed to mean- or that we, by writing about what we’re witnessing, know what the best thing to do in response to it is. As if witnessing something gives us a premonition by necessity, as if pure knowledge always comes with witnessing. Witnessing and participating are different experiences, and there are no guarantees.
When it comes to writing stuff, I’m always in an odd space of participant/reporter, a bad reporter in the traditional sense. And lets face it, the traditional definition of reporting assumes a non-existent, impartial character, built on masculine, white identity. I’m more interested in writing around the facts of a situation not to limit reality to the things I’m seeing but to open up the conversation from what is going on to what it might mean.
In the margins of the book, I wrote this, which is still true:
I think I’m a realist only insomuch as I demand recognizing the pain of reality to prevent feeling insane…. so people can join me in demanding the apprehension of dreams.
What does this have to do with Christmas? Not much really! But I do think the pressure to experience holidays with family is bogus, and is not a healthy way of holding our feelings, which are in this case, total facts about our boundaries. I love my parents but I don’t want to spend the holidays with them. I love my friends but I don’t want to feel obligated to gifting them stuff - I just want to spend time with them. I don’t know how I’ll actually be spending the day; I spent last XMAS at Yaddo with my writing family, and that was lovely. Every Christmas is different for me, and untraditional and unpredictable, and that’s ok. I’m not sentimental about it. I just want to be honest and protect my energy at a time where there’s a lot of pressure to direct it to traditional things.
No epiphanies here. Just wanted to share some stuff I’ve been thinking about. And gloriously, I have no idea what it all means!!!! We love doubt and possibility!!!
Have the exact kind of holiday you want. Ok?