June 30, 2021, 6:51 Jun

Sentiment and Pretense

This is not, as the title may suggest, the name of a Jane Austin novel but rather a short article on two faults I'm scared of committing whenevers I write. They're more familiar when used as adjectives, that is to describe someone who is sentimental and pretentious. Despite worrying that I come across that way, I've never thought too much about what exactly it is I'm afraid of and I hope that confronting these two issues head on will help me write better.

Let's start with being sentimental, which has developed pejorative connotations to mean "having too much sentiment, apt to be swayed by prejudice". I understand something subtlely different to this, rather that to be sentimental is to be overly emotional, dramatic and ultimately trying to manipulate your audience through emotions, be they yours or theirs. It proved quite difficult to come up with an example of this sort of writing. James Hansen's "Storms of My Granchildren" was an option, but his writing is actually quite bland even though the message is alarming. Many documentaries, such as "Seaspiracy", also come to mind, but that's not writing. In the end I googled "Woe is me" and saw that it's a quote from Hamlet:

And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,

That sucked the honey of his music vows,

Now see that noble and most sovereign reason

Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;

That unmatched form and feature of blown youth

Blasted with ecstasy. Oh, woe is me,

T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

I'm not criticizing Shakespeare (I don't want my flat to get egged), I'm remarking that I would feel uncomfortable writing something similar to the above and I would equally be distrusting of anything similar were it to appear in non-fiction.

One particular problem I have with sentimental writing is that any strong emotions I experience due to it are short lived. I might initially be stirred into action by my fear or anger or despair this soon dissipates and I am left feeling silly that I ever felt that way. It's not unlike saying and doing things while drunk and then later regretting them, and just as I don't like that experience, I wouldn't want to do the same to my audience.

The second fault I will address is being pretentious. When I describe something as pretentious, I imagine someone whose main goal is to show off their intellect, or at least the delivery of their message comes across like that even if it wasn't their intention. This is usually characterised by dramatic and flowery language, and, often enough, straight up bullshit. After all, the goal is to convince your reader that you are intelligent and being clear, concise or even correct is thuss irrelevant. Roger Scruton's "Fools, Frauds and Firebrands" has many great examples of this kind of writing (even if I vehemently disagree with Scruton himself), but, at the risk of being controversial, I will take an example from "Facing Gaia" by Bruno Latour instead:

While the decision [on whether we live in the anthropocene] is pending, the papers published by Zalasiewicz's working group offer to anyone willing to read them a fascinating example of the redistribution of agency that we are following in these lectures. Here we have it, the metamorphic zone I've been trying to designate: all human activities turn out to be transformed, in part, into geological forms; everything that we used to call bedrock is beginning to be humanized - or, in any case, to bear traces of a tempestuously remodeled humanity!

And so it goes on, paragraph after painful paragraph. There are some interesting ideas in "Facing Gaia" which I will likely return to at some point in my life, but oh my days is it a struggle to sift these out of the murky streams of complicated vocabulary, unending references to other works and the capitalisation, quotation and italicisation of mundane words. I have to wonder how many people, including Bruno himself, actually enjoy his writing, let alone understand the half of what he attempts to say.

My issues with sentimental and/or pretentious writing can be traced back to the lack of sincerity I associate with such writing. I distrust people who write with flowery language and are overly emotional because I don't recognise myself in that and I have rarely encountered others who would talk like that or have such emotions. Similarly with pretense.

The problem is that I would like to express ideas which will probably require a certain amount of pretentiousness and sentimentality in my writing. It is difficult for me to write, for example, about my climate anxiety without feeling embarassed at how sentimental I get. Equally I don't think I could write about Bruno Latour without feeling pretentious.

I have a growing feeling that I do need to write about such things however. I have few other outlets other than writing to engage and develop these thoughts, and yet I need to do so to stop them from rotting inside my head and also because I think I will be happier for it. This article is thus both a statement of intent to avoid sentimantility and pretentiousness in my writing, as well as an apology to my future (past at that point?) self for when I inevitably fail. Sorry future Seb.

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