While enjoying a piece of breakfast pizza–ham, egg, and cheese–at a coffee shop in downtown Bangor, I noticed that Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” was playing in the background. Such melodrama, but yet the lyrics yank at something, “we’ve come to far to leave it all behind. . . .” What is it that this sappiness recalls?
This question, and a notion of sentimentality, permeates the painting of my sister’s headstone etching. As Leslie Jamison notes in the Empathy Exams, sentimentality is difficult to unpack. For example, is our concern with the concept “primarily ethical or aesthetic.” In other words, is our issue with sentimentality that it undermines the truth of our feelings, and so their ability to help us shape our emotional lives, or is our concern that it undermines an object’s beauty, and so its ability to transform our experience of the world. In a similar vein, Willard Spiegelman notes in his defense of nostalgia, a particular type of sentimentality, that it has two forms: one is restorative, in which we long for a return to a better time and place; and another reflective, in which we seek to confront an “irreparable loss,” perhaps re-imagining it into something less painful. In this context, sentimentality excavates an experience by exploring the immediacy of the feelings associated with it, thereby mitigating the manufactured aspects of its performance.
Of course, this painting is a performance. In it I seek to make something felt sensible. In particular, the collage relates objects to my memory of my sister: she loved wine and the Outer Banks, and she remembered, I imagine, our hometown, which I always recall as a dirt road bordered by wooden guardrails and patches of sumac bushes, a road that is always leading out of town passed one room cottages and dilapidated shacks. The simplicity of the scene is a stabilizing memory, one that assured me I was from and so perhaps known somewhere. And being known, we are able to dismantle those inevitable facades we erect to inhabit one or another subject position. Maybe in this place I might reclaim a purer sense of self, not the injured iteration I now confront, as it confronts my sister’s memory.
Such meanings, though, are nonsense. No pure self exists; “I” is a process not a product; an impression always in the act of being made. However, when the plan or structure for its making is lost, the effort to build a sense of self can be daunting, deeply confusing, tentative, and uncertain. Teenagers struggle, for instance, because they don’t have such a plan or often the freedom to develop one. So they might choose to either wallow or run.
The painting is a placeholder for the emotions evoked by the etching, as much as it is their expression, and the welling up is confusing and embarrassing. If someone were to look at this painting or read these words, what might she think? I know what I would want her to think: He is emotionally engage and concerned about understanding the real way emotions alter us. Yet I suspect a less charitable response: He is stunted and uncertain, trying to draw meaning from isolated images–such as rivulets of rain running off clogged eaves, hair graying at the temples, insipid assertions dribbling from gaping gobs, puddles of wine on a greasy table, black coffee in bed.
Still, Jamison notes that
Metaphors are tiny saviors leading the way out of sentimentality, small disciples of Pound, urging “Say it new! Say in new!” (122)
A metaphor–such as these images of a road, a tree, a beach, and a wine glass and bottle–can lead us out of generalized thinking about emotions and into more concrete kindnesses. Yet that assurance seems far too certain or simple because a metaphor cannot indicate anything as clear as that. It suggests, always suggests; it prods us toward inquiry and questions. But it does not, will not, assert. A metaphor may save us because it cannot be easily grasped and so does not evoke a simple, learned response. It must be thought through, pierced by hints of sense and unwound by webs of meaning, meanings that are delicate and, so, tenuous. They must be teased into existence. The tenuousness of their meaning requires an engagement that encourages us, as it did Leslie Jamison, to interrogate ourselves. Why am I thinking this way? Therefore, when someone views the painting, I don’t hope for sympathy, but instead desire a sympathetic response, which is characterized by the willingness to think, as Walter Benjamin put it, “Against the grain” of the images I am presenting.
This “thinking against the grain” echoes Jamison’s question about art and emotion:
Do we insist that better artwork can elicit a better kind of feeling–more expansive, supple, ethical? (127)
Jamison is uncertain because the feeling underlying the expression is so complex that art can only reduce it to something, and that can be misleading or merely something else. My answer, however, is less tentative: of course art can elicit more finely nuanced feelings and associated responses. Art evokes these feelings by providing them with a language that in its very inadequacy creates a space for understanding by allowing the viewer either to assent or dissent from the supposed meanings. In this sense, feeling is not a thing “we get” but a process we initiate and prosecute. We can accept the language and what it seems to say or we can dissent from that meaning and desconstruct it. Both responses are founded on the same act, a questioning that opens us up to different perspectives.
This painting, then, might be a question. Asking on one hand, what is meaningful in life. The objects woven into the painting don’t harbor significant meaning for most, as (say) a wedding ring, birthstone, or lover might. And, if asked, I don’t think my sister would have considered these items as all that important to her. She did enjoy wine and vacationing in the Outer Banks, but mostly she enjoyed life and her family and friends. Simply, she enjoyed breathing. How would I represent that? Just the wine bottle and glass–vino veritas? Yet should I shoulder that abstraction? Maybe a portrait of her smiling or frowning or something in between? Representing the meander of a mind in thought, seeking understanding and perhaps peace, is impossible. The image suggests a perception that only the viewer completes. In this sense, it takes two, a creator and a recipient, to exist at all. When the viewer sees the painting, this or any other, she processes the scene and constructs meaning by considering what is on the canvas and how those images, colors and shapes, move her. Even failing to be moved is meaningful and important to make manifest. The viewer says, for example, “I hate wine and the color read,” which doesn’t disavow the work but initiates the viewer’s story, and encouraging such stories is the power of art in our lives. Joan Didion, for instance, argues that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
On the other hand, the clunkiness of the images suggests the struggle inherent in making anything abstract sensible. Heidegger argues that small “t” truth is a matter of perception; therefore, the truth in this painting is related to my perception of my sister. Though I don’t think these things say much about her either. I painted what I could most readily imagine and manage. To do that, define her, I might have included the ideas she drew from her voracious reading, or her passion for home remodeling, or her love of her dogs, music, friends, and family. I might have included her response to someone who asked her, years into her chemotherapy, “What do you do for a living.” My sister said, with as much humor as she could muster, “My job is to stay alive.” The edge in her response recalls her, or at least how I knew her; she was not simple nor simple minded, and she was not afraid of reality. She faced it, as others in my family have, bluntly with a banal understatement that not so much hid as dismantled the emotions running through it.
In the introduction to Speakers for the Dead, Orson Scott Card describes how someone assigned to speak for the dead attempts to reveal who the deceased was in life, not the perfected death mask approximating who we wish she had been. Instead, we consider the flawed person who got up each morning and made mistakes as she tried to manage the day. Art might perform this function, speak of those who have passed and provide a way to recall them, mold something meaningful from their loss. Yet my painting remains inadequate; it simply is not right, not enough, not beautiful. It just is not; it is the negative construct out of which some positive memory might form or not. Like a child’s drawing, the clunky thing remains sincere and is intended, even if what is meant is lost in the performance. Often, I think it best if what is intended is lost. Don’t burden the world with it.
As Antonio Damasio claims in Looking for Spinoza, “Feelings of pain or pleasure or some quality in between are the bedrock of our minds” (3). We engage our feelings, no matter how imperfectly, to understand the fundamental motivations of life: connecting with that stimulus that might give us a purpose, a purpose that Thoreau might see as the source of transcendental experience. Moving on, imagining yourself into the future, requires a motivation, a purpose, a reason to want. Sentimentality, nostalgia, offer a framework for approaching that future, a way of structuring change. Indeed, the phrase “moving on” suggests that the past functions, at least initially, as the path forward. In my painting, I try to manifest feelings as much to think about them as to give them form or some symbolic significance. In doing this, maybe I move away from the hurt and toward some form of reconciliation, a sense that emerges from the courage simply to confront what I feel.