16 October 2009

Responses to “On Repressive Sentimentalism”

Read the original essay here.

Dear Mark,

When you and I read Kierkegaard’s Either/Or this spring, in a group that met every morning for a week in the second-floor cafeteria of the Houston Street Whole Foods, we had many arguments about the nature of marriage. Now I seem to be joining you in another, though our private conversation has become, in something like the ambiguous transformation wrought by marriage itself, public. Either/Or, as you know, is divided into two parts, the first written by a Seducer, who approaches the problem of human relations aesthetically, and the second by a Judge, who approaches it ethically. Neither approach proves satisfactory; a better title for the book would be “Neither/Nor.” To the surprise of those of us who know you personally, your essay has caused some in the blogosphere to mistake you for a figure like Kierkegaard’s Seducer. In disagreeing with you, I suppose I run the parallel risk of  sounding like the Judge, who is, I believe, in somewhat greater danger of losing his soul, because in order to preserve decorum, he seems willing to smother the spark that makes human relations possible at all. Keeping the danger in mind, I will risk answering you.

I dissent from many of the claims in your essay, but I feel my resistance most strongly to the following sentence:

Opposing gay marriage is like denying the wishes of people who want to feed your pets or take out your garbage.

If you believe that gays who marry resemble people offering to take out the trash, then you believe that gays who marry are offering a service. I presume you mean that they are surrendering their sexual wildness for the sake of social approbation and in the process are making a gift of sexual orderliness to the common weal. If that is all marriage is-a bargain wherein autonomy is traded for status-then it is indeed a ridiculous bargain for any sexually potent adult to make. (Lurking behind the cartoon figure of the promiscuous gay man, whom your essay eulogizes, is his inevitable twin, the gay eunuch.) But surely it’s possible to imagine marriage as something else, something that our Kierkegaard reading group tried to investigate, as did the reading group that followed it, which tackled Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness. Would it be mere rhetoric to suggest that marriage is in fact itself a form of wildness?

Your claim in the sentence quoted above, which is a sort of joke, has two lemmas. First, you imply that marriage is a surrender of sexual liberty. I don’t think that’s accurate. Marriage is Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell standing side by side in the closing scene of His Girl Friday, nattering on with the same jollity when handcuffed to each other as when not handcuffed. Marriage is indifference to handcuffs. There are always opportunities to escape. The strange discovery that makes marriage possible is that one has the liberty not to-the liberty to make the same choice, day after day-and that one happens to want to make a consistent choice. It is a paradox, at least. Will one happen to want to make the same choice forever? Maybe not. Separation and divorce are always possible, in our world, and maybe they give marriage its poignancy. The possibility of separation proves that no two people stay chained to each other unless they want to. It even seems to be the case that people who want to stay chained to each other sometimes can’t manage to. It is at any rate an error to think that marriage is a surrender of liberty. It is an exercise of it.

The second lemma of your joke is less seemly. It is mockery of anyone-in this case, gays-who wants the general social approbation implied by marriage. I suspect that you yourself will find this indigestible if you stop and think about it. Do you really intend to mock homosexuals, who have long been considered and in some circles still are considered pariahs, for wishing to have proof that they are no longer so thought of, at least as a matter of law? Your joke will only seem funny to readers who have taken social approbation for granted for so long that they now see only its conformist aspect and no longer its psychological and social benefits. Yes, yes, society bestows its approval conservatively; do you really think that people who have gone without it for most of their adult lives are unaware of that? You are somewhat in the position, here, of a millionaire who styles himself a radical and makes fun of the lengths that other people will go to in order to become rich. The radical thing would be to share the wealth, or to campaign for a more equitable economic system.

I’m not denying, by the way, that people in a marriage customarily agree to forgo sexual opportunities outside it. I’m saying merely that they agree to because they realize that they want to forgo them. Such a realization cannot happen to a Foucauldian motley of pleasures and bodies. [http://www.hermenaut.com/a156.shtml] Bodies have no free will; left to their own devices, they say yes to every pleasure they can obtain. Such a realization can only happen to a self, or to something you might even denominate a soul. Selves and souls, you might reply, are fictions, and I agree that they are not a given but are something people make in the course of living. I believe, nonetheless, that they are worth making. Keats called the world a “vale of soul-making,” and on that understanding, a refusal to make a soul is a denial of incarnation-a refusal of one of the world’s highest pleasures and deepest experiences. I am not of course saying that only married people have souls. I am saying that it’s worthwhile to have a soul, in part so as to have the capacity to make a choice like marriage, but mostly because it would be a shame to go through life without ever thinking about what Hopkins would call the sakes of it. This is diving rather deep in order to answer a relatively shallow question, I admit, but this way of arguing about marriage seems to require it.

I dissent from any deprecation of the self, and a fortiori of the soul, in the name of liberating the body. A liberated body is merely an animal, and there are stark limits to the liberty that an animal is capable of. Human liberty goes further-it involves something else-and to exclude that something else from a human life is sort of to miss the whole point, frankly.

What exactly that something else is, in a marriage or in a life, is hard to say without misrepresenting it. Emerson recommends modesty on the subject, and I wonder if your error has been to show such an excessive modesty that in your essay you pretend, as a conceit, that this something else does not even exist. But it does, I believe, even if it has to be invented.

—Caleb Crain


Dear Editors,

Let me begin by saying that I’m an openly non-straight guy (in a long-term relationship of 10+ years) who is very much in favor of gay-marriage rights, not because I have ever favored the institution of marriage as a bourgeois construct to limit sexual freedom or otherwise constrain people from being happy, but because I think that any two people (regardless of sexual orientation) should be able to avail themselves of the same rights as any other two people; this is a fundamental inequality that frankly harms gays as much as straights.

Unfortunately, in the piece in question, the author seemed to make no effort to hold the mirror up to himself, and say, “As a straight man, what have I done to rectify this situation?” Rather, given the tone of it, he seemed to ask: “Why do you gays want marriage? Don’t you understand that it’s really taking a step backward to want this horrible thing?” It would be like a white person who grew up in the suburbs with every financial advantage going into the inner city and saying, “Why do you minorities want material things? Don’t you understand that it will erode your soul?” Which is not to say that the white person is necessarily wrong, but he/she has to proceed with extreme sensitivity, and ideally LIVE in the inner city-i.e., to turn his back on the very thing that he wants to destroy-before he can make the case with any kind of credibility. This is why I found the tone of the article to be somewhat offensive-not wrong, necessarily-but rather insensitive to what it really means to be gay in our society at this juncture. (And trust me, it’s not a pretty picture, as anyone who has spent more than a few hours in any junior high-or in an average YouTube comment section-can attest; the level of fear/hatred is staggering, and possibly unprecedented-at least in terms of gays-for reasons relating to increased exposure in the media, right-wing political tactics, misogyny, stereotyping in mainstream movies and advertising, and other factors that are beyond the scope of this letter.)

All of this perhaps begs the question of how the author could have made the same point with more sensitivity, and the answer is certainly not to say that he (or other straight people) needs to experience gay sex or “gay life” but rather it does require a sense of empathy and identification, i.e., had the author said “We should ALL be fighting against marriage – I know that I have done so (and here’s how/why)!” there would have been no backlash, at least from me. Maybe this was implicit in his argument, but he could have helped himself a lot by making it explicit (and not “demanding” something from gays, as Keith Gessen put it on his Tumblr). On a related note, I would point out that AIDS cannot be summed up in a sentence or two in which the author describes it in terms of a philosophical emancipation without sounding incredibly (and to me, naively and offensively) detached from what was for all intents and purposes a holocaust that wiped out an entire generation-many of them younger than you or I-less than twenty years ago; again, I’m not saying that the author was necessarily WRONG in his analysis, it’s just that his tone seemed lack tact and empathy, and thus seemed almost glib, at least to someone like me who will never stop grieving over a tragedy that is/was incomprehensible on some emotional level (and one that has STILL not really been acknowledged as such, at least in the U.S.); it would be like going up to someone a week after his entire family was killed and saying, ‘well, at least they died nobly, and you know what? you could really learn a thing or two from them.’

Obviously we-as in those of a “liberal” or “left-wing” persuasion-all have a lot to learn from each other-and if nothing else, the author should be commended for at least broaching the subject of gay rights, which however misguided in his execution requires a certain courage that is obviously lacking in too many others-and I hope that we will continue to learn going forward.

Matthew Gallaway


Dear fellow editors,

When I first read “On Repressive Sentimentalism” during production of issue 8, I felt that it made at least one of the classic rhetorical errors attributed to Utopian writers: a tendency to insist on the wished for “ought” at the expense of acknowledging the actual “is.” This struck me, in particular, in Greif’s account of abortion, when he claims that “the idea that [abortions] are inevitably tragic is just false.”

While logically irrefutable-abortions, like anything else, even our deaths, are not “inevitably tragic”-they are, for the most part, in the world we live in, either felt to be tragedies by the women who go through them, or, as in the much-mooted “rape and incest” scenarios, an additional consequence of an earlier tragedy. Every woman I know who has had an abortion (and there are quite a few) has ended the relationship with the person who impregnated her or had the relationship ended by the other person. To give up or lose a foetus, even if the foetus is not legally a person or capable of independent biological survival, is still a powerful loss, both real and symbolic. To choose to have an abortion is to be forced to acknowledge that one has chosen and acted badly or precociously or merely carelessly. It may be the case that it’s better sometimes, in the long run, to choose loss, and one can come to a greater sense of one’s own power through having embraced and owned that loss, but it’s a loss, and that feeling of loss is the feeling of the tragic, even if it is eventually survived and overcome and compensated with happy family life or happier promiscuous life of self-fulfillment.

A bolder utopian could make the case that only though surviving tragic personal experiences will we be able to forge more perfect future unions, but Greif is not that utopian, at least not in this piece. Still, the violent act itself is not something to be celebrated. The feeling attached to it, for those who admit their feelings, is the feeling of failure, which is not, incidentally, incompatible with a feeling of liberation. And yet these feelings may be experienced in other ways, and to call for more abortions, as Greif does, is irresponsible rhetoric, precisely because Greif will not accept that the tragic account can have any validity.

Abortion is primarily our society’s form of infanticide. All civilizations have practiced some kind of infanticide; ours is more “civilized,” in Michel Foucault’s sense of that word, because it has been medicalized and made microscopic. But it’s still how the poor deal with the problem of too many mouths, too soon, or the rich deal with the problem of unwanted lovers and unwanted responsibilities. The procedure itself should neither be demonized nor celebrated. It should be, as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, once, “safe, legal, and rare.” I’m a liberal or whig rather than a utopian on this point; I accept that America is progressing from the contentious days of Roe v. Wade to a boring, Hofstadterian consensus position, at least I hope we are. I don’t think abortion was the most wisely chosen place to make a stand for the ongoing liberatory potential of sexual revolution ethics, and I hope he’ll do it better next time.

Marco Roth


Dear Editors:

I have followed the increasingly heated discourse surrounding “On Repressive Sentimentalism” with fascination.  Not least because I think it’s the piece’s bloodlessness that’s aroused such passion. The accusations have ranged from high-handedness to self-absorption to white-hunterism (my brand-new meme for invoking the Ivory Tower) to heteronormativism to watered-down Jessie Bernard-ism. My own objections, and the reflexive wave of defensiveness the piece provoked in me-and so which I understand-were less reasoned. When I was asked to really think about it logically, I realized that they were, in point of fact, pure sentimental drivel. And therein, for me, lies the piece’s central problem: dismiss “sentimentalism” as an unworthy construct of society, a sop to the masses, an ill-judged concession, and still it persists. And isn’t rhetoric devoid of sentiment as potentially destructive as that which springs from pure emotion rather than logic? If the theoretical were this easy, Philosophy would be a far more practical major than it is, and I wish I didn’t speak from bitter experience.

I’m apparently the very worst sort of sentimentalist myself. I want, for instance, to get married. Tell me this is retrograde and socially irresponsible, a product of media and 500 years of degradation. I might hang my head, I might feel ashamed, I might get mad, I might try to mutter something half-hearted about Kierkgaard just to give myself some credibility, but the desire remains, and arguing against it is as futile as it is gratuitous.  And what progressive doesn’t resent the implication that their personal is not only political, but reactionary? This is, as the piece points out, a central tenet of the abortion debates. But the concession of abortion as a “necessary evil,” which the essay characterizes as a frustrating bit of rote soft-pedaling, is far more than this. As a friend emailed me, “I felt pain and regret after my abortion that has nothing to do with political convictions or my theoretical ideas about ‘choice’ and I was angry at myself for it.”  But that anger, at oneself and at those who’d seek to deny it-which, while not universal, is also far from isolated-can’t be conveniently swept under the rug, and I can’t help wondering if demonizing, or dismissing, the very real reactions of a very significant population, isn’t irresponsible as well as cold-blooded.

And that brings me to another niggling concern the piece awoke in me. Let’s face it: “sentimental” has always been a pretty legible code-pink for “feminine.” It doesn’t take a thorough examination of women’s suffrage, the Cult of Domesticity, the temperance movement, the course of 19th century fiction, or the continuing subtext of manipulative advertising from both sides of the political aisle to understand that “sentiment” has always been the women’s issue, something to get over prior to moving on to the work of objective reason. I couldn’t help but thinking, repeatedly, of the title of the nursing-history documentary, “Sentimental Women Need Not Apply,” and it seems to me pretty disingenuous to ignore the implicit connection between the two. And to jump wildly between historical eras (sentimentalist’s prerogative!) these dichotomies, in deep primitive ways, somehow manage to hearken back to the days when university faculty were forced to live, celibate and cloistered, like monks, keeping the flame of reason safe from the sop of my sentimentality-or the medieval version thereof. Sentiment has long scared those who are “objective,” who’ve sought to de-claw and re-scent and soften and demonize it, dismissing it first as the purview of inferior intellect and later, perhaps, of inferior conviction. But if Ruskin and his cohorts saw sentiment as wholly feminine and a necessary balance to the harsh reason of men, now we’ve stripped the notion, not just of its retrograde teeth but also of its moral authority.  And maybe the idea that sentimentalism can have a moral authority needs to be reexamined, if only because denying its validity apparently results in anger.

Sadie Stein

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