Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...



I made it onto the last train to the little Welsh village of my friend on Saturday and settled into my seat with a new Elizabeth Goudge. I found a copy of her children's book, The Little White Horse, in an Oxfam ("charity shop") here and had been saving it as a treat for end of term. As my connection sped its way along the Welsh coast and a pearled, watery light blossomed in the sea sky out my window, I began. I I found though, that I wasn't able to submit to the story with a full giving of imagination as quickly as I wanted. Eight weeks of highly formal study of children's books with a professor who constantly cautioned me against sentimentality has made me a wary reader. I did not want to be, but I was instantly alert to the fact that the Goudge passage I was reading would be considered altogether sentimental. The scene was certainly that of a fairy tale; an orphaned girl waking in her new home to find it a tower in a castle with fairy touches of flowers, a window looking over far hills, and a dress whose wearing made her feel wrapped again in her mother's arms. The passage ended with this: "for people are always safe in their mother's arms."

I put my book down, glanced out my train window and thought hard. What is sentimentality and why, as a culture, are we against it? While I agree with the avoidance of the sort of sentimentality actually described in the dictionary as "exaggerated, or self-indulgent feelings of tenderness or sadness," I find it troubling that people increasingly slap this label on that which arouses true sentiment. Love. Motherhood. Sacrifice. Courage. We have begun to see the holding of ideals at all as sentimental. Anything that smacks of the absolutely lovely, the unmarred or untouched, like the unbreachable comfort of a mother's arms, is viewed with a skeptic's mockery.

For we act as if these things cannot be true. There is, I admit, truth in this. We live in a world in which we suffer, we watch relationships break and friendships die. We exist with sickness, we endure hard days, hard work, hard choices. Our modern culture is deeply shaped by divorce, disillusionment, longing, displacement. We are hurried and harried with the pace of modern life and haunted by the ghost-like relationships it creates. The habit of electronic entertainment, the ever-increasing rush to acquire money or things, the unbearable emptiness of relationship that comes through families grown distant or broken, neighbors we don't know, communities we cannot seem to create, empties us of hope. And we come to an awful pragmatism.

We have to deny ideals. If we feel that goodness or beauty cannot be true, then we can no longer desire, or even honor them. The yearning for home, for friendship, a natural life, or even a completely faithful parent is too much to bear when we don't believe it possible. We have to dismiss ideals as mere sentimentality. With that comes the unavoidable embrace of a cynical point of view. It is the only defense, the only logic we can use to protect ourselves from the pain of shattered hope. But cynicism, once planted, is a rapid and ravenous presence. We cannot limit its reach and it infects every corner of thought, reaching into the way we view ourselves, our morals, and our relationships to others. When I began my course here, the first week of study was on the validity of childhood as a concept at all. What, after all, makes us think we need to protect a child's innocence? Or our own?

If we will truly face this question, I think we return to a place of conviction. For sentiment is, at base, a viewpoint of chosen innocence. True sentiment, (not the limp, treacly affectation of over-emotion or soppy love stories) is a value for the pure things we believed in as children before sin and failure tried to obscure our belief. Unfailing love for an orphan heart. A true home, a castle of fairy-tale beauty. Mother's arms that do not fail. Stories that end in grace. These are not self-indulgent fantasies, but rather, ideals; archetypal images of truth, goodness, and beauty that speak to the deepest desires of the human heart.

To love beauty, to yearn for innocence is not to be sentimental, it is to be an idealist, one who holds to the possibility of wholeness even amidst a broken world. Heaven is sentimental. Redemption is the journey of return to an absolute ideal. I read Elizabeth Goudge because her pictures draw me back to the possibility of renewal and teach me to long for a someday perfection. Her stories are not "self-indulgent," "exaggerated," they are bold and ringing in their beauty. They present a goodness that may be obscured in our world, but not therefore untrue. I read Goudge to be reminded of what beauty is, to taste the atmosphere of a possible joy that I forget to desire when I see only the failure and fallenness of the world.

So it seems that even after an Oxford term in the in which I was immersed in the savviest of current literary criticism, I am still a believer in sentimental books. If by sentimental you mean a story that presents me with real beauty, with the friendships I desire, with the picture of an unspoilt world, and teaches me to hope for its realization. Like the characters in my story, I believe that "the brave soul and the pure spirit shall with a merry and a loving heart inherit the kingdom together." That not sentimentality. That's hope.