June 04, 2009

On Sentiment and Crossroads

Let’s all take a moment for foreign-language speakers trying to decipher this English colloquialism: ‘A tall drink of water’.


1)     A tall person.

2)     An attractive person.

3)     A tall and attractive person.

4)     A tall and fragile person. Perhaps sickly and wan.

5)     An uninteresting person.

6)     A vacuous person.

7)     A person or thing that meets perfectly with one’s needs.

Whilst it is axiomatic that language is fluid, most of the time it is about as fluid as pitch. In the rare examples of genuine diversity of meaning, confusion is usually the end result. The aforementioned beverage illustrates one phrase that is clearly at a crossroads and in reality communicates less as a consequence.

The term ‘sentiment’ is similarly coloured by an indecisive history. It originated in the 14th century, at which point it was defined as an individual's view derived specifically from personal experience. By the 17th century, one might say ‘sentiment’ to describe simply how one feels about something. At this point, the term became something of a plaything for the ages: it was an Enlightenment buzzword frequently tossed in to mean countless variations upon the theme of a broadly emotional perspective; later, Sentimentalism – European and American, philosophical and literary – continued to drag its related noun in every direction. In the 19th century sentiment finally came to rest, meaning a feeling proceeding from or affected by emotion. However, how society felt about emotionalism (and how it felt about the classical definition of the heart as the centre of human thought) continued to characterise how disparaging or not the expression would be.

These days it really means all and none of the above. It sits cross-legged at the crossroads. A sentiment is at once a notion more elevated than ordinary thought and more base than ordinary thought. It is a refined, higher conception infused with heart as well as head, or it is a feeling tainted and dragged down into the gutter by its irrational elements. I thought of this word and its etymology yesterday when I heard the following statement on the value of today’s European elections from a guest on BBC News 24: ‘Elections are, at the very least, measures of public opinion.’ I loudly disagreed with my television. Elections are, at the very most, measures of public sentiment.

There is a story I heard once (from a professor at Warwick, come to think of it) about the 1970 General Election. Polls had Harold Wilson leading by double-figures in the days leading up to the vote, and the election-night coverage was as frivolous as ever, with cringeworthy, irreverent (and often musical) perspectives on the evening’s events, perspectives which contributed nothing to the debate except proving that instant political satire is harder than it looks. ITV’s coverage had an interesting choice, relatively new to television, a Working Men’s Club comedian. He would occasionally occupy the screen between analyses to deliver some humorous/xenophobic banter. Watching him perform a Benetton ad of offensive voices was a strange experience, like a capsule of a bygone era. It was as if they had invited him on to TV so that they could televise the last stand, as a generation was ushered into history by the Beatles’ best mate Harold Wilson’s re-election.

But as the results started to filter in, more and more constituencies were being taken by the Conservatives and it started to look like Edward Heath might get in. This was just two years after Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in Birmingham, and suddenly the jibes of this comic took on a whole new perspective. They sounded utterly different in tone, purely as a consequence of the new context in which they took place. So what precipitated this new context? Opinion hadn’t changed – we can’t use a piece of paper with a cross on it to say that it did – the way people feel is so much more complicated than that. Something inconsistent and contradictory had happened that you can’t unpick with Powell and The World Cup and The Beatles. Sentiment had changed.


In the past two days, two major Government ministers have left the cabinet. There will be a major reshuffle in the next few days, very possibly a change of Prime Minister and wholesale changes in policy. Doubtless this will be accompanied by mirrored policy changes from the opposition bench, and, of course, there may well be systematic uprooting of our entire electoral system. I feel like I’m voting in the dark.

In this election, it's easy to feel that our minds are being starved of rationale. Elections are crossroads, and sentiment is all we are being empowered with in order to choose our direction. Should a Labour supporter who doesn’t believe in Gordon Brown vote elsewhere, not knowing whether he will leave anyway? Who will this abandoned Government contain? At this crossroads the signposts have been blanked out, like the Home Guard did so many decades ago. Maybe democracy thinks our electorate are invading.

Of course, since these are European and Local elections the party leaders shouldn’t even be relevant but judging by the campaign leaflets which I have received, this is being run as a General Election dress-rehearsal and nothing more. Our own party leaders actively suppress any campaigning on the European issues. The UK is simply the only country in the EU which keeps its parties fighting European elections on national issues, with their party leaders as the party leaders.

In an ideal world, our heads would be fed with party policy on European issues, but instead our guts are fed with appeals to the spirit of the guillotine. As (only) the Guardian pointed out yesterday, the Conservatives have quietly announced that they are switching party block allegiances further to the right in the EU Parliament, and for this term will be banding with a Polish party of Queer-bashing fascists – they’ll sit together, they’ll share packets of crisps in the playground and everything. Why are we neglecting our rights to knowledge? ‘One certainly does work badly in spring,' Thomas Mann wrote in Tonio Kroger. 'And why? Because one’s feelings are being stimulated.’ Perhaps we need a Winter election.

UKIP and the BNP will probably do quite well too, since they - in their new role as comic book resistance fighters - protect the interests of the common man. Except that they oppose the minimum wage, two of the twelve UKIP MEPs have been ejected for fraud, and another, Godfrey Bloom, replied to Bishop John Sentamu’s fear that there are racist elements within the Church of England by saying, ‘I would have thought that the fact he was made an archbishop with a face as black as Newgate's knocker would belie that.’ It might also be nice to hear that a clothespegged-nosed vote for the BNP may not teach anyone a lesson but certainly will empower a fascist to go to Brussels with a £250,000 a year kitty and lobby on behalf of their own interests in an arena where they – people you wouldn’t share a comb with – will represent your country.

Intriguingly sentiment’s adjective, ‘sentimental’, has survived the etymological tug-of-war. It has a straightforward definition that we all know: analysis-free emotion in place of the more considered critique, stimulating or simulating a disproportionate response. I say simulating, because when we talk about sentimentalism, even when it’s genuine and private, it’s false. Yeats wrote that rhetoric is a quarrel with others, whilst sentimentality is a quarrel with ourselves. Both are our enemies today and I, for one, don’t know where to turn.

- 2 comments by 0 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Sue

    I think what you said is very interesting and a lot of it rings true. I especially liked the bit about blacked out signs, I suppose I probably have known at some time that the home guard did that but hadn’t remembered it. Something really quite exciting is happening to my daughter soon and last night I said to her “Are you looking forward to it?” She gave me a quizzical look and said “Looking forward to it, what does that entail?” and we both smiled. It was at that moment I knew that if I vote for anyone today I will vote for the same party as her because otherwise I am completely in the dark.

    04 Jun 2009, 08:20

  2. Quinny Buzz

    Excellent article, great read…thank you.

    11 Jun 2009, 07:57

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