Monday, July 26, 2010

Homo Sentimentalis & Music

In Milan Kundera's novel Immortality (1991), one of the narrators critiques the notion of what he terms 'Homo Sentimentalis... the man who has raised feelings to a category of value'. For him, this notion leads to a romantic conception of the self, the wish of people to distinguish themselves, to make their mark on the world, to imagine that what they feel, and are seen to feel, is supremely important. In turn this leads them 'on to the great stage of history' with often terrible consequences: 'What makes people raise their fists in the air, puts rifles in their hands, drives them to join struggles for just and unjust causes, is not reason but a hypertrophied soul. It is the fuel without which the motor of history would stop turning and Europe would lie down in the grass and placidly watch clouds sail across the sky'.

The origins of all this go back to music: 'The transformation of feelings into value had already occurred in Europe some time around the twelfth century: the troubadors who sang with such great passion to their beloved, the unattainable princess, seemed so admirable and beautiful to all who heard them that everyone wished to follow their example by falling prey to some wild upheaval of the heart'.

This became further embedded as music developed: 'Music taught the European not only a richness of feeling, but also the worship of his feelings and his feeling self... Music: a pump for inflating the soul. Hypertrophic souls turned into huge balloons rise to the ceiling of the concert hall and jostle each other in unbelievable congestion'.

Maybe there's something in this, but is the 'feeling self' always such a bad thing? The self-romanticising hero may have their share of crimes, but the unfeeling cold subject is at least as responsible for the disasters of history.


bat020 said...

not read the novel, but (i) can one simply oppose the "unfeeling cold subject" to the "feeling self"? is coldness not itself an affect? (ii) is Kundera criticising feelings per se, or is he criticising the idea that feelings are important, the valorisation of feeling? arguably it's the latter that distinguishes romanticism - not the presence of emotion, but the way that emotion is theorised and privileged.

Transpontine said...

Yes to be fair, Kundera is not arguing against feelings as such, but the elevation of feelings to a principle.

Partly though he is arguing against activism, perhaps understandably growing up under a Stalinist dictatorship. Yes, the world might be a better place if we were all lying in the grass watching the clouds go by. But if the combine harvester of history is coming to cut down the grass and run over the cloud gazers, perhaps people can be forgiven for striking a 'heroic''romantic' pose against it.