sentimental cheese

For those of you who have been reading this here blog for some time, this will come as no shock to you, but I’m a bit of a sentimentalist.

And, by a bit, I mean to say that I’m a gigantic weenie. Again, no surprises there.

A friend of mine recently, in a moment of apparent either despondence or vulnerability, informed a certain audience that romance is dead. And while I was simultaneously developing today’s topic, I found considerable resonance in that statement. We talk about being sentimental, emotional beings, but romance is part of that, as well; these words–sentiment, emotion, romance–are all cut from the same cloth: that which evokes something from another person. In reviewing the word ‘sentiment’ at the cannot-recommend-enough Online Etymology Dictionary, I confirmed what I had suspected concerning the noun: “personal experience … feeling … opinion …”

Sentiment is an objective term to describe the experience of something else, and we tie this particular word to a positive longing feeling, nostalgia, perhaps, as a synonym. So what happens when we experience something that leaves us with a negative feeling? Nostalgia, as Don Draper reminded us early on in Mad Men, is tied to a wound or illness. If we were language purists–and, hint, no one really is–we’d tie feeling nostalgic to a negative longing, a revulsion.

A revulsion which just so happens to be the other side of the same coin. Feeling is inescapable, one of the philosophical drawbacks of the otherwise awesome Christian Bale-starring film Equilibrium: as long as we are human, no drug can suppress feeling. Experience is tied to feeling and vice versa. So, my friend was wrong, romance is not dead; it’s just that the feelings he hold are all negative to the point that it spills over and poisons every day life. We view people who are numb to the world around them as off-kilter, perhaps psychopathic. We are reviled by the calloused serial killer, the office sociopath who cares not for anyone besides himself and his standing in the workplace.

What is this revulsion, then? Cheese.

When something is hackneyed, stale or otherwise tacky and displeasing, we call it cheesy. Modern American Evangelicalism is cheesy. Workplace team-building exercises are cheesy. 80s glam rock acts still touring 25 years or more after their initial flower has faded are cheesy. MySpace is cheesy. Miami Vice, once the epitome of television cool, is cheesy. Eventually, blogging will be cheesy. And, for those of you who read and don’t like what I have to say, I am cheesy.

The line between cheese and sentiment is as thin as the fickle nature of a human being. And we all know too well just how easily we can flip sides on a matter.

That which was once sentimental turns cheesy. A band. A church growth gimmick. Derrick Turnbow. Brett Favre. Beanie Babies. The Last Starfighter. An ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, or a friend who wouldn’t give up the ghost. All milk curdling.

What happens when we have a moment of self-realization; when we realize that we are perhaps not perceived with the sentiment we think we deserve? When we become petrified by the idea that we may not leave a positive impression in others? What do we do when we believe we’ve become sentimental cheese?

The church responds generally by either becoming so self-absorbed as to drown out any criticism as coming from someone who is fundamentally unrighteous, or becomes so all-embracing as to lose sight of the gospel, either way, they either embrace the cheese and engage in solipsism, or try so hard to be sentimental to the world that they end up trading out the gospel for being cool.

Or, in the words of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the late rock journalist Lester Bangs, in the unapologetically sentimental Almost Famous, from that unapologetic sentimental swill peddler Cameron Crowe: “…it’s gonna get ugly, man. They’re gonna buy you drinks. You’re gonna meet girls, they’re gonna fly you places for free, offer drugs. I know it sounds great, but these people are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories… about the genius of rock stars. And they will ruin rock ‘n’ roll, and strangle… everything we love about it, right? And then it just becomes an industry of cool.”

The jilted lover either enters the comfortable cocoon, denying the power of sentiment (“Romance is dead!”) or keeps the dream alive, akin to rocking the leisure suit well into the 80s.

Brett Favre could have left the game a legend and the state of Wisconsin as nothing less than a god, but he tarnished his reputation in believing that he could remain viable and relevant past his prime.

The problem with all of these situations is that once mold grows, it is not easily remedied. Once something turns to cheese, that change cannot be undone. The spark dies, leaves turn glorious colors as they die, the flower fades. Feelings come and they go; thus to be enslaved to the subjectivity of experience and feeling is to invite one’s self to lose touch with the rest of humanity, to slip into a solipsism which says that all that matters is the self. And we, too, become the sociopaths we hate.

Even retro chic trends, like reviving jean jackets or bell bottoms, are embracing the cheesiness of the past. Only suckers pay for that which they hated only a few years prior.

(I’m still waiting for a church to bring back the anxiety bench. I won’t hold my breath, though.)

What of those who are unsentimental? They only deceive themselves; it isn’t that they are not capable of positive feelings, it’s that they have no positive feelings toward a certain context. Given the right circumstances, a person is not just a buddy, but someone she loves. A movie is not something that is merely consumed, but thoroughly enjoyed and watched and rewatched. A song is not just listened to and disposed, but becomes timeless. Those who are detached and aloof are really not; the circumstances just aren’t right for the sentimentalist to come out to play. I know this because I recognize this development in myself.

It wasn’t that I was always cold and dispassionate, it took the right circumstances to develop and embrace the fact that I am capable of living, loving. My times of persecution and alienation from my religious upbringing, getting married, finding a little fuzzy butthead in the backyard, the myriad times I allowed my heart to be ripped out, as well as the times I ripped the hearts out of others (and how much I hated myself for it.) The positive and negative experiences I had, the sentiment and the cheese, allowed me the liberty to embrace my humanity and recognize and embrace the humanity of others.

After all, there is more to the human experience than our experience of it. That which is sentimental may be cheesy; that which is cheesy, sentimental. Feeling is only a part of the package that is existence. Moving past our feelings and embracing the fact that we can make more of this life than what we merely feel about it.

Some of my friends still in the academy call it critical realism. I call it living.


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