The truth is I’ve had no real will to exterminate them. In fact I admire them. I feel sympathy for these hard working creatures that won’t be deterred. I imagine them going home to their ant children, their ant aunts and uncles, and saying, “Don’t worry. Tomorrow we’ll get back in there and bring home the bacon.” I was moved almost to tears by the thought as I watched them die in the chemical spray. How strange.
My brother Eric sent me a quote from R. H. Blyth, “We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” Precisely. Here I was being foolishly sentimental about my ants and yet God certainly had no tenderness for them because He invented the ant eater.
I’ve always admired writers who avoid being sentimental. This seems to be a talent the best southern writers naturally possess. Perhaps it’s the harsher climate and the way the light is keen in the dust.
The world was like a distant storm
I could feel it on the breeze
But it made so little difference here
Just a whisper in the trees
Mending fence for room and board
Was mostly all I’d done
For I was still a prisoner here
The sucker rod on the windmill creaks
Now and then you hear a car
There’s thunderheads across the southern sky
But they won’t get this far
(“Six-Year Drought” by James McMurtry)
Sentimentality is wrung out of this and left to evaporate on the parched earth. McMurty’s lines are as hard and pitiless as the Texas plains, and yet they still touch something pulsating with life inside. I bet he sees his struggling ants and sheds no tears for them.
While I hold McMurtry's standard in the highest esteem and wouldn't change a word of it, I suppose I’m just a sucker. I’ve flirted with sentimentality all of my writing life, and maybe I’ve even crossed the line sometimes. The truth is it’s damn hard not to cross it if you feel any pity at all for the world.
Softer art for harder times? Probably won't fly. Yet we must feel something in order to be human. There must be emotion when it is warranted, and there is indeed a perceptible difference between emotion and sentimentality even though it sometimes takes a microscope to see it. After all, it’s our compassion that keeps the human race going, and we don’t want to lose that.
In the writing we can err both ways. On either side of the good, observant narrative there are pitfalls; effusiveness or stolidity. The line between is walked with a cold eye and a warm heart.
copyright 2009 by craig bickhardt