Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cold Eye, Warm Heart

A procession of ants invaded our kitchen not long ago. We sprayed, we cleaned, and the ants retreated. They were back a few days later following a slightly different path. It has been a month now and we've conceded that maybe these ants are smarter than we are. Their intelligence is collective, of course, but does it matter?

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
In nineteen-sixty-one
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


Tim McMullen said...

Sentiment in the defense (or pursuit) of art is no vice! Okay, it can be...but I would make the distinction between pathos and bathos—between sentiment and sentimentality—between moving and manipulative. My guess is that for the clever, story-song teller, a certain kind of self-imposed restraint is necessary to prevent a powerful and moving story from becoming a maudlin mess.

Last time I shared my Gogi Grant story, this time I offer one of the earliest poems that I remember being moved by. I found it in a hard cover book of poems "for children" that my parents had bought for me when I was about seven. It had the typical Stevenson poems and those by Edward Lear and Eugene Field, but it also had poems by Thomas Augustine Daly in Italian dialect ("Two 'Mericana Men—about immigrants and stereotyping, and "Leetla' Giorgio Washington" with a clever twist on the cherry tree story) and one of my all-time favorite pieces, "The Vinegar Man" by Ruth Comfort Mitchell. I still use these pieces with my students and have done so for going on forty years.

The Vinegar Man

The crazy old Vinegar Man is dead! He never had missed a day before! 

Somebody went to his tumble-down shed by the Haunted House and forced the door.
There in the litter of his pungent pans, the murky mess of his mixing place,
Deep, sticky spiders and empty cans with the same old frown on his sour old face.

"Vinegar—Vinegar—Vinegar Man!

Pepper for a tongue! Pickle for a nose! 

Stick a pin in him and vinegar flows! 

Ketchup—and—chow-chow—and—Vinegar Man!"

Nothing but recipes and worthless junk; greasy old records of paid and due;
But down in the depths of a battered trunk, a queer, quaint valentine torn in two.
Red hearts and arrows and silver lace, and a prim, dim, ladylike script that said,
(Oh, Vinegar Man, with the sour old face!) 
"With dearest love, from Ellen to Ned!"

He pickles his heart in” a valentine! 

“Vinegar for blood! Pepper for his tongue!
Stick a pin in him and” once he was young! 

"With dearest love" to the Vinegar Man!

Dingy little books of profit and loss (died about Saturday, so they say),
And a queer, quaint valentine torn across…torn, but it never was thrown away! 

"With dearest love from Ellen to Ned" "Old Pepper Tongue! Pickles his heart in brine!" 

The Vinegar Man is a long time dead: he died when he tore his valentine. 

Ruth Comfort Mitchell

Yes, it verges on sentimentality, that little catch in the throat, but the wonderful juxtaposition of the older narrator recalling his own childhood voice and then merging the two into an adult recognition of a tragic life suddenly revealed (a little like Kane's "Rosebud"), stays well on the right side of the line. The complex interplay of internal and end rhyme is also masterful as are the alliteration and the parenthetical caesura (the matter of fact, "died about Saturday”) that pulls it back to the harsh reality.

When I heard Danny O'Keefe's "Valentine Pieces," from his second album, O'Keefe, It evoked a very feeling, except that it was written in the first person, and the hurt was more immediate:

"The valentine pieces litter the floor of my room...
I should go get the broom..."

I’d say, keep your art ever to the fore, and the sentiment will take care of itself!

PS: I got so carried away (as usual), I forgot about the ants. I think you have inspired me to make my first posting of one of my short stories on my blog. It is a cautionary tale about a man with feelings about killing ants that are very similar to yours (and whose feelings, of course, mirror my own). I'll let you know when it's posted; you might get a kick out of the "similar minds" experience.

Anonymous said...

Hey Craig,

I hope you are doing well. I wanted to share a link to a regular radio program on NPR called "Radiolab." Tonight's broadcast was called "Pop Music," which was amazing. The title doesn't allude to the amazing content of the hour, but a subtitle they used was more accurate-"the music inside your head." If you click the link below and look to the right of the page for the "Now Playing" section, make sure the "episodes" tab is selected, and scroll down for the "Pop Music" selection. There's a very intriguing discussion including country music and the universality of its stories, Zimbabweans, and also a (possibly plagiarizing) Afghan named Ahmad Zahir, as well as a bit about people who hallucinate music, the songwriter Bob Dorough, and the song "Downtown." Somehow it all works together for a really great listen about music. NPR and PBS are my new heros. Enjoy!


Jim Sotzing said...

The damn carpenter ants are not sentimental about eating my house, so I say spray the buggers. But then again I ain't no song writer (so far).

chromehead said...

These were what are commonly called Sugar Ants, not the destructive (and larger) Carpenters. But, they aren't sentimental either!

Tim Wheeler said...

McMurtry's "We Can't make it Here" is one of my favorite songs of the decade. The cutting edge of his lyric is daring and raw, and he evokes an emotional torrent against the machine / greed / Walmart, while still emoting the tenderness of a struggling young mother who had bigger dreams for her life.

I tend to write more hopeful lyrics, but when I listen We Can't Make It Here, I am confounded by a hope that is incited inside of me, externally coaxed by his visceral hope-antonymous lyric.

It paints, for me, what hope is up against.

People often hear something other than what we write, especially when we open emotional veins that cloud the hearing with the thought-flow of their experience.

It often seems that when I try to guide the listener down a path I want them to go, I end up building dams between the lines where the spirit might otherwise flow.