In a forum in the Sunday New York Times, two writers (Zoe Heller and Leslie Jameson) discuss the meaning of sentimentality and its legitimacy in literature. Heller brings up Dickens, that sentimentalist par excellence, and cites Vladimir Nabokov, who in a lecture about “Bleak House” warns students against scoffing at Dickens’s fondness for sentiment, and says that Dickens’s great art is “the real thing.”
That would be opposed to the unreal, or ersatz, thing — a cheap appeal to our emotions. Heller disagrees with Nabokov, and says that Dickens often used sentiment manipulatively and even dishonestly, when he idealized what was to be pitied. (So Jo, the poor chimney-sweep in “Bleak House,” was portrayed, she says, as “more virtuous, humble and forbearing than any boy who ever lived.”)
Nothing is more subject to sentimentality, whether valid or cheap, than our written memorials to our pets. A dog’s loyalty, for example, can seem so much stronger than any human tie that we end up ennobling the animal for a trait that, after all, comes naturally.
My Labrador, Lily, died last week. Lily was loving and loyal, yes, but also a relentless begger, sometimes aloof, and always officious toward her sister, Lucy, whom she often allowed to lick out her ears without once ever reciprocating, and whom she constantly barged in front of when going out- or indoors or in seeking attention, in the manner of Ralph Kramden brushing Alice or Ed Norton aside to command center stage. On walks, Lucy would stay within leash length, while Lily would forge ahead as if disavowing all acquaintanceship with us. And Lily was a tireless and unnerving starer, always expectant, even after just being fed or walked.
It isn’t sentimental of me to say that Lily, however, was sweet in her last days. She struggled to stand up, but she tried to muster her old enthusiasm for going on walks. Her tail kept wagging even though she must have been in horrible pain, from what the vet guessed was a brain tumor.
I had to have the vet put Lily “asleep,” always a harrowing experience, and a few days after that I experienced one of those unsettling coincidences that seem to visit one (or me, at least) in times of stress or accelerated mental activity. I was leafing through a book of essays while my wife was flipping through TV channels. She settled on a movie called “Stand-up Guys,” and in the instant after the title appeared on our TV screen, I turned the page of my book and came upon a new essay called – you guessed it – “Stand-up Guys.” The movie and the essay had nothing in common except the name.
Both of us were shaken, and we were convinced there was a message in the incident. (Einstein said that coincidences were God’s way of remaining anonymous, meaning, presumably, that they are also His way of announcing Himself.) Maybe Lily was reaching out to us from beyond, telling us she could now stand up? Or telling us to quit being mopes and stand up ourselves? I’m all right, she might have been signaling – so stop being sentimental.