The rise of American emotionalism

In the context of discussing an embarrassing video in which a hysterical fan blames the playoff loss of the Green Bay Packers on the fact that she wore sparkly nail polish, Ed Driscoll quotes a passage from David Frum’s  How We Got Here: The ‘70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life — For Better Or Worse:

What an amazing turn of events. Only a generation before, the United States had been the homeland of efficiency and practicality, a country so uncongenial to dreamers, artists, and poets that they fled for Europe as soon as they could scrape together the boat-fare. And yet, if we cast our mind back only a little further, the turn of events might not seem so amazing after all. The “Oprah-ization” of public life is usually talked of as it were a brand-new thing. It is in reality the return of something antique. A hundred years ago, middle-class life in Britain and America was bathed in the gush of emotions. Reread the poetry of Swinburne or the orations of Daniel Webster, glance at the paintings of Frederick Leighton or old photographs of the obsequies of General Grant if you doubt it. The wry, laconic anti-emotionalism of a Jimmy Stewart or a Prince Philip is a last relic of the early-twentieth-century reaction against the overwrought romanticism of the Victorians. Bob Dole brought to his political speeches the same sensibility that Ernest Hemingway brought to his novels. Hemingway’s generation had learned in the fire and slaughter of the First World War to mistrust the man who put his hand on his heart while wiping a tear from his eye. Frederick Lewis Allen recalled the terse manners of his contemporaries: “During the whole three years and eight months that the United States fought [the Second World War], there was no antiwar faction, no organized pacifist element, no objection to huge appropriations, no noticeable opposition to the draft. Yet there was also a minimum of crusading spirit…. They”—the men and women of the 1940s—“didn’t want to be victims of ‘hysteria.’ They felt uncomfortable about flag-waving. They preferred to be matter-of-fact about the job ahead…. These people were unstintedly loyal, and went to battle—or saw their brothers and sons go—without reservation; yet they remained emotionally on guard…. disillusioned and deadpan. …”

We think now of the dislike of emotional fuss and show as generically old-fashioned. It is probably truer to say that the laconic style we associate with the GI generation came into fashion in the 1920s and went out in the 1970s, to be replaced by a style reminiscent of the moist, voluptuous sentimentality of a hundred years ago, with the teary television interview replacing black crepe. This was the style of the two party conventions in 1996. It is the style of the most-talked-about mass movement of the 1990s, the evangelical Promise Keepers, who brought stadiums full of middle-aged husbands and fathers together to weep and hug. It is the style of contemporary American evangelicalism. And it is the style of the most successful politicians of the age—the Bill Clintons and the Tony Blairs—as they explain how this or that policy will “save the life of a child.” The gurus of the 1970s taught, and we today still seem to believe, that to delve honestly into one’s feelings requires one to shut down the analytical lobes of the mind. “People often talk about wanting to be spontaneous, to live out of their feelings,” reported the authors of How to Be Your Own Best Friend. “They have locked themselves into intellectual boxes, where they hardly know what they feel any more. They become desperate to experience plain, simple emotion. They think if they could throw away their minds, they would be free.”

via PJ Lifestyle » How Sparkly Nail Polish Doomed the Green Bay Packers.

Form and Feeling

In arguments about worship, both sides often cast the issues in terms of “formal styles” vs. “emotional styles.” That has always seemed a false dichotomy. To me, our formal, liturgical Lutheran services are very emotionally moving. Besides, the opposite of “formal” is “informal,” and the opposite of “emotional” is “unemotional.” And “informal” worship styles happen to leave me cold; that is, it leaves me “unemotional.” I realize that other people react differently.

The point is, form and feeling can actually support each other. That is practically a literary principle. A sonnet is among the most emotional of poems, and yet its form is among the strictest. This is even evident in the Bible.
Justin Taylor pointed me to these observations about the Book of Lamentations from John Piper:

First, Lamentations is a deeply emotional book. Jeremiah writes about what means most to him, and he writes in agony. He feels all the upheaval of Jerusalem in ruins. There is weeping (1:2), desolation (1:4), mockery (1:7), groaning (1:8), hunger (1:11), grief (2:11), and the horrid loss of compassion as mothers boil their own children to eat them (2:20; 4:10). If there ever was intensity and fervor in the expression of passion from the heart, this is it.

The second observation, then, comes as a surprise: This seems to be the most formally crafted book in the Old Testament. Of the five chapters, chapters 1, 2, and 4 are each divided into twenty-two stanzas (the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet), and each stanza begins with a different letter of the alphabet. They are three acrostics.

Chapter 3 is even more tightly structured. Again there are twenty-two stanzas, but now each stanza has exactly three lines. The three lines in each stanza begin with the same letter, and each of the twenty-two stanzas begins with a different letter in alphabetical order.

This is the only chapter that is not an acrostic. But it still has twenty-two lines in conformity with the acrostic pattern of chapters 1-4. Now what do these two observations imply? First, they imply that genuine, heartfelt expression of our deepest emotions does not require spontaneity. Just think of all the mental work involved in finding all the right words to construct four alphabetical acrostics!

What constraint, what limitation, what submission to form! Yet what passion and power and heart! There is no necessary contradiction between form and fire.

via Let the River Run Deep, Desiring God by John Piper – Desiring God, John Piper.


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