‘For Auld Lang Syne’

­Through the glass darkly

There is probably no more sentimntal song in the world than Robbie Burns ‘Auld Lang Syne’, traditionally sung at the conclusion of New Year gatherings in Scotland and around the world, especially in English-speaking countries.

As well as celebrating the New Year, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is widely used to symbolise other “endings/new beginnings” – including farewells, funerals, and other leavetakings. I have wept uncontrollably on occasions singing or even just hearing that evocative tune, and those words.

‘Should old acquaintance be forgot,

and never brought to mind?

Should old acquaintance be forgot,

and old lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,

for auld lang syne

we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet

for auld lang syne.’

It is never socially advisable to confess to being sentimental. A liking for any kind of cosy fluffiness is generally associated with being uncritical, unsophisticated, even pathetic. But there is nothing wrong with sentimentality. It is a sign of being human. But I have also cried at Bryan Adams’ ‘Everything I do I do for you’ and the long third movement in Mahler’s 3rd symphony. Philosophy has as much to do with feelings as it does with thoughts and thinking. It requires sensitivity and a kind of devotion as well as curiosity about the world and a critical spirit. It is a fascination not only with abstract ideas and logically possible worlds but with concrete and very real human concerns and engagements, “the human condition”.

To be a philosopher is to be steadfastly attentive to what it means to be human, to the passions as well as to much-celebrated “rationality” It is to be concerned with what it means to “exist,” to the satisfactions and worries and real life joys and confusions that affect us all. That is why one of the canonical exhortations in philosophy, inherited from the Delphic Oracle via Socrates, has always been “know thyself,” for it is through unusually rigorous self-examination that we come to know not only ourselves but our Selves, our deepest feelings, fears, and hopes.

Philosophy, accordingly, in its concern for feelings, requires not only emotional sensitivity but an understanding of the emotions, not as curious but marginal psychological phenomena, but as the very substance of life. To defend sentimentality and the emotions – at least, some emotions– as essential to life. Foremost among the essential emotions are the sentiments of love and compassion. Sympathy and vengeance, whether we like to admit it or not, are among the elements in any full concept of justic as not only a public but also as a personal virtue. We react to injury with resentment, and vengeance is the natural consequence of this resentment. Our desire for vengeance and its built in sense of fairness are integral to our recognition of evil - to understand all is not to forgive all. We all have the idea there must be a reckoning. We need to remember that certain emotions essential to life, such as the sentiments of love and compassion, but also what are often dismissed as the lowlier feelings such as grief, gratitude, honour and sentimentality. Not to mention erotic love, which for better or worse has played a huge part in history (what Pascal said about the importance of the length of Cleopatra’s nose is history ).

Roger Scruton is one of the few contemporary philosophers to tackle the significance of sexual desire in his study of the same name. We ought to deplore the marginal role sex receives in discussions of virtue, or the way in which virtuous sexuality is simply understood as abstinence. Only the existentialists devoted time to considering the role emotions play in making us human. A curious omission in a subject that has its roots in Plato’s dialogues like the Symposium and Phaedrus. Others who explore perceptively the role of feelings not surprisingly include novelists like Iris Murdoch, Marcel Proust, and the great Russians - Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Chekhov - all of whom deal with the crucial role of emotions in ethics.

It is also necessary to consider the ways in which we actually experience emotions such as a fondness for kitsch, enthusiasm, energy and being “turned on”. This is the stuff whether philosophers like it or not, of which the human condition is made and without which civilized life would simply be impossible. To find momentary happiness in a Daphne du Maurier novel on a sad Saturday afternoon or Celine Dion Singing ‘My Heart Will Go On’ is to fall foul of the default setting of post modernism - a lazy cynicism. The prejudice against sentimentality is ill-founded and in fact is an extension of that all-too-familiar contempt for the passions in the modern world. Our disdain for sentimentality is the discomfort with any display of emotion, warranted as well as unwarranted, appropriate as well as inappropriate. Sentimentality is in fact nothing more nor less than the “appeal to tender feelings,” and though one can manipulate and abuse such feelings (including one’s own ), and though they can on occasion be misdirected or excessive, there is nothing wrong with them as such and hence nothing wrong with literature or films or songs that provoke us, that “move” us, to abstract affection or weeping.

Sentimentality is concerned with empathy and like any other feeling it can be twisted into something objectionable. Old Nazis sitting round with tankards of beer singing the Horst Wessel lyrics is stomach turning, but the emotion is not. Compare old hippies listening to the Beatles singing ‘Hey Jude’ and you see what I mean. Oscar Wilde once declared: “A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” He also noted that “sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism”. And this from a man who wrote those beautiful fairy tales that never fail to bring a tear to my eyes.

Barnaby ffrench


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