Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My Sentiments Exactly

P.D. James, now in her nineties, has published a new novel, Death Comes to Pemberly—my luck to get it as a Christmas present this year. The novelty of this novel? It is the latest entrant into a growing genre: Jane Austen—or a Jane Austen character—featured in a murder mystery. I’ve just started reading the book, so no more on that subject now. But it brought to mind (the mention of Austen always does) Sense and Sensibility. That nineteenth century work would now have to be titled Reason and Feeling, a much less fetching phrase.

In the modern sense (that word again), our access to reality is through the senses—and that reality is therefore of a material character. And there is nothing else. The material is best understood by hard, logical, scientific, rational approaches in which feeling is held at bay. Curiously feeling is, in common usage today, quite divorced from physical touching; that’s where the word is rooted. Today it means emotion. And Austen’s title, a snapshot of language at a moment of historical time, has always sharply focused for me the materialization, as it were, of a strictly human capacity, that of consciousness. In that sense(!) sense emphasizes the intellect while sensibility points to the modes of intuition, feeling, indeed also of judging: the act of putting a value of some sort, positive or negative, on that which is perceived.

Sensibility has shrunk in meaning and signals a kind of rationality. Such a quality is now ascribed to a person who’s simply sensible. Other words, all ultimately rooted in the senses, that have had similar histories. Sententious comes to mind. It once meant terse, pithy, and full of meaning, a maxim. Now it means moralizing balderdash. Sentiment, derived from the Latin for feeling, once had a neutral tone but has been degraded to mean a thought arising from pure feeling only and therefore lacking the admired teeth of rationality. Unless, of course, the person says, my sentiments exactly. In that phrase the old take on things, thus “my considered opinion,” still prevails.

Here, of course, the necessarily personal character of perception plays a role in producing ambiguity. We think of the rational as capable of confirmation. Out there. Feelings are subjective and, as such (unless we are celebrities), of no importance whatsoever—unless some sort of hard, material underpinnings can be dug out of all that sentimental mush. Sentiment and navel-gazing are both condemned. But there is that Know Thyself. And when all is said and done, sense as rationality produces nothing but statistics, dry as dust.

Pemberly, by the way, was the great estate owned by Fitzwilliam Darcy, he who won the heart of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

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