Christmas ornaments are like little grenades. Each sets off an explosion of memory and feeling. Maybe it’s because we see them only once a year so that they don’t become too familiar to be commonplace. Maybe it’s because they are related to a highly emotional event that is tied to family and friends and ritual. Maybe it is because they are so darn cute. Whatever the reason, they are potent visual cues.
Hauling the boxes of electric candles, tree ornaments, wreaths, tablecloths, boxes, cards from past years, plates and Santa mugs down from the attic is an annual ritual that I enjoy (except for the daunting descent on the pull-down ladder, carrying boxes wider than the opening in the ceiling will allow.) At this time of year, I feel comfortable with a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality that I try to avoid at other times, especially in my work.
What is the difference between nostalgia and sentimentality? Between sentimentality and sentiment? As with many words in the English language, we are dealing with different roots for these words, that come from different cultures and have been modified by our own culture in different ways over time. Rather than looking too closely at the words themselves, maybe we need to look at what they represent. Sentiment is what we feel about something or our opinion about it. It is really somewhat neutral, though it has taken on the caste of being sentimental, by virtue of its closeness in spelling. You could ask, “What is your sentiment about this?” as easily as, “What is your feeling or opinion about this?” In a broader sense, sentiment is a low-key sentimentality, not so extreme, more related to true feeling coming from experience. Sentimentality, on the other hand, has become a pejorative word, meaning excessive nostalgia or feeling with synonyms such as gooey, maudlin, mawkish, saccharine, schmaltzy and corny. Nostalgia has a sense of yearning for some thing, place or time in the past, usually in response to a prompt, e.g, a song, a smell or a madeleine.
But how do we assess the use of sentimentality or nostalgia in our work? When I Googled a comparison of the words, I found that most of the entries were from writers who suggest that this is a much discussed topic in writing classes. Sentimentality is seen as creating a feeling in the reader that has not been created by the writer through plot, characters and language. It is a gimmick, a faux sentiment, a borrowing of emotion from another source. Nostalgia can be a form of sentimentality, but is less extreme and with a broader base of shared experience, as with the use of music in movies to set a mood of a period of time or a catch phrase from pop culture. “Yeah, baby!” anyone? Far out.
What is important seems to me to be to “use” nostalgia or sentiment within a larger context not as a way of avoiding the artist’s responsibility of expressing a personal, unique point of view. An artwork with a 60s vibe may be richer for the allusion but an object that looks like the 60s and has nothing else to say is impoverished.