In a conversation about sad stories over at my blog a couple of years ago, S.D. Smith made a great point. To quote the man himself:
“Maybe JR, there’s something in the discussion of what kind of sad is helpful and what kind of despair is basically hurtful. There’s a difference between digging through the septic tank to recover the wedding band and just going for a swim in the thing.”
Leave it to S.D. There’s potty humor, and then there’s S.D. Smith potty humor. But, as I said, the man makes a good point. What are the proper purposes of sadness in song and story? Allow me to answer in three principles, followed by two ways of getting sadness wrong.
Principle #1: A good sad story clarifies what is important to us. We love better when we ponder what it would mean to lose the thing we love. Which is what Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 is about:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
I love that last line—“To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” Autumn, in many ways, is sadder than winter. The leaves’ last burst of beauty before they die and fall is more affecting than the cold and barrenness that follow after they’re gone. The best sad stories and songs do something to our souls that is comparable to what the autumn leaves do. Beauty and loss commingle—the beauty sharpened by the loss, the loss sharpened by the beauty.
Principle #2: A good sad story strengthens our empathy muscles. A good sad story makes us better at feeling for people who hurt, and that’s a good thing.
Principle #3: A sad story well-told convinces the reader that sadness doesn’t have the final say. A good sad story makes me realize that sadness is a thing to be gone through and not stepped around—because it does good work in our souls. I’m not especially interested in fiction in which sadness or hurt don’t do any particular work in people’s souls—either the characters’ or mine.
There are plenty of sad stories that don’t pass these tests. On the one hand there are sentimental stories. I ran across a great definition of sentimentality recently. Sentimentality invites us to enjoy another person’s pain rather than entering into it. Sentimental stories violate Principle #1 by cheapening the things we value rather than making them more dear. Sentimental stories violate Principle #2 by distancing us from hurt or, alternately, giving us a substitute for hurt that has no nutritional value.
In an earlier post I mentioned how much I love the old George Jones song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It makes me want to cry every time I hear it (and I’ve heard it a lot).
“We found some letters by his bed/ Dated nineteen-sixty two,/ And he had underlined in red/ Every single ‘I love you.’”
I defy anyone to show me a more perfectly delicious sadness in song or story. But it occurs to me that “He Stopped Loving Her Today” doesn’t pass the test I’m proposing here. It is time I acknowledge that I love that song because it’s the best sentimental song in the American songbook.
If sentimentality is one end of the bad sadness spectrum, the other end is meaningless hurt and sadness. Here I’m going to criticize a couple of books that a lot of Rabbit Room readers love. I am not, of course, criticizing said readers. I invite any and all to come to the defense of The Road and The Giving Tree.
The Road is a brutal example of a story in which suffering and sadness seem to point toward no greater good. The only way I can tolerate The Road (which, by the way, has a lot of beautiful writing and and a lot of writing that’s just the right kind of ugly for the subject matter) is to view it as a thought experiment: “Let’s pretend the universe is meaningless, and see where that idea gets us.” Where it gets me is high-tailing it back to the Gospel. So it at least did that much for me. I know people who see hope in The Road (and I think this is truer for the movie—which I haven’t seen—than for the book).But as I said in a comment once, any hope a person sees in this book is hope that he brought there himself. He didn’t find it there. I realize that I may have overstated my case. Again, I welcome all efforts to convince me otherwise, because I think pretty highly of Cormac McCarthy and would like to like The Road better than I do.
If The Road offers the brutal version of meaningless sadness, there’s a kinder, gentler version of meaningless sadness, and it’s brought to us by The Giving Tree. I re-read this story recently, and I remembered why I dislike this book so much. The sadness and the sufferings of that most generous tree don’t amount to anything. The tree gives, but she gives only to indulge (and only temporarily) the whims of the boy who never benefits or grows as the result of her sacrifice. She cannot give him what he needs, and what she can give turns out to be limited. The Giving Tree might try a little tough love. What looks like sacrifice is really just co-dependence (forgive the pop-psychology word, but it’s the only one that fits). The Giving Tree is, in essence, an unfunny martyr-mother joke. You half expect it to end in a scene like the one depicted here. Father Thomas McKenzie, for one, disagrees with me on this point, believing that The Giving Tree offers a reasonably good picture of Jesus’s sacrifice for ungrateful people like you and me.
There, that ought to give everybody something to talk about. Somebody, please convince me that I’ve got The Giving Tree all wrong. People love this book, and when possible, I prefer not to be the contrarian.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.