It often starts with a dark screen. The first strains of something dolorous or heart-wrenching come from the speakers, and images of . . . pathetic critters/starving children/people “cut down in his prime/just starting her life” begin crossing the screen. Depending on the piece, a plea for a donation may follow, or a news-reader may add solemn, understated commentary. The clip ends with the charitable group’s logo, or a jump to a commercial.
“Bathos” was coined (or at least first recorded ) by Alexander Pope, the poet and essayist, in 1727. It means an abrupt decline, “from the sublime to the ridiculous.” The attribution fits Pope, who could be sharp of pen and withering of criticism. It also fits his period in English literature, when evoking and excess of the wrong sort of emotion was considered a sign of low wit and Not Done.
Today the word is usually invoked when pathos goes too far toward tear-jerking in an inappropriate or ham-handed way. It sometimes appears in books when the author kills off a beloved character just to get an emotional response from the reader. For modern readers, the death of Little Nell in Dickens’ Ye Olde Curiosity Shop touches on the bathetic. At the time, people loved it (well, aside from Oscar Wilde . . .)
The commercials described at the start of this post often plunge headlong into the depths of bathos, at least for me. It’s not something that I react well to, because I tend to respond strongly to emotional manipulation, especially too-obvious efforts at making me feel guilty. Blame Sally Struthers [corrected] and the “Feed the Children” commercials during the [politically caused] famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s. Having a plump-looking lady soulfully pleading for someone else to give money to feed starving children did not go over well at RedQuarters, although my parents were kinder than some cultural commentators.
The past year has sent bathos overflowing from the TV screen. Not just the animals-dying-in-the-cold commercial that only succeeds in testing my blood pressure, but the stuff on the national news. Monday night’s montage of photos of people who died from the CCP virus over the past year reminded me of a Soviet funeral scene, except that the music wasn’t classical. I’m almost surprised that they didn’t use the “Albioni Adagio” (as it is often called), except for the cost of broadcast royalties. The propaganda and heavy-handed manipulation of emotion were just too much. I’m supposed to feel great sorrow and sympathy for the deceased, and be angry at whoever [the previous administration] caused their demise. Instead I got snarly and impatient, because if I tried to write a scene that heavy-handed, people would wall my books.
I can do it, and I’ve come close. As a writer, you have to be deft, and walk a careful line. Evoking strong emotion should have a reason, like killing off a character does. If I want the reader to feel sympathy for a character, I prefer to show the character battling his way through, or trying, failing, and then gathering himself for another try. Understatement and allowing the reader to fill in the feelings for herself, works better in my opinion. If I tell the story well, the reader doesn’t need syrup poured over a scene to get the idea I’m aiming for. That is, unless I’m deliberately playing with something to make fun of it, or of a character to make fun of it. Sort of like when André and Lelia get purposely overly formal and Victorian, leading their teen-aged sons to roll their eyes and make gagging sounds.
When bathos is used for political propaganda, my alarms sound and my hackles rise. I automatically oppose whatever is being eulogized. It’s as if a switch is flipped in my brain. There’s a certainly warped humor in an author – someone who makes part of her living telling stories designed to invoke an emotional response – hissing at the TV screen or page when she encounters material designed to push emotional buttons. That’s exactly the problem. I’ve been around emotional manipulation. I’ve studied propaganda of different kinds, but the blatant and the subtle. I know what I’m seeing, and I do not like it.
The same with novels. Subtle works better with me. Actually, most of the books that had me in tears were works of history. Events and how people responded to them get a stronger emotional response than does most pathos in fiction. Is it cynicism? Or having been exposed to propaganda enough that I’m sensitive in the wrong way? Perhaps the latter led to the former. I am a child of the Cold War, and studied various ways that governments and organizations advanced their message.
I was reviewing Communist propaganda in order to refresh my memory of the characteristics of Socialist Realism. Oh lordy. *rolls eyes* Granted, most of what is quickly available on-line is going to be obvious, because it is obvious, and doesn’t require a deep knowledge of the culture. Happy Soviet farm workers with their brand-new super-modern farm machinery working for the glorious Socialist future . . . A young Mao hiking up the crest of a mountain ridge with the (clean, well-fed, and very well-dressed) fellow members of the Long March, leaving storms behind them as they look into the glorious Socialist future . . .
They are amusing, now, for how they reverse the truth of conditions and events. They are also scary. The stuff on the news and the commercials is not amusing. It is disturbing, and in many ways condescending. At least, that’s how it registers with me. But I’m somewhat warped. I’m a writer who distrusts strong emotion.