Saturday, 23 July 2011

Mawkishness on the March

When did it begin? Apparently in 1702. 'Mawkish' comes from 'mawke' meaning maggot and first meant 'sick', then 'bad tasting'. In 1702, it had its first recorded figurative use meaning 'sickly sentimental'.

But it took the mass media to really get it rolling as a cultural phenom.

Personally, it started for me with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Shocking, of course. Scary, yes. But something for strangers to cry about? Huh?

Mawkishnes's next grand display, I suppose, was the murder of John Lennon. Again, shocking. Scary, not so much. But not a case for tears.

Mawkishness really bloomed (sorry) with the death of Princess Diana (emphasis mine).
Members of the public were invited to sign a book of condolence at St James Palace. Throughout the night, members of the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and the Salvation Army combined to provide support for people queuing along the Mall. More than one million bouquets were left at her London home, Kensington Palace, while at her family's estate of Althorp the public was asked to stop bringing flowers, as the volume of people and flowers in the surrounding roads was said to be causing a threat to public safety.

By 10 September, the pile of flowers outside Kensington Gardens was 1.5 metres deep in places and the bottom layer had started to compost. The people were quiet, waiting patiently in line to sign the book and leave their gifts. There were a few minor incidents. Fabio Piras, a Sardinian tourist, was given a one-week prison sentence on 10 September for having taken a teddy bear from the pile. When the sentence was later reduced to a £100 fine, Piras was punched in the face by a member of the public when he left the court. The next day, Maria Rigociova, a 54-year-old secondary school teacher, and Agnesa Sihelska, a 50-year-old communications technician, were each given a 28-day prison sentence for having taken eleven teddy bears and a number of flowers from the pile outside St. James' Palace. This too was later reduced to a fine (of £200 each) after they had spent two nights in prison.

OK, flowers are traditional symbols of sympathy. But fucking teddy bears??!
Some criticised the reaction to Diana's death at the time as being "hysterical" and "irrational". As early as 1998 philosopher Anthony O'Hear identified the mourning as a defining point in the "sentimentalisation of Britain", a media-fuelled phenomenon where image and reality become blurred. These criticisms that were repeated on the 10th anniversary, where journalist Jonathan Freedland expressed the opinion that "It has become an embarrassing memory, like a mawkish, self-pitying teenage entry in a diary,... we cringe to think about it." In 2010, Theodore Dalrymple wrote "sentimentality, both spontaneous and generated by the exaggerated attention of the media, that was necessary to turn the death of the princess into an event of such magnitude thus served a political purpose, one that was inherently dishonest in a way that parallels the dishonesty that lies behind much sentimentality itself".

Some saw it as a cause for bleeding heart liberals to hang their angst on.
Some cultural analysts disagreed. Sociologist Deborah Steinberg pointed out that many Britons associated Diana not with the Royal Family but with social change and a more liberal society: "I don't think it was hysteria, the loss of a public figure can be a touchstone for other issues."

Ah, but then there was 9/11 and mawkishness became manly for hawks, too.

So, now mawkishness is for everyone and any sort of sad or shocking event. (Oooh, look at the company I'm keeping in that piece.)

And, of course, a certain Faux News personality lowered raised mawkishness to a (weird and fake) art form. (Bonus tracks: Five Great Moments in Glenn Beck Crying on Air.)

More recently, the Right Wing Noise Machine went into overdrive over the so-called Ground-Zero Mosque.

And I could go on and on with examples of other professional and semi-professional weepers, but you get the point.

Now technological advance has made mawkishness viral. Witness the virtual mound of flowers and teddy bears.

Yes. I'm a bad person.

ADDED: Ooh, am I prescient or what? 'Mawkishness' is now Word of the Day.

Image source


Niles said...

I don't think you're a bad person. You sound like you're more able to step back from social shocks more than some.

I think people are reacting to the most primal fear that can be induced in a living being. Death makes people and other mammals crazed.

The flowers and teddy bears and other things left in memoriam for the dead seem to me to be the most recent form of public ritual offerings. They're meant to salve personal psychic stress, be icons of comfort and peaceful times -- especially teddy bears -- stuffed toys are handed out from ambulances to traumatized children at crisis scenes. Doesn't mean it wouldn't be more useful for people to donate to causes or the like, but that's asking for a completely rational reaction from every human being carrying their own personal baggage around death and threats.

The fact that money-grubbing grifters and authoritarian leaders of all stripes manipulate such a deeply overwhelming human aspect shocks, SHOCKS me. That's the mawkish part for me. In my opinion, mawkish is Frank Miller's lastest piece of work "Holy Terror".

fern hill said...

Teddy bears for children, I understand. But for Di? (OK, she was pretty childish.)

It's the display that bugs me. Of course I feel for the people of Norway. But I don't think it's appropriate or necessary or whatever for me to make a display of my sympathy.

Yo! Norway! Congratulations! Your Facebook sympathy page just hit a gazillion 'likes'.


fern hill said...

Thought for a moment more. . .

There's a personal angle at the moment. An old friend had a stroke recently. She's in a very bad way, can't talk, can't recognize people. And her partner -- who is also in a very bad way, natch -- has to fend off a buncha people who want to visit, bring flowers, cards.

To make themselves feel better.

It makes me angry.

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