Paul Vallely: Cheap music brings out the best in us

Admiring our ability to feel the pain of strangers

Share

Emotion plays a bigger part in public life than we often suppose. When the mass killer Anders Behring Breivik announced he detested a song he claimed had been used to brainwash the youth of Norway into supporting immigration, some 40,000 citizens gathered in the centre of Oslo to sing it in defiance. When a 30-year-old runner in the London marathon collapsed and died near the finishing line a shocked British public went onto the website where she had hoped to raise £500 for the Samaritans and made donations that now exceed £1m.

But the donors who went on to Claire Squires's JustGiving page also wrote some odd things. She was brave, they said, and "an angel" who had sacrificed her life for others. It is not to diminish the sadness of the Leicestershire hairdresser's death to say that such comments make no rational sense. It was not as though the poor woman had known that she might die and had decided to run anyway. But hyperbole is part of the language of bereavement, public as well as private. Strangers felt touched, at an unexpected depth, by the intimation that their own death could be as arbitrary – or as imminent. Their small donations assuaged the little grief that their moment of empathy had pricked.

"Extraordinary how potent cheap music is," says Amanda in Noel Coward's Private Lives. The song to which the killer Breivik objected had a jaunty little folk tune and the hit version in Norway was played on a preposterous ukulele. But the two women who announced on Facebook that they were going to sing it, expecting a couple of dozen friends might join them, found that almost 1 per cent of the entire Norwegian population turned out. They sang in the rain, waving red and white roses, the colour of blood and bandages: "Together shall we live, every sister, brother, you and me, young children of the rainbow." But they were not singing for someone else. "We aren't here because of him, but because of each other," as one person.

Breivik got to hear of it. He pronounced the collective singing "illogical". We have seen where his logic leads. On the website where the video of the mighty crowd's gentle song was posted, nasty internet trolls added poisonous ultra-nationalist rhetoric in response. That showed how necessary it was for Norway's silent majority to break its silence. A song was a more effective response than any statement could have been.

Sentimentality is desiring the luxury of an emotion without paying for it, Oscar Wilde once said. Some say that there is a falseness about sentimentality, but it is more a superficiality, a transience or lack of proportion: Hitler wept watching a pair of lobsters boiled, yet unblinkingly sent millions of people to their deaths. Emotion becomes sentiment when we look at others and then project their plight onto ourselves. It is why cheap tear-jerking movies work; it descends into the self-indulgent, the maudlin or the mawkish. It is selective. It dilutes intense feelings to a safe strength.

But there are thoughts that lie too deep for tears. With sentiment, little really alters; but emotion prompts change, so that something – however small – is never the same again. The donations to Claire Squires's web page are an intuitive ritual acknowledgement of that fact. But the stand taken by the Norwegians went beyond the ritual into the political.

Feelings are a necessary precondition of rational thought and action, for without emotion to prick our moral sense, as the philosopher David Hume argued, reason would remain dormant. But it has to be emotion which empowers and not a narcissistic sentimentality which indulges. And that requires self-awareness. Coward knew that: the cheap music Amanda overhears is a hit from years before – written by Coward himself.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there