Great art speaks to our soul. Consider, for example, a song like Jolie Blonde. In mournful Cajun French the singer wails:
Jolie blonde, regardez donc quoi t’as fait,
Tu m’as quitte pour t’en aller,
Pour T’en aller avec un autre, oui, que moi,
Quel espoir et quel avenir, mais, moi, je vais avoir?
(Pretty blond, look at what you’ve done
You left me to go away
to go away with another, yes, than me
What hope and what future am I going to have?)*
Great art tells the truth, and if we allow him to do so, a great artist can forge a union between his heart and our own as, together, we peer into ourselves. In this example, even if one can’t understand the lyrics, one can nevertheless feel the heartsick misery of a man who has lost his beautiful lover to another. That sadness can be infectious, and our own heart begins to ache with the singer’s.
From the singer’s sadness we are one step away from the elemental sadness that is inseparable from the human condition, and in a moment of mystical transcendence we touch the collective sadness of our race. That moment, if it comes, can be overwhelming, resulting in a cathartic cleansing that is often associated with great art and intense religious experience.
Does the undeniable reality of the experience I described point to something beyond ourselves? Or is it merely maudlin sentimentality pushed on us by our genes? If so, why would natural selection select for maudlin sentimentality?
* Harry Choates’ 1946 version (see here) is probably the standard.