The Aesthetic Ingredients of Holiday Romance

We at PEA Soup are happy to announce the inaugural (and timely) entry of PEA Soup’s The Pebble, brought to you by Malcolm Keating, Assistant Professor in the Humanities Division (Philosophy) at Yale-NUS College: The Aesthetic Ingredients of Holiday Romance. Many thanks for Professor Keating for choosing PEA Soup! Here now is Professor Keating:

Even before Halloween has passed or Thanksgiving turkeys are roasting in the oven, the Hallmark Channel begins airing Christmas movies, with titles like Jingle Bell Bride or The Mistletoe Promise. And what do they promise? Heteronormative romance, wintry small town scenes, and a tidy resolution to a holiday-themed crisis, all wrapped up in a red ribbon. Aesthetically speaking, they’re pretty banal, and scholars have pointed out the way they package problematic ideas in nostalgia. But these well-known (and much-satirized) movies are also incredibly popular, with millions of viewers watching them annually. Why do so many people tune in to watch predictable tropes? What is it that they give to viewers? A central concept in classical Indian philosophy of aesthetics—rasa or “flavor”—can help us understand their attraction in spite—and maybe because of—their moral implications.

According to the Kashmiri philosopher Ānandavardhana, who lived in the ninth century CE, all the parts of literary works function together to bring a reader to awareness of the text’s central flavor. Like a panetonne or other holiday cake, these works will have many ingredients which, when put together in the right proportions, result in a single pleasant overriding flavor. But we’ve all had a terrible fruitcake, dried, with too many spices and a cloying overbearing sweetness. So too, Ānandavardhana warns, literary works can go wrong if authors do not follow the relevant norms. These norms govern not only rhetorical detail, like word choice, but also choices of characters and how they relate. For instance, to generate what I’ll call “the Hallmark rasa,” in addition to conversations about the “spirit of Christmas” and words like “hot cocoa,” we require a big-city career-minded woman who falls in love with a rugged small town man. Only once all of the pieces are in place, can the author convey, and can the audience understand, the work’s central rasa, its flavor.

To convey rasa a few basic kinds of ingredients are always necessary: objective determinants, enlivening determinants, consequents, and temporary states of mind. We can illustrate these technical-sounding elements with Jingle Bell Bride, a new 2020 Hallmark Christmas movie which stays true to the genre. An objective determinant is what a character’s emotions aim at: Jessica, our workaholic female lead, falls in love with Matt, our handsome small town hero. This makes Jessica and Matt objective determinants. In contrast, enlivening determinants are features of the plot or circumstances which bring the emotions about (the Sanskrit word for this is uddīpana-vibhāva, and uddīpana means “inflames”). In Jingle Bell Bride, once the story shifts from the big city of New York to the fictional small town of Tapeesa, Alaska, we’re treated to a range of these features: an obstacle to Jessica’s plans to leave, the town’s annual holiday Jingle Bell Princess pageant, Christmas tree decorating, even a Christmas day wedding. (Everyone, even Hallmark, knows that these features are necessary for the Hallmark rasa: the network website has a Bingo sheet where you can track them as you watch.) With the determinants in place, the consequents arise. These are physical manifestations of what’s happening “inside” the characters. Jessica’s glances at Matt, their sitting closely together while watching badly CGI-ed aurora borealis, their dancing in a barn, their inevitable kiss. Finally, temporary states of mind could include arrogance (Jessica starts out too big city, too career-minded) or anxiety (she’s faced with a crisis that takes her to small town Alaska) or relief (the crisis is averted and Matt, it turns out, has a reason to be back in New York with her). These temporary emotions arise and pass, leading up to the culminating, stable, and fully developed rasa. In the case of Jingle Bell Bride, it’s a particular nostalgic, holiday-infused romantic love.

According to Ānandavardhana, in his philosophical treatise the Light on Suggestion (Dhvanyāloka), different ingredients can give rise to nine different rasas: love, comedy, tragedy, cruelty, heroism, fear, horror, wonder, and peacefulness. An excellent work will have a single predominant rasa, although other rasas might be conveyed along the way, to support it. For Ānandavardhana, the most enjoyable rasa is love. It is sweet, intense, and pleasant, but it is also very delicate. Explaining the difficulty for poets and playwrights in conveying love, he says that if a poet “is careless here, he will quickly become an object of scorn to men of taste.”[1] That’s because almost everyone has experienced love, and it’s an important emotion for us. For Ānandavardhana, it’s crucial that the ingredients are put together appropriately, and not mixed with the wrong ingredients. So while the rasa of love can come about even when there are heroic elements in a play, since they naturally work together, other rasas, like horror, could block it. Imagine if, after Jessica arrives in the small town of Tapeesa, a serial killer is discovered to be gruesomely murdering members of the Christmas pageant committee. This subplot would interrupt the effects of the other components. The quaint small town, quiet under a blanket of snow, would come to feel vaguely threatening, not cozy and peaceful.

There are other ways that a work’s primary rasa could be blocked, ways which are more about the moral texture of the work. According to Ānandavardhana, if a female heroine were to openly and explicitly express her sexual desire for a lover, this would be in appropriate behavior and would prevent the rasa of love from arising. Likewise to bring about the Hallmark rasa, characters ought to express their desire in particular ways: kissing is allowed (at least one interrupted kiss before the real deal is preferable) but no intimations of sex and certainly no explicit references. Marriage is typically the end goal, with engagement—or monogamy—strongly implied. That Ānandavardhana’s aesthetic norms cohere with ethical norms is no accident, as audiences are instructed in how they ought to behave as they watch a play—they are moved by coming to understand the rasa, and this is part of their receiving instruction. Hallmark universe morality, likewise, teaches audiences that, like the movie’s characters, if they follow holiday traditions and fall in (heteronormative) romantic love, they too, can resolve whatever problems they face.

And it isn’t just the behavior of the characters that has normative restrictions, but the choice of behavior relative to the character’s nature, for instance their being a god or a human, their being high or low class. Ānandavardhana notes that in poetry, a beautiful description of a king who “leaps across the seven seas” would be inappropriate, as he is not a god, and so this would block rasa [2]. The Hallmark universe tends to have only humans—though Santa occasionally makes an appearance as a kind of demi-god. Still, this world has rules about character types, too. Typically, main characters are white and people of color, if present, play supporting characters. Jingle Bell Bride is an exception to this rule, casting a light-skinned Argentine-American woman (Julie Gonzalo) opposite a black man (Ronnie Rowe Jr.), though, as Brayton (2020) points out, the appropriate behavior for people of color is “helping white protagonists recognize the holiday spirit,” as a kind of “magical minority” [3]. Matt helps Jessica discover her love for Christmas by showing her the beauty of a snowy small town. He does not explicitly express sexual attraction for her, but he does assist her chastely in her quest (she needs a rare flower for a client’s wedding back in New York).

Last, but not least, the dialogue in a play—or the word choice in a poem—is crucial for bringing about rasa. Ānandavardhana spends a great deal of time explaining the subtleties of Sanskrit verse, which had specific syntactical features such as compounding and phonetic changes that writers needed to attend to in their creations. Too many compounds or the wrong sort might block the mellifluous sounds needed for certain rasas. Literature is not merely character and plot, but sound and sense, brought together in surprising and pleasing ways. Beautiful metaphors, striking sounds, imaginative imagery—all these work together with the right characters, setting, and plot. Now, Jingle Bell Bride and most other Hallmark movies have no weighty Shakespearean monologues nor witty Stoppardian dialogues. There are, though, certain expected turns of phrase which are part of the formula. Some character talks about the “spirit of Christmas.” Another may describe hot cocoa. Dialogue in these films moves quickly—light banter rather than weighty pauses heavy with meaning. Even references to family deaths (a dead parent is stock fare for these films) are constrained to simple sadness, with deeper traumas left unexplored.

The ingredients of a Hallmark Christmas movie, Ānandavardhana might say, suggest a certain rasa. It isn’t exactly the sweet rasa of love that he had in mind, although it has overlaps. Rather, it’s a nostalgic holiday-infused romantic love. No woman in the films comes right out and says “I am experiencing love for a man which is appropriate to my status as a white middle-class woman longing for domestic bliss rather than a hectic career.” However, this idea is intimated, or suggested, through the presence of all the above components. The concept of suggestion (dhvani) is Ānandavardhana’s major contribution to Indian aesthetic thought. He argued that, rather than being directly stated, or even indirectly conveyed—as metaphorical meaning would be—rasa was communicated by the linguistic function he calls “suggestion.” The term, which more literally refers to a reverberating sound, such as the echo of a drum, underscores the subtle manner in which aesthetic meanings are conveyed in literature. Stating, “I am in love” is no way to convey the rasa of love, but describing a character’s glances at their beloved in a beautiful setting conveys it through suggestion.

Of course, rather than saccharine mass-market television movies, Ānandavardhana had in mind great epic works like Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata, Valmīki’s Ramāyāṇa or plays like Kālidāsa’s Kumārasambhava. Still, both works by great writers and less noble efforts require the same basic ingredients to convey their meanings. The difference, for Ānandavardhana, is in the poetic imagination (pratibhā), the ability to manifest something new and illuminating, even in old stories. Poets in Ānandavardhana’s day were still drawing on basic storylines and characters found in these very old epics. But Ānandavardhana says that “even though it follows a subject matter that is old,” when a poet is able to use suggestion well, “speech acquires a fresh color” [4]. Thus there is no obstacle in principle for an imaginative writer to put a new spin on yet another holiday romance. Poetry is infinite, according to Ānandavardhana, and by extension, literature in general. Kālidāsa tells the story of the goddess Pārvatī falling in love with the god Śiva, a story which has been told many times before, but in a way that feels new to the hearer, through his original figures of speech and the attention he shows to describing details of Pārvatī’s beauty.

Though Jingle Bell Bride falls far short of the aesthetic beauty of Kālidāsa’s Kumārasambhava, the authors of both works aim to suggest an overriding rasa through a combination of ingredients. This suggestion works because audiences are familiar with the genres, they have associations with the settings, the plotlines, the characters. Ānandavardhana’s audience understands that springtime in mountainous terrain is a setting for love to arise between high class protagonists and that a woman who performs spiritual penance can be worthy of the love of a god like Śiva. Today, modern audiences understand that dances in cozy barns illumined with strings of Christmas lights are proper settings for romantic holiday love and that small-town men who help big-city women with career crises are protagonists worthy of love. The “Hallmark rasa,” that particular overriding flavor of holiday movies, may not result from brilliant imaginative works, but audiences delight in how it comes from formulaic component parts, knowing they will encounter no disruptive complications or insurmountable crises on the way to its arising.

[1] Translation of DL 3.29 in Ingalls et al, p. 530.
[2] DL 3.10 Ingalls et al, 428.
[3] Brayton p. 12.
[4] DL 4.2 Ingalls et al, 679.

Works Cited

Sean Brayton. “Courtship and class conflict in Hallmark’s ‘Countdown to Christmas.’” Feminist Media Studies, 2020, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2020.1723675

Daniel H.H. Ingalls et al, transl. The Dhvanyāloka of Ānandavardhana with the Locana of Abhinavagupta. Harvard Oriental Series 49. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1990.

2 Replies to “The Aesthetic Ingredients of Holiday Romance

  1. This was an absolute delight to read! I must confess I would still be more interested in watching a holiday romcom if there were a *bit* of serial murder sprinkled in, even if the effects on the overall flavor were unhappy.

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