• Email
  • Print

Sincerely Yours

Sincerity and Authenticity

by Lionel Trilling
Harvard, 188 pp., $7.95

Sincerity as a moral category is something fairly new. We find nothing exactly corresponding to the concept in the philosophy of the ancients, or in their judgment of men. But once established in the moral vocabulary during the Renaissance, it must have seemed secure in its place. Sincerity as a species of truthfulness was itself to be counted as one of the virtues; and sincerity in another form was the mark of the virtuous man. For the sincere man was not simply the one who told the truth about himself, and whose professions of friendship were so far to be trusted. He was one whose firmness of character guaranteed a truth to be told. In the early pages of his new book Sincerity and Authenticity Trilling, who is tracing the history of the concept, takes Shakespeare’s Horatio as typifying this ideal.

Hamlet holds him in his heart’s core because, as he says, this friend is not passion’s slave: his Stoic apatheia makes Horatio what we feel him to be, a mind wholly at one with itself, an instance of sincerity unqualified.

The sincere man tells the truth and because of his sincerity there is a simple truth to tell.

On both counts sincerity and virtue were taken as allies. But their relationship was to become more complex with changing views of human nature and changes in the concept of sincerity. Finally it even seemed that the requirements of sincerity and morality might clash.

Rousseau’s Confessions stands as a milestone in the winding road that led to this surprising confrontation, and the influence of this book worked in several different ways at once. In the first place Rousseau’s writings put in question the concurrence of sincerity and decorum; it was difficult after the Confessions to think of self-avowal as the dignified truthfulness of a virtuous man. Rousseau tells of his own disgraceful, shameful actions and challenges his readers to tell the truth about themselves without similar revelations of shame. Moreover the ideal of the strong, consistent, well-controlled personality was somewhat displaced by Rousseau’s refusal to claim that he had such a character. A sincere man might have to search among shifting desires and emotions for the truth about himself, and one had to accept disintegration as a reality in order to see the truth.

Whether Rousseau himself was good at avoiding self-deception is a moot point. Perhaps his insistence that he was, in spite of everything, as good a man as any is part of what is repellent about the Confessions. And it is interesting that in his famous denunciation of Molière’s Misanthrope he fails to recognize the element of self-deception in the character of Alceste, the paragon of sincerity with whom he clearly identifies and whom he so passionately defends.

Be that as it may; there is no doubt that after Rousseau, telling the truth about oneself came to seem more important, more interesting, and more hazardous than before. The difficulties of the individual in society were also seen in a new light. The problem of remaining honest in a corrupt society which demanded falsehood was, of course, an old theme. What Rousseau emphasized was rather the threat to individuality, the difficulty of possessing a personality that was really one’s own when society insisted on obedience and conformity.

Through all this Rousseau was the unquestioning defender of morality, one who saw conscience as the most sublime element in human nature, and who was able to inspire so stern a moralist as Kant. The old alliance between sincerity and apatheia was broken, but the new quest for sincerity was equally a moral task. Meanwhile, however, dynamite had been laid elsewhere. Among Diderot’s papers was lying Le Neveu de Rameau, to be published in Goethe’s translation in 1805, and thereafter to fascinate its many admirers.

In this brilliant work there appears the idea of an opposition between morality and sincerity which haunts us to the present day. Rameau’s nephew—the shameless scalawag Lui of the dialogue—is ostensibly (and no doubt genuinely) an object of reprobation to Diderot’s own representative, the honest Moi. The nephew tells without disapproval tales of the deepest villainy while he himself acts the part of a sycophant and pimp. He scorns morality and he is teaching his child to live as he does. Nevertheless, and this is the strange and disturbing music sounding in the dialogue, the nephew is one who compels a certain admiration. Whereas Rousseau tends to repel us, Rameau’s nephew on the whole does not, perhaps because he has a candor that seems to outdo even Rousseau’s, but perhaps also because his candor is, as Nietzsche would put it, “moraline free.” One has the impression that truth comes the more easily to Rameau’s nephew because he makes no moral demands on the facts.

The nephew has, further, that other part of sincerity on which Rousseau insisted: neither his desires nor his views are formed by the conventions of society; he is his own man. Diderot Moi says, as if in unwilling appreciation, that Rameau’s nephew is one of those who

…break the tedious uniformity that our social conventions and set politenesses have brought about. If one of them appears in a company of people he is the speck of yeast that leavens the whole and restores to each of us a portion of his native individuality.

The honest Moi, disgusted with the superficial life of polite society, suggests at one point that it would be best to retire to a garret, live on dry bread and water, and discover one’s real self, to which the nephew replies that he has not the courage to sacrifice his happiness for something that may not even come off. But the irony is that he himself has no false character to shed: Protean as it is, there is nothing factitious in his personality.

At this point the conflict between morality and sincerity—a form of sincerity—becomes explicit. The nephew says that it is not in his nature to be virtuous, and that he will not try to give himself a “character quite foreign” to him. Virtues are not made for everybody, and he does not intend to torture himself into becoming something quite different from what he is.

Whatever Diderot’s intentions in writing Le Neveu de Rameau—whether he was sympathetic to the nephew or, as Hegel supposed, the plain defender of the Moi—he touched on the elements of a specifically modern form of moral skepticism. Previously it had been the selfish theory of human nature, as propounded by Hobbes and de Mandeville, that had preoccupied eighteenth-century moralists such as Bishop Butler and had led Kant to worry about whether moral action untainted by self-interest could be shown to exist in the world. The new question was rather about the price at which virtue could be bought. For what if the price of conformity to the demands of society were self-sacrifice and self-denial in a literal and sinister sense of those words? Suppose that the desires to be denied by morality were not temptations irrelevant to the whole personality but rather the central, most genuine and wholehearted desires. Suppose that originality and individuality belonged only to the man who resisted efforts to press him into the common sociable mold. What if it were only by resistance that a man could obey the injunction that he should to his own self be true?

By the end of the century in which Diderot’s masterpiece was first studied, Nietzsche had expressed such thoughts with explosive force. Meanwhile the ambiguities of the situation had been still further increased by the positive valuation placed on darkness and disorder in the soul. In the Phenomenology Hegel had praised the spirit which, conscious of its own distraught and torn condition and expressing itself accordingly, had already won for itself a higher form of life than that attained by the “simple, placid consciousness of the good and the true”; while Dostoyevsky had spoken of the strength he found among the criminals whose lifes he shared in Siberia. In Nietzsche there appears, at moments, a glorification, a romanticization, of evil, of which Thomas Mann has remarked that it seems to us today “time-bound…theoretic and inexperienced.”

Out of all this a certain truth had, however, emerged. The human heart is a heart of darkness, and he who will accept only order and clarity deludes himself.

…Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all ladders start,
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Yeats’s haunting lines are quoted by Trilling in his fascinating little study of the theme of sincerity as it has run through literature during the past four or five centuries. As he tells the story it is subtle and complex, involving not one or two opposing ideas but rather five or six. He sets the ideal of the “honest soul” against that of the “disintegrated consciousness.” He shows how the antiheroic comes to replace the heroic, and he describes the different demands that have been made on art—that it should teach us how to live, for instance, or that it should give us the “sentiment of being” through fragmentary revelations of reality.

In all this Trilling ranges, to the reader’s profit, beyond the subject of sincerity to related topics, but finally he returns to consider the form that the demand for sincerity has taken in modern times. As the story has unfolded it is, he thinks, authenticity that has come to occupy our minds, and there is, of course, some justification for seeing the matter in this light, particularly as both Hegel and Sartre have represented themselves as skeptics about sincerity, and Sartre prefers “authenticity” as the name of his ideal. As Trilling writes of Sartre’s conception of the artist and his audience,

When, in Sartre’s La Nausée, the protagonist Roquentin, at the end of his diary of queasy despair, permits himself to entertain a single hope, it is that he may write a story which will be “beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence.” The authentic work of art instructs us in our inauthenticity and adjures us to overcome it.

Trilling discusses authenticity as it appears in the writings of existentialist and postexistentialist authors, and particularly in Sartre and Nathalie Sarraute. He describes, for instance, Sartre’s criticism of the Freudian search for self-knowledge, and Nathalie Sarraute’s microscopic examination of inauthenticity in everyday life. How he views these authors he never quite reveals. He criticizes them, it is true, accusing them of contributing to the “gabble” of culture, and yet it is hard to avoid the impression that he is a little anxious in the face of these prophets of the modern age. He never challenges the use of the word authenticity itself, either for its sense or its cogency, and accepts as its face value the suggestion that Sartre and Sarraute have a “more strenuous” ideal of authenticity than that of many previous writers.

If Trilling fails to confront the modern apostles of authenticity, the key to the omission may lie in his relative neglect of Nietzsche, for it is by contrast with Nietzsche’s treatment of the real and the factitious personality that these later writings seem weak and strangely old-fashioned. For sincerity as plain speaking, Nietzsche had little admiration. The profound man is, he says, one who needs a mask. But no one was so ruthless as he was in showing how the demand for social conformity and virtue might produce a contrived personality behind which hatred could grow strong. Was Nietzsche also preaching authenticity? One might say that he was, and yet there is a world of difference between his outlook and that of Sartre or of Sarraute.

One can see this in Sartre’s case if one looks at his polemic against Freud. The arguments by which Sartre tried to show that the Freudian unconscious was a contradictory entity were entirely futile, relying on a slogan about knowledge being consciousness that would never have survived a more ruthless pursuit of truth. But what is evident in these passages, besides Sartre’s readiness to rely on a flimsy philosophical structure in opposing a radical empirical theory, is the intense moralism of his outlook. Freudian analysis is supposed to involve Sartrean bad faith because a man comes to see the unconscious elements in his psyche as something for which he need not take responsibility. And what, one may ask, does that matter? Why not encourage the poor devil to let himself off? But this, of course, is just what Sartre will not countenance: one is not to get away with anything with this denouncing angel around.

Nor is this an isolated note of moralism in Sartre and his followers. Trilling notices the “harsh contempt” with which Nathalie Sarraute treats the wretched Emma Bovary on account of her “inauthentic” daydream existence and says that Sarraute’s relentlessly censorious tone suggests “the moral intensity we now direct upon questions of authenticity.” But who is Trilling speaking for here? Are “we” really prepared to accept this moralistic outlook which sees shame as the natural reaction to our lives?

If we reject such a standpoint we shall have Nietzsche wholly on our side. He saw shame as one of the expressions of self-hatred, and saw this self-hatred as deriving from a religion that taught men to suffer from themselves. For all his atheism Sartre is still, one may think, haunted by a god who is, as Nietzsche puts it, “a god who demands,” whereas Nietzsche himself prefers a god “who helps, who devises means, who is at bottom the word for every happy inspiration of courage and self-confidence.” Abandoned by the God of Christianity, Sartre takes over the role of one who judges and finds fault, and it is indicative of this deep-seated predilection that some of the things Sartre finds significantly inauthentic are not really inauthentic at all. The famous Sartrean waiter throwing himself into an exaggerated rendition of his role as a waiter is a case in point. Such superficial role playing is surely of no significance and only a bias such as Sartre’s could have made it seem otherwise.

If one becomes weary of the tendency in Sartre and Sarraute to find inauthenticity everywhere in the commonplaces of life, this may be a sound reaction rather than, as they would no doubt say, a defense of one’s own inauthentic life. At least one has the right to be suspicious—more suspicious than Mr. Trilling is in this book—of a philosophy that sees the reflexes of shame and disgust as so closely connected with a truthful attitude to life.

  • Email
  • Print