Few books have influenced my worldview as much as "Sincerity and Authenticity".
If I had to name two others, I would say Karl Marx’ "Ec...morePartial Memories
Few books have influenced my worldview as much as "Sincerity and Authenticity".
If I had to name two others, I would say Karl Marx’ "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts" ("the Young Marx") and Sigmund Freud’s "Civilization and Its Discontents".
If I had to name a third, I would say Erich Fromm’s "The Art of Loving".
If I had to name a fourth, the only thing that makes me hesitate to mention Herbert Marcuse’s "Eros and Civilisation", is that I can’t remember whether I have actually read it.
Perhaps the pseud in me just pretends that I have read it. Perhaps I just liked the title and that was enough. I could guess the rest.
All of this reading happened over thirty years ago, when I had just finished an Arts Degree in English Literature and Political Science.
I was determined that I keep my mind alive by continuing my readings in these areas of passion.
I started a lifelong obsession with writers and critics associated with the magazines "Partisan Review" and "Dissent".
Many of them were Jews whose families had come to America from Russia or Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century.
They had a passion for literature and political science, to which I will add philosophy and psychoanalysis.
Not many of them wrote fiction, at least not convincingly, but they nevertheless wrote with style and they appreciated the style of those about whom they wrote (especially Freud and his ability to tell stories).
All these years later, I still derive enormous pleasure from their thinking and writing, and the fact that I think and write at all owes a lot to what I learned from them.
Less Than Total Recall
My two favourite New York Jewish Intellectuals were Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe.
While they both wrote extensively about literature, I would say that Howe was the more overtly philosophical and political.
I am about to commence a personal reading project that involves a more philosophical slant (Kant, Hegel, Marx and the Continental Philosophers up to Zizek).
However, a few days ago, I thought I might indulge in a little preparatory distraction by re-reading Trilling, primarily so that I could enjoy his style and critical authority once more.
The title of the book is so precise and definitive that for me it almost marks this territory as that of Trilling, at least up until 1970, when he presented the lectures upon which the essays were based at Harvard.
If called upon, I could launch into a rant that defined how Sincerity and Authenticity related to my personal philosophy. The subject matter of the book was that fresh in my mind.
Imagine how surprised I was when I discovered how little I recalled of the book (apart from what was implicit in the title) and how much more it contained that is relevant to my current reading interests.
Suffice it to say, I was exhilarated to read Trilling from a new perspective.
A Moment of Sincerity
The book purports to explore the origin and rise of sincerity and authenticity as subject matter of literature.
It quickly establishes that the process started 400 years ago and that the two concepts rose in parallel in both culture and society.
However, what I had forgotten was just how vital to Trilling’s story were philosophers like Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Sartre, Marcuse and Foucault, not to mention writers like Diderot, Goethe, Flaubert, Wordsworth, Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad, and psychoanalysts like Freud, Norman O. Brown and R.D. Laing.
This is not just literary criticism, it is fully-fledged cultural criticism of the highest order.
In order to properly engage with it as a discrete work, it helps if you have some comprehension of Hegel.
I am at the beginning of my Hegelian journey, largely initiated by the extent to which he has been newly embraced by European philosophy (although I infer from this book that America made such an attempt in the 50’s and 60’s).
However, insofar as I attempt to grapple with the Hegelian aspects of “Sincerity and Authenticity”, I might misunderstand Hegel and inadvertently or advertently succumb to Trilling’s polemical intent, not to mention my own.
I hope you will pull me up, if I do.
Begin the Beguine
To tell the story of this book, I really ought to define some of the key terms. However, Trilling hasn’t made this task easy for me.
Late in the book, he says, with a hint of patrician bemusement:
"Irony is one of those words, like love, which are best not talked about if they are to retain any force of meaning – other such words are sincerity and authenticity..."
He dances around the words with subtle skill and refinement. He tends to assume we know very well what he is talking about.
The problem now is that both words have become a little old-fashioned or have been co-opted and stripped of meaning by advertising.
Here is the best I can do.
The closest Trilling comes to a definition of "sincerity" is "a congruence between avowal and actual feeling".
If I tell you I feel well or happy or sad, then I actually, really am.
What I say publicly about how I feel privately is true.
There are two aspects of this equation: firstly, I am being honest with myself (or my self); and secondly, I am being honest with you.
As Polonius counselled Laertes in "Hamlet":
"This above all: to thine own self be true And it doth follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."
Conversely, both Shakespeare and Trilling seem to suggest that, if you deceive someone else, you also deceive or betray yourself.
French and English Sincerity
Trilling makes an interesting differentiation between French and English sincerity:
"In French literature sincerity consists in telling the truth about oneself and to others; by truth is meant a recognition of such of one’s own traits or actions as are morally or socially discreditable and, in conventional course, concealed.
"English sincerity does not demand this confrontation of what is base or shameful in oneself. The English ask of the sincere man that he communicate without deceiving or misleading. ..
"Not to know oneself in the French fashion and make public what one knows, but to be oneself, in action, in deeds, what Matthew Arnold called ‘tasks’..."
In other words, the English do not impose a "positive duty" to be full and frank, only a "negative duty" not to deceive.
The French seem to be more concerned about the soul, whereas the English are concerned about the arena of action, enterprise or business. It is still permissible for a sincere man to have secrets.
In both countries, the concept of sincerity became more important as society segmented into discrete public and private spheres, and within these spheres we each became an individual, not just a member of a family, village, crowd or society.
Literature was concerned with "dissimulation, feigning and pretence". Plain speaking was valued.
Trilling supplies less overt guidance with respect to the meaning of "authenticity".
After citing Polonius ("to thine own self be true"), he waxes lyrical:
"What a concord is proposed – between me and my own self: were ever two beings better suited to each other? Who would not wish to be true to his own self? True, which is to say loyal, never wavering in constancy. True, which is to say honest; there are to be no subterfuges in dealing with him. True, which is to say, as carpenters and bricklayers use the word, precisely aligned with him. But it is not easy..."
There follows a discussion of both philosophers and psychoanalysts.
Trilling quotes Schiller:
"Every individual human being…carries within him, potentially and prescriptively, an ideal man, the archetype of a human being, and it is his life’s task to be, through all his changing manifestations in harmony with the unchanging unity of this ideal."
Trilling then asks: is the archetype, the ideal the "own self" to which one should be true?
Whatever the answer, at this early stage, it is apparent that there are already two selves: the actual and the ideal. We have been split in two.
Is one authentic and the other not? Can both be authentic?
It is implicit that authenticity requires one self and a degree of comfort with this self.
The moment you have two or more selves, you have scope for conflict and confusion and inauthenticity.
Trilling then focuses on the implications of multiple selves or inauthenticity.
In the second essay, "The Honest Soul and the Disintegrated Consciousness", Trilling uses Hegel as the basis for this discussion.
In the "Phenomenology of Mind", Hegel discusses Diderot’s dialogue "Le Neveu de Rameau" ("Rameau’s Nephew")(which had been translated from the French into German by Goethe).
One aspect of the dialogue highlights how everyone acts a part, performs a role, takes a position, does his dance in order to comply with society’s expectations of them. These "impersonations" are insincere and cause us to lose personal integrity and dignity.
The second aspect is that Diderot suspends judgement on the morality of this loss of integrity. It is not shown to be a negative.
Hegel permits both selves to co-exist, and so posits the "self-estranged spirit" or the "self in self-estrangement".
The one self is an honest soul or noble self, the other a base self. Together, they constitute a "disintegrated consciousness". The self is "alienated" from itself. It becomes "inauthentic".
However, in Trilling’s opinion, Hegel sees the honest soul as more contemptuous. "It is defined and limited by its ‘noble’ relation to the external power of society, to the ethos which that power implies." It is more bourgeois. It needs the base self in order to express a negative relation with the external power of society.
The two selves, together, are both needed for the Spirit to move to the next stage of development. The two selves oppose an integrated selfhood in order to advance towards "a higher level of conscious life".
Thus, both selves, and therefore, their alienation from each other, are required for the development of the Spirit. The dialectic is, by definition, two-fold. The self must be disintegrated in order to eventually become free.
The Sentiment of Being
Trilling resorts to Rousseau to oppose the Hegelian analysis.
Rousseau sees a positive in society that is not present in the "savage":
"The savage lives within himself, the sociable man knows how to live only in the opinion of others, and it is, so to speak, from their judgement alone that he draws the sentiment of his own being."
Still, neither Rousseau not Trilling considers this view a solution to alienation. A conflict between self and society still resides in the individual. It is reflected in the language of David Riesman’s "other-directed" and "inner-directed" personalities.
Plus he argues that culture and art contribute to these behavioural distinctions; they are "agents of conformity".
Jane Austen’s "Mansfield Park"
Trilling had a high regard for Jane Austen.
He sees her as supportive of the "noble" against the "base" self. She implicitly denies the Hegelian dialectic. The goal of nobility can only be achieved by rejection of the base and compliance with the dictates of society.
Trilling acknowledges that this is "not an effort of liberation but an acquiescence in bondage, a cynical commitment to the way of the world, to the metropolitan society which Rousseau had denounced as the enemy of all true being."
However, he says, "when its first unease has been accommodated, it can be seen to have in it a curious power of comfort."
In other words, submission, acceptance, conformity, the "single-mindedness" of knowing one’s place in the world, do away with alienation.
Being and Having
Trilling further discusses the concept of "being" in terms of Wordsworth and Marx:
"...being...is the gratifying experience of the self as an entity."
However, this experience could be compromised by social forces: "the great enemy of being was having."
To quote Marx from the "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts":
"The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save-the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour-your capital. The less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life-the greater is the store of your estranged being."
We might have capital, but we don’t have a life. We are estranged or alienated from our labor and from our selves and other selves. We cease to be humans.
Marx’ goal for communism was to get to the point where we could "assume man to be man, and his relation to the world a human one".
Man had to transcend alienation, and he could only do that through Marx’ self-fulfilling prophecy of Communism.
In a sense, Hegel required alienation to move the Spirit to a higher stage; Marx moved Man to a higher stage by overcoming alienation.
However, Marx’ prescription required a revolution against the bourgeois State.
Freud and Marcuse
In the last essay, "The Authentic Unconscious", Trilling explores the implications of a psychoanalytical understanding of the mind in terms of the Ego, the Id and the Super-Ego.
The conflict between these aspects of the mind are sources of disintegration, alienation and mental illness.
Freud recognised that the Super-Ego was required to regulate the self or the Ego, but that it is unduely harsh and gratuitous in how it goes about its task.
While therapy could attempt to bring aspects of the Id and the Super-Ego within the consciousness of the Ego, Freud did not see any end to the conflict. "We are all ill."
Trilling regards his last work, "Civilisation and Its Discontents" as relatively pessimistic in this regard.
He then investigates Marcuse’s "Eros and Civilisation", an attempt to achieve a harmony between the basic ideas of Marx and Freud.
Marcuse believed that the conflict could be overcome and that, even within the time since Freud’s last book was published, there had been a move towards a more sexually permissive world.
However, ironically, while this illustrated the ability of culture to change, Marcuse was skeptical about whether the particular changes were positive. He actually felt that they were detrimental to some positive aspects of the growth of the individual within a family context.
How Do You Integrate the Self?
It’s at this point that Trilling is most polemical and, therefore, most trapped within the social, moral and political framework of the time in which he was writing.
Rather than pull all of these ideas into a single literary and philosophical whole, he spends the last pages attacking a then current trend of regarding mental illness and schizophrenia as an heroic assertion of the self against the evils of society.
Trilling clearly saw mental illness as a major social and cultural problem.
While he was skeptical of the ability of Marxism or Marcuse to overcome it, he failed to construct any strategy to deal with the disintegration of the self.
He did, however, see culture and literature as a playground and a laboratory within which we could thrash out the issues and potentially learn more about our selves.
Culture might increasingly perform the role of entertainment, but it still has the potential to be both playground and laboratory.
It's up to us to play, experiment and explore.
Perhaps, in doing so, we might address the adverse implications of our own divided consciousness and alienation.
Not only might we improve our relationship with our selves, but our relationships with other selves might benefit.
This is what I want to explore in my personal philosophical reading project.(less)