The Elusive Self
Sincerity and Authenticity by Lionel Trilling, Harvard University Press. 188pp., $7.95.
ON THE EVENING of May 15, 1970, an audience still spellbound by the labyrinthine connections of the Authentic Unconscious," the last of Lionel Trilling's Charles Eliot Norton lectures, left Lowell Lecture Hall to find streets barricaded with paddy wagons and helmeted riot troops, the Square ablaze with bonfires and theatrical hysteria. Whiffs of pungent tear gas later penetrated even the inner recesses of Adams House where guests at a reception for the Trillings sheepishly held wetted towels to their noses. That spark set off a Spring of agitation and activist preoccupations that left many a subtler or less relevant issue to a later day. And those of us who, faithful to the whole series of Trilling's lectures, had found them as frustrating by their sheer velocity and density as they were arousing, looked forward to the chance to ponder them eventually in more manageable book form.
But even in leisured scrutiny, one finds Trilling's text, appearing now in substantially the same form as the original lectures, no less devastating and sometimes dissatisfying in its ambitiousness. The essay ostensibly traces an historical shift in moral priorities--in the human being's sense of his self--from the virtue of sincerity which occupied the western mind from the Renaissance well into the Victorian nineteenth century, to the more penetrating ideal of authenticity which has come to characterize twentieth century soul-searching.
Trilling makes it clear that he is concerned more with consciousness than with behavior, more with cultural values as they have been interpreted and sometimes proposed by "certain men and classes of men...who make it their business to scrutinize the polity," than with the moral practices of the "masses of men who compose that polity. The consciousness of the intellectual and the everyday behavior of man in society may in fact have very little to do with one another. As householders, parents, and teachers, we maintain implicit allegiance to the older moral order of "sincerity"--of social harmony, peace, and coherence; as participants in the life of the mind, we now avow a more modern ideal of alienation and strife--the "authenticity" of the anti-social and disintegrated consciousness.
ALTHOUGH SUCH A DISTINCTION between morality in consciousness and in action can hardly be as simple as Trilling implies, the whole task he has undertakes--to trace modern shifts in conscious moral categories--eventually makes this study tantamount to a much-abstracted cultural history of the past four centuries in the West. A lesser writer would have floundered under the awesomeness of the ordeal. But Trilling, with extraordinary breadth and specificity of knowledge, manages a plausible coherence in a sea of allusion, exploring and connecting literary, philosophic and psychological territory. He stages, in effect, a dialectical drama of many acts and of swiftly changing sets, where thesis and antithesis are sincerity and authenticity, and where such incongruous couples as Robespierre and Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx, J.P. Sartre and R.D. Laing share the billing.
The effort is remarkable, not for any startlingly original insight concerning any one of these cultural stars or super-stars, but for the ingenious way that Trilling readjusts our view of each in the perspective of an evolving search for self, through the conceptual models of sincerity and authenticity. Both of these words, unfortunately, have drifted into verbal impotence of late. As Trilling admists, "sincerity" these days is at best found at the end of letters which are quite the opposite of sincere. And authenticity has been relegated to antique shops and little-read long-winded existentialist treatises. Trilling sets about to revitalize these words by probing their original etymologies and the host of associations that once clustered intact around each concept.
"Sincerity" first entered common English usage in the early sixteenth century, denoting the purity, soundness, and non-adulteration of anything from alcoholic brews to the Gospel. It soon became associated, most strikingly in Shakespeare, with the moral virtue of wholeness, integrity, lack of dissimulation or pretense. Trilling introduces his concept of sincerity through Polonius's sage advice to be "to thine own self true," that "thou canst not be false to any man." From this point on to its decline in the nineteenth century, the paradigm of sincerity was an idea of self imbedded in social consciousness, with a keen sense of one's dramatic relation with other men. The existence of truth to oneself was linked to the requirements of one's role in a community.
THE RISE OF SINCERITY is thereby inseparable from a larger, subtler revolution in European culture; the pre-eminence of "society" and "community" replaced the older authority of feudalism and of the Church. The "Revolution of the Saints" described by Michael Walzer, with the Calvinist insistence on moral commitment to the community, individual integrity and truthful "plain speaking," is clear expression of the rise of sincerity. The arts followed suit, with narrative elucidating the individual self in autobiography and the novel. Finally, psychoanalysis emerged as a late phase of this quest of the whole, sincere self--being a narrative technique whereby the individual's unity with his past and his adjustment to society is restored.
But as early as the eighteenth century, an undercurrent of thought challenged the notion of the whole self in healthy, happy, honest relation to society. Diderot and Hegel alike accused society of encouraging flattery, dissimulation, and schizoid from one's own true self. A darker search arose for the "authentic" self, a search which implicitly denounced the coercion of society and disbelieved the wholeness of self. While the arts took new inspiration from this quest, they too came under suspicious scrutiny, Emma Bovary and Nietache's "Culture-Philistine" are both testimony to the seductive inauthenticity of a life modeled on the directives of art. The institution of literary narration itself falls into disrepute, and the novel must radically reject both psychology and history.
The point of transition from the pre-eminence of sincerity to that of authenticity is far from clear; well into the twentieth century, as unlikely a thinker as Herbert Marcuse is found guilty of pleading a return to sincerity. But the mainstream is undeniably is another direction, and for Trilling its most radical current is that school of thought which sees insanity as a form of health, a viable "rational" expression of alienation from an "irrational" society.
Trilling's work on authenticity is less coherent and less convincing than his treatment of sincerity. The term "authentic" is not clearly enough defined or strongly enough conceived to support the massive burden of disparate modern thought which it is meant to elucidate. Perhaps the problem is not clearly enough defined or strongly enough conceived to support the massive burden of disparate modern thought which it is meant to elucidate. Perhaps the problem is not the direction he has taken, but simply the unwise assumption that one can at this point perceive and define the limits of one's own operative moral and cultural values. The distanced perspective that clarified his vision of bygone sincerity is lacking when he grapples with the many shapes and guises of the authentic and inauthentic in our own experience.
AND AT ONE POINT the critic himself proves guilty of a kind of inauthenticity. Momentarily blind to his own cultural ethnocentricity. Trilling implies that authenticity is a superior, "more strenuous" moral experience than sincerity: "A very considerable originative power had once been claimed for sincerity, but nothing to match the marvelous the generative force that our modern judgement assigns to authenticity, which implies the downward movement through all the cultural superstructure to some place where all movement ends, and begins." This largely uncritical statement ignores the actuality that all paradigms in their time--even, probably, the paradigm of sincerity make that same implied claim to that still point where movement ends...until the next revolution sets them flying.