Notebook, 1993-

'Sincerity and Authenticity'

Trilling, Lionel. Sincerity and Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press. 1972

II. The Honest Soul and the
Disintegrated Consciousness

Our investigation of sincerity has no sooner begun than it has led to public and even to political considerations. This, if it is surprising at all, cannot be more than momentarily so. Doubtless, when we think about sincerity, we first conceive of it as a quality of the personal and private life, as bearing upon the individual's relation to himself and to others as individuals. Yet the intense concern with sincerity which came to characterize certain European national cultures at the beginning of the modern epoch would seem to have developed in connection with a great public event, the extreme revision of traditional modes of communal organization which gave rise to the entity that now figures in men's minds under the name of society. A salient trait of society, I have suggested, and what differentiates it from the realm or the kingdom and even from the commonwealth, is that it is available to critical examination by individual persons, especially by those who make it their business to scrutinize the polity, the class of men we now call intellectuals. The purpose of their examination is not understanding alone but understanding as it may lead to action: the idea of society includes the assumption that a given society can be changed if the judgment passed upon it is adverse. In the framing of such judgments the ideal of sincerity is of substantial importance. It is adduced as a criterion in three considerations: [1] Of the sincerity of the person making the judgment This must be beyond question and fully manifest. [2] Of the degree of correspondence between the principles avowed by a society and its actual conduct. [3] Of the extent to which a society fosters, or corrupts, the sincerity of its citizens.

The last of these considerations is the subject of a work which must always have a special place in the development of the ideal of sincerity, Diderot's great dialogue with the scapegrace nephew of the composer Rameau. The date of the composition of Le Neveu de Rameau is uncertain; it was written sometime between 1761 and 1774 and, for reasons of discretion, was not published in its author's lifetime. Included among the books and manuscripts which were purchased from Diderot by his patron Catherine the Great, it was clandestinely copied, smuggled out of Russia, and brought to Germany in 1803. Its subsequent career is legendary and sums up the intellectual life of Europe for a century. Schiller, when it was shown to him, recognized its genius with rapture and rushed the manuscript to Goethe, upon whom it burst, as he said, like a bombshell. Such, indeed, was Goethe's enthusiasm for the dialogue that he at once engaged to translate it. In order to annotate the text he undertook a headlong reading of the French literature of the eighteenth century, as a result of which he recanted the famous adverse judgment he had made upon the French mind in his student days at Strasbourg. Goethe's translation, whose progress was Schiller's chief concern in the last months of his life, was published in 1805. This was the version read by Hegel, who cited the dialogue in Phänomenologie des Geistes, enshrining it as a work of exceptional significance, the paradigm of the modern cultural and spiritual situation. Part of Hegel's comment, which I [p. 27] shall presently touch on, is quoted by Karl Marx in a letter to Engels in 1869 in which he says that, having just discovered that he owned two copies of Rameau's Nephew, he is sending one to his friend in Manchester for the 'fresh pleasure' this 'unique masterpiece' will give him. Freud read the dialogue with an admiration which was doubtless the more intense because its best-remembered passage, which he quoted on three occasions, formulates his Oedipal theory in unabashed simplicity: 'If our little savage [that is to say, any boy] were left to himself and to his native blindness, he would in time join the infant's reasoning to the grown man's passions--he would strangle his father and sleep with his mother.'

It is scarcely possible to describe the protagonist of the dialogue in a way that will be both summary and accurate. The significance of his character lies, of course, exactly in its contradictions. Because the younger Rameau breaks the taboos of respectable reticence and, at least on the occasion of his conversation with Diderot in the Café de la Régence, discloses all his desires, we are tempted to think that he is meant to represent the Freudian id, that he is a creature of 'drives', lustful, greedy, wholly obedient, as Freud says the id is, to the 'inexorable pleasure-principle'. And this way of thinking about the Nephew seems the more permissible because of the virtuousness which marks his interlocutor; the Diderot of the dialogue is the avowed defender of rational morality. But in point of fact Rameau's behavior is not id-directed. It is almost wholly under the control of the ego. His ruling concern is with self-preservation, which, Freud tells us, is the ego's chief task. Out of this concern he is preoccupied, we might say obsessed, with society and with the desire for place and power in society. Above everything else, he longs for artistic success. In part he wants this for disinterested reasons, in part for the adulation and [p. 28] affluence it will bring. He is tortured by envy of his famous uncle, and bitter at having to live in his shadow. [He still does, poor man--the Penquin translation of Rameau's Nephew displays on its cover a reproduction of Louis Carrogis Carmontelle's portrait of the great Rameau.] His own talents are by no means negligible. His taste in music is exigent and censorious. His command of the musical repertory is prodigious, and by extravagant effort he has, as he puts it, subdued his fingers to do his will on the keyboard and strings. But despite his native abilities and the cruel self-discipline to which he has subjected himself, he must endure the peculiar bitterness of modern man, the knowledge that he is not a genius. And although he is committed to the purposes of the ego, which his superior intelligence might well allow him to achieve, he hardly manages to maintain himself. Reduced to a bare subsistence as a parasite at the tables of the rich, he directs all his ingenuity towards perfecting the devices of systematic flattery, yet he cannot succeed even in this miserable mode of life. His thwarted passion for what society has to offer goes along with a scornful nihilism which overwhelms every prudential consideration; he is the victim of an irresistible impulse to offend those with whom he seeks to ingratiate himself. And stronger than his desire for respect is his appetite for demonstrative self-abasement; his ego, betraying its proper function, turns on itself and finds expression in a compulsive buffoonery, at once inviting shame and achieving shamelessness in a fashion that Dostoevsky was to make familiar. 'The fellow', Diderot says, 'is a compound of elevation and abjectness, of good sense and lunacy.... He has no greater opposite than himself.'

The characterization goes further: 'What a chimera... What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy. Judge of all things, [p. 29] imbecile earthworm; depository of truth, sink of uncertainty and error; glory and scum of the universe.' The words , of course, are not Diderot's but Pascal's. Diderot's dialogue continues and further particularizes Pascal's sense of the human contradiction, of man as the opposite of himself.

The French Marxist critic Lucien Goldmann speaks of Pascal as 'the first modern man'. By this he means that Pascal anticipated the ideas of the German thinkers who followed Kant, in particular Goethe, Hegel, and Marx. One may the more readily suppose this to be true because of the affinity the three men felt with Diderot--if it is Diderot rather than Pascal himself whom Hegel chose to exemplify the modern anthropology, one reason is that in Rameau's Nephew, even more decisively than in the Pensées of Pascal, society is understood to be the field on which man runs his spiritual course. To be sure, nothing so much confirms our awareness of the developing authority of the concept of society as the extent to which it figures explicitly in Pascal's representation of the difficulties of the religious life. For Pascal, however, man's existence in society is but the manifestation of his cosmic alienation, whereas for Diderot the silence of the infinite spaces is not frightening; it is not even heard. For Diderot society is all in all, the root and ground of alienation. It is social man who is alienated man.

In the great dialogue the alienation is very literal. It begins with the name of the protagonist, who, the nature of society being what it is, does not possess himself, is not his own man--he is not Rameau but Rameau's nephew. 'This nephew of Rameau's', the Oxford Companion to French Literature is at pains to assure us, 'was a real person', but the Companion, following Diderot himself, does not condescend to tell us his Christian name, which in point of fact was Jean-Francois. The theory of society advanced by [p. 30] the Nephew rests on his recognition of the systematic separation of the individual from his actual self. The social being, he tells us, is a mere histrionic representation--every man takes one or another 'position' as the choreography of society directs. With the mimetic skill which is the essence of his being, the Nephew demonstrates how he performs the dance upon which his survival depends. 'Thereupon he begins to smile, to ape a man admiring, a man imploring, a man complying. His right foot forward, the left foot behind, his back arched, head erect, his glance riveted as if on someone's face, open-mouthed, his arms are stretched out toward some object. He waits for a command, receives it, flies like an arrow, returns. The order has been carried out; he is giving his report. He is all attention, nothing escapes him. He picks up what is dropped, places pillow or stool under feet, holds a salver, brings a chair, opens a door, shuts a window, draws curtains, keeps his eye on master and mistress. He is motionless, arms at his sides, legs parallel; he listens and tries to read faces. Then he says, "There you have my pantomime; it's about the same as the flatterer's, the courtier's, the footman's, and the beggar's."' The demonstration concluded, it is agreed between Diderot and the Nephew, between the Moi and the Lui of the dialogue, that everyone in society, without exception, acts a part, takes a 'position', does his dance, even the King himself, 'who takes a position before his mistress and God: he dances his pantomime steps'.

No one is likely to read Rameau's Nephew without a ready awareness of its ambiguity. In its first intention, which is the one I have emphasized, the dialogue passes a direct and comprehensively adverse moral judgment upon society. It lays bare the principle of insincerity upon which society is based and demonstrates the loss of personal integrity and dignity that the impersonations of social existence entail. [p. 31] But this is scarcely new; it had been the theme of the French moralists for more than a century, and even if we grant, as we readily do, that Diderot puts the moral case against society with unique dramatic force, this cannot of itself account for the charmed sense of discovery that the dialogue gave to so many great minds of the nineteenth century and still gives to lesser minds of a later day. The entrancing power of Rameau's Nephew is rather to be explained by its second intention, which is to suggest that moral judgment is not ultimate, that man's nature and destiny are not wholly comprehended within the narrow space between virtue and vice. From this comes the sensation of enlargement, of delighted liberation, that the dialogue affords. Whatever is to be said in condemnation of the self-seeking duplicity of society, of the great financiers, their wives and their little actresses and sinners, and of the courtiers, and of the King himself, one person, the Nephew, transcends the moral categories and the judgment they dictate. Diderot the deuteragonist is at pains to treat him with discriminating condescension and to rebuke him for a deficiency of moral commitment, but we know that Diderot the author of the dialogue gives us full licence to take the nephew to our hearts and minds, where he figures not only as an actual person but also as an aspect of humanity itself, as the liberty that we wish to believe is inherent in the human spirit, in its energy of effort, expectation, and desire, in its consciousness of itself and its limitless contradictions. The climax of the dialogue and, we might say, of its protagonist's existence, is Rameau's disquisition on the superiority of the new forms of opera to the old. The episode issues in his most elaborate mimetic display, for he proceeds to be opera, to impersonate the whole art--this musical Proteus, or perhaps he is to be called Panurge, sounds all the instruments, enacts all the roles, portraying all the emotions in all [p. 32] voices and all modes. The astonishing performance proposes the idea which Nietzsche was to articulate a century later, that man's true metaphysical destiny expresses itself not in morality but in art.

Yet if the second intention of Rameau's Nephew is what chiefly engages us and constitutes the genius of the work, our particular pleasure in it must not lead us to slight the first intention. The moral judgment which the dialogue makes upon man in society is not finally rejected but co-exists with its contradiction, and upon its validity and weight depends the force of the idea that the moral categories may be transcended. And it is the Nephew himself who invokes the moral categories at the same time that he negates them--the moral judgment is grounded upon the cogency of Rameau's observation of social behavior and the shamelessness with which he exhibits his own shame.

When Hegel in the Phenomenology of Mind makes his momentous comment on Rameau's Nephew, he follows and carries to its extremity the line of the dialogue's second intention. He acknowledges no debt to Diderot for the idea that the nature and destiny of man are not ultimately to be described in moral terms. Indeed, he seems to have persuaded himself that the dialogue is committed exclusively to its moral first intention and he faults it for this limitation. In the single section of the Phenomenology we shall have in view, [Pp. 509-48 of J. B. Baillie's translation [rev. 2nd ed., London, 1949; New York, 1967] Hegel holds moral judgment to be nothing but retrograde, standing in the way of a true conception of the human spirit. There is no trait whatever in the character of [p. 33] the Nephew which he permits to be blamed or deplored. What any reader naturally understands as a deficiency in Rameau, to be forgiven or 'accepted', Hegel takes to be a positive attribute and of the highest significance, nothing less than a necessary condition of the development of Spirit, of Geist, that is to say, of mind in its defining act, which is to be aware of itself. Goethe's translation of the dialogue was published while the Phenomenology was in the course of composition; the Nephew, who is referred to in Goethe's text as a 'self-estranged spirit', was co-opted by Hegel to serve as the presiding genius of the section of his work called 'Spirit in Self-Estrangement'. Hegel represents the Nephew as the exemplary figure of the modern phase of developing Spirit and welcomes his advent with hierophantic glee. [At no point in his comment on the dialogue does Hegel mention either its title or the names of its author and its protagonist. In Baillie's translation the work to which Hegel refers is identified in an editorial footnote.]

The difficulty of the Phenomenology is proverbial and this is not the occasion, nor have I the presumption, to attempt to recapitulate the whole complex process of self-estrangement as Hegel describes it. But there may be discerned through the great maze a path which the uninitiated can follow with at least a little confidence. Its direction is marked out by a vocabulary different from that which characterizes the work as a whole--amid the idiosyncratic distractions of Hegel's terminology we find certain words that are comforting for their familiarity, such words as 'nobility', 'baseness', 'service', 'heroism', 'flattery', and a combination of the last two in a strange and possibly witty phrase, 'the heroism of flattery'. We perceive that with these words Hegel is describing a historical development which is, to be sure, abstract and paradigmatic but also concrete and actual. So far as it is concrete and actual, it has particular reference to the social and cultural development of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and, as we cannot fail to perceive, of our own time.

The historical process that Hegel undertakes to expound is the self-realization of Spirit through the changing relation of the individual to the external power of society in two of its aspects, the political power of the state and the power of wealth. In an initial stage of the process that is being described the individual consciousness is said to be in a wholly harmonious relation to the external power of society, to the point of being identified with it. In this relation the individual consciousness renders what Hegel calls 'obedient service' to the external power and feels for it an 'inner reverence'. Its service is not only obedient but also, silent and unreasoned, taken for granted; Hegel calls this 'the heroism of dumb service'. This entire and inarticulate accord of the individual consciousness with the external power of society is said to have the attribute of 'nobility'.

But the harmonious relation of the individual consciousness to the state power and to wealth is not destined to endure. It is the nature of Spirit, Hegel tells us, to seek 'existence on its own account'--that is, to free itself from limiting conditions, to press towards autonomy. In rendering 'obedient service' to and in feeling 'inner reverence' for anything except itself it consents to the denial of its own nature. If it is to fulfil its natural destiny of self-realization, it must bring to an end its accord with the external power of society. And in terminating this 'noble' relation the individual consciousness moves towards a relation with external power which Hegel calls 'base'.

The change is not immediate. Between the noble relation of the individual consciousness to state power and to wealth and the developing base relation there stands what Hegel speaks of as a 'mediating term'. In this transitional [p. 35] stage the 'heroism of dumb service' modifies itself to become a heroism which is not dumb but articulate, what Hegel calls the 'heroism of flattery'. The individual that is to say, becomes conscious of his relation to the external power of society: he becomes conscious of having made the choice to maintain the relationship and of the prudential reasons which induced him to make it--the 'flattery' is, in effect, the rationale of his choice which the individual formulates in terms of the virtues of the external power, presumably a personal monarch. We might suppose that Hegel had in mind the relation of the court aristocracy to Louis XIV. Consciousness and choice, it is clear, imply a commitment to, rather than an identification with, the external power of society.

From this modification of the 'noble' relation to the external power the individual proceeds to the 'baseness' of being actually antagonistic to the external power. What was once served and reverenced now comes to be regarded with resentment and bitterness. Hegel's description of the new attitude is explicit: 'It [that is, the individual consciousness] looks upon the authoritative power of the state as a chain, as something suppressing its separate autonomous existence, and hence hates the ruler, obeys only with secret malice and stands ever ready to burst out in rebellion. And the relation of the individual self to wealth is even baser, if only because of the ambivalence which marks it--the self loves wealth but at the same time despises it; through wealth the self 'attains to the enjoyment of its own independent existence', but it finds wealth discordant with the nature of Spirit, for it is of the nature of Spirit to be permanent, whereas enjoyment is evanescent.

The process thus described makes an unhappy state of affairs but not, as Hegel judges it, by any means a deplorable one. He intends us to understand that the movement [p. 36] from 'nobility' to 'baseness' is not a devolution but a development. So far from deploring 'baseness', Hegel celebrates it. And he further confounds our understanding by saying that 'baseness' leads to and therefore is 'nobility'. What is the purpose of this high-handed inversion of common meanings?

An answer might begin with the observation that the words 'noble' and 'base', although they have been assimilated to moral judgment, did not originally express concepts of moral law, of a prescriptive and prohibitory code which is taken to be of general, commanding, and even supernal authority and in which a chief criterion of a person's rightdoing and wrongdoing is the effect of his conduct upon other persons. The words were applied, rather, to the ideal of personal existence of a ruling class at a certain time-its ethos, in that sense of the word which conveys the idea not of abstractly right conduct but of a characteristic manner or style of approved conduct. What is in accord with this ethos is noble; what falls short of it or derogates from it is base. The noble self is not shaped by its beneficent intentions towards others; its intention is wholly towards itself, and such moral virtue as may be attributed to it follows incidentally from its expressing the privilege and function of its social status in mien and deportment. We might observe that the traits once thought appropriate to the military life are definitive in the formation of the noble self. It stands before the world boldly defined, its purposes clearly conceived and openly avowed. In its consciousness there is no division, it is at one with itself. The base self similarly expresses a social condition, in the first instance by its characteristic mien and deportment, as these are presumed or required to be, and ultimately by the way in which it carries out those of its purposes that are self-serving beyond the limits deemed appropriate to its [p. 37] social status. These purposes can be realized only by covert means and are therefore shameful. Between the intentions of the base self and its avowals there is no congruence. But the base self, exactly because it is not under the control of the noble ethos, has won at least a degree of autonomy and has thereby fulfilled the nature of Spirit. In refusing its obedient service to the state power and to wealth it has lost its wholeness; its selfhood is 'disintegrated'; the self is 'alienated' from itself. But because it has detached itself from imposed conditions, Hegel says that it has made a step in progress. He puts it that the existence of this self 'on its own account is, strictly speaking, the loss of itself'. The statement can also be made the other way round: 'Alienation of self is really self-preservation.'

It is in the light of this phenomenological history of Spirit that Hegel hands down his uncompromising judgment as between the Moi and the Lui of Diderot's dialogue. His reading of the word is not that of the common reader, who, while taking all due account of the differences of character and opinion of the two speakers, will also remark the considerable extent of their agreement and will not understand the dialogue to be an unreconcilable litagation between them. But Hegel does, and he rules wholly in favour of Rameau, wholly against Diderot.

In referring to Diderot-Moi Hegel speaks of him as the 'honest soul' or the 'honest consciousness'. This might seem a praiseworthy kind of soul, a good kind of consciousness, to be; and we the more readily suppose so because of our admiration for the actual Diderot. But Hegel does not intend praise; the epithet 'honest' is used in its old condescending sense, implying a limitation both of mind and of power. The 'honesty' of Diderot-Moi, which evokes Hegel's impatient scorn, consists in this wholeness of self, in the directness and consistency of his relation to things, p[. 39] and in his submission to a traditional morality. Diderot-Moi does not exemplify the urge of Spirit to escape from the conditions which circumscribe it and to enter into an existence which will be determined by itself alone.

It would make things easier if we could say that Hegel condemns Diderot-Moi because he is 'noble'. And perhaps we are licensed to say just that, despite all the considerations which make the use of the word seem inappropriate. It is true that the kind of self, or soul, or consciousness that Diderot-Moi represents, far from having affinity with a traditional noble class, consorts with the vision of life held by a class characterized exactly by its opposition to the ethos of a nobility. The actual Diderot, who has a pretty clear connection with Diderot-Moi, was a comfortable, clever, sensitive, voluble man in woolen stockings who laboured long years at his great Encyclopédie, an enterprise designed to bring to an end the power of the class from which the ideal of the noble derives. Yet in the face of the apparent contradiction it is still possible to say that the 'honesty' of Diderot's soul is of a kind that Hegel associates with the noble vision of life. It is a vision given supreme expression in the late plays of Shakespeare, the ones we call romances.

In adducing these plays I mean to suggest something of the simplest sort: only that the norm of life which they propose is one of order, peace, honour, and beauty, these qualities being realized in, and dependent upon, certain material conditions. The hope that animates this normative vision of the plays is the almost shockingly elementary one which Ferdinand utters in The Tempest--the hope of 'quiet days, fair issue, and long life'. It is reiterated by Juno in Prospero's pageant: 'Honour, riches, marriage blessing. Long continuance and increasing.' It has to do with good harvests and full barns and the qualities of affluent decorum [p. 39] that Ben Johnson celebrated in Penhurst and Marvell in Appleton House, that Yeats prayed for in his daughter's domestic arrangements.

The mention of Yeats brings to mind the social event that occupied and distressed his thought through all his career, the defeat inflicted upon the old noble ethos by plebeian democracy. That defeat was in train and understood by many to be a forgone conclusion long before Yeats ever began to fret over it, and of its decisiveness there can be no question. Yet it is plain that the old ethos, though vanquished, did not suddenly lose every vestige of its power, but continued to exercise a considerable authority through the nineteenth century and even into the early twentieth century, perhaps especially in the life of England but of other nations as well. The novels read by the educated middle classes of England and France had as their heroes young men who believed in a condition of being that went by the name of happiness. This condition was to be achieved by attaining certain worldly objectives which were identical with the elements of the good life prescribe in Shakespeare's romances, including marriage with young women who were to be as much as possible like Perdita and Miranda. The self that imagined these objectives and sought to attain them was--or at least began by being--the kind of self that Hegel calls the 'honest soul' or the 'honest consciousness'.




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