Notebook, 1993-

'Sincerity and Authenticity'

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

III. The Sentiments of Being and
the Sentiments of Art

The account given by Hegel in the Phenomenology of the two historic modes of the self, the 'honest soul' and the 'disintegrated consciousness', though it bears upon our contemporary cultural situation with an appositeness which must be immediately and forcibly apparent, has had virtually no currency among students of modern culture who write in English. This curious state of intellectual affairs is probably to be explained by merely adventitious circumstances--by the proverbial difficulty of the Phenomenology as a whole and by the compromised repute of its author in British and American academic circles--rather than by any settled disposition to resist the substance of what Hegel says. Actually, indeed, the disposition would seem to be quite the opposite, if we may judge by the peculiar regard in which, over the last fifty years or so, Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy has come to be held and the ready response given to its exposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian principles. These, to be sure are not historic modes of the self, but, rather, eternal modes of art and existence. Yet they are obviously cognate with the '´honest soul' and the 'disintegrated consciousness' and the welcome which they have been given suggests that Hegel's concepts might well be found equally cogent. The Apollonian principle is that of positive ends in view, of manifest reason and order. It is associated with light, vision, and the plastic arts. The Dionysian principle is its negation. It seeks to destroy limits and distinctions. It is indifferent to pleasure and pain, its good is ecstasy and the extinction of the individuated self. Its characteristic art is music, or at least such music as overbears and dissolves the sense of self.

When we attempt to trace the history of the self, we of course know that we are dealing with shadows in a dark land. Our predications must be diffident, our conclusions can be only speculative. And yet we cannot withhold all confidence from the impression that in our time the conflict between the 'honest soul' and the 'disintegrated consciousness' has moved towards overtness, that the dialective between the Apollonian and the Dionysian principles has altered its ancient terms. Our proper skepticism cannot wholly discount the evidence that the conception of the self has been undergoing a drastic revision, of which a notable element is the lessening of the value formerly assigned to its individuation. There are, for example, few contemporary readers of The Birth of Tragedy who really hold with Nietzsche's doctrine that tragedy is the outcome of a true dialectic between Apollo and Dionysus--Dionysus is commonly taken to be the protagonist of the great essay, the essential genius of tragedy, while Apollo figures as a rather tiresome ancillary character whose job it is to busy himself with the mere practical details of form. Nietzsche explicitly cautions us against taking this biased view, yet he himself is in part responsible for it: his own excitement over the discovery of the Dionysian principle is infectious.

Any discerning account of the artistic enterprise of recent decades is bound to bring us word of some defeat suffered by the 'honest soul'. A book by Wylie Sypher gives a pretty full report in its very title, Loss of Self in Modern Literature and Art. [p. 54] Professor Sypher tell us that the ideal which goes under the name of humanism is perhaps in some degree still viable, but only if we do not involve it with the kind of selfhood which he calls 'romantic individuality', for, he says, 'The image of the self held in past eras has been effaced from the universe . . . ."

The news of the effacement of this old image is lent confirmation by what we hear of the deserved fate of psychology. We are instructed by certain novelists and critics that psychology has no validity, or none for literature, and that the introduction of psychology into the novel can only be--perhaps has always been--a corruption of the genre's purity. This puzzles us, at least if we are of a certain age. The image of the self we were brought up to hold would seem to imply, even to depend on, there being such a thing as psychology. We know we have psyches because they make trouble for us--our most constant and reliable awareness of selfhood derives from the experience of that trouble. Having been led to believe that the novel characteristically deals with people who have selves substantially like our own, we can only wonder what a literary theorist such as Alain Robbe-Grillet means when he says that if the novel is to survive, it must renounce its old commitment to psychology. And yet only a little effort of honesty is needed for us to recognize how bored we are by detailed exposition of the psychological processes when we meet it in contemporary fiction. We are wearied by it, perhaps not instantly and consciously, but eventually and essentially. While we were reading, say, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, we were no doubt engaged by it, but were we not finally indifferent to all that to-do on the analyst's couch about the emotional consequences of having a mother, of being Jewish, of belonging to this or that inferior class, about what is or is not normal healthy sexuality and what [p. 55] fosters or prevents it? Whatever considerations of this kind may still mean to us within the four walls of our private lives, as the material of art they seem no longer to make their old claim upon the imagination. And even in our private lives the importance of these and related concerns would appear to be not what it once was. Anna Freud, in the course of a lecture delivered on the 112th anniversary of her father's birth, remarked on the extent to which the young are now alienated from psychoanalysis. Miss Freud did no more than summarily note the cultural fact; she made no attempt to explain it. But surely a partial explanation is not hard to come by. When Freud's thought was first presented to a scandalized world, the recognition of unconditioned instinctual impulse which lies at its core was erroneously taken to mean that Freud wished to establish the dominion of impulse, with all that this implies of the negation of the socialized self. But then of course it came to be understood that the bias of psychoanalysis, so far from being Dionysian, is wholly in the service of the Apollonian principle, seeking to strengthen the 'honest soul' in the selfhood which is characterized by purposiveness and a clear-eyed recognition of limits. The adverse judgment increasingly passed upon psychoanalysis, and not by the young alone, not only expresses an antagonism to its normative assumptions and to the social conformity which is believed to inhere in its doctrine, but is also an affirmation of the unconditioned nature of the self, of its claim to an autonomy so complete that all systematic predications about it are either offensively reductive, or gratuitously prescriptive, or irrelevant.

The evidence is indeed abundant that Hegel was right when he envisaged the developing hegemony of the 'disintegrated consciousness' and consigned the 'honest soul' to the contempt of history. And his prescience will appear [p. 56] the more remarkable when we reflect on how long a cast his prophecy made from the manifest state of spiritual affairs in the age in which he wrote. The social and political world of that age was shaped by and for the 'honest soul'. It is of course true that the 'disintegrated consciousness' lurked subversively about the fortresses of the 'honest soul', and upon its brilliant, desperate assaults the historian of literature and culture habitually focuses his attention. But it was the 'honest soul' that had built the fortresses and then busied itself to make them impregnable. 'Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe' --in that celebrated injunction of Carlyle's we find the manifest ruling intention of the age. Carlyle meant the Byron of the early Childe Harold and of Manfred; he did not mean the Goethe of The Sorrows of Young Werther except as Goethe himself understood that work to be the record of a pathology from which he had to recover before, as Carlyle put it, 'he could become a man'. Carlyle was invoking a morally affirmative Goethe for whom 'striving' was a guarantee of salvation and renunciation the law of life. This was the working Goethe, the culture-hero with positive practical ends in view. Matthew Arnold had no great regard for Carlyle's way of looking at things, but the two men were at one in their admiration of Goethe. They conceived his greatness to lie in his resemblance to the very universe itself, which was, they were confident, an 'honest soul' of a universe, having its own positive ends in view and characterized by the sincerity of strenuous effort.

Professor Henri Peyre, in his compendious Literature and Sincerity, says in effect that sincerity is to be thought of as pre-eminently a French concept because of the long intense preoccupation with it that the French have shown. It is an extravagant idea, yet it serves to suggest that there are national differences in sincerity and that a distinction is to [p. 57] be made between the French and the English mode. In French literature sincerity consists in telling the truth about oneself to 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. Beyond this what is required is only a single-minded commitment to whatever dutiful enterprise he may have in hand. 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'--this is what the English sincerity consists in.

One of the decisive cultural events of the modern epoch was the conflation of these two national sincerities, the French and the English, in the temperament of a Swiss. Rousseau begins his confessions with the brag that his French sincerity is unique in its perfection. 'I have resolved on an enterprise which has not precedent and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I portray will be myself.' At the last trumpet, he says, he will be able to present himself before his Sovereign Judge holding that book in which he has displayed himself as good, generous, and noble, but also as vile and despicable. 'So let the numberless legion of my fellow men gather round me and hear my confessions. Let them groan at my depravities and blush for my misdeeds. But let each one of them reveal his heart at the foot of thy throne with equal sincerity, and may any man who dares say, "I was a better man than he."'

On his pre-eminence in sincerity Rousseau is uncompromising. The claims of his likeliest rival are dismissed [p. 58] out of hand--his expressions of scorn for the show of sincerity made by Montaigne are recurrent and unqualified. 'I have always been amused', he says grandly, 'at Montaigne's false ingenuousness and at his pretence of confessing his faults while taking good care to admit only likeable ones; whereas I, who believe, and always have believed, that I am on the whole the best of men, felt that there is no human breast, however pure, that does not conceal some odious vice.' [In her Rousseau and Montaigne [Columbia Univ. dissertation, 1968, pp. 127-8], Ellen S. Silber says, 'In the introduction to the 1764 manuscript of Les Confessions, Rousseau's remarks about Montaigne's lack of sincerity constitute a full-fledged attack on the essayist's good faith.' The tenor of these remarks is suggested by the first sentence of the passage that Dr. SIlber quotes: 'Je mets Montaigne à la tête de ces faux sincères qui veulent tromper en disant vrai.' ] About his own truth-telling he says no more than the truth. He does not shrink from injuring himself in the world's eyes. We do not easily come to terms with the sloven self-regard of Rousseau's youth; his sexual perversities are not appealing; some of the things which he confesses to having done on impulse--deserting the travelling companion who suffered an epileptic fit in the street of a strange town at night, accusing the good chambermaid of possessing the ribbon that he himself had stolen--are repellent in their baseness. He speaks of himself as une âme déchcirée. The phrase is a pretty literal equivalent of 'disintegrated consciousness' and he did indeed display the traits which Hegel attributes to that consciousness, including the simultaneous courting and transcendence of shame. That he set store by the disintegration we cannot doubt: he believed that it, and not wholeness of spirit, offered the path to knowledge. But at the same time he aspired to the 'honest soul' in its wholeness; it was in the single-minded performance of appointed 'tasks' that he discovered the principle of man's earthly [p. 59] salvation. What I have called English sincerity was at the heart of Rousseau's political thought.

The work which won for Rousseau his initial fame was the so-called First Discourse, to which the concept of sincerity is central. The essay responds to the question proposed by the Academy of Dijon--'Has the restoration of the sciences and the arts tended to purify morals?' We know, of course, that it answers in the negative, but when we undertake to paraphrase Rousseau's argument without having the text before us, we find it hard to do so with accuracy--the chances are that we will assign to the phrase 'the sciences and the arts' a unitary and general meaning and make it stand for civilization as a whole, and understand Rousseau to be saying that civilization, so far from purifying morals, has corrupted the elemental, essential nature of man. This formulation is not alien to Rousseau's intention, but it is not what he says in the First Discourse. What he does say goes so much against our settled views that we cannot readily accept that he really does say it. The proposition he advances is that the practice of the sciences and the arts is a peculiarly corrupting aspect of civilization. His emphasis is upon the arts, by which he chiefly means literature. It is literature that is the pre-eminent agent of man's corruption, the essence or paradigm of the inherent falsehood of civilized society. Literature embodies the very principle of society, which is the individuals' abnegation of personal autonomy in order to win the forbearance and esteem of others--early in the First Discourse Rousseau says that the chief usefulness literary occupations may be thought to have is that 'they make men more sociable [read: more conformable] by inspiring in them the desire to please one another with works worthy of their mutual approval'.

We are habituated to the idea that society, though necessary for survival, corrupts the life it fosters, and most of us [p. 60] give this idea some degree of assent. But we receive with no such tolerance the idea that literature is an accomplice in the social betrayal. This offends our deepest pieties. And in defence of the art we love and trust we seize eagerly upon Rousseau's statement that literature is motivated by the desire to 'please', that it is characterized by a 'uniform and false veil of politeness' and by 'that much vaunted urbanity which we owe to the enlightenment of our century' --it is plain, we say, that Rousseau takes an all too local and temporal view of literature; the intention of the great works of the past, let alone of the age to come, is surely not comprised by the simple and servile purpose of 'pleasing'. The literature to which we give our admiration and gratitude fulfils its function exactly by rending the false veil of politeness, by refusing the compromises of urbanity.

This objection serves our piety but it does not really confront what Rousseau is saying about literature. It is true that he frames his indictment in terms of a particular aesthetic doctrine instituted in the Renaissance, still ascendant in his own day, and now wholly without credit. But his concern is far from being anachronistic: its real object is the developing status of literature in the modern world, its relation to that new social circumstance of which I have spoken, the ever more powerful existence of the public, that human entity which is defined by its urban habit, its multiduinousness, and its ready accessibility to opinion. The individual who lives in this new circumstance is subject to the constant influence, the literal in-flowing, of the mental processes of others, which, in the degree that they stimulate or enlarge his consciousness, make it less his own. He finds it ever more difficult to know what his own self is and what being true to it consists in. It is with the psychological and moral consequences of the modern public dispensation in mind that Rousseau invents his famous [p. 61] savage, one of whose defining traits is the perfect autonomy of his consciousness. 'The savage lives within himself,' Rousseau says in the Second Discourse; 'the sociable man knows how to live only in the opinion of others, and it is, so to speak, from their judgment alone that he draws the sentiment of his own being.' In Rousseau's view, literature stands pre-eminent among the agencies of modern society which convey opinion and make it forcible and thus control and qualify the individual's sentiment of his own being.

As the case against literature is argued in the First Discourse, the generality and abstractness of its terms might make it seem merely captious. But eight years later, in 1758, Rousseau returned to the charge in a work which is specific and concrete almost to the point of compulsiveness. In the Letter to M. d'Alembert on the Theatre Rousseau considers the particular evils which would follow from the introduction of a literary genre, the drama, into a given society, one which he judges to be as satisfactory as a modern society can be, that of his native Geneva. It is a bourgeois society of considerable prosperity; the form of its political organization is republican. For Rousseau the admirable aspect of Geneva lies in the contrast between its morals and manners and those of Paris. Despite the prosperity it has achieved, its mode of life has certain qualities that are commonly found and admired in far simpler communities--for example, there prevails among its citizens a high degree of the fraternal feeling that Levi-Strauss observes and celebrates in some of the tribes of Tristes Tropiques. Rousseau sets especial store by the effect on the city's social and moral tone of the so -called 'circles', small clubs of men organized for conviviality and sport. [The anti-Parisian and anti-modern tendency of the Letter to M. d'Alembert shows itself in nothing so much as in its resistance to the influence of women. It cannot be called anti-feminine, but its conception of the sexes and of the right relation between them harks back, as does much else in the work, to Sparta.] D'Alembert had expressed the [p. 62] view in his Encyclopedia article on Geneva that the general amenity of the city required for its completeness the establishment of a theatre. This suggestion Rousseau repels with rational indignation. The objection he offers to the dramatic art is essentially the one he had advanced in the First Discourse against literature in general, that it reduces the actuality and autonomy of the self.

The claim made for the theatre that it advances moral enlightenment is met by Rousseau with impatient incredulity. The purpose of the theatre is to please, and such moral judgment as it makes is accepted to the extent that it is pleasurable, which is to say, so far as it confirms and flatters the settled views of the audience. The general effect of the theatre is not to correct but 'to augment the natural inclinations, and to give new energy to all the passions'. With the theory of tragic catharsis, which was coming to hold a sanctified place in aesthetic-moral thought, Rousseau will have no truck; the idea that the theatre purges the passions by exciting them is, he says, beyond his comprehension and can scarcely have been put forward in good faith--'Is it possible that in order to be temperate and prudent, we must begin by being intemperate and mad?'

'I suspect', he says at one point, 'that any man to whom the crimes of Phaedra or Medea were told beforehand would hate them more at the beginning of the play than at the end.' Rousseau's skepticism about the direct moral effect of tragedy prepares the way for Nietzsche's statement that tragedy proposes man's metaphysical destiny of transcending morality. This, of course, is an idea which Rousseau himself could not possibly have entertained--despite all that he says about the corruption that society works upon man, his whole sense of man's destiny is bounded by the social life, which, as he conceives it, depends for its right existence upon the urgent moral rectitude of the simple [p. 63] soul. The theatre sophisticates implicitly and for moral rectitude it substitutes a self-deceiving moral sensibility. 'When a man has gone to admire fine actions in stories and to cry for imaginary miseries, what more can be asked of him? Is he not satisfied with himself? Does he not applaud his fine soul? Has he not acquitted himself of all that he owes to virtue by the homage which he has just rendered it?'

The spectator, we might put it, contracts by injection the characteristic disease of the actor, the attenuation of selfhood that results from impersonation. Rousseau's condemnation of the actor's trade is similar to Plato's but not exactly the same. Plato said that the soul of the actor is deteriorated by identification with such morally inferior characters as he impersonates: the role of a slave induces servility, that of a woman effeminacy, that of a villain wickedness. The professional deformation that Rousseau deplores is that by engaging in impersonation at all the actor diminishes his own existence as a person: his is the art of 'counterfeiting himself, of putting on another character than his own'. [The classic argument against the view that the actor is personally affected, let alone deteriorated, by his assumption of roles is made by Diderot in Paradoxe sur le comédien, written between 1775 and 1778 but not published until 1830. I am grateful to Theodore Ziolkowski for suggesting to me that Rousseau''s strictures on the acting profession ought to be considered with reference to the revolt against the established rhetorical style of acting, with its six conventional gestures, which took place in France and Germany around 1750. In his paper 'Language and Mimetic Action in Lessing's Miss Sara Sampson═' [The Germanic Review, Nov. 1965, 262-76], Professor Ziolkowski says that among the innovators it was a matter for debate whether the naturalness they desired was best achieved by the actor producing 'within himself the emotion that he is supposed to represent on the stage', expecting the appropriate gestures and facial expressions to follow, or, on the contrary, by the actor remaining 'cool and objective' and mastering 'a variety of physical techniques in the hope of dissembling emotion he does not feel'. The debate, of course, continues into our day.] And what the actor suffers in an [p. 64] extreme degree, is in some measure suffered by the spectator, as, to use a modern word, he empathizes with the character on the stage.

Rousseau is at pains to make it clear that his opposition to the theatre is based on no puritanical dislike of pleasure, only on his perception of the extent to which the theatrical art falsifies the self and thus contributes to the weakening of society. 'What!', he asks, 'are there to be no entertainments in a republic?', and at once makes answer, 'On the contrary, there ought to be many . . . .' The entertainments appropriate to a republic are those in which the citizen, participating in his own person, is reinforced in the sentiment of his own being and in his relation to his fellow beings. 'People think that they come together in the theatre and it is there they are isolated. It is there that they go to forget their friends, neighbours, and relations in order to concern themselves with fables, in order to cry for the misfortunes of the dead or to laugh at the expense of the living.' In the place of 'exclusive entertainments which close up a small number of people in melancholy fashion in a gloomy cavern, which keeps them fearful and immobile in silence and inaction', there are to be free and festive gatherings 'in the open air, under the sky' at which nothing will be shown. The incidents of these occasions of happy communality will be games and athletic contests, regattas, reviews, and the ceremonies of prize-giving. 'Let the spectators become an entertainment to themselves; make them actors themselves; do it so that each one sees and loves himself in the others.'




The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].