Notebook, 1993-

'Sincerity and Authenticity'

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

IV. The Heroic, the Beautiful,
the Authentic

Some years ago, in writing about Jane Austen, I drew upon an essay which an anonymous writer contributed to the North British Review in 1879. It seemed to me, as it still does, one of the best accounts of Jane Austen's achievement that has ever been written. It is the more remarkable in being perhaps the very first consideration of the subject undertaken in the spirit of serious criticism--the first, that is, to go beyond mere expressions of delight and regard, or calculations of the distance at which Jane Austen stands from Walter Scott and Shakespeare, to address itself to a description of the novels in their innerness and their largeness of import. As to the latter, the essay takes for granted the full scope of the novelist's concern, understanding that this does not reach its limit at particular female destinies but extends to an object no less general than 'man', to man in society and to the complex process of his self-realization through society. 'Even as a unit,' the anonymous critic says, 'man is only known to [Jane Austen] in the process of his formation by social influences. She broods over his history, not over his individual soul and its secret workings, not over the analysis of its faculties and organs. She sees him not as a solitary being completed in himself, but only as completed in society.' And: '. . . She contemplates virtues, not as fixed [p. 81] quantities or as definable qualiteis, but as . . . progressive states of mind. . . .'

This is admirable, and not less so is the perception that Jane Austen was, as the critic puts it, 'saturated' with a 'Platonic idea'--she was committed to the ideal of 'intelligent love', according to which the deepest and truest relationship that can exist between human beings is pedagogic. This relationship consists in the giving and receiving of knowledge about right conduct, in the formation of ones' person's character by another, the acceptance of another's quidance in one's own growth. The idea of a love based in pedagogy may seem quaint to some modern readers and repellent to others, but unquestionably it plays a decisive part in the power and charm of Jane Austen's art. And if we attempt to explain the power and charm that the genre of the novel exercised in the nineteenth century, we must take full account of its pedagogic intention and of such love as a reader might feel was being directed towards him in the solicitude of the novel for his moral well-being, in its concern for the right course of his development.

Life seen under the aspect of instruction is scarcely a new vision in literature. In one degree or another, literature has always claimed such sanction as pedagogoy affords, but it is especially salient in the Christian tradition and it asserts itself with a new energy when an accelerated social mobility makes right conduct problematical.

Yet despite the ascendancy of the pedagogic mode in the nineteenth century, the contemporary reader of educated tastes was not without some uneasiness about it. The substance of this reservation is suggested by the anonymous Victorian critic in his summary of Jane Austen's conception of the moral life. At one point he falls into the language of warfare, speaks of 'struggles' and 'conquests', and says that 'the individual mind can only be represented by [Jane Austen] [p. 82] as a battle-field where contending hosts are marshalled and where victory inclines now to one side and now to another'. This, we must feel, does not ring true; it does not accurately convey the nature of moral activity as Jane Austen conceives it. We have no difficulty in understanding why the critic resorts to the large military simile--it is a handy way of asserting that the novels are momentous in their significance, of claiming for them the respect that is traditionally given to works in the heroic mode, of which the military virtues are ultimately definitive, and most readily given to tragedy, the genre originally defined by its reliance upon the heroic mode. The critic, as we have seen, is beautifully aware of the large significances adumbrated by Jane Austen's novels. yet he is constrained to communicate the true state of the case in language not appropriate to it, to describe the pedagogic enterprise in terms borrowed from the anachronistic idiom of the heroic.

By its nature, pedagogy is at odds with the heroic genre of tragedy, to which it tacitly imputes a perverse self-indulgence, an arrogant disdain of reason, prudence, and morality. Tragedy, for its part, invites us to find in it some pedagogic purpose, but the invitation cannot really be thought to be made in good faith. We cannot convince ourselves that the two Oedipus tragedies teach us anything, or show the hero as learning anything. It is true that tragedies are often about knowing and not knowing, and they range themselves on the side of knowing. But this partisanship must be approached warily lest we find ourselves in the unhappy situation of those critics who tell us that Lear and Gloucester suffered to good purpose because their pain 'educated' them before they died. When, as with Oedipus Rex, a great tragedy is made to yield such conclusions as that fate is inscrutable and that it is a wise child who knows his own father, or, as with King Lear, that the [p. 83] universe is uncomfortable and its governance morally incomprhensible, we decide that tragedy has indeed nothing to do with the practical conduct of life except as it transcends and negates it, that it celebrates a mystery debarred to reason, prudence, and morality. Which is why pedagogy sets itself against tragedy--it imputes to tragedy an essential lack of seriousness.

At a certain point in history the pedagogic literary mode expressed its distrust of the heroic in an open antagonism. Speaking of the genre of the novel, Jacques Barzun says that 'from its beginings in Don Quixote and Tom Jones [it] has persistently made war on two things--our culture and the heroic'. The novel, to be sure, did not fight alone: the heroic mode found antagonists in its very citadel, the theatre, as the juxtaposition of Falstaff and Hotspur or the remorseless treatment of the heroic in Troilus and Cressida will suggest. But Mr. Barzun is correct in fixing upon the novel, the pedagogic genre par excellence, as the chief opponent of the heroic view of life. Walter Benjamin speaks of the impulse to impart instruction as a defining characteristic of story-telling and as a condition of its vitality. Story-telling, he says, is oriented towards 'practical interests'; it seeks to be 'useful'; it 'has counsel' to give; the end it has in view is 'wisdom'. In so far as this is true, the novel, which at least in its beginnings was committed to story-telling, is of its nature opposed to the heroic.

What is, or was, the heroic? What is a hero?

A good answer was given by the late Robert Warshow when, in an essay on Western films, he said: "A hero is one who looks like a hero." Warshow was saying essentially what Margaret Bieber had said in her book on the Greek theatre, that the hero is an actor. The two statements, especially Professor Bieber's, make it plain that the idea of the hero is only secondarily a moral idea; to begin with, [p. 84] it is no more so than the grace of a dancer is a moral idea. Nowadays our colloquial language makes the idea of the hero more or less coestensive with one of the moral qualities originally thought to be essential to it: 'hero' is our word for a man who commits an approved act of unusual courage. But in the ancient literary conception of the hero, courage is only a single element, and although it is essential, it is not in itself definitive. It is virtually taken for granted in a man who is favoured by the gods, as the hero is presumed to be, and who is even endowed with certain inherited traits of divinity. This favour or heritage of divinity makes itself fully apparent. The dignity it confers on the man is not latent, to be revealed or discerned eventually, but is wholly manifest in word and deed, in physique and comportment. It announces and demonstrates itself. The hero is one who looks like a hero; the hero is an actor--he acts out his own high sense of himself.

Not all cultures develop the idea of the heroic. I once had occasion to observe in connection with Wordsworth that in the Rabbinical literature there is no touch of the heroic idea. The Rabbis, in speaking of virtue, never mention the virtue of courage, which Aristotle regarded as basic to the heroic character. The indifference of the Rabbis to the idea of courage is the more remarkable in that they knew that many of their number would die for their faith. What is especially to our point is that, as ethical beings, the Rabbis never see themselves--it is as if the commandment which forbade the making of images extended to their way of conceiving the personal moral existence as well. They imagine no struggles, no dilemmas, no hard choices, no ironies, no destinies, nothing interesting; they have no thought of morality as drama. They would have been quite ready to understand the definition of the hero as an actor and to say that, as such, he was undeserving [p. 85] of the attention of serious men. Aristotle's virtuous man in his highest development quite precisely sees himself: he whose virtue is such that it wears the crowning perfection of megalopsychia, 'great/souledness' or 'aristocratic pride', is to be recognized by the way he comports himself, by his slow gait, his low-pitched voice, his measured diction, his conscious irony in dealing with inferiors--the virtuous man is an actor. And Hans Jonas, in his study of the Gnostic religion, comments on the theatrical element in the ethical system of the Stoics. '"To play one's part" --that figure of speech on which Stoic ethics dwells so much--unwittingly reveals the fictitious element in the construction. A role played is substituted for a real function performed. The actors on the stage' --that is, the stage of the world on which the moral life is played--'behave "as if" they acted their choice, and "as if" their actions mattered. What actually matters is only to play well rather than badly, with no genuine relevance to the oucome. The actors, bravely playing, are their own audience.' This cosmic moral histrionism is at the furthest remove from the Rabbis. And if, in the Jewish tradition, we go back of the Rabbis to the Bible, we do not find the heroic there either. David, as a person, is of consummate interest to us, but the interest is not of the sort that attaches to heroes . Milton, in the Greek manner, does his best for Samson, but not even in Milton's poem, much less in Judges, is Samson really a hero. Oedipus confronting the mystery of human suffering is a hero; Job in the same confrontation is not.

The Greeks were under no illusion about the actuality of the hero. Aristotle makes this plain in his comparison of tragedy and comedy: it is only in the genre of tragedy that the hero exists, for tragedy shows men as better than they really are, which is to say, nobler, more impressive, more dignified. The whole import of tragedy depends upon [p. 86] the 'elevation' of the hero, to which every external element of the drama--language, gesture, costume--must contribute. There can be no comic hero, for comedy shows men as worse than they really are, which is to say more ignoble, less impressive, less dignified. We are puzzled to know, when we meet the famous definitions for the first time, why this philosopher, who thought of so much, never thought of a literary genre which would show men as they really are, neither better nor worse.

It is somtimes supposed that the comic is a response to the tragic, that in its essence it is an adverse comment on the heroic. But it is just as possible to say that the germ of the heroic idea is to be found in the comic itself, that at the moment at which men think of themselves as funny they have connceived the idea of their dignity. As soon as they joke about their natural functions, about the absurdity of defecation and copulation and the oddness of the shapes their bodies grow into, they are on the way to contriving to appear nobler than they really are. How else do men recognize their ignobility than by imagining their potential nobility? --a state of being which in time will come to burden and bore them and arouse their mockery.

In literature, as in our personal lives, the debate between the heroic and the anti-heroic principle would seem to be a natural rhythm of the psyche, an alternation of commitment to the superego, which is the repository of our governing ideals, and to the id , which is the locus of our instinctual drives. In the Renaissance, however, the heroic style of the superego was confronted with a new antagonism, that which was offered by the ego, the aspect of the self which has for its function the pereservation of the self. The heroic mode came under attack not only as being absurd in the grandiose elevation of its style and in the moral pretensions which this expressed, but also as standing in the way of the [p. 87] practical conduct of life. The literary mind of the Renaissance was enchanted by the heroic idea and at the same time profoundly critical of it. The ambivalence is memorialized in the character and fate of Othello, whose defencelessness is a function of his conscious grandeur, of his insensate commitment to the heroic style. This hero is indeed an actor and his role is his doom.

Shakespeare's account of the career of Prince Hal exemplifies in a classic way the feeling of the Renaissance that the heroic idea is an impediment to the practical management of life. If the young prince is to become a king he must not only repudiate Falstaff, as from the first he intended, but also triumph over the captivating Harry Hostpur, the very embodiment of the heroic idea, praised as such by Hal's own father: we are to understand that the hedonist reprobate and the hero fixated in his role are at one in infantile narcissism; both are in the service of an anarchic principle. The transactions of Cervantes with the concept of the heroic are too complex and paradoxical to be specified here, but for our purpose it is enough to recall of Don Quixote that it grew out of its author's simple intention of asserting the claims of quotidian practicality against those of the heroic ideal. Fielding, the avowed and loving disciple of Cervantes, was virtually obsessed by the discrepancy between the heroic tradtition and the actual world; he could think of no more delicious joke than to bring the two together, the heroic and the actual, and describe a brawl of village sluts in terms of a battle before the walls of troy, or to foist uoon his readers in the status of a hero a foundling whose name is not Oedipus but Tom, which of all names he thought the most rediculous. To Fielding it was always an astonishing fact that literature as he knew it from his adoration of the Greek classics was not consonant with life as he had to deal with it in [p. 88] his magistrate's courtroom or in his sociological and criminological pamphlets. The literary mind of Europe increasingly inclined to join Swift in praise of the virtue of the man who makes two ears of corn or two blades of grass grow where only one grew before. The extent and fervour of its response to the claims of everyday life are attested to by Diderot's great Encyclopédie.

But the increasing concern with the actual, with the substance of life in all its ordinariness and lack of elevation, was not directed to practicality alone. It also made the round of a new, or rediscovered, kind of spiritual experience. To emphasize the intractable material necessity of common life and what this implies of life's wonderlessness is to make all the more wonderful such moments of tranascendence as may now and then occur. This, it will be recognized, is the basis of Joyce's conception of the 'epiphany', literally a 'showing forth'. The assumption of this epiphany is that human existence is in largest part compounded of the dullness and trivialty of its routine, devitalized or paralysed by habit and the weight of necessity, and that what is occasionally shown forth, although it is not divinity as the traditional Christian meaning of the word would propose, is nevertheless appropriate to the idea of divinity: it is what we call spirit. Often what is disclosed is spirit in its very negation, as it has been diminished and immobilizd by daily life. But there are times when the sudden disclosure transfigures the dull and ordinary, suffusing it with significance. [Richard Elmann distinguishes between 'lyrical epiphanies' and 'bald, underplayed epiphanies' [James Joyce, O.U.P., New York and London, 1959, p. 169]. 'Sometimes the epiphanies are "eucharistic", another term arrogantly borrowed by Joyce from Christianity and invested with secular meaning. These are moments of fullness or of passion. Sometimes the epiphanies are rewarding for another reason, that they convey precisely the flavor of unpalatable experiences. The spirit, as Joyce characteristically held, manifested itself at both levels.' [p. 87]] So far as Joyce thinks of the [p. 89] epiphany as a genre in itself, he stays close to one of the established implications of the word, that the revelation takes place suddenly, in a flash. Yet we can perhaps consider the whole of Ulysses as an epiphany, the continuous showing forth of the spirit of Leopold Bloom out of the intractable commonplaceness of his existence. This, of course, is what makes the frequently remarked affinity of Bloom with Don Quixote: in the existence of both men the ordinary and the actual are prepotent; both are in bondage to daily necessity and to the manifest absurdity of their bodies, and they thus stand at a polar distance from the Aristotelean hero in the superbness of his aristocratic autonomy and dignity. [In saying this, I accept the common view of Bloom as a short, pudgy man. But in fact he is neither short nor fat. His height is 5ft. 9 1/2 in., which would make him rather taller than average in the Dublin of 1904. And at that height his 164 pounds do not, at his age, make him overweight.] Yet both Bloom and Don Quixote transcend the imposed actuality to become what we, by some new definition of the word, are willing to call heroes. The way down, as Heraclitus said, is the same thing as the way up.

Between Joyce and Wordsworth the differences in personal temperament and public 'image' are wide indeed, but we know from Joyce's letters that at a crucial moment in his creative life, at the time of Dubliners, he held Wordsworth in unique esteem. It is Wordsworth, Joyce writes, who 'of all English men of letters best deserves [the] word "genius"'. We cannot be far wrong if we take it that a chief ground for this superlative judgement was Wordsworth's devotion to the epiphany.

The Wordsworthian epiphany has two distinct though related forms. In one, spirit shows forth from Nature; the sudden revelation communicates to the poet a transcendent message which bears upon the comprehension of human [p. 90] existence or upon the direction his own life should take. An example of this kind of epiphany is Wordsworth's experience of the mountain dawn which dedicates him to the priesthood of the imagination. The other, less grandiose and more closely connected with Joyce's epiphanies, [Among which, however, we must include the moment of glory on the strand when the world shows forth its beauty to Stepen Dedalus and, as for Wordsworth, makes the occasion of his dedicaton as a priest of art.] has as its locus and agent some unlikely person--a leech gatherer, a bereft and deserted woman, an old man on the road--who, without intention, by somethng said or done, or not done, suddenly manifests the quality of his own particular being and thus implies the wonder of beng in general. Lowness of social station, lowness even in a biological sense, is a necessary condition of the persons who provide Wordsworth's epiphanies: a man so old that he can scarcely move, a woman stupefied by despair, an idiot boy who says 'Burr, burr, burr' and has no name for the moon. We wonder, indeed, whether people as marginal to developed life as these can be thought to partake of full humanity; yet this is of course why Wordsworth has chosen them, for what the epiphanies disclose is that these persons forcibly exist as human beings. In this context the stress properly falls not on the word 'human' but on 'beings'. It is impossible to exaggerate the force that the word 'be' has for Wordsworth. He uses it as if with the consciouness that it makes the name of God. When he undertakes to argue his sister-in-law into a correct appreciation of 'Resolution and Independence', he says, 'What is brought forward? "A lonely place, a Pond, by which an old man was, far from all house or home" --not stood, not sat, but "was"--the figure represented in the most naked simplicity possible.' [Wordsworth quotes [letter of 14 June 1802] from an early draft of the poem, now lost.] [p. 91] Nowadays in the critical consideration of Wordsworth the name of Rousseau appears less frequently than it did earlier in the century. Doubtless this revision is in our estimate of Rousseau's influence on Wordsworth is justified, but there is one point of connection between the two men that requires to be kept in mind--the passionate emphasis each of them put upon the individual's experience of his existence. Rousseau calls this, as we have seen, the 'sentiment of being', Wordsworth calls it the same name. For both men the sentiment of being was an unassailable intuition. It figured in their minds as it did in the mind of Walt Whitman, who said that it is 'the hardest basic fact and only entrance to all facts'. The facts to which this fact is entrance are those of the social and political life--it is through our conscious certitude of our personal selfhood that we reach our knowledge of others. [p. 92]




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