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Two articles on authenticity

July 25, 2012

Since I still have something of a backlog of links I meant to post here, I’m not going to say much about these ones; their connection to the topics I’ve discussed here previously should be obvious.

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First, a (slightly older) review in the WSJ of a book called Sincerity by R. Jay Magill. An excerpt from the part dealing with art and literature:

In the realm of the literary arts, Mr. Magill has a field day, zeroing in on Rousseau as the source of our modern literary obsession with sincerity, which the author finds manifest in German and English Romanticism, American Transcendentalism, French Symbolism and other currents that come to look like a tidal wave in favor of finding and flaunting the unvarnished self. All such movements carry “the echo of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the subsequent romantic impulse: go forward and leap toward vigilant, violent self-expression; stress your own experience over the commercial and social developments surrounding your unique life.”

Freud helped push literature in this direction, Mr. Magill says, by replacing “the traditional ‘holy space’ reserved for the reception and discovery of God” with “drives for sex, violence, death, and pleasure.” The problem here was that, unlike Rousseau, who saw man without civilization as happy and good, Freud saw him as “a homicidal little beast who wants to have sex with his mother and murder his father.” A fine reason, in other words, for moderns to be wary of sincerity. Yet the war on artifice inspired by the forces of sincerity seeped into popular culture and commerce anyway. It was abetted by the likes of H.L. Mencken and such other lampooners of cant and inauthenticity as Dorothy Parker and W.C. Fields.

Judging from the above, this sounds like a book worth reading. Though the conclusion–“the author comes down in favor of sincerity, if not too much of it. With sincerity, as with most things, it is the dose that makes the poison.”–sounds strikingly unsatisfying.

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Second, an article in The New Atlantis (an excellent online journal) about the role of truth-telling in Gulliver’s Travels, which he reads as an antidote to the truth-above-all-else mentality that leads to prizing authenticity over virtue:

Since Nietzsche, the choice of which version of ourselves we identify with has been widely understood as a choice between lying and truth-telling — to ourselves as much as to others. The moral ideal has become authenticity — a particular kind of honesty. Of course, just about any philosophical ideal is grounded in some sort of honesty: the search for Truth requires truth. Yet Aristotle describes honesty as a virtue only of self-presentation — the balance between self-deprecation and boastfulness. And Plato never lists honesty as a virtue at all, and even distinguishes between “true lies” and useful or noble lies. From the modern to the post-modern era, honesty and authenticity shifted to become much of the telos of life, where before they had been but means in our progress toward that end.

Gulliver himself, in this reading, ends up exactly the opposite of what Swift thinks one should be. I find it interesting how the article draws a connection between “authenticity” and the angel/beast dichotomy:

Gulliver scorns what we happen to be while canonizing and longing for what we are not. His dedication to truth — the bloodless facticity of the Houyhnhnms — is his madness. Dedication to the truth of abstracted rationality, and perhaps most of all to the pursuit of seemingly concrete facts that scientific empiricism promotes, tends toward this absolutism. As with many misanthropes, from Molière’s to those who “just keep it real” today, Gulliver’s professed dedication to a narrow sort of truth-telling makes him a liar in his very core.

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