The Canon: Sincerity and Authenticity by Lionel Trilling

October 7, 2010

What value a degree in the humanities? The £25,000 it soon may cost? Indeed, in the age of "impact funding", what value the humanities at all? Lionel Trilling's 1971 book can still guide a thoughtful response to these highly topical questions.

With Trilling already long established as America's pre-eminent postwar literary critic, this work would continue his career-long preoccupation with seeing cultural traditions as, at heart, debates about moral issues and these, in their turn, as inextricably linked to personal being. Culture, in all its contingencies and contradictions, he argued, was the forming ground of the self.

In just 170 pages, Trilling delineates the process whereby, over some 400 years, "moral life (was)...revising itself", a revision emerging from an oscillating debate about the relative value of sincerity and authenticity for a true sense of the self. As citizens began to see themselves as individuals, sincerity came to be a pre-eminent virtue: thus Polonius' famous advice to Hamlet, "To thine own self be true." Yet with the advent of Rousseau and Romanticism, the closely linked but not identical concept of authenticity eclipsed sincerity as an ideal for the personal self and the task of Art. These two, however, would have a complex relationship to society, as Romanticism became increasingly coloured by the insight that the human heart (for Conrad as for Freud) is a heart of darkness.

To ask, with Trilling, what authenticating imperative can then make human life in some way valid is to ask in a secularised form: "How shall we be saved?" The answer, for the Arnoldian Trilling, should be art/culture, but he is too subtle not to ask also whether modernist culture saves us merely by encouraging the "facile acceptance of the shame that art imputes".

Now, on rereading, Trilling's range and analysis (Goethe, Freud, Austen, Hawthorne, Sartre, Nietzsche, Wilde, Marx and many more) are exhilarating yet rarely showy (as they were for me as an undergraduate). The book's core lies in its analysis of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and Diderot's Rameau's Nephew, which alone justifies the cover price. This is not a rigorous history of ideas; he deals with "affinities", not "influences".

But could he be said to be theoretically naive? Sincerity and Authenticity appeared just as the academy became dominated by Continental theory, which sees us as fragmented, heterogeneous and entirely "constructed" selves; its followers would hardly argue for Trilling's canonical status. Trilling is not unaware, knows the ambivalence of his position, but sees his vocation as embodying the tensions of his age. Since then, other noteworthy scholars have continued to explore authenticity and the self. More importantly, undergraduate students of literature continue, I believe, to read literature as if it might show us who we are and how we should live.

And as for "deliverable impact", Trilling's arguments suggest that we will struggle to find it if academics continue to take "their questions from their peers and not from perplexed mankind" (as philosopher Allan Janik recently observed in these pages), or if they sacrifice the humanising potential of cultural study to theoretical frisson.

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