Saturday, 22 December 2012


Reading, and enjoying, Trilling's Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), in which is examined, to quote this impeccable summary, '"the moral life in process of revising itself," a period of Western history in which (argues Trilling) sincerity became the central aspect of moral life (first observed in pre-Age of Enlightenment literature such as the works of Shakespeare), later to be replaced by authenticity (in the more recent centuries).' Lots of thought-food. But, here's a sticking point for me:
The sincerity of Achilles or Beowulf cannot be discussed: they neither have nor lack sincerity. But if we are to ask whether Young Werther is really as sincere as he intends to be, or which of the two Dashwood sisters, Elinor or Marianne, is thought by Jane Austen to be the more truly sincere, we can confidently expect a serious response in the form of opinions on both sides of the question. [2-3]
I see what Trilling is getting at here, but I don't agree. For Beowulf, surely his sincerity is key? (That is to say: one of the important currents in Beowulf is about whether he is in Denmark merely to help the Danes, out of the goodness of his heart, or whether it is a bid for power. His 'sincerity' is proved, over the course of the poem: but it's not something we can be sure of at the beginning). And as for Achilles: well, this seems to me a profound and important question. I'd put it like this: what's more sincere than anger? I'm not sure I can think of anything.


Jonathan M said...

Isn't it problematic to look at those types of characters in terms of authenticity and sincerity on the grounds that the people who created those stories might not have had a folk psychology that included such concepts?

For example, is one of Odysseus's defining characteristics not that he can be deliberately insincere?

I know some humanities scholars in the US take this to mean that the modern experience of being human is radically different to the ancient experience of being human but, Ockham's Razor and all, I think it's reasonable to think that 'authenticity' may be a recent addition to our folk psychological lexicon.

My problem with feeding this stuff back into older texts is that it often shuts us out of the original intended affect. For example, I was dragged to see some Wagner a couple of years ago and the main protagonist seemed to be motivated by misogyny, paranoia and the kind of fussiness you might normally expect from a Dickensian maiden aunt. In reality, I suspect the mindset Wagner was getting at was one of honour and passion but looking at it through modern eyes, Lohengrin is not so much an epic hero as a hysterical arsehole.

Adam Roberts Project said...

But I don't see why that's an invalid way of reading Lohengrin! And you're bang-on about Odysseus: his 'insincerity', parsed via his nimble-wittedness, resourcefulness and endurance, is key to the sort of character he is. He's fundamentally not likeable, for instance; which is part of what makes him so fascinating a figure (his unlikeability doesn't alienate him from the reader, I think). He is unfaithful to his wife; he sacks innocent cities on the way home; he toys with the suitors like a cat with a mouse knowing (as he does) that he has the gods on his side, and after he has slaughtered them all he hangs all his serving maids, because they slept with the suitors.

I don't disagree with you when you say ' it's reasonable to think that 'authenticity' may be a recent addition to our folk psychological lexicon.' I certainly don't believe 'human nature' to be some immutable, eternal thing. But I need better evidence than Trilling provides. After all, 'deceitfulness', as opposed to sincerity/authenticity, can hardly be a modern invention.

I do disagree with you, mind, when you talk about 'the original intended affect' of Homer/Shakespeare/Wagner et all. I don't believe in 'intentions' in a literary-critical context. I don't care what an author thinks s/he is doing. I care about the text s/he produces. But that's probably just me.

nostalgebraist said...

I don't believe in 'intentions' in a literary-critical context.

I think this view runs into problems when applied to ancient (or, more generally, old) texts, because it's hard to prevent our thinking from being distorted by the knowledge that these texts have been esteemed by many people over the course of history. We come to Homer knowing that he is Great, and if we encounter, say, non-likable characters, we may say to ourselves, "well, Homer is clearly making these characters non-likable on purpose and with skill -- he couldn't be doing it out of mere clumsiness, because that wouldn't be a very Great thing to do." But of course there is the possibility that when considered on these modern terms Homer simply isn't very good, and the explanation for his endurance and his reputation-as-Great is that the standards used by ancient, and post-ancient but pre-modern, readers were different.

The worry is that we will keep overrating old texts on modern terms, saying in error they beat our contemporaries at their own game, while missing the real reasons they've been considered so good for so long. If it were possible for us to consider these texts apart from their reputation -- and to say things like (say) "Homer isn't very good at X, by modern standards" -- then this wouldn't be such a worry. But I don't think we can do that; both the psychological potency and the cultural influence of the reputation-for-Greatness is too strong, at least at the moment.

Tom Holmes said...

I thought Beowulf did it because it was a challenge. But I only saw the film.

Adam Roberts Project said...

nostalgebraist. I tend to agree with what you say, although I don't see how it contradicts my point about the opacity of 'authorial intention' as a literary-critical tool.

nostalgebraist said...

Well, what I'm saying is that remarks like Jonathan's "I suspect the mindset Wagner was getting at was one of honour and passion . . ." really are interesting and illuminating. By casting light on the thoughts of the people who first began to build Wagner's reputation, this kind of thinking helps us understand how we've gotten into the position of watching and trying to interpret Wagner today, which seems to me like one worthwhile task of criticism. (If someone is supposed to be Great, one of the things you want the critics to tell you is: what's so Great about them? Not just "what does this have to offer modern audiences?" but "why is there this whole historical tradition of esteem built around this particular work, and how did the author's actual choices produce it?")

I mean, I agree with the basic arguments about why the Intentional Fallacy is a fallacy, and I guess, in principle, everything I just said about cultural context can be separated from the issue of actual intent. (As long as we make room for what people thought Wagner meant, it doesn't matter what he actually meant.) If that's the distinction you're making, then I agree with you. But then the things Jonathan is saying are still interesting -- they should just be rephrased as "what the implied Wagner intended . . . " or something.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Yes, I see what you're saying, and there's a lot of sense to it. My problem with the intentional fallacy thing is not so much the fallacy part of it (though, yes, I get that) as the larger question of confusing Biography and Literary Criticism. Nothing wrong with Biography. But I'm more interested in texts than people. But the larger social and cultural questions you mention, as the contexts to texts, are essential to an understanding of texts, I agree.