Magill, R. Jay Jr. Sincerity: How a moral ideal born five hundred years ago inspired religious wars, modern art, hipster chic, and the curious notion that we all have something to say (no matter how dull). W. W. Norton & Co., 2013. 272 pp. $25.95
The word “sincere” first showed up in written English in 1533, the author of this useful book tells us. It came with, or soon acquired, a very pretty etymology, from the Latin sine cera, “without wax”—the wax that dishonest masons and sculptors used to disguise defects in their products.
Alas, the etymology is false: “Sincere” is from Latin sincerus, which means clean, pure, or sound—the real thing. Thence the word wandered into medieval Romance languages: Middle French sincérité, recorded in 1237. The ancient and medieval senses, however, applied to inanimate things: gems, wine, doctrine. It was the Reformation that decisively coupled outward show to private conscience to give us the modern notion of sincerity.
Nothing is more private than our own mental states, and this subjective quality puts sincerity under a shadow of ambiguity. A Hindu, a Christian, and an atheist all believe radically different things. They can’t all be right, but they may all be sincere. By the same token, sincerity is disqualified as a virtue, or even as an unqualified good. A mass-murdering despot may be perfectly sincere in his wish to exterminate heretics, class enemies, or Untermenschen; his victims can be forgiven for failing to appreciate his sincerity.
Regard for sincerity in Western civilization has ebbed and flowed since those 16th-century Protestants began plumbing their inner selves. (“I have within me the great pope, Self.” —Luther) Magill charts these cycles of action and reaction.
The problem with a community dedicated to sincerity is that impostors will quickly learn the appropriate outward show. As the old showbiz adage has it: “Sincerity—if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” (I have a feeling that one’s a favorite with political consultants, too.) La Rochefoucauld noted in 1665 that: “What usually passes for sincerity is only an artful pretense designed to win the confidence of others.”
So the tide ebbed, and a mannered society, elevating the courtly arts of wit, style, flattery, and guile made a comeback, the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 standing as a convenient milestone.
In due course Jean-Jacques Rousseau came along to serve as the Luther for a less religious age. It is an odd thing indeed, as Magill notes, that the champion of this new sincerity should have been a man who wrote a manual on child-raising while depositing his own five children in orphanages because they were too bothersome to him.
So it was, though; and the Romantic movement was well and truly launched, soon followed by its bastard American child, transcendentalism. Its further descendants, the cults of “authenticity” and “self-expression,” still plague us today.
Magill’s longest and (to my taste) richest chapter concerns sincerity in the arts from the mid-19th century on. The creative arts are of course shot through with pretense: Classical painting pretends that a two-dimensional canvas is a three-dimensional scene, the novel tells us of things that never happened as if they did, music aims to stir emotions that, in their primal form, never had anything to do with plucked strings or struck membranes.
The natural tendency of creative spirits therefore favors pretense and deceit. Whether this is the same as insincerity is a tricky thing to argue—trickier, I think, than Magill makes it seem.
He is on his firmest ground with literature and can summon several major talents to his defense.
Flaubert: “The less [the artist] feels a thing, the better equipped he is to express it.”
Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
Eliot: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”
To be sure, all three of those gentlemen, even Wilde, were at some bourgeois distance from the Romantic ideal of the creative artist as an outsider pursuing his own inner light wherever it might lead. The pictorial arts are much more the natural home of such spirits, with Vincent van Gogh as exemplar.
Here an original, modern style of sincerity came up, spurred by revulsion from mass-market popular culture. The critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) supplied necessary theory, and key artists dropped the pretense of three-dimensionality:
Paintings were just paint on canvas, not the objects they portrayed….Sculpture was simply solid material, not the forms it represented….
The endpoint of all this painterly sincerity was the all-black canvases of Ad Reinhardt, painted from 1953 to 1967, of which Magill says: “They did not deceive. They were what they were. They were themselves.” Sincerity at last!
The last full chapter of Magill’s book is titled “Hip Affected Earnestness.” It concerns a social phenomenon called the hipster and is chock-a-block with lists referring to the culture of the past thirty years: moviemakers (he lists 7), pop music bands (5), folk music performers (13), fashion ads (10), hipster accessories (19), and hipster childhood nostalgia (17). This chapter comes with its own six-page glossary, a “Hipster Semiotic Appendix.”
I was at a disadvantage with this last chapter in not having the faintest idea what a hipster is. The only thing I feel certain of is that it is not the same thing as a hippie. Almost none of the names in those lists—Devendra Banhart, REO Speedwagon, Das Racist—was familiar to me. Nor could I grasp Magill’s point about the “irony-sincerity” matrix, which he claims has been a strong feature of popular culture in recent years.
No doubt the culprit here is my own fogeyishness, not any failing of the author. Sincerity is a pretty good read. I really, really mean that.
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