Notebook, 1993-

'Sincerity and Authenticity'

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

II. The Honest Soul and the
Disintegrated Consciousness - [cont.]

The best of the novelists of the nineteenth century and of the beginning of our own epoch were anything but confident that the old vision of the noble life could be realized. But in the degree to which Balzac, Stendhal, Dickens, Trollope, Flaubert, and Henry James were aware of the probability of its defeat in actuality, they cherished and celebrated the lovely dream. The young James Joyce gave it a name, one that suggests both is anachronism and its allure--he spoke [p. 40] of his desire to enter 'the fair courts of life'. In that phrase, nostalgically recalling the vanished noble dispensation, he expressed all that the world in the time of his youth might still be fancied to offer in the way of order, peace, honour, and beauty. The credence that could formerly be given to material and social establishment and the happiness which followed from it was the very ground of the moral life as the novelists once represented it--the moral career began with the desire to enter the fair courts of life; how one conducted oneself in that enterprise was what morality was about.

In the literature our own day, it need scarcely be said, the visionary norm of order, peace, honour, and beauty have no place. Conceivably its presence is to be discerned in its absence: the bitter contemptuous rejection of it that marks contemporary literature might perhaps be thought of as the expression of despair over the impossibility of realizing the vision. But also the rejection is gratuitous; it is, as Hegel would say, a free choice that Spirit has made in seeing its self-realization.

It would of course be absurd to say that the lives we actually live are controlled by the present-day repudiation of the old visionary norm. As householders, housekeepers, and parents we maintain allegiance to it in practice, possibly even in diffident principle. But as readers, as participants in the conscious, formulating part of our life in society, we incline to the antagonistic position. When, for example, a gifted novelist, Saul Bellow, tries through his Moses Herzog to question the prevailing negation of the old vision and to assert the value of the achieved and successful life, we respond with discomfort and embarrassment. And the more, no doubt, because we discern some discomfort and embarrassment on the part of Mr. Bellow himself, arising fom his sufficiently accurate apprehension that in controverting the accepted attitude he lays himself open to [p. 41] the terrible charge of philistinism, of being a defector from the ranks of the children of light, a traitor to spirit. We take it as an affront to our sense of reality that a contemporary should employ that mode of judging the spiritual life which we are willing to accept and even find entrancing when we encounter it in Shakespeare's romances. Shakespeare unabashedly uses material and social establishment and what it is presumed to assure in the way of order, peace, honour, and beauty as emblems of the spiritual life, as criteria by which the sufficiency of the inner condition may be assessed. He conceives the self in terms of states and activities which imply achievement and reward, such states as innocence, such activities as repentance and atonement, such achievement and reward as redemption, 'a clean life ensuing', and even-how astonishing it is!--happiness. [If we speak of The Tempest in the context of a discussion of the Phenomenology, we can scarcely fail to remark other elements of the play which bear in a striking way upon Hegle's formulations--the 'baseness' of Caliban which commands the sympathy of the modern audience not merely for its pathos but for what is implied of its 'nobility' by its resistance to servitude, and the achieved aspiration of Ariel to the Spirit fully realized in autonomy.]

It is this vision of life that Hegel means to discredit when he speaks with condescension and even contempt of Diderot-Moi. The 'honest soul' is rejected by Hegel because it is defined and limited by its 'noble' relation to the external power of society, to the ethos which that power implies. Nobility has been bourgeoisified in Diderot-Moi but not essentially transmuted. And we of our time, at least as readers, are, as I say, in essential accord with Hegel's judgment. We reject the archaic noble vision of life because we desire to escape the limiting conditions which it imposes. Our commitment is to such freedom as is to be found in the exigent spiritual enterprise which, in the English translation of the Phenomenology, goes under the name of 'culture'.

'Culture' is the word chosen to render Hegel's 'Bildung'. In 1910, when J. B. Baillie's version first appeared, the meaning of 'culture' that had been instituted by Matthew Arnold was still in strong force and Baillie felt free to rely on it. He was the more justified in doing so because Arnold clearly had Bildung in mind in one of its common meanings when he framed his conception of culture as the development of the self to perfection through its active experience of 'the best that is thought and said in the world'. This sense of the word can now seem only old-fashioned and pious, but this is actually in its favour, for it was exactly Hegel's intention to take his readers aback by making a sanctified word stand for acts of impiety. Culture, as Hegel idiosyncratically defines it, is the characteristic field of experience of the base self; it proposes the activity by which the disintegrated, alienated, and distraught consciousness expresses its negative relation with the external power of society and thereby becomes 'Spirit truly objective', that is, self-determining. The existence of the base self in culture is described as consisting 'in universal talk and in depreciatory judgment which rends and tears everything'. By this activity--base enough in all conscience--whatever is intended 'to signify something real' is broken up, disintegrated. The deprecatory judgment, the malice of universal talk, is said by Hegel to be 'that which in this real world is alone truly of importance'.

This breaking up of everything real, although of definitive importance in the career of Spirit, is anything but a happy activity. The experience of the self in culture is fraught with pain; it entails 'renunciation and sacrifice'. Baillie emphasizes this aspect of culture by a liberty he takes in translating the title of the section of the phenomenology we are considering--for Hegel's Der sich entfremdete Geist; die Bildung' he gives 'Spirit in Self-Estrangement--The Discipline of Culture'. Culture as Hegel conceives it is [p. 43] exactly a discipline in the sense of that word which means inflicted pain. It is by undergoing the pain of culture that the base self is shaped towards nobility, is indeed, Hegel says, already noble.

But of its baseness there is no doubt. The truth of the self, at a certain stage of its historical development, consists in its being not true to itself, in there being no self to be true to: the truth for self, for Spirit, consists precisely in deceit and shamelessness. 'The content uttered by Spirit and uttered about itself', Hegel says, 'is . . . the inversion and perversion of all conceptions and realities, a universal deception of itself and others . . . . The shamelessness manifested in stating this deceit is just on that account the greatest truth.' It is therefore not Diderot-Moi, not the philosphe with his archaic love of simple truth and morality, with his clearly defined self and his commitment to sincerity, who, for Hegel, commands esteem. Rather, it is Rameau, the buffoon, the flattering parasite, the compulsive mimic, without a self to be true to: it is he who represents Spirit moving to its next stage of development.

The high point of Hegel's admiration for Rameau and of his scorn for Diderot is reached in response to the great climax of the dialogue, Rameau's astonishing operative performance, his momentous abandonment of individuated selfhood to become all the voices of human existence, of all existence. 'He jumbled together thirty different airs, French, Italian, comic, tragic--in every style. Now in a baritone voice he sank to the pit; then straining in falsetto he tore to shreds the upper notes of some air, imitating the while the stance, walk and gestures of the several characters; being in succession furious, mollified, lordly, sneering. First a damsel weeps and he reproduces her kittenish ways; next he is a priest, a king, a tyrant.... Now he is a slave, he obeys, calms down, is heartbroken, complains, laughs.... With [p. 44] swollen cheeks and sombre throaty sound, he would give us the horns and bassoons. For the oboes he assumed a shrill yet nasal voice, then speeded up the emission of sound to an incredible degree for the strings.... He whistled piccolos and warbled traverse flutes, singing, shouting, waving about like a madman, being in himself dancer and ballerina, singer and prima donna, all of them together and the whole orchestra, the whole theatre; then redividing himself into twenty separate roles, running, stopping, glowing at the eyes like one possessed, frothing at the mouth... He was a woman in a spasm of grief, a wretched man sunk in despair, a temple being erected, birds growing silent at sunset, waters murmuring through cool and solitary places or else cascading from a mountain top, a storm, a hurricane, the anguish of those about to die, mingled with the whistling of the wind and the noise of thunder. He was night and its gloom, shade and silence--for silence itself is despicable in sound. He had completely lost his senses.'

Upon this ultimate impersonation Diderot-Moi had passed a divided judgment. 'Did I admire: Yes, I did admire. Was I moved to pity? I was moved. But a streak of derision was interwoven with these feelings and denatured them.' And that the rational man can find in the astonishing performance 'a perversion of sentiment with as much shamefulness in it as absolute frankness, candor, and truth', that he should undertake to discriminate the admirable from the contemptible, the noble from the base, is, in HegelÍs view, the decisive indication of the undeveloped condition of this 'simple, placid consciousness. [The passage which Hegel quotes [pp. 544-5] to convey Diderot-Moi's judgement of the performance is actually a conflation of two opinions expressed in the dialogue, only one of which [the first I have quoted] refers to the great opera-impersonation; the other refers to an earlier example of Rameau's mimicry, in which Rameau represents himself as a pimp seducing a bourgeois girl on behalf of a wealthy patron.] [p. 45]

It should perhaps be remarked that Hegel permits himself considerable licence in his reading of the dialogue. He praises Rameau's performance because, through its abdication of integral selfhood, it advances Spirit to a 'higher level of conscious life'. 'To be conscious of its own distraught and torn existence', he says, 'and to express itself accordingly--this is to pour scornful laughter on existence, on the confusion pervading the whole and on itself as well.' This does not accurately describe the Nephew's performance, which is not scornful but, rather, charged with admiration and love of the human and natural phenomena it represents. Contrary to Hegel's view, there is really not much malice in Rameau; he is by no means identical with Dostoevsky's Underground Man. His performance is an unabashed defence of exactly what the Underground Man disdains, or affects to disdain, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. For Rameau these make up the Trinity he worships and in whose invincibility he has perfect faith--never, he says, will it be overcome by the forces of darkness. Hegel attributes to him 'the madness of the musician', but Rameau is as much a critical intelligence as Diderot, and when he has finished his intoxicated demonstration of the power of the new art, he conscientiously turns his mind back to the old musical canon to salvage those elements of it which are worthy of continued admiration. As an exemplar of culture he is really rather moderate in his 'rending' and 'tearing' and he shows less 'confusion' than Hegel imputes to him. But such liberties as Hegel takes with Diderot's text are to be noted merely by the way. The dialogue needs no protection from them and may even be thought to welcome them.

This early in our investigation of sincerity we encounter, then, a mind of great authority which proposes to us the dismaying thought that sincerity is undeserving of our [p. 46] respect. I have remarked the obvious connection between sincerity and the intensified sense of personal identity that developed along with the growth of the idea of society. Sincerity was taken to be an element of personal autonomy; as such, it was felt to be what we might call a progressive virtue. But considered in the light of Hegel's historical anthropology, it must be regarded in the opposite way, as regressive and retrospective, looking back to the selfhood of a past time, standing between the self and the disintegration which is essential if it is to develop its true, its entire, freedom.

The dialectical turns and returns of Hegel's Phenomenology make esoteric doctrine indeed. Yet in itself the conception of the disintegrated, alienated, and distraught consciousness was anything but unfamiliar to the contemporary audience. It had been the subject of one of the most widely read books of the preceding generation, Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which had been published in 1774, at the end of the putative span of years in which Rameau's Nephew was written.

I do not know the present status of this remarkable book and whether young readers have to approach it, as they did in my youth, through the ridicule that had been directed to it in Victorian England. George Henry Lewes spoke of the novel's reputation for absurdity among the English--my own first knowledge of the book came to me as a boy from Thackeray's comic verses about Charlotte going on with her cutting bread-and-butter after Werther had blown 'his silly brains out' and was 'borned before her on a shutter'. The reception of the book had been phenomenal [p. 47] in its enthusiasm--all Europe adored it, and its vogue in England was for a time scarcely less fervent than on the Continent. But the Victorians discovered that they had work to do and the great thing about Werther was that he did not, which was presumably the case with the young Germans who were said to have emulated his suicide. The enlightened English view of the novel in the nineteenth century was that the emotions it set forth may have been appropriate to their time but, being childish things, were to be put away now that maturity had come. So Carlyle said, and he spoke with the authority of having told, in Sartor Resatus, the history of his own experience of disintegration, which, unlike Werther's, had been resisted and overcome. Werther's anguish was real and justified, Carlyle said, but 'other years and higher culture' had brought its remedy.

We will be less ready than the Victorians to conclude that the day of Goethe's youthful novel is over. The greater historical distance brings the book nearer to us than it was to them, for it allows us to take in a less literal way than they did the excesses of sentiment which they found exasperating. Beneath all that is adventitious in it, the Sorrows of Young Werther is as hard and enduring as Rameau's Nephew and no less significant in the history of sincerity.

The story falls into two parts. The first is an account of the hero's effort to ward off the encroachments of disintegration, to remain an honest soul; the second tells of his free choice of disintegration. Werther, a young and gifted member of the upper bourgeoisie, hopes to quiet a troubled state of feeling by living for a time in a pleasant rural district into which he has come to conclude a matter of family business. In his early letters to his confidant, Wilhelm, he gives no reason for his distress of mind, what at one point he calls his 'seething blood'. And it is quite at odds with the figure he makes in the world--he conducts himself with the sweetness and decorum of a young prince in a Shakespeare romance, and despite his bourgeois origin he has what Frank Kermode, writing about The Tempest, calls the 'magic of nobility', meaning that personal beauty which the romances assign to children of royal stock as the index of their innate virtue: in one of this early letters Werther says, "I don't know what attraction I must have for people; so many of them like me and attach themselves to me.' And Charlotte, the 'Lotte' with whom he falls in love at their fist meeting, has the same magic. In her case, however, personal charm is bound up with doing, with the practical affairs of domesticity. Her mother having recently died, Lotte has charge of her father's house and the rearing of her many brothers and sisters; she fulfills her household duties with the grace that informs her dancing and singing. The lines that are perhaps the loveliest in Shakespeare, Florizel's hymn to Perdita's doing, suggest the charm that Werther finds in Lotte.

What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I'ld have you do it ever. When you sing,
I'ld have you buy and sell so, so give alms,
Pray so, and for the ordering of your affairs,
To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o' th' sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that, move so, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deed
That all your acts are queens.

It is, as it were, no accident that Lotte's celebrated cutting of bread-and-butter for her little brood takes place just [p. 49] before she leaves for a dance. The life over which she presides is as simple and sincere as bread-and-butter and it seems exactly suited to the needs of Werther's troubled mind. As, indeed, everything in the district is for a time. Werther finds a garden to sit in and is charmed by its simplicity and sincerity--it was laid out 'not by a systematic gardener but by a feeling heart'. Nature around him is unspoiled, mountainous, forested. He reads Homer and is enchanted by actual scenes of patriarchal life. There are many children, the very avatars of sincerity; he loves them, they love him. A young farm labourer adores the widow who employs him and is happy to think that his feelings are reciprocated. Lotte tends the sick and elderly; life has its sadness but grace can comfort it. As Werther says, certain pleasures are still granted to mankind. In his willed commitment to the condition of the 'honest soul', he makes what he calls a heartfelt speech against ill humour, which he says is a disease, a sluggishness of spirit that must be cured by the activity of work.

Yet his own passions, Werther says, verge upon insanity, and he means thus to praise them. The archaic world, the idyllic world of simplicity and sincerity, of life justified, is after all not for him. His adoration of Lotte cannot express itself in action: marriage is an estate appropriate to the good, dull civil servant, Albert, to whom Lotte is betrothed, the honest consciousness in excelsis; for Werther, who is Spirit seeking its freedom, it is an impossibility.

In the second half of the story, the very nature of the world changes, as if at the behest of Werther's alienation. Now the world is no longer of a kind that accommodates and invites the placid consciousness, the honest soul. All that was once touched with the archaic nobility now disintegrates into baseness. Werther himself loses his 'magic of nobility', the base world resists his charm--although as the secretary of a diplomatic legation he associates with his social superiors, the members of an actual if tatty nobility, on one occasion, in absence of mind [so he says], he stays on in the room in which the aristocrats are gathering for their weekly assembly and is snubbed and humiliated by them. This incident is the beginning although not the cause of his despair. Now everything in the external world confirms by its pain and confusion his internal condition. He learns of the death of an infant with whom he had affectionately played. The child's virtuous parents fall into destitution. The amorous farm labourer is thwarted in his love affair and murders his mistress. The glorious nut trees of the parsonage are cut down by the new pastor's bitter-minded wife. 'I am not,' Werther says, 'I am not ever to come to myself.' He has that day encountered a madman in the fields who speaks of a time when he had been happy; the lunatic's mother explains that this was the time when he had been madder still, confined to the madhouse: 'die Zeit, da er von sich war', the time when he was separated from himself. It is no longer Homer who is Werther's favourite reading but Ossian, the compulsive telling over of defeat, darkness, despair, the eradication of clear outline and all degree, the world torn and scattered.

Only in part does Werther believe that all this observed pain and confusion of existence is accountable for his mounting distraction. It is not through his perception but through his will that the beautiful world of the first half of the novel has yielded place to this world of suffering and nullity. The world as now given is the world as chosen, and the angels might cry to Werther as later they were to cry to Faust: 'Oh, oh! You have destroyed the beautiful world.' The world of order and harmony, of salubrious activity, is the 'noble' world of Diderot-Moi, the simple soul, the honest consciousness, the integrated self: only such [p. 51] a self can envision such a world, only such a self can delight in it. And only such a self can submit to it; Werther cannot, for it is the world of recognized necessity, where, as Hegel put it, Spirit does not exist 'on its own account'.

Werther, of course, does not find freedom through disintegration; his suicide is not a victor of Spirit but a defeat. If we try to explain his failure in the terms of Hegel's celebration of Rameau, we can say that his alienation did not proceed far enough: he was not able to achieve that detachment from himself which for Hegel constitutes Rameau's triumph and significance. The Nephew deserves admiration, Hegel says, because through him Spirit is able to pour 'scornful laughter on existence, on the confusion pervading the whole and on itself as well'. Spirit is expressed as esprit, Geist becomes geistreich. Werther is incapable of embodying this desperate cosmic wit; irony is beyond his comprehension. He is in all things the sincere man; even in his disintegration he struggles to be true to the self he must still believe is his own. It is much to the point, especially in the light of Rameau's wild impersonations and role-playings, that Werther expresses his sincerity by a singular and apparently unchanging mode of dress--everyone in Europe knew, and many imitated, Werther's costume of dark blue coat, yellow waistcoat, and boots, and Goethe is at pains to mention that it was in this costume that Werther died. To the end and even in his defeat he held fast to the image of a one true self. This tenacity was what had destroyed him. A disintegrated consciousness, he had persisted in clinging to the simplicity of the honest soul. [p. 52]



The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].