Notebook, 1993-

'Sincerity and Authenticity'

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

III. The Sentiments of Being and
the Sentiments of Art - [cont.]

Only a few years ago the response to Rousseau's view of artistic culture would have been more clearly negative than it is today, when in some quarters it is believed that 'showing' is to be repudiated in favour of participation, exactly to the end of loving ourselves in others. Still, the pieties [p. 65] about art to which most of us have been bred will incline us to agree with Peter Gay when, in his book on the Enlightenment, he says that this is 'Rousseau at his most unpleasant'. Which is to say, Rousseau moralistic, utilitarian, indifferent to the 'sensibilities' which art helps us cultivate. As Professor Gay goes on to remark, even if it did not put us in mind of the cultural programmes of totalitarian societies, this aspect of Rousseau's thought is distasteful. No doubt. But our ready dislike of it must not lead us to overlook an important part of Rousseau's intention which is not moralistic and utilitarian but in itself aesthetic, although the beauty to which it refers is not that of artistic products but of actual persons. Rousseau is concerned to foster a human type whose defining characteristic is autonomy, the will and strength to make strict choice among the elements of our enforced life in society. Put it that he is aesthetically revolted by the trashiness of what, some twenty years ago, David Riesman called the 'other-directed' personality, which he saw as becoming ever more salient in our society. This is the personality whose whole being is attuned to catch the signals sent out by the consensus of his fellows and by the institutional agencies of the culture, to the extent that he is scarcely a self at all, but, rather, a reiterated impersonation. On this score it is surely possible for us to be in accord with Rousseau. We too have a predilection for the self-sufficiency and self-definition of the two other types of personality that Professor Riesman described, the archaic type he calls 'inner-directed', which has at least the appearance and ideal of autonomy, and the hypothetical type which is truly self-directed.

But one of our most esteemed certitudes, firmly established in our advanced educational system, is that personal autonomy is fostered by art. Rousseau says just the opposite. Twenty years ago it would have seemed absurd of anyone [p. 66] to question that cherished belief of ours, and even now it seems vicious to stand it on its head and to say, as Rousseau does, that art is one of the agents of conformity, that it is hostile to the sentiment of one's own existence. Inferior art, commercial-popular art, has always been thought corrupting. But serious art, by which we mean such art as stands, overtly or by implication, in an adversary relation to the dominant culture--surely on this ground or nowhere a man can set up the smithy in which to forge his autonomous selfhood? Yet at present time certain developments in the ecology of art must make us less confident of this than we once were. The unprecedented proliferation of art, the ease with which formerly esoteric or repellent art forms are accepted, the fascinating conjunction of popular and commercial art with what used to be called advanced art--these circumstances do not support the old belief that art fosters a personal autonomy. Say, if you like, that art conducts to the individual certain of the more rarefied cultural energies, moves him in certain hitherto untaken directions, offers him such confirmation of the sense of individuality as may be found in social enclaves organized around aesthetic preferences. But this is not autonomy: the rule, the law, derives from others. Rousseau, living in an age when the new opinion-forming power of art could already be discerned, says nothing more, nor less, than this. [p. 67

In his general condemnation of literature there are two literary genres which Rousseau holds blameless because they do not sophisticate the integrity of the honest soul nor [p. 67] diminish its sincerity. One of these genres is oratory, the other is the novel.

The first exemption is of course not surprising. A republic can scarcely dispense with oratory and the orator is not--so Rousseau tells us--susceptible to the corrupting influence of impersonation since, unlike the actor, 'he fills only his own role..., speaks only in his own name'. But we are bound to be astonished at Rousseau's belief that the novel suits the republican character and that, unlike the drama, it does not threaten the simplicity and integrity of the self. The desolate ghost of poor Emma Bovary rises up to protest that the opposite is so, that, even more than the theatre, the novel seduces the self to role-playing, to fantasy and impersonation. To which, for the moment at least, the reply may be that Rousseau's experience was different: his own self in its integrity was formed, he believed, by night-long bouts of novel-reading with his father when he was five or six years old. It was from these, he said, that he dated 'the unbroken sentiment of his being'.

Oratory and the novel: which is to say, Robespierre and Jane Austen.

This, I fancy, is the fist time the two personages have ever been brought together in a single sentence, separated from each other by nothing more than the conjunction that links them. They have not been factitiously conjoined: they are consanguineous, each is in lineal descent from Rousseau, cousins-German through their commitment to the 'honest soul' and its appropriate sincerity.

Writers on Robespierre frequently sum up the whole of his intellectual life and much of his temperament by reference to the strength of his devotion to Rousseau, which began in his school days. Through all his career, says his English biographer, J. M. Thompson, 'he was as sincere, as solemn, and as self-questioning as his master, the model of Jacobinism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau'. Albert Mathiez speaks of the 'profound sincerity' which 'touched and subjugated the Assembly'. The sincerity was not doubted even by his most implacable enemies. The Seagreen Incorruptible--so Carlyle delighted to call him in mockery of his conscious rectitude and the dandified colour of his coat--is Molière's Alceste in a third avatar, Rousseau himself, as we saw, having been the second. Yet this most militantly sincere and single-minded of honest souls became in the literal sense of the word a hypocrite, which is to say an actor, the leading player in a comedy of principle, perfidy, and blood. Neither the admiration that Robespierre in some measure deserves, nor the horror he inspires, nor the ghastliness of his end, can dispel the comic aura in which he stands before us, in this respect unique among world-historical figures.

Hannah Arendt, in her book On Revolution, gives a subtle and impassioned account of the moral disposition of Robespierre, laying particular emphasis upon the theatrical character which he shared with all the men who, as she puts it, 'enacted the Revolution'. Their rhetoric was consciously that of the theatre, to which their metaphors made specific reference. It is of course the tragic or heroic theatre that Dr. Arendt refers to, yet when she says that the men of the Revolution conceived it to be their historic mission 'to tear the mask of hypocrisy off the face of French society', it is a scene from comedy that springs to mind. The revolutionary preoccupation with the hypocrisy of the old French society resulted in an obsessive concern with the possible--the all too probable--hypocrisy of the individual, even of one's own self. The Revolution brought to its highest intensity the idea of the public, and established, Dr. Arendt suggests, an ultimate antagonism between the unshadowed manifestness of the public life and the troubled ambiguity [p. 69] of the personal life, the darkness of man's unknowable heart. What was private and unknown might be presumed to be subversive of the public good. From this presumption grew the preoccupation with sincerity, with the necessity of expressing and guaranteeing it to the public--sincerity required a rhetoric of avowal, the demonstration of single-minded innocence through attitude and posture, exactly the role-playing in which Rousseau had found the essence of personal, ultimately of social, corruption. 'One cannot', André Gide has said, 'both be sincere and seem so.'

Molière had proposed something close to this. Alceste's proud claim to a perfect sincerity encroaches upon the darkness of the unknowable heart. The absoluteness of his undertaking not to be false to any man leads to the extirpation of most of the self to which he is determined to be true. So too with Robespierre. But History's version of the comedy is more elaborate than Molière's. It is not merely that Robespierre extirpates the dark, ambiguous self but that in its place he establishes a self of his own devising, made up of elements derived from various personages who had figured, to popular acclaim, on the stage of History, Rousseau being one among them. Alceste, unwilling to be implicated in the darkness and ambiguity of society, vanished himself from his kind to live in solitude and silence. Robespierre lives and moves and has his devised being in full view of the public to which he directs his unceasing voice. His last great comic moment before his fall was an occasion in which virtually the whole population of Paris participated, some half-million people--society transfigured into the public, its darkness and ambiguity thus overcome, its motives all clear and avowed to itself and to the watching world.

This was the famous Festival of the Supreme Being of 8 June 1793, in which, as ordained by the Convention, the French nation dedicated itself to the theistic creed of Rousseau's Savoyard Vicar. Whether by intention or inadvertence, the day appointed for the festival was Whit-Sunday, which, in the calendar of the displaced Church, commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit. [The liturgical colour of this feast is red]. The celebration reached its climax on the Champs de Mars, renamed the Champs de la Réunion, where the people stood massed before its legislators, who were seated on the artificial mound that symbolized the 'Mountain' of the Convention; it was crowned by a Tree of Liberty. Robespierre presided, holding in his hand a bouquet of flowers and an ear of wheat. There were many speeches and the vast assemblage was led first in a hymn to the Being, whose existence it was ratifying and then in patriotic songs. Multitude and unanimity proved intoxicating; to salvoes of artillery and with cries of 'Vive la République!', fervent embraces were exchanged. The enormous public act of faith had been inaugurated by Robespierre that morning in the ceremony in the Tuileries Gardens. Here the representatives of the people and the national deputies had met, arrayed in their brilliant new official dress, carrying flowers, wheat, and fruit. To them Robespierre, as President of the Convention, had delivered an oration in praise of theism, at the conclusion of which he set fire to an effigy of Atheism, from whose ashes there emerged, by means of machinery, the image of Wisdom, unfortunately a little scorched by the flames. The whole magniloquent occasion had been designed, directed, and rehearsed by David and was judged to be his finest achievement in this line of work.

The ironies of that great day of public self-realization and self-congratulation are classic in their grandiosity, precision, and clarity-it could only be banal, not to say cruel, to [p. 71] explicate the doubt they cast upon Rousseau's confidence that oratory is a literary genre which is immune to the corruption inherent in impersonation.

What, then, of the other licensed genre, the novel? What of the novelist, to whom , together with Robespierre, I have ascribed a lineal descent from Rousseau?

Jane Austen never mentions Rousseau in her letters, and although there is ground for believing that she read La Nouvelle Héloïse, it is unlikely that her acquaintance with him went beyond this one work. It is not, however, an influence that I would propose, but, rather, an affinity, a common concern for the defence of the 'honest soul' with its definitive quality of single-mindedness and sincerity.

Two passages from Rousseau will serve to suggest the nature of the affinity. The first occurs in the Letter to M. d'Alembert. In the course of explaining the salubrious effects of the novel, Rousseau says that it is the English novel he has in mind, of which some examples are no doubt detestable, but which at its best is sublime, its best being Clarissa. The Letter was written before Rousseau had become embittered at the English by his disastrous visit among them, and he ascribes to the English aristocracy certain traits which make it admirable by comparison with the French. English ladies, for example, share many of the characteristics of the best of their male compatriots; they have a degree of Spartan simplicity which permits their sentiment of being, their sense of selfhood, to depend on themselves, not on the opinion of others. The solitude of their great parks does not frighten but pleases them. They are, in short, not Parisians; le tout Paris does not determine their being. 'From this common taste for solitude arises a taste for contemplative reading and the novels with which England is inundated. Thus both [sexes], withdrawn more and more into themselves, give themselves less to frivolous imitations, get more of a taste for the true pleasures of life, and think less of appearing happy than of being so.Í

I shall again avoid the question of whether the genre of the novel does in fact inculcate and sustain the autonomy of the self or whether it perhaps does just the opposite, leading the self into factitiousness. Rousseau's own experience, as we have seen, was that from novel-reading he had derived the sentiment of his being, in which he found nothing less than the meaning of life, the reason for existence: the sentiment of being, he was to say in the Rêveries, brought 'a contentment and peace which alone would suffice to make this existence sweet and dear '.

The sentiment of being, it need scarcely be said, is the criterion by which Jane Austen judges the quality of the selves she brings into her purview. Whoever in her novels wins her regard--her compassionate or comic indulgence is another thing--possesses in a high degree the sentiment of being, with all that this implies of self-sufficiency, self definition, and sincerity. So far as it is indeed a sentiment, her women are likely to possess it in a higher degree than her men, just as in Shakespeare's romances it is the princesses rather than the princes who best embody the quality of life that the plays celebrate. In Jane Austen's novels, as in Shakespeare's late plays, the character of the heroines is shaped by their spirited acquiescence in the societal mode that Hegel called 'noble' and represented as the definitive circumstance of the 'honest soul'. Its visionary norm of life is the order, peace, honour, and beauty which inhere in a happy and [as used to be said] prosperous marriage, in the sufficience and decorum of fortunate domestic arrangements. Nothing in the novels questions the ideal of the archaic 'noble' life which is appropriate to the great and beautiful houses with the ever -remembered names--Northanger Abbey, Donwell Abbey, Pemberley, [p. 73] Hartfield, Kellynch Hall, Norland Park, Mansfield Park. In them 'existence is sweet and dear', at least if one is rightly disposed; they hold nothing less than the meaning of life for those who are fitted to seek it and to cherish it when it is found. With what the great houses represent the heroines of the novels are, or become, wholly in accord. Their aspiration reaches no further. Doubtless this was what Emerson had in mind when he expressed his detestation of Jane Austen's novels for their 'sterility' and 'vulgarity'.

It is far from being the judgment that Rousseau would have made. We have seen that, for all the great part he had in bringing the modern world into being, for all that the tendency of his thought is subversive of the old order, he regarded the emerging new world with intense anxiety, and exactly because it was in process of destroying the old 'noble' life. Despite his concern with equality, his ideal of the good life was shaped by his taste for the aristocratic mode; he never repudiated the fantasy of it from which he took courage at a crucial moment of his troubled adolescence. [For a useful account of Rousseau's personal preferences in class-determined modes of life, see Roger D. Masters, The Political Philosophy of Rousseau [Princeton, NJ., 1968], p. 428] he speaks of this touching dream in the Confessions, in the second of the two passages which I said bore upon the affinity between him and Jane Austen. The engraver's apprentice, sixteen years old, has resolved to run away from his master and his native city to seek his fortune in the world and Rousseau recalls with tender irony the terms of happiness which the boy stipulates. 'My expectations', he says, 'were not boundless. One charming circle would be enough; more would be an embarrassment. Modestly I imagined myself one of a narrow but exquisitely chosen clan, over which I felt confident I would rule. A single [p. 74] castle was the limit of my ambition. To be the favourite of its lord and lady, the lover of their daughter, the friend of their son, and the protector of their neighbours: that would be enough; I required no more.' He wished, in short, to be Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, not, of course, in her creep-mouse days, but in her time of flowering, when her full worth is known and her single-mindedness and sincerity have made her loved by all.' [In associating Rousseau's 'taste for the aristocratic mode' with the life that Jane Austen depicts, I of course don't mean to suggest that the personages of her novels are members of the nobility.]

How right, then, that Mansfield Park should contain its own 'Letter on the Theatre'. Everyone remembers having been puzzled or exasperated, or both, by the novel's elaborate to-do over the amateur theatricals to which the young people devote themselves during the absence of the master of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram, and the unequivocal judgment the novel makes that the enterprise is to be deplored. The objection to the histrionic art is exactly Rousseau's: impersonation leads to the negation of self, thence to the weakening of the social fabric. [This at the time was scarcely a unique or eccentric view. Although in 1634 the Egerton Family thought it quite in order that the young daughter of the house should play the Lady in Comus, defending her chastity from the specious persuasions of lust, in the early nineteenth century the serious upper-class view of amateur theatricals was less lenient. Thackeray makes it characteristic of Becky Sharp that she figures in them with great success. In Disraeli's The Young Duke a fashionable lady of questionable principles mocks the idea that they are in any way objectionable. John Monckton-Milnes is warned by his father that taking part in country-house 'mimes' tends to lower a man in public respect. In America, in the early years of the twentieth century, the same judgment was in force--the downfall of Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, begins with her success in private theatricals.] The bluff, unimaginative single-mindedness of Sir Thomas is not in every way admirable--it is explicitly blamed for the bad rearing of the two Bertram girls, which has resulted in their ugly personal qualities and empty lives--yet it is the [p. 75] principle on which Mansfield Park is founded and by which it endures and holds out its promise of order, peace, honour, and beauty.

Mansfield Park is notoriously an exception among Jane Austen's novels in the sternness, even the harshness, with which it judges the tendencies that threaten the 'noble' mode of life and the 'honest soul'. The once common view was that, although her characters are rooted in social actuality, Jane Austen does not conceive of society as being in any sense problematical, as making issues by reason of the changes it was undergoing in her time. In the present state of opinion about the novelist there is little disposition to accept this. On the contrary, a large part of the interest of her work is now thought to lie exactly in the sensitivity of her response to social change. This she envisages much as Rousseau and Hegel do, not directly and in its gross manifestations but in terms of the new consciousness with which--whether as cause or as effect--it is associated, a consciousness characterized by its departure from singleness and simplicity, by the negation of self through role-playing, by commitment to an artistic culture and what this entails of alienation from the traditional ethos. To none of the traits of the new consciousness does Jane Austen give her approval. But the judgment she passes on them is not merely adverse. Except in one instance, which will be noted, she judges not as Rousseau does, categorically, but as Hegel does, dialectically. She has no doubt that the behavior of Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse deserves reproof, yet at the same time she salutes it as the effort of Spirit to resist the conditions imposed upon it by the 'noble' ethos, moving, if not through 'baseness', then at least through vanity and imprudence, towards the new 'nobility' of autonomy. Typically in Jane Austen's novels the archaic ethos is in love with the consciousness [p. 76] that seeks to subvert it. There is no more momentous scene in English fiction than that in which Marianne Dashwood's alienated spirit, her hope of making a wild dedication of herself to unpathed waters, undreamed shores, is justified by the sudden sympathy and even admiration which her dutiful sister Elinor gives to the distraught consciousness of Marianne's lover, the faithless and destructive Willoughby. If Mr. Knightley does not set himself at a hopeless distance from us by being exemplary in his station and the discharge of its duties but, on the contrary, engages our liking, it is because we perceive that he cherishes Emma not merely in spite of her subversive self-assertion but because of it. Little Catharine Morland is silly and even vulgar in her prying into the fancied secrets of Northanger Abbey, yet she is proved right, essentially if not circumstantially, in the ridiculous certitude, induced in her by a sudden immersion in 'culture', the impassioned surrender of her mind to sensational novels, that the ethos of the great house is not in fact what it appears to be, that its noble candor masks the base and shameful. Reality is more accessible to her absurdity than it is to the imperturbable good sense of her lover, the genially pedagogic Henry Tilney, the very type of the 'honest soul', the 'placid consciousness' par excellence.

But the judgments of Mansfield Park are not dialectical. They are uncompromisingly categorical. Alone among Jane Austen's novels, Mansfield Park is pledged to the single vision of the 'honest soul'. It knows that things are not what they will become but what an uncorrupted intelligence may perceive them to be from the first. Seven years after the publication of the Phenomenology this novel tells us in effect that Hegel is quite wrong in the method of judgment he propounds and exemplifies. It instructs us that the way to 'nobility' lies only through the explicit affirmation of this condition of being, not through its [p. 77] negation, that it lies through duty acknowledged and discharged, through a selfhood whose entelechy is bound up with the conditions of its present existence, through singleness of mind. 'Baseness' leads only to baseness. The negation of the self, far from being the means by which the self is realized, is its destruction--against Hegel's celebration of Rameau's great pandemic impersonation is set the degradation of the enchanting Henry Crawford whose striking histrionic talent is the fatal disposition of his being. 'Whether it were dignity, or pride, or tenderness, or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty. It was truly dramatic.' It is a mark of the weakness of his personal fabric that, although of large independent means, he toys with the thought of entering the Church or the Navy, the two professions by which Jane Austen set so much moral store--it is not as callings that he conceives them, only as opportunities for self-dramatization. His adultery with Maria Bertram is not only loveless but lustless; so far from being forgivable as passion, a free expression of selfhood, it is merely a role undertaken, a part played as the plot requires. Of Mary Crawford, whose charm almost equals her brother's, we are led to expect that her vivaciousness and audacity will constitute the beneficent counter-principle to the stodginess which, as the novel freely grants, is one of the attributes of Mansfield Park. But in the outcome her wit is seen to be by no means an energy of Spirit pressing forward to new and freer and more developed modes of being. Actually its tendency is repressive--its depreciation of Mansfield Park is not an effort of liberation but an acquiescence in bondage, a cynical commitment to the way of the world, to the metropolitan society which Rousseau had denounced as the enemy of all true being.

For readers of our time Mansfield Park is likely to be a distressing work. Even those who are of Jane AustenÍs party and absolute in their allegiance must make a special effort to come to terms with this novel. Those who are less fully pledged to its author are commonly alienated and angered by what they take to be its impercipient and restrictive moralism, its partisanship with duty and dullness, its crass respectability. It is not, however, the imputed philistinism of its particular moral judgments which constitutes the chief offence of Mansfield Park. This lies, rather, in the affront it offers to an essential disposition of the modern mind, a settled and cherished habit of perception and judgment--our commitment to the dialectical mode of apprehending reality is outraged by the militant categorical certitude with which Mansfield Park discriminates between right and wrong. This disconcerts and discomfits us. It induces in us a species of anxiety. As how should it not? A work of art, notable for its complexity, devotes its energies, which we cannot doubt are of a very brilliant kind, to doing exactly the opposite of what we have learned to believe art ideally does and what we most love it for doing, which is to confirm the dialectical mode and mitigate the constraints of the categorical.

Mansfield Park ruthlessly rejects the dialectical mode and seeks to impose the categorical constraints the more firmly upon us. It does not confirm our characteristic modern intuition that the enlightened and generous mind can discern right and wrong and good and bad only under the aspect of process and development, of futurity and the interplay and resolution of contradictions. It does not invite us to any of the pleasures which are to be derived from the transcendence of immediate and pragmatic judgment, such as grave, large-minded detachment, or irony, or confidence in the unfolding future. It is antipathetic to the temporality of the dialectical mode; the only moment of judgment it [p. 79] acknowledges is now: it is in the exigent present that things are what they really are, not in the unfolding future. A work of art informed by so claustral a view might well distress our minds, might well give rise to anxiety. And not least because we understand it to be saying that even the reality of the reader himself is not, as he might wish to think, what it may become, but ineluctably what it is now. This is a dark thought, an archaic thought, one that detaches us from the predilections of our culture. But when its first unease has been accommodated, it can be seen to have in it a curious power of comfort. [p. 80]



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