Monday, March 03, 2008

Sincerity and Authenticity: Othello and Desdemona again

TNR's The Plank has this short post today, trying to define the nature of the difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The only reason I'm excited about is that it seems to clarify and complement a post I wrote some time ago about the very same subject and which as far as I can tell from my site meter gauge, no one except for me read ...

Sincerity and Authenticity

Adam Kirsch has an excellent piece today on the Arts & Letters page of The New York Sun comparing Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s memoirs. Jason recently excavated the books’ backstories, but the critic Kirsch addresses their surfaces. Using Lionel Trilling’s “Sincerity and Authenticity” as a lens, he ascribes the former attribute to Clinton and the latter to Obama:

Sincerity "implies a public end": It can only be manifested in relation to other people, because it involves meaning in your heart what you say aloud. Authenticity, on the other hand, is a private virtue, or still more emphatically, an anti-public one, since it regards all intercourse with other people as potentially deceptive. If sincerity is saying what you mean, authenticity is being what you are.Each virtue, however, contains a pitfall: “"[I]f the vice of sincerity is self-pity, the vice of authenticity is narcissism."

It’s interesting and fortunate for Obama that his and Clinton’s vices are complimentary rather than opposed: His surge may have fostered a certain arrogance, but it has been far less dramatic than the litany of excuses with which Clinton and her campaign have tried to dismiss him. Kirsch writes that “the overreliance of Mr. Obama's campaign on his personal charisma is already emerging as the favorite target of his opponents,” but Clinton’s line of attack has been so scattershot that if often just comes off as an elaborate, accidental exhibition of self-pity.

I have long been preoccupied by these two terms. I tend to conflate sincerity with passion and sentimentality, and therefore with an anti-intellectual element in our human make-up. Authenticity is a much darker and deeper kind of "genuineness" which combines cool-headed analysis with a generally ironic (though by no means unsympathetic) view of human relations with events and words. According to this definition, Hannah Arendt's type of writing is authentic. Martha Nussbaum's - sincere (minus the sentimentality). Charlotte Bronte's fiction would be, then, sincere, while Jane Austen's - authentic. Each of these author's writing is intrude occasionally by the other's definitive trait: For example, Austen's Mansfield Park seems at times to echo Jane Eyre. Anne Carson combines the two qualities easily and without conflict. Arendt's moments of sincere emotional expressions are surprising and beautiful all the more because of her usual ironical restraint.

Whether these can neatly define and contrast the two presidential hopefuls, I don't know. But in that debate i was talking about, the difference between Obama's Desdemona and Clinton's Othello exemplified these two perfectly.


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