Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

50
“The Last Honest Souls,” The Listener
October 1972

John Bayley

(See no. 23 for biographical information about Bayley.)

These lectures, given when their author was Professor of Poetry at Harvard, constitute a kind of summa of his long-standing inquiry into the history of the creative self-consciousness. They make a superb book, and a persuasive one. Luminously, without a trace of tendentiousness and not altogether gravely, Professor Trilling probes his conflated topic. ‘When I chose as my subject the cognate ideals of sincerity and authenticity historically considered, I could not fail to be aware that no six lectures could conceivably encompass it. This encouraged me in the undertaking’.

Sincerity—'to thine own self be true'—is an ideal only tenable by social man, pre-Hegelian man, who takes for granted his organic relation to society and the goal of that society itself. Authenticity is the criterion of postHegelian alienated man, ‘the spirit in self-estrangement’. To be authentic is to recognise a total personal autonomy: all the rest, as Sartre would say, being mauvaise foi.

Sincerity in a work of literature may be discerned by the extent to which it embodies and reveals a social dynamism. The writer is giving a voice to what society accepts or would wish to accept; presenting the sincere man as completed by the society his virtues accredit; usually saying ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’. Authenticity is in a sense much harder to achieve—reflecting as it does the Hegelian Geist’s struggle towards full self-awareness, for it must add to the sum of existing reality a new and independent consciousness, a portent which, whatever its relation to the past, is recognisably and strikingly different, and expressing this difference by a contempt, implicit or explicit, for values and ideas taken for granted.

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