“But above all, in order to be,
never try to seem.”
—Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1935–1951
How did authenticity become such a widespread desideratum in the modern world, pursued by high modernist artists and thinkers, Madison Avenue marketers, fashion mavens, pandering politicians, and countless others? Much as we claim to value it, however, do we truly understand what authenticity means, both for ourselves and our relations with others? And what does the cult of authenticity reveal about our larger culture?
Perhaps the shrewdest account of the rise of this ideal was provided by the literary critic Lionel Trilling in his 1970 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, subsequently published under the title Sincerity and Authenticity. “Now and then,” Trilling wrote, “it is possible to observe the moral life in process of revising itself, perhaps by reducing the emphasis it formerly placed upon one or another of its elements, perhaps by inventing and adding to itself a new element, some mode of conduct or of feeling which hitherto it had not regarded as essential to virtue.”
The moral transit traced by Trilling began with the emergence in the early sixteenth century of a new sense of the word sincere. Previously understood simply as pure and unadulterated, and applied primarily to substances (a “sincere” wine), it now came to mean “the absence of dissimulation or feigning or pretense.” Somewhat paradoxically, though, sincerity was also understood to be a performance for one’s peers, for society. Playing the role of being ourselves, Trilling explained, “we sincerely act the part of a sincere person.”
At the dawn of the last century, with flickerings even before, a related but more exacting conception emerged, driven by intimations that socially calibrated sincerity was neither real nor true enough. Enter authenticity, at the behest of which, Trilling claimed, “much that was once thought to make up the very fabric of culture has come to seem of little account, mere fantasy or ritual, or downright falsification,” while much that culture had previously deemed unacceptable was now “accorded a considerable moral authority by reason of the authenticity claimed for it, for example, disorder, violence, unreason.” All became permissible, even praiseworthy, in the name of authenticity. From Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov to Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz to James Dean’s role in Rebel without a Cause, the unleashing of primal impulses was recognized as one of the more dangerous, but perhaps undeniable, consequences, of pursuing one’s inner truth.
The career of authenticity in our culture has been anything but straightforward. Understandings and expressions of the ideal have undergone subtle but significant changes. Following directly on Trilling’s insights, historian Charlie Riggs opens our thematic treatment of the subject with an essay that takes its title from an all-too-familiar fact of our persistent pandemic life: “Masks Off: The Politics of Sincerity and Authenticity.” Riggs sees in our current divisions over the use—or non-use—of the protective mask a new working through of the old tension between Trilling’s two cultural ideals, the wearing of masks being taken as a “sincere” gesture; the spurning of them, an “authentic” one.
Other essays on the theme range far and wide, following the pursuit of authenticity through the precincts of fashion (see Richard Thompson Ford’s wittily probing “Authenticity in Fashion”); the scholarly efforts to capture the full truth of a historical figure (see Tara A. Bynum’s disarmingly frank “Chasing Phillis Wheatley”); the profound misunderstandings of erotic love that have attended readings of the novel Lolita (see Talbot Brewer’s acute counter-reading, “Anything But True Love: Vladimir Nabokov’s Anti-Erotic Masterpiece”); and the conflicting claims to “authentic blackness” that have fueled a bitter and mutually destructive war between progressive and conservative African Americans (see Gerald Early’s biting but fair critique, “The Fake Book of Negroes”). Claims to authenticity also vex our contemporary preoccupation with identity, most pointedly in charges of cultural appropriation directed at writers and artists who presume to imagine the experiences of ethnic or religious “others” (see poet Alan Shapiro’s autobiographically informed reflections on this question in “My Identity Problem”). Perhaps nothing more clearly reveals the absurdity of more recent quests for authenticity than the college application essay, the writing of which (with the support of a college preparatory service, if one’s parents can afford it) has become a modern rite of passage for many American students (see Joseph E. Davis’s incisive “How to Be Yourself: The Studied Art of the College Application Essay”). “In the college prep literature,” Davis writes, “there is no discernable gap between being your authentic self and being what colleges select for.” The authentic self, it seems, is no longer something one discovers within oneself but, instead, something one learns to cultivate and curate. Authenticity, we might ask, where is thy…authenticity?
In addition to our thematic essays, this issue also features two free-standing essays that shed historical light on some of the thornier problems of contemporary culture and politics. In “You’re Not the Boss of Me: Parental Authority and Liberal Society,” Rita Koganzon explains why the great thinkers of the liberal tradition, including John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, understood the need for strong parental authority in raising children to be good citizens in a democratic society. In “Another City: Augustine Before the Modern,” Charles Mathewes draws on his deep knowledge of the thought and life of Augustine of Hippo to argue that the great church father, in responding to the challenges of life in the late Roman empire, anticipated many of the dilemmas and conflicts we face in our own tumultuous modernity. Both writers show that we do a disservice to our time by ignoring the intellectual roots of so many of our current practices and institutions.
Finally, in the Signifiers section, our new contributing editor (and former senior editor) B.D. McClay reflects on our rather curious preoccupation with self-care: “Being told I’m bad at self-care,” she writes, “usually feels like being told I’m bad at a job I didn’t apply for and that I’m not even paid-for.”
The philosopher Martin Heidegger’s dark assessment of humankind’s capacity for genuine thought—that most of us do not think, but instead are thought—never seems more true than when we yield to the buzzwords of our time, whether the more transient ones such as self-care, or those with a more lasting hold on our culture such as authenticity. It could be argued that we are alive as thinking, critical persons only to the extent we are alert to the entrapments of our language.