Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Thematic Essays—Authenticity

Masks Off

The Politics of Sincerity and Authenticity

Charlie Riggs

Kyle Austin/Unsplash.

Consider the mask. Not masks, mind you, but “the mask.” What is this symbol with which we have had to contend and live for the past year and a half? That mask made a distinctive appearance in our collective consciousness in 2020—as veil, as badge, as uniform, as deception, as guarantor of anonymity, as social and medical prophylactic. And, although its widespread use will depend on changing public health guidelines as well as the willingness of the public to go along with those guidelines, the mask will almost certainly continue to be an element of daily life in the long tail of the pandemic.

But even before the pandemic fully recedes, can we finally discuss the meaning of the mask without our customary moralism and habit for quick takes? Despite the noisy debates over public health and individual rights occasioned by masks, it is doubtful that we have begun to appreciate the significance of the mask on the imaginative and symbolic and historical levels required of us—required, that is to say, if we wish to transform the isolating and deadly ordeal of the pandemic experience into a generative event in our cultural life.

The mask, of course, has done more than contain the spread of the virus (and it should go without saying that it accomplishes this much). It has done what the best masks are supposed to do, which is to dramatize and symbolize. The surgical COVID-19 face mask symbolized the pandemic as a whole, and probably will do so for posterity—no less than those monstrous bird masks worn by plague doctors in the seventeenth century symbolize the great disease of that time, or than gas masks symbolize the brutality of World War I, or than the masks of Carnival have long symbolized the anarchic spirit of revelry and a world turned upside down.

In its everyday use, the mask also dramatized our political conflicts and symbolized other qualities: prudence, solidarity, and politeness to its partisans; cowardice, conformity, and effeminacy to its detractors. There was a potent symbolism, too, in not wearing a mask. In some quarters, especially at the height of the pandemic, going about in public without a mask was tantamount to wearing a MAGA hat. No image from the pandemic era has remained with me as much as the sight of Donald Trump, just released from Walter Reed Medical Center after having been treated for COVID-19, turning to face reporters on the South Lawn of the White House and removing his mask to reveal his defiant and scowling countenance. It was a fitting symbol of the Trump era: a confrontational and gratuitous display of toughness undertaken solely to cause offense to liberals, which of course it did.

The cultural and political meanings that masks accrued over our year and a half of confinement were most sharply visible as pandemic restrictions lifted and as going unmasked in public became a more-or-less respectable option again. As the day-to-day number of new COVID-19 cases began falling, and as vaccination numbers rose, virologists came out of the woodwork to tell us that the risk of transmitting the virus outdoors—in a passing encounter with a pedestrian walking down the sidewalk, for example—was vanishingly small, and had been known to be vanishingly small all along, in fact. Yet the social discomfort of showing one’s face during those months when restrictions were easing sometimes felt akin to walking around naked. At least it did in my (urban, liberal, semiaffluent) neighborhood in Brookline, Massachusetts.

A taboo, once internalized, is not effortlessly abandoned—for others or for oneself. In compensation for our effort, however, we get to see its cultural logic at work: to observe the irrational compound of impulse, shame, and convention that holds our common life together. The postpandemic unmasking that occurred all around the country—or at least in those parts of the country that took masks seriously in the first place—put one in mind of the revolution in morals and manners that occurred in the 1920s (and again in the 1960s and 70s): a great disinhibiting movement that was perhaps less complete than it seemed at the time because it still bore a keen awareness of the taboos it violated. What we saw during the past two years, in the politics of masks, was a surprisingly successful campaign for a new and universal norm of public conduct—then the rapid obsolescence of that norm: a history of Western bourgeois culture in miniature.

As Norbert Elias pointed out decades ago in The Civilizing Process—his account of the internalization of “manners” and the formation of the European Superego—it is only when social norms are in the process of formation or dissolution that they are capable of being stated explicitly.11xNorbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, rev. ed., trans, Edmund Jephcott (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000). First published 1939. A successful taboo does not stoop to justify itself. At a certain point, more when the pandemic was ending (or at least seeming to do so) than at its height, it became obvious that masks were a matter of good manners as much as strict necessity or safety. Like the modes of bodily conduct Elias once showed taking shape, such as eating with utensils or blowing one’s nose into a handkerchief, mask wearing surpassed its strict rationale and became an autonomous, disciplinary psychic force, a matter of inflicting and avoiding shame rather than just avoiding disease.

Then again, the same could be said of most of the clothes we wear—and a mask is also a piece of clothing. Surely, being aware of a custom’s artificiality does not negate the need for it. Should the advent of warmer weather cause us to go about naked? Public nakedness, as Elias demonstrated, used to be fairly commonplace in medieval Europe. Now clothing is a hallmark of what everyone—with apologies to nudists—recognizes as “civilization,” even if fewer and fewer people are willing to use that word anymore.

Our most treasured customs are all gratuitous, from the standpoint of strict necessity. “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork’d animal as thou art,” King Lear says to the raving, half-naked Tom o’ Bedlam, just before he himself disrobes and goes wandering upon the heath. “Off, you lendings!” Off, you masks! These are the words of a madman.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

For myself, I greeted the late-pandemic realization that it was possible to return to the world unmasked, bearing nothing worse than a mild stigma, with a measure of relief but also of self-reproach. The relief was easy enough to understand: I got to take off my mask. The self-reproach concerned my not having done so already, despite being aware, for some time, of the minimal risks involved. I felt guilty, I realized later, for not living my best life (a characteristically American form of guilt) out of respect for a mere convention. I had been vaccinated months previously; even before then, I had understood the negligible likelihood that I could bring harm to anyone by going for a walk around my neighborhood unmasked.

Yet for months I had kept wearing the damn thing, sometimes letting it hang off one ear but then quickly slipping it over my face when someone came within a few paces, so as to be masked for the instant when we were close enough to make eye contact. As a matter of safety, I was dimly aware of how nonsensical, inauthentic, and even comical this charade was. I told myself I was doing it as a social courtesy. As the norms started to relax and as I considered the matter, I was forced to ask myself: a courtesy to whom, exactly? And to what end? Was accommodating strangers’ unfounded anxieties that I might transmit the virus to them genuinely a courtesy? Or merely a failure of nerve, an instance of “virtue signaling” or “hygiene theater”? I decided it was time to take the mask off.

A certain amount of theater, however, is unavoidable when it comes to encountering strangers—and perhaps nonstrangers, too, however we are clothed. Etymologically speaking, the mask comes from the theater: The origin of the word is the French masque, related to the masquerades of sixteenth-century European courts. Preparing to go out in the world unmasked for the first time, steeling myself for dirty looks with what was perhaps a little too much excited anticipation, I felt the keenness of Erving Goffman’s insights about the dramaturgy of everyday social relations. The role I had assigned myself in this case was that of the beneficent transgressor, the forger of a new, more workable public etiquette for a postpandemic world: a good role for me. The stage was the sidewalk; the audience was myself and my fellow pedestrians. Brookline still had a mask mandate in place at the time, a laggard behind national guidelines. Technically I would be in violation of the law. How would I arrange my facial expression—that most plastic of all masks—to indicate that although I broke the rules, I did not lack concern or intend harm?

The first person whose path I crossed was a frail, elderly lady toting bags of groceries. I put on my mask, automatically, unconsciously. A false start. The second person I ran into was a pretty young woman who looked at me and my unmasked face with an appraising stare. It was a look that might have contained judgment, perhaps merely curiosity. In nonpandemic times I might have assigned it some minor erotic import. As it was, I found myself responding with a kind of exaggerated, confrontational dignity, as if to put the lie to any imputation of irresponsibility that might possibly lurk on the other side of her mask. I continued in this posture through the next several exchanges with strangers until it, too, started making me feel self-conscious. Perhaps I did intend harm after all. I began smiling instead—a new pose. Hopeless. One mask had dropped only to reveal…other masks.

Sincerity and Authenticity

A half century has passed since the publication of Lionel Trilling’s classic study Sincerity and Authenticity—given as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1970 and published two years later—and the book is still among the best guides we have to the relationship between these “cognate ideals,” sincerity and authenticity, as well as the different relationships they express between surfaces and depths. It is also a vivid cultural history of the great change that came over Western culture in response to the shocks of modernity, the shift from sincerity to authenticity as a governing ideal of selfhood. “Now and then,” writes Trilling in the first sentence of Sincerity and Authenticity, “it is possible to observe the moral life in process of revising itself.”22xLionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 1. All subsequent quotations with page numbers in parentheses are from this edition.

Sincerity, according to Trilling, is a public virtue, a “congruence between avowal and actual feeling” (2). It consists in communicating aloud what you truly mean, so as to be helpful and legible to those around you. Polonius’s uncharacteristically sage advice to Laertes in Hamlet—“This above all—to Thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man”—establishes the rationale as well as the ideal of sincerity: the direct, unmediated, outflowing expression of oneself to—and for— others. Trilling noted that the word originally referred to a property of things rather than of people: Wine was sincere if it had not been mixed with anything else; in medicine, urine was sincere if it did not contain impurities. A man, eventually, was sincere if he expressed what was in his heart.

This, it was assumed, was good. “Look to thy heart and write,” says Philip Sidney’s Muse to the poet (12). Sincerity, even though it came to be a characteristic virtue of the middle classes, was directed toward an implicitly feudal-aristocratic vision of prosperity, order, peace, abundance, and beauty, one having to do with “good harvests and full barns and the qualities of affluent decorum,” as Trilling puts it (39). Sincerity was the possession of the “honest soul”—whether high born or low—who sought honorably to enter what James Joyce nostalgically called “the fair courts of life” (41). It was a happy, archaic, harmonizing concept. Trilling compares it to Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollonian, as against the Dionysian, and to Burke’s concept of the beautiful, as against the sublime. Fifty years ago, in the sour, despoiled atmosphere of the early 1970s, Trilling considered sincerity outmoded. “The word itself,” he wrote, “has lost most of its former high dignity. When we hear it, we are conscious of the anachronism which touches it with quaintness” (6).

Authenticity, by contrast, is a “word of ominous import,” and its worship was (and is) everywhere (93). It is a matter of being true to oneself as an ultimate ideal, not, as in the case of sincerity, as a condition of being true to others. Authenticity, according to Trilling, involves “a more strenuous moral experience than ‘sincerity’ does, a more exigent conception of the self and of what being true to it consists in, a wider reference to the universe and man’s place in it, and a less acceptant and genial view of the social circumstances of life (11). Othello is inauthentic, we suspect, in his self-conscious heroism, yet he is undoubtedly sincere. Iago, in his villainy, is authentic. He is also completely insincere in his dealings with Othello. The honest Cordelia is sincere. The mad Lear is authentic. The heart that expresses itself in authenticity does not necessarily accord with other hearts. It is, rather, Conrad’s “heart of darkness” or Yeats’s “foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” The Greek origin of the word authentic—referring to a lord or proprietor—suggests this quality of violence. The authentes, Trilling observes, “is not only a master and doer, but also a perpetrator, a murderer, even a self-murderer, a suicide” (131).

The way to authenticity is deep, dark, and isolating. It is a private virtue, even an antisocial one—because the traffic with others, and especially with “society,” is what corrupts the authentic self. The purpose of authenticity, indeed, is to show up society in its pervasive conformity and stupidity. The offensiveness of authentic truths is a point of pride. The seeker after authenticity—the prototype of which was the modernist artist, contemptuous of his own public—perceives that he is alienated, and attempts to carry that alienation all the way through to autonomy. In so doing, he shatters superficial conventions and gains access to what Trilling calls his “sentiment of being,” which is to say his ontological core. To be authentic is to travel “the downward movement through all the cultural superstructures to some place where all movement ends, and begins” (12).

By these lights, wearing a mask in public, outdoors, in the time of COVID-19, was a “sincere” gesture; going without one, on the other hand, was “authentic.” Symbolically, as a question of manners, above and apart from its instrumental role in containing the virus, the mask was supposed to embody the goodwill one felt toward one’s neighbors, as well as the classic bourgeois virtues of decorum, privacy, autonomy, continence, and public-spiritedness. In this respect, it was and is similar to other apparel of virtue signaling: the equivalent of an “I voted” button on election day, a bike helmet, or a recycling sticker. Sincerity is an essential possession of good citizens; so too is a mask on one’s face during a pandemic. Critics of masks were not wrong in perceiving a moralistic undertone in mask culture; the mask said “I take the pandemic seriously—and so should you.”

Conversely, not wearing a mask became, justly or unjustly, a claim to “authenticity” in the sense Trilling intended. The unmasked face is unapologetically what it is. To go without a mask, at the height of the pandemic, was to give zero fucks, as we say. It was, again symbolically rather than factually, to court death and disease for oneself and others—but at least the maskless one was being “real.” What, after all, could be realer than death? Nakedness, possibly. Going unmasked was to expose oneself, literally in the sense of causing an exposure event if one had the virus, but also in the sense of displaying what ought not to be displayed: one’s face, in this case, rather than one’s genitals. The pandemic temporarily reclassified faces, with their contaminant emissions, as “private parts.” To go without a mask was, pointedly, to lack manners. It was to confront the pandemic-era culture of public safety with the accusation of bullshit—recklessly, perhaps, but not without a certain justice, for all systems of manners contain an element of bullshit.

The Truth of Masks

This state of affairs—the simultaneous “sincerity” and “inauthenticity” of wearing a mask—constitutes a striking reversal of historic meanings. For as can be adduced from numerous examples from Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity, the mask for a long time represented the very antithesis of “sincerity” as well as a privileged mode of “authentic” expression, especially in the theater. The egalitarian theater was the place, historically, where social classes went to mingle in quasi-anonymity. Sincerity, Trilling points out, became a paramount virtue during a period of European history when social mobility was on the rise and when poseurs, schemers, and cheats threatened the fabric of the traditional social hierarchy. To lack sincerity, at bottom, was to be other than what one claimed to be, especially with respect to class. In the office of communicating one’s “genuine” social station, the mask could at best provide only ambiguity and anonymity; at worst it deceived. Trilling describes a cultural fixation with “tearing off the mask” of the villain (i.e., the social dissembler).

Over time, the unmasking imperative went beyond the policing of social fakery and false utterances to assume democratic political import. Before and during the French Revolution, the impulse to “unmask” the privileges of the aristocracy or the foul motives of political opponents became a motive force in a new, egalitarian politics of sincerity. Devotees of sincerity and plain speech, whether Puritan or Jacobin, were, after a fashion, the original “antimaskers.” Trilling paints Rousseau as the prototype of modern self-disclosure, the man whose moral worth rested on his complete sincerity: “He is the man; he suffered; he was there” (24). Rousseau also evinced the Protestant/republican distrust of theatricality and false display. In his 1758 “Letter to D’Alembert on the Theater,” he blamed the theater for compromising the civic spirit, weakening the individual’s power of sincere self-expression, and encouraging the promiscuous adoption of false roles or masks.

The related projects of sincerity and unmasking, Trilling claims, eventually reached an ironic and self-canceling denouement, for as soon as sincerity became enthroned as an ideal, it grew susceptible to cultivation and counterfeit to such an extent that to assert one’s own sincerity, now, is almost immediately to call it into doubt. When mask upon mask was ripped away, all that was to be found was…more masks. Trilling reads the figure of Robespierre as the absurd and terrifying fulfillment of the Enlightenment fixation with tearing away all possible masks: a man so devoted to sincerity that he manifestly became a pastiche of roles, not least the role of the “sincere man” modeled on his hero Rousseau. “The absoluteness of [Robespierre’s] undertaking not to be false,” Trilling writes, “leads to the extirpation of most of the self to which he is determined to be true” (70). Thus is the tragicomic fate of “unaccommodated man.”

Enter the new god of “authenticity” under the aegis of romanticism and modernism, which arose partly out of the mocking critique of a bourgeois sincerity that had become either performative or self-deluding because it was based in a social role rather than a solid, closely held identity. “There is no deeper dissembler,” wrote Emerson in his journal, “than the sincerest man” (119). This new vision of authenticity, with its emphasis on the superior truth of everything once considered vile and violent and verboten in humankind, also made use of the metaphor of the mask—but now to positive effect, for the mask communicates the truth ironically, in the expressive rather than the plainspoken mode.

“The truth of masks,” as Oscar Wilde had it in a famous essay of the same name, was the truth of a work of art. “Man is least himself,” Wilde aphorized, “when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” Trilling’s somewhat pedantic gloss on this statement is that “the direct conscious confrontation of experience and the direct public expression of it do not necessarily yield the truth and indeed…they are likely to pervert it” (119). Trilling calls this the “the doctrine of masks,” which is sustained by the “intellectual value of the ironic posture” (120).

The contemporary, pandemic-era “doctrine of masks” contains no such playfulness or irony. The mask is for the most part a sincere statement of civic responsibility, dutiful and boring, rather than an expressive emblem of hidden, chthonic depths—which is perhaps appropriate for a public health crisis. Yet it is hard not to long for the mask in its more ironic and carnivalesque guise, as Trilling saw it through the lens of his “authentic” modernist canon: the mask that functions as social critique, the mask that makes explicit the theatricality of social existence, the mask that dramatizes the element of elevation or heightened expressiveness that necessarily occurs in the course of making a face for others to behold.

Yet another etymology is germane: The ancient Greek word prosopon referred to the Comedy and Tragedy masks of the Greek drama, Thalia and Melpomene. Prosopon meant, simultaneously, “mask,” “face,” and “appearance.” It was an important concept in the development of Christian theology, conveying the trinitarian substance, as well as the simultaneous appearance and hiddenness, of the Godhead. Masks, you could say, gave us self-hood: The Greek prosopon became the Latin persona, which in turn became the English person. The prosopon in ancient Greece had an ambiguous nature, concealing the face of the actor yet also, simultaneously, revealing the true character of the play. Masks hide the thing; they also make the thing what it is. Symbols of artifice, masks distort; symbols of self-revelation, they also disclose and create. People are nothing without their masks.

Authenticity and Its Discontents

In Trilling’s cultural history, sincerity fades away and authenticity emerges as something of an idol for the educated, cultured people included in the august “we” for which Trilling was famous—or infamous. “That the word has become part of the moral slang of our day,” he writes, “points to the peculiar nature of our fallen condition, our anxiety over the credibility of existence and of individual existences” (93). Sincerity and Authenticity ends with an escalating diatribe against the ideal of unconditioned authenticity as tending toward a “great refusal of human connection,” “the appalling belief that human existence is made authentic by the possession of a power, of the persuasion of its possession, which is not to be qualified by the co-ordinate existence of any fellow man”—this power being the power of madness (171). Trilling writes:

The falsities of an alienated social reality are rejected in favor of a psychopathic mobility to the point of divinity, each one of us a Christ—but with none of the inconveniences of undertaking to intercede, of being a sacrifice, of reasoning with rabbis, of making sermons, of going to weddings and to funerals, of beginning something and at a certain point remarking that it is finished. (171–2)

Thus ended the last sentence of what turned out to be Trilling’s last book.

This was more than just the best mic drop ever to conclude a career in literary criticism. It was a surprising embrace of “anachronistic” sincerity and, just as importantly, of other people. It was a pointed rebuke to an artistic grandiosity that, one suspects, was at least partly Trilling’s own, and it was a cri de coeur against the reimagining of mental illness as “authentic” social criticism that was a commonplace of advanced opinion circa 1970, embraced most famously by the psychiatrist R.D. Laing. Trilling acknowledged the charismatic appeal of “a view that proposes an antinomian reversal of all accepted values, all received realities” (170–1). But he recoiled in horror from the thought of talking to a psychotic friend and of making “the masked pain of his bewilderment and solitude” into “the paradigm of liberation from the imprisoning falsehoods of an alienated social reality” (171). That way, literally, madness lies.

Trilling consciously accepted limits around the embrace of either sincerity or authenticity as a mode of culture. He argued, in effect, the inevitability of masks. For authenticity, like sincerity before it, chases its own tail in trying to extricate the individual from socially induced unhappiness and dishonesty. The larger problem is that as human beings we perpetrate deceptions upon ourselves. Take off one mask, and another will reveal itself. For we are complicit in the punishing and irrational dictates that “society”—an entity we delusively believe we do not belong to—forces upon us. And nowhere is this masochism more evident or extreme than in our concern with being “authentic.” “The concerted effort of a culture or of a segment of culture to achieve authenticity,” Trilling wrote, “generates its own conventions, its generalities, its commonplaces, its maxims.” In making a god out of “authenticity,” we have condemned ourselves to a perfect hell, for as long as we live in society we are inauthentic creatures; and outside society we are bare, fork’d animals. Trilling’s guide in this respect was Freud—the late Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents (also Elias’s inspiration).

Much has changed in American politics and culture since the twilight of Trilling’s life and career. Freud has almost entirely disappeared from the intellectual scene, despite the lurking relevance of his insights. Modernist literature no longer holds the sway it once did. The humanistic intelligentsia to which Trilling belonged and to which he addressed himself has fractured, died off, or been siloed in academia—in any case, it has lost its status as an arbiter of mass taste and sensibilities, perhaps for the best. The counterculture whose strivings after authenticity Trilling so dreaded has retreated to the margins, been incorporated into the culture of mass consumption, or lent its symbolism elsewhere. A strange reversal has occurred in which the cultural descendants of a respectable and embattled “sincerity” have essentially lost the culture wars, have become the new dispossessed, the new rebels of an intentionally unpleasant and pugilistic “authenticity.” This is a deeply unfortunate development because authenticity remains a powerful god.

If Trilling’s critique of “mad” authenticity applies anywhere in contemporary politics, it is to the weird and wild growths of the far right. A major part of Donald Trump’s charisma, along with that of other reality television villains, consists in his “authenticity”—a strange thing to say about a pathological liar. Yet how else to characterize the cynical, paradoxical appeal—inarguable, from a certain perspective—that underlies Trump’s claim to political honesty: All politicians lie; I, at least, don’t lie about being a liar. No one, perhaps not even Trump himself, would ever claim Trump is a sincere man; he is, rather, in the American tradition of “authentic cheats” from P.T. Barnum to the unnamed protagonist of Melville’s The Confidence Man. He and his followers may have scorned COVID-19 masks, but they gleefully took up other masks, many of them grotesque and carnivalesque. Some of the most vivid were on display during the Capitol riots of January 6.

Liberalism, meanwhile, partly in response to Trump but substantially in advance of his rise, has moved toward a pose of earnest moral sincerity and rhetorical plainspokenness of a kind that Trilling, writing in 1970, might not have considered plausible any longer at this late point in Western cultural development. It is an open question whether it is plausible now. Joe Biden’s signature phrases are all expressions of his personal sincerity: “here’s the deal,” “literally,” “I’m serious”,” and “that’s not hyperbole.” Personally, methinks he doth protest too much. The social-justice left, meanwhile, pursues laudable, prosocial, and indeed inarguable goals—ending racism, effecting gender equality, stopping global warming—with a moralism and a sincerity that can scarcely be doubted, although it can of course be mocked. The ghost of Robespierre, Trilling’s model of sincerity’s reductio ad absurdum, haunts the recent revival of identity politics and social democracy with his unimpeachable intentions, his murderous actions, and his utter lack of a sense of irony.

Perhaps the best indication of the current premium on “sincerity” in left-liberal politics was the rapid adoption and enforcement of mask wearing during the pandemic and—more significantly, for masks themselves were not the problem—the indignation that tended to greet any suggestion that ulterior motives, beyond a sincere wish to save lives, may have lurked behind the new norm: a will toward conformity, for instance, or a desire to control and police others’ behavior in public, or a longing to force one’s own sense of isolation and constriction upon others.

That such motives were real and that they played some part, even a lesser one, in the public etiquette of the past year and a half should have been obvious to anyone sensitive to the dramaturgy of everyday life. Admitting that there may have been unattractive or even destructive intentions behind the mask of public health, alongside the good and estimable and public-spirited reasons everyone knows about—all of which still hold true and all of which were persuasive enough by themselves—should have been easy and even liberating for a self-aware liberalism that had absorbed the insights of Freud, Trilling, and the “authentic” twentieth century. Alas, that is not the liberalism we have.