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Get Real

A WHILE AGO, a writer I know received an effusive e-mail from a young stranger who claimed to be an admirer. The admirer professed that she had always wanted to meet the writer. Not only had she read his books, she had once sat next to him in a café. She punctuated these confessions with exclamation points, OMGs, smiley faces, and exhortations of friendship. The writer did not reply. Then, the two happened to meet, whereupon the admirer told the writer that she had been sincerely hurt by his silence, convincing him all the more of her insincerity. He felt guilty and Facebook-friended her, which she declined.

Though this exchange may contain less gravitas than the idea of sincerity itself, and the various problems that sincerity—and its absence—unleash every day in the public and political arenas, I start here because R. Jay Magill, Jr. believes that the best place to mine the nuances of the moral ideal lies in the encounter between two individuals. But while these interactions are fruitful, his argument is larger. He posits that our always-conflicted relationship with sincerity has—at least since the 1980s, but especially since September 11, the explosion of the Internet, and the economic crash—become far more fraught. We acknowledge “[sincerity’s] decline with a kind of resentful remorse.”

Fortunately, Sincerity is not one of those philosophy books that bursts into a self-help manual. Magill has written a dense and intriguing cultural history, teasing out his subject’s variations and contradictions, and flirting with the influence of sincerity’s sort-of opposite, irony. Without irony, he notes, there would be no art, literature, Jon Stewart, or effective politicians. Ultimately, however, it is sincerity’s scarcity that concerns him. “The bolder, more democratic move,” he says, “would be to simply offend.”

Before he arrives at sincerity’s present-day rarity, Magill agilely traces his subject through the ages. The word first appeared as a description of objects. A sword was “sincerely” bronze, meaning pure. When, around 1533, sincerity first began to be used to describe people, it referred to faith. The definition broadened when, in the Elizabethan era, the birth of theater, along with the relaxing of sumptuary laws, meant that it was more difficult to tell sincerity by appearance.

For several centuries, sincerity was alternately celebrated and reviled. Machiavelli advised princes that they need only look sincere, since it was unlikely that any peasants would get close enough to tell the difference. (This has a familiar ring.) Montaigne was the first to prize sincerity enough to write about himself as he really was. The most appealing seventeenth-century commentator on the subject is La Rochefoucauld, whose maxims zero in on how easy it is to fake sincerity and how hard it is to be sincere. For instance: “What usually passes for sincerity is only an artful pretense designed to win the confidence of others.”

The eighteenth-century revolutions and the appearance of modern science either more violently divorced intellectuals from sincerity or hurled them against it. Molière railed against artifice; Rousseau advised nature as an antidote. Diderot created a chillingly admirable poseur in Rameau’s Nephew. And no movement enabled the modern quest for sincerity more than Romanticism, which, according to Magill, left us with the idea that “as long as one is being true to one’s own longings … then why should one care whether one lies, steals, or cheats.” But the nineteenth century also produced many sincerity-phobes. Here is Shaw: “it is dangerous to be sincere, unless you are also stupid.” Wilde called sincerity fatal. And later, in the twentieth century, cold war-era sociologists connected sincerity’s decline to the rise of conformity. The sociologist David Riesman noticed that ordinary people began to look for sincerity in celebrities instead of songs, which to him proved that the Man in the Lonely Crowd no longer trusted his own judgment about who was for real.

This synthesis is impressive, but it is Magill’s parsing of our contemporary attitude—starting in the 1980s—that is particularly fascinating. In that decade, the art world’s “postmodern dismay” caused a “fusion of sincerity and irony.” He counts among the offspring of this fusion the artisanal cheese and back-to-land movements, the memoir, David Foster Wallace, and hipsterism. (To this list you could add Sheila Heti, Lena Dunham, Mike Daisey, John D’Agata, and Katy Perry.)

Today, while sincerity is less apparent than ever, we seem to crave it more. We long for something real (or we say we do). And yet the landfill-sized amount of faux sincerity in the public space creates suspicion about the actual existence of the real deal. That is why Stephen Colbert and other ironists have been so successful.

In this examination of sincerity’s contemporary fluidity, Magill distinguishes himself from the great forerunner that hovers about his work, Lionel Trilling in Sincerity and Authenticity, which appeared in 1971. While Trilling’s stern volume, first delivered as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, mourns that “the word itself has lost most of its former high dignity,” Magill stresses that sincerity is “a subjective state that need not have anything to do with reality.” In the book’s opening scene, he argues that Sarah Palin need not align inner beliefs with words or actions. In fact, he does not seem to feel that Palin—or any politician—necessarily should.

Magill elegantly assembles an enormous amount of material in this short book, but some of his particulars jar. While critics did pan Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real when it ran on Broadway in 1953, the play can hardly be counted as the writer’s “most profound.” Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article, in which he scatters David Foster Wallace’s ashes on an island while reading Robinson Crusoe, does not exactly make it “hard not to see the trope of Romantic isolation as entirely reinvigorated.” I have other quibbles. The book includes so few women as to raise the question of what Magill believes about the relationship between gender and sincerity. And for a work that spends so much time on theater, it is strange that Magill neither mentions Constantin Stanislavski, the nineteenth-century founder of naturalistic acting nor his twentieth-century interpreter Lee Strasberg—not to mention Marlon Brando, whose famous mumbling (coached by Strasberg) let audiences believe anew in the fake world of the theater.

Magill is right to explain the Millennials’ embrace of hipsterism as a sincerity-desiring defense for a generation that has “grown up in the shadow of a culture that values economics and consumption over the values of humanism and artistic enterprise.” In other words, as the Recession narrowed young peoples’ choices, they began to flail around for anything not connected to a dead-end job—even if the real thing thing they settled on was ultimately fake. (Wearing a wifebeater does not make you James Dean.) And yet Magill’s analysis of hipsterism is ultimately dissatisfying, putting into relief how anemic—even how ironic—hipsterism is.

The most unsatisfying part of the book is its epilogue. Magill concludes that sincerity should not be mandated since it is a moral ideal—if everyone went around saying what they felt, cravenness, revolution, and tedium would result. But he also wisely acknowledges sincerity’s importance, especially in private life. “Sincerity,” he writes, “is not a moral demand to place upon states or entire societies or the public; it is a demand to place on private individuals.” And even more directly: “feigned sincerity … is cowardly.”

Here I am embarrassed to say—given sincerity’s decidedly un-cool affiliations—that I sincerely longed for a more ringing elevation of sincerity. In our era, fakeness is everywhere: fake bylines appear in real newspapers, performance art poses as journalism, and financial-sector corruption is considered status quo. Given all this, it is hard not to yearn for sterner measures. I understand why Magill does not blandly endorse an honest way of life—his book is an analysis, not a homily. But while Magill values sincerity, to read the ultimate sentence, set-off from the rest of the text and in caps—“HERE ENDETH THE LESSON”—is to feel betrayed, or at least confused. Doesn’t that snarky phrase belie the point of this complex and absorbing book?

Rachel Shteir’s most recent book is The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.