Aldous Huxley (left) and Andre Gide – two writers very much concerned with literary sincerity.
“The intellect alone, or a life regulated by the fixed standards of society, or our conscious states of being considered the sole source of self-knowledge… become three barriers to sincerity…” (Fowlie, p. 20)
Sincerity in literature has always been a concern for writers but only recently I became aware of just how much of an obsession is was for many writers, including Aldous Huxley, Andre Gide, and Anais Nin. The idea of sincerity seems almost outdated now in our pessimistic culture where people post Facebook profiles and pictures that have no relationship to the actual person posting and where everything and everybody is “branded” as a commodity. As Maria Popova states in her article “Aldous Huxley on Sincerity, Our Fear of the Obvious, and the Two Types of Truth Artists Must Reconcile”, to be sincere is “at once enormously courageous and increasingly difficult in a culture fixated on such vacant external metrics as sales and shares.” (par. 1). Sincerity is not a commodity that we can package and advertise on the internet, so it’s seems out of touch with today’s real world.
Sincerity in literature was of the utmost importance to Aldous Huxley. He insisted, “’All literature, all art, best seller or worst, must be sincere, if it is to be successful… A man cannot successfully be anything but himself…’” (as quoted in Popova, “Aldous Huxley on Sincerity”, par. 3) But for Huxley, being oneself in literature wasn’t a matter of choice but a matter of talent. He argued we might chose to tell the truth or not in real life, but in art, sincerity depends on a writer’s ability in conveying it:
“In spite of [a writer’s] sincere intentions, [without talent,] the book turns out to be unreal, false, and conventional; the emotions are stagily expressed, the tragedies are pretentious and lying shams and what was meant to be dramatic is badly melodramatic.” (as quoted in Popova, “Aldous Huxley on Sincerity”, par. 5)
A writer might have the greatest intention towards sincerity and botch it because he or she hasn’t the talent to make it work.
Huxley wasn’t the only writer to be concerned with sincerity in his work. French writer Andre Gide grappled with the need to be sincere in fiction in his diaries. Maria Popova’s article “Andre Gide on Sincerity, Being vs. Appearing, and What it Really Means to be Yourself” stresses, “[o]ne of [Gide’s] most lucid and luminous … meditations deals with the paradox of sincerity…” (Popova, “Andre Gide on Sincerity”, par. 3). For Gide, sincerity had to do with individuality. To be sincere, a writer must find and work with his or her own voice rather than imitate writers he or she admires. When Gide caught himself imitating the writer Stendhal, he warned, “‘The spirit of imitation; watch out for it. It is useless to do something simply because another man has done it’” (as quoted in Popova, “Andre Gide on Sincerity”, par. 6). Gide likens sincerity to immorality later on in his career, insisting that honesty is at odds with ethics:
“‘Morality consists in substituting for the natural creature (the old Adam) a fiction that you prefer. But then you are no longer sincere. The old Adam is the sincere man.’” (as quoted in Popova, “Andre Gide on Sincerity”, par. 11)
So, if we are honest, we want and do things that do not always conform to social ideas of morality but are true to us.
Anais Nin, in her The Novel of the Future takes an entirely different perspective of sincerity. For her, sincerity has to do with being emotionally true to oneself and conveying that in writing through character and story. It’s about looking beyond the surface to the things we don’t want to see, about favoring subjectivity over objectivity, or little “t” truth over big “T” truth, the hidden life over the external life:
“[O]ur subjective life [does] not obey the rules of our conscious life. [It is] dictated by feeling… This is the reality (and the sincerity) of our emotional life.” (Nin, Chap. 3, location 1528-1536; emphasis original)
Nin’s ideas are grounded in Wallace Fowlie’s analysis of surrealist writing and art in Age of Surrealism. For Fowlie, the way we live life on the surface is not where we reveal ourselves. It is the hidden life we don’t discuss, the life that comes from our psychological reality where we are sincere and writers must explore that hidden life for their work. He states:
“[W]e are more sincerely revealed in our dreams and in our purely instinctive actions than in our daily exterior in our purely instinctive actions than in our daily exterior habits of behavior…” (Fowlie, p. 17)
In this, Fowlie echoes Gide’s contention that morality, or, as Fowlie puts it, “purely instinctive actions” are the basis of our sincere life. Huxley had a similar idea. He believed that “‘being sincere” is synonymous with “‘possessing the gifts of psychological understanding and expression’” (as quoted in Popova, “Aldous Huxley on Sincerity”, par. 6).
It would seem, then, the key to sincerity in literature and maybe in all art is excavating the deep emotions that hide under the mask of conscious life and not being afraid to let them flow onto the page. In my mind, a life led solely by logic that shies away from expression or acknowledgement of emotion is an insincere one and a fiction that comes from a mind of pure logic or social acceptance cannot be as sincere as a fiction that bravely exposes emotion in its messy and chaotic and sensual states.
In House of Masks, one of my current projects, Sebastian Vanover, the main character’s father, is a coldly logical man who lived according to his conscious mind and his ideas of what was acceptable were dictated by what he thought others would accept. His authenticity is so repressed that, after his wife’s death, the stone wall he has built around his emotions crumbles into delusions and fear. Nancy remembers the following incident regarding her mother’s compassion for homeless people:
“I was thinking of my mother, in her blue dress with the inflated ribbons and bows and the way people smiled at her and turned to her as to a prophet. She always had a dollar for a poor woman or a man with a ragged dog, a mangled sleepwalker who stood at the crossroads of the overpass into the city with medals pinned to his faded Navy uniform. Once she made my father stop to give him a box of homemade honey cookies she was taking to an aunt of my father’s that she hated.
He’ll sell it to buy a bottle, get drunk.
That’s not our business
My father laughed in his snide way, throwing his head towards me in the back seat as if looking for validation. So many years later, he would look at the mangled sleepwalker whenever we would pass him, wrinkling his eye at him like a stone crocodile I had been afraid of as a child. He looked at him as if he had been the one who was somehow responsible for my mother’s death.”
Sebastian’s logical mind has already begun to deteriorate into an irrational resentment towards the homeless man in this scene.
Even though the idea of sincerity has fallen out of favor in today’s world, I think it is still relevant to writers approaching their work and creating fiction. Readers know when a writer isn’t being sincere and they stop reading if they feel they’re not getting a fair deal. Writers and all artists owe it to their audience to be as sincere as they possibly can in their work.
Fowlie, Wallace. Age of Surrealism. Blomington: Indiana University Press, 1950.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.
Popova, Maria. “Aldous Huxley on Sincerity, Our Fear of the Obvious, and the Two Types of Truth Artists Must Reconcile”. Brain Pickings. Brain Pickings. 28 March 2016. Web. 11 January 2017.
Popova, Maria. “Andre Gide on Sincerity, Being vs. Appearing, and What it Really Means to be Yourself”. Brain Pickings. Brain Pickings. 13 March 2016. Web. 11 January 2017.