APRIL 12, 2020
ODDSMAKERS TOOK BETS on the 2020 State of the Union Address that President Donald J. Trump couldn’t go 45 seconds without making a false statement. The president made his first untrue statement in his opening sentence, followed by 30 more in his speech. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker had previously documented 16,241 false or misleading claims by the president during his first three years in office.
To help us understand how Trump gets away with constant falsehoods — and even maintains considerable public support — his former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci explained on Bloomberg TV, “He’s an intentional liar. It’s very different from just being a liar-liar.” Trump isn’t inauthentic when he “uses a methodology of mistruth,” Scaramucci clarified on Fox News; “he’s trying to galvanize his base, and it’s a media device.” In other words, Trump is being sincerely inauthentic.
It’s a mistake to see Trump’s inauthenticity as a singular phenomenon. He couldn’t survive, even thrive as he has, without the pervasiveness and broad acceptance of inauthenticity throughout American life, something years in the making. Alternative facts, slanted histories, fabricated videos, fake memoirs, fantasy games, virtual reality, and celebrity unreality have been bubbling in a cultural cauldron — a veritable olla podrida — for some 50 years since Nixon’s inauguration in 1969. Trump isn’t an anomaly. He’s an iconic example of an enormous shift in much American literature, art, film, comedy, architecture, music, television, social media, sports, as well as politics which might be aptly described as “sincerely inauthentic” in both positive and negative ways.
“Now and then it is possible to observe the moral life in the process of revising itself,” the literary and cultural critic Lionel Trilling announced in 1970 in a series of Harvard lectures, titled Sincerity and Authenticity. The cultural anxiety of those transitional Vietnam War years, similar to our own, led Trilling to investigate the primary values in Western culture. An emphasis on sincerity as a virtue, he said, dominated moral life for some 400 years with its injunction for people to present themselves to others as they honestly think and feel. The chief cultural villains of the time from Shakespeare’s Iago to Dickens’s Uriah Heep were liars and dissemblers whose public impersonations and false behavior deceived others. Dissimulation or feigning or pretense was the height — or nadir — of insincerity.
By the 20th century, sincerity as a public virtue came to seem antiquated, according to Trilling, undeserving of respect in modern culture. Displays of moral earnestness and honesty were increasingly exposed as ways of conforming to the opinion of others. “There is no deeper dissembler than the sincerest man,” Emerson wrote in the early 1840s, early recognizing the need of individuals to engage in public role-playing to gain esteem. “The public be damned!” modern writers and thinkers proclaimed. What’s important in life and art is authenticity, not to respond to conventional social demands but to be autonomous individuals, unfeigning and indifferent to approval from the establishment herd.
At the time of his lectures in 1970, Trilling sensed cultural values again shifting. Authenticity seemed to be falling into disrepute just as sincerity had slipped downward in the previous century. Trilling observed without approval the increasing celebration of individuals devoid of authentic accomplishment and the fantasy of melodrama overtaking authentic literature. Fakery and lies about an inauthentic war led to the questioning of authenticity everywhere.
Looking back on Trilling’s lectures, it’s not unreasonable to imagine his voice from the grave saying that even beyond Trump we now live in an age of sincere inauthenticity. An odd cultural mutation has occurred. Inauthenticity is sincerely embraced or understood as an expression of sincerity as in the recycled songs on TV’s American Idol, now in its 18th season. Singers’ exaggerated displays of karaoke demonstrate one extreme of how inauthenticity can be sincere, as when untalented singers on the show sincerely maintain belief in their authentic talent despite the judges’ mockery of them; after all, family and friends have told them they’re good. Opposing this heartfelt form of misapprehending inauthenticity is a self-conscious acceptance of it to a degree that can be transformative, as when the professional singer Courtney Love says, “I fake it so real that I’m beyond fake.” In a keynote address at a music-business convention in Austin, the American troubadour Bruce Springsteen announced, “We live in a post-authentic world.”
The single nod Trilling makes to popular culture is when he asks, “What is a hero?” He finds the answer not in the traditional notion of a person performing an approved act of unusual courage but in the famous line from the critic Robert Warshow on Western films, a statement that like a Zen koan you either get or you don’t: “A hero is one who looks like a hero,” referring to the iconic figure of the movie cowboy. From Greek theater to contemporary films, the male hero is one who looks like a hero, Trilling says, because “the hero is an actor — he acts out of his own high sense of himself.”
Trilling didn’t live long enough to see actual actors and game show hosts become presidents of the United States to illustrate his point about the shakiness of sincerity and authenticity as criteria for admired public behavior. Skillful role-playing became increasingly apparent with the election of the “Cowboy Presidents,” Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Reagan was a professional actor and Bush was potentially one. Norman Mailer, who at the time of Trilling’s lectures was the most public of famous writers in the United States, said about Bush, “The presidency is a role, and George, left on his own, might have become a successful movie actor.” Bush defeated an authentic war hero and accomplished athlete in John Kerry because, Mailer said, “Bush is the better actor. He has been impersonating more manly men than himself for many years.”
Now comes Trump. “This guy’s a performance artist,” journalist Mark Singer, author of Trump and Me, told a colleague after his first encounter with the future president two decades ago. We all to one degree or another inhabit a persona that masks our most intimate thoughts and feelings, Singer wrote in The New Yorker, but Trump “has deliberately chosen to exist only as a persona, never as a person.” He remains in character at all times. None of his biographers has figured out what truly goes on in his head. After the election, Singer asked several actors and acting teachers about such a calculated persona.
“With a really great actor, it always comes down to a feeling of spontaneity,” Austin Pendleton of HB Studio said. “Trump has that — the freshness of a really fine actor-artist. The reason his positions are all over the map is because he lives in the moment. That’s electric to people.”
Richard Feldman of Juilliard said, “What makes Trump so powerful is that he believes his own story. When he says those women made up those stories of sexual assault, what makes him feel authentic is that some part of him believes it.”
Everyone remembers Trump saying, “Grab ’em by the pussy,” when he bragged about his exploits with women in a taped conversation with Billy Bush, host of the TV show Access Hollywood. What isn’t so often cited is that Trump was then NBC’s biggest star, the network’s “cash cow,” as Bush wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece. Bush and seven other guys on the bus laughed at what they took to be Trump’s “crass standup act. He was performing. Surely, we thought, none of this was real.” But much was real, according to firsthand accounts of Trump by some 20 women. Then the president claimed the voice on the tape wasn’t his. In another off-camera conversation, after Bush reportedly challenged him for inflating his TV ratings, Trump replied, “People will believe you. You just tell them and they believe you.”
During his initial year as president, Trump asked people to believe an astonishing 2,140 documented false or misleading claims, something that would’ve been his undoing in an earlier time. During and since his impeachment, the untrue statements have kept mounting to include fantastical assertions about the coronavirus. In London last year, I saw All’s Well That Ends Well, a play that exposes the character Parolles as an inveterate liar. Parolles, whose name means “Words,” is both a braggart and “the lie incarnate,” as described by the Shakespeare scholar Muriel Clara Bradbrook. “To give the lie was the deadliest of insults,” a violation of the Elizabethan code of honor. “Crimes of violence were less dishonorable; the convicted liar was finished socially.”
As opposed to today’s political moment of repeated lying and fakery, sports used to offer a rare arena in American public life for displays of authenticity. An athlete presumably couldn’t fake catching a sphere of laced cowhide in the end zone or pretend to run a sub-three-hour marathon. When I was a boy, interest in athletics, at least on the professional level, was mostly limited to the three major sports — baseball, football, and boxing. Boxing was the essential sport, the authentic sport, now replaced in TV popularity by mixed martial arts, a combination of kicking, wrestling, and slugging that emphasizes violent street-fight action over technique. The biggest payday in professional boxing history occurred in 2017 when former boxing champion Floyd Mayweather came out of retirement and without serious training easily knocked out a mixed martial arts champion in what The Ring magazine derided as a “spectacle.” An authentic boxing match alone couldn’t garner such fans or money. “There’s no way I can watch boxing,” a 25-year-old fan of mixed martial arts recently told The New York Times. “It’s just too boring.”
The same response to wrestling as “boring” occurred early in the last century when fans wanted the spectacle of nonstop action rather than skilled matches requiring discriminating appreciation. You might now click your remote for months, or perhaps four years between the Olympics, before catching a glimpse of authentic wrestling, formerly the glory of sport in Greek civilization. The fakery of bulked-up wrestlers in comic spectacles exploded in popularity in the 1980s and reached their apogee on TV in the late 1990s. Trump hosted two WrestleMania spectacles in Atlantic City before getting into the action himself. Impersonating a tough guy, he flung a wrestling promoter to the floor and pummeled him with fake punches. Three years before winning the presidency, Trump was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame.
In contrast, nothing is more authentic than serious literature, Trilling said. It fosters personal autonomy. Those of us who were students in his audience may have been the last generation in America to accept without a flinch his claims of serious art as the model of authenticity and the artist as its personal example. Indifferent to commercial demands or audience approval, modern literature followed its own dictums. It challenged us. It tore away social masks of hypocrisy. It generated resistance. It offered nothing less than the meaning of life, the reason for existence. Modernism, with a big M, was subversive and adversarial. It was transformative. It threw rocks at the Establishment.
During the spring of Trilling’s lectures, Norman Mailer, the then-antiwar activist who defined his position as a writer in opposition to the corporate, technological establishment, came to Harvard to give a reading and referred to Trilling, who sat among us in the audience of 500 in Sanders Theatre. Extending his adversarial position beyond mainstream culture to those in the audience who protested the Vietnam War, Mailer said, “Revolutionaries have two options: one is to be militant, and the other is to think.” He went on, “Throwing bricks is good for some guys and bad for others. The main thing is to do it authentically.” A glimmer of approval brightened Trilling’s face.
The advent of modernism didn’t produce smiles everywhere. Even as the primary principle of authenticity waned during the Vietnam War, much modern writing was loathed for its propensity to shock and divert literature into the gutter. Every shift in cultural values is iconoclastic in its professed reaction to what came before it, while it silently continues some part of what it seemingly rejects. Early 20th-century writers who attacked romanticism in art and poetry now seem in retrospect incredibly romantic in sentiment and language. While traditionalists condemned modern writing and art negatively as degraded and even, in cases, obscene, deserving to be banned, writers and artists themselves celebrated individual creativity with religious intensity. “[T]he devotion now given to art,” Trilling said, meaning primarily literature, “is probably more fervent than ever before in the history of culture. This devotion takes the form of an extreme demand: now that art is no longer required to please, it is expected to provide the spiritual substance of life.”
The status of art’s salvific power quickly became outmoded, even to Trilling. On the cultural horizon he saw troubling signs of an easy acceptance of mass-produced art, rife with cultural commonplaces. Art no longer made demands on its audience or outraged its habitual sensibility. He noted an increasing conjunction of advanced art with popular and commercial art. The result was disturbing. To be authentic is to be singular not a copy. “Inferior art, commercial-popular art, has always been thought corrupting,” he said.
In 2008, the mass-produced commercial object merged with the anointed important work of art when the New York Guggenheim Museum devoted its spiral space to a comprehensive, 30-year retrospective celebrating Richard Prince as one of “contemporary art’s foremost innovators,” particularly for his series of “appropriation art” called Cowboys, which initiated his enormous art-world success when he began making blown-up photographic reproductions of cowboy scenes from Marlboro cigarette ads. “This was a famous campaign,” Prince has said. “If you’re going to steal something, you know, you go to the bank.” Prince set the auction record for photography when one of his photos of a Marlboro advertisement sold for $1.2 million. No original vintage photograph by an American master had previously sold for a million dollars. He later surpassed the record for the most expensive photograph sold at auction when another reproduction from his Marlboro cowboy series went for $3.4 million. The original photographers of the ads and the cowboy models received no credit or payment. “There’s not a pixel, there’s not a grain that’s different,” Jim Krantz, a commercial photographer, said about a photograph he had taken for a Marlboro ad and Prince’s enlarged duplication of it.
“Making art has never been a mystery to me,” Prince said. “It’s never been something that’s very difficult.” In reproducing stock images of mass media as his own autonomous work, Prince says he found a “reality that has the chances of looking real but a reality that doesn’t have any chances of being real.” Art always made him feel good, he told a Vanity Fair reporter. “Anything I do,” he added, “I hope it would make you feel good. It’s as simple as that.” In the process, authenticity is no longer to be considered an authentic value.
The term “postmodern” doesn’t appear in Trilling’s original lectures, but in their published version in 1972 he added a footnote — with hyphenated spelling that indicates the new usage of the coinage — describing “Post-Modern” as the current period when “the faculty of ‘taste’ has re-established itself at the centre of the experience of art.” The older adversarial position of modern art to its audience has become anachronistic. “At the present moment,” Trilling says, “art cannot be said to make exigent demands upon the audience. […] The audience likes or does not like, is pleased or not pleased.” This decade was momentous, according to the Native American writer Paul Chaat Smith in Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong, when truth ceased to matter “because television and popular culture rule the world.”
Now some 50 years later, Trilling’s intimation is full blown. “When watching a show such as American Idol (or, in the UK, Pop Idol), we can feel as though authenticity doesn’t matter any more,” Hugh Baker and Yuval Taylor propose in Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. What matters is an appeal to the likes and the dislikes of television viewers through a homogenization of music from the past to reach the widest possible audience. In Trilling’s beloved realm of literature, many memoirs with audience-appealing stories of degradation, recovery, and redemption have in recent years been exposed as inauthentic. None of these frauds, however, matched the uproar over the fabricated events in James Frey’s autobiographical account of his triumphant recovery from crime and drug addiction.
Frey’s best-selling book, A Million Little Pieces, was supposedly a true story. The problem was that America’s Queen of Sincerity, Oprah Winfrey, endorsed James Frey on TV (twice), and he’d lied to her. Modern autobiography, as Trilling tells us, is a carry-over from the age of sincerity when a new sense of the individual self came into being; the person depicted in Rousseau’s Confessions may repel us, but the writer in his impulse to reveal himself honestly demonstrates his likable sincerity. Writers may sincerely misremember or embellish some things, as memoirists habitually do, but they can’t outright lie, as Oprah accused Frey of doing when she publicly shamed him and his publisher. But nobody wanted this story, Frey claimed, when he presented it as a novel. Eighteen publishers turned it down. He blamed his agent, editor, and publisher for labeling his book a “memoir” that with Oprah’s blessing then rapidly sold two million copies. They, in turn, all claimed they were duped. Nevertheless, all managed to work together — author, agent, editor, publisher, and Oprah — to create a salable commodity that even as fiction is a sincerely inauthentic story. Frey’s role in this escapade merited him a $1.5 million contract for his next book, Bright Shiny Morning, published with jacket photographs by Richard Prince.
The cultural chasm since Trilling’s time is no better evident than in the replacement of the terms “serious novel” and “quality fiction” with the epithet “literary fiction,” a label congenial to a marketplace where novels of literary merit form just another genre based on audience taste, along with thrillers, romances, chick lit, and fantasy. Books are now only commodities, novelist Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in Harper’s, “and a ‘good book’ means a high gross.” Few today talk about quality fiction or serious novels as did old-timers like Le Guin and Mailer. In a National Book Award speech, Mailer echoed Trilling when he said the purpose of a great novel is not to kill time on an airplane trip but to enter and even alter a person’s life. “The good serious novel and most certainly, the rare great novel, is now inimical to the needs of this market place.”
Trilling claimed the organic principle of architecture is the chief criterion for what is authentic in art and life. Hemingway professed the same view in his theoretical statement about modern writing: “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.” The lack of organic design is also what the novelist Chitra Divakaruni detected in many of the 300 contemporary novels she read in a five-month period while judging the National Book Award. Many flagged after 50 pages to leave her wondering if “the novel was sold on the strength of its first few chapters, after which the writer slackened off and the editor didn’t care.” The successful novel in her view effects a shape, a design. Unlike the architectonic aesthetic of modernist writing, self-conscious prose and voice-driven fiction rely more on what B. R. Myers in The Atlantic called a “barrage of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right word.”
The Italian writer Italo Calvino would agree. “It sometimes seems to me that a pestilence has struck the human race in its most distinctive faculty — that is, the use of words,” he wrote in the lectures he was to deliver at Harvard 15 years after Trilling. “It seems to me that language is always used in a random, approximate, careless manner, and this distresses me unbearably. […] That’s why I try to talk as little as possible.” At least in writing, Calvino says, he can revise each sentence to the point of reduced dissatisfaction with his words. Lots of words, though, are what we’ve been getting since Calvino died in 1985 before he could deliver his lectures, more words than ever on radio call-in and TV talk shows, as well as on our computers and mobiles during the Big Bang of misinformation in posts, tweets, blogs, podcasts, and videos.
“Blog writing,” the cultural critic Sarah Boxer wrote in The New York Review of Books, “is Id writing — grandiose, dreamy, private, free-associative, infantile, sexy, petty, dirty,” all intending to say, “Hey, I’m here.” But who’s “I”? The self can hide behind aliases or anonymity or simply dissolve into another self and a virtual reality. Authenticity doesn’t matter; what matters is to be noticed with links on other blogs pointing toward your blog to achieve fame as a blog celebrity or, more precisely, a blogebrity. The blog Eschaton notes that the audio-and-visual media of YouTube began “the age when it is impossible to tell parody/irony/performance art from completely sincere product.”
What’s normal about inauthenticity today is its widespread acceptance. Thirty years ago the popular R&B singers Milli Vanilli had a Grammy revoked for lip-synching to the voices of others. Eight years ago, at the time of her death, the pop star Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl XXV performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was repeatedly shown on TV as one of the greatest national anthems in history and the highlight of Houston’s career. Before this year’s 2020 championship game Rolling Stone called it “the gold standard for all Super Bowl performances […] one of the most stunning moments in American sports history.” A TV commentator said, “Whitney sang her heart out into the mic.” He neglected to add how the microphone was turned off and Houston lip-synched to a prerecorded tape, albeit her own. Viewers of President Obama’s inauguration watched Yo-Yo Ma earnestly playing his cello while they actually heard a recording made two days earlier. Ma said he wanted the performance to be emotionally genuine.
“The secret of people who had class was that they remained accurate to the facts,” Mailer wrote some 40 years ago in The Executioner’s Song, a claim striking many today as anachronistic. Facts are prosaic, as Mailer shows, open to multiple interpretations, but they need to be confronted not dismissed as fantasy. With one foot fixed in the age of modernism Mailer stretches the other back to earlier writers like the novelist George Eliot, who best expresses this aesthetic when she said, “Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy: — in the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud-pictures.” In almost a postmodern satirical performance of this aesthetic quest, Mailer tried to create the authentic sound of a fist hitting someone’s face for his movie Tough Guys Don’t Dance by punching himself. “The sounds of punches in movies are all phony,” he said. While a sound designer used a portable digital recorder, Mailer hit himself in the face and the chest again and again, at least 20 times, until he got the authentic sound he wanted. In contrast, the sound designer of the film No Country for Old Men used a pneumatic nail gun to reproduce the explosive bangs of an air-tank cattle gun when a psychotic killer shoots people. The soundman was looking for impact. “I wasn’t looking for authenticity,” he said, “so I didn’t even research cattle guns.”
“Fantasy from del Toro Wins Top Oscar” was online news after the 2018 Academy Award for Best Picture went to a love story between a mute woman and a mysterious, scaled creature ripped from Amazon waters. Fantasy and spectacle are what Hollywood knows best. This year’s 2020 Academy Award for Best Picture went to a technically skillful South Korean film passed off as a PC social message artistically dominated by fantasy and violence. Trump disparaged the film without seeing it or recognizing its Americanized allegiance to the fantasy and spectacle he called for: “Can we get, like, Gone with the Wind back, please?” Last year, the 2019 Best Picture Oscar went to a movie derided by The New York Times movie critic Wesley Morris as a “particularly perverse” example of a “racial reconciliation fantasy.” Films about environmental degradation of the Amazon or any other place received no attention. In the past two years, Oscars also went to three triumphant blockbusters about World Wars I and II, but none to films about the United States’s longest-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At a Pennsylvania rally after the Oscars show a year ago, Trump fostered his own spectacle, racking up another half-dozen false and misleading statements to add to his growing record. He boasted of his appeal to women voters and taunted the TV celebrity, who, according to the Times that day is “a fantasy candidate for Democrats: Oprah Winfrey.” The previous day Winfrey herself opened a $250 million Walt Disney fantasy, starring as a celestial guide magically traversing space and time. As if invoking her supernatural powers, she told People magazine that she’d asked God to tell her if she should run for president, but she hadn’t heard back.
The posturing figure with the sweeping hair whose intellectual significance makes him an important precursor to our time is the playwright, novelist, and personality Oscar Wilde, who, in Trilling’s words, was “one of the great figures of Victoria’s reign.” In his attack on Philistine respectability and earnest sincerity, Wilde quipped, “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has yet discovered.”
Fantasy, role-playing, and impersonation led to what Trilling feared is a loss of personal integrity and authenticity. “In our time,” he said, “the conception of the self has been undergoing a drastic revision, of which a notable element is the lessening of the value formerly assigned to individuation.” The result is a fake person following the herd to the point of scarcely being a self at all but rather a “reiterated impersonation.” To be authentic is to be original, individualistic, unlike anybody else. “Born Originals,” the 18th-century aesthetician Edward Young asked, “how comes it to pass that we die Copies?” Today even Trump’s propensities aren’t one of a kind. Populist demagogues thrive throughout the world.
Like most of us in his audience, Trilling missed what he discerned elsewhere when examining details that distinguish the morality of one age from another: change doesn’t consist simply in the loss of old status and privileges; “something is gained as well as lost — something is gained through the loss” — a new relation to art and a new awareness. A century after Wilde advised the young to be as artificial as possible, he might now say that their second duty is to be, as he was, aware of it.
Overt inauthenticity has appropriately made a comeback in recent years with a revival of the great performing arts of sincere inauthenticity like magic, ventriloquism, and impersonation. The ventriloquist Terry Fator with dummies that impersonate celebrity singers won a million-dollar prize on a primetime TV talent show and caused a delighted Oprah to fall out of her chair. He performs as a multimillion-dollar Las Vegas headliner at the Mirage, an inconceivable achievement in the era of Trilling when ventriloquism would have been considered unhip or old-fashioned, meaning inauthentic for the present time. Magic was then a moribund public art as well, but it’s now booming with several magicians appearing on Oprah and in primetime series. Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself set an off-Broadway New York theater record for a magic show with repeated extensions and sold-out audiences. In January 2020, magician Derren Brown culminated a string of sold-out performances on Broadway. In literature, magic and fantasy increasingly sell and win awards. In acknowledgment, the 2020 L.A. Times Book Prizes in October will offer for the first time a special prize to include fantasy and speculative fiction.
Impersonators on TV have moved from the wings to center stage. The comedians Whoopi Goldberg and Dave Chappelle, as paragons of outraged authenticity, once whipped a phony, hypocritical society with lacerating tough talk. They then gave way to comics who reveal social deceptions they work on themselves, like Sarah Silverman, who describes her funny self-impersonation as an earnest “asshole,” which in politer phrasing is to say she’s an inauthentic jerk but sincere in thinking otherwise. Impersonating a news anchor, the comedian Jon Stewart invested “fake news” with cultural authenticity before Trump as president appropriated and sullied the term. Trump himself engaged in impersonation to disguise the staging, shooting, reshooting, and editing that go into the accepted fakery of so-called TV reality shows. The importance of inauthenticity became increasingly apparent when in 2007 the impersonator of a conservative political pundit on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report was voted the Associated Press Celebrity of the Year for having the biggest impact on pop culture.
Self-aware manifestations of inauthenticity also dominate much popular writing and art. David Sedaris, described on Wikipedia as “the rock star of writers,” cheerfully writes, “Like most seasoned phonies, I roundly suspect that everyone is as disingenuous as I am.” The death of a friend left him unable to shake the mixed sincerity and inauthenticity of his mourning: “My grief was genuine, yet still, no matter how hard I fought, there was an element of showmanship to it. […] It was as if I’d learned to grieve by watching television.” In a review of the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of the artist Cindy Sherman, titled “The Art of the Impersonator,” critic Sanford Schwartz sees as both limited and enthralling Sherman’s large self-photographs presented as fake paintings in cheesy frames; “the sheer human spectacle of someone continually transforming herself into one person after another has proved riveting.” The convicted art forger John Myatt, perpetrator of what has been called “the biggest art fraud of the 20th century,” is now out of prison and successfully selling his forgeries as “Genuine Fakes.”
In his final lecture, Trilling acknowledged that the modernist age was over and inauthenticity was on the rise. As if to punctuate his anxiety that April evening in 1970, the sound of sirens and the smell of tear gas entered the hall as he spoke. Many of us in the audience had attended a massive afternoon peace rally in Boston Common to protest the Vietnam War. A splinter group protesting the New Haven trials of Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers marched into Harvard Square with 1,500 demonstrators chanting, “Free Bobby Seale,” and, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want this fucking war.” Street fighting raged in the square for four hours as a growing number of demonstrators threw bricks, looted stores, torched police cars, and set fire to buildings. Twelve hundred cops swung nightsticks and shot tear-gas canisters. Two thousand National Guardsmen stood by. Charging police drove protestors onto Mount Auburn Street, where bystanders swelled the final crowd to nearly 3,000, including many from the Trilling lecture.
Today other wars flare on the horizon, joining domestic unrest and a global pestilence to mark what may be equally a turning point in an unnamed but so-called post-authentic, post-fact, post-truth, post-racial, post-gender, post-literary, post-historical, post-text, post-postmodern era. While Trilling felt uneasy about the shift away from the ideal of an integral authentic self, he recognized that the truth of the self can at times consist in its being not true to itself, in there being no self to be true to, or at best only a fragmented self composed of many selves. Poor Emma Bovary, the fictional heroine of Flaubert’s novel, has been castigated by readers and critics for the inauthenticity of her fantasies and self-corrupting impersonations. One of the most touching moments in Trilling’s lectures is his defense of Emma Bovary against the condescension of her harsher critics who see her inauthenticity in the “roles that she was continually playing for others and for herself and which were based on the most platitudinous of conventions.”
Trilling cautions us to understand that Madame Bovary is each one of us. We are all insincere. We are all inauthentic. Trilling revealed the fear underlying our reading of the original Madame Bovary. Uneasy laughter at today’s characters of sincere inauthenticity underscores a revelation no less distressing: we are all self-deluded to one degree or another. We are all self-deceived. But there are degrees. There’s no going back to modernism’s naïve view of authenticity. If awareness grants freedom, then recognition of our inauthenticity and self-deception may perhaps free us to become less so. Will 2020 reveal Trump as the apex and culmination of a 50-year shift in cultural values and the initiation of a new one? Will more heroes then emerge who don’t look like heroes? Today several young novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, painters, comedians, and magicians express in their art a poignant longing to bridge the gap between the magical and the prosaic. They may point to a future as we spiral deeper into the age of fantasy or finally out of it with greater awareness of the tragedy and necessity of human self-deception.
Four hundred years ago, the disgraced and vilified Parolles in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well admits he’s a liar. Trump doesn’t. Parolles gains some authenticity in his awareness. The question of Trump’s awareness remains. Whether or not he escapes electoral defeat or later indictment, he’s still an iconic figure of our time, a conjurer of magical cloud pictures as opposed to prosaic facts. Trump and his shifting self-creations manifest what Trilling called a “cultural mutation” that has evolved into a 50-year merger of sincerity and inauthenticity. Social media from Facebook to TikTok buzz in response to a global pandemic with news about washing hands, elbow bumps, the Wuhan Shake, government plots, secret labs, and magical cures. Statistics show that false news stories travel faster on Twitter than factual ones. Inauthenticity is “liked.”
Frank Bergon is a novelist, critic, and essayist whose writing focuses on California and the American West. He has published 12 books, most recently Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man: The New Old West and The Toughest Kid We Knew: A Personal History, to be published in May.