December 12, 2013

"The assignment on this blog exam (written early in the morning of the day I plan to compose another law school exam) is..."

"... Using only that passage, discuss whether Mitch H. or Althouse's response accords with the ideas of the devil."

Scroll up for what Mitch H. said, then down for my response, and then the next 2 comments are a passage from "The Screwtape Letters."


Rusty said...

"He knows just how to touch you honey and how you like to be kissed."

Ann Althouse said...

I'll do the exam myself and post my answer later. I think there are great things you can do with this passage, which is why I offer it as an essay subject.

I, myself, want to write this essay, but I will hold back in case anybody wants to sit for the exam.

Ann Althouse said...

Remember, the text is only the one paragraph at the link, not the whole book, and certainly not just the general idea of the book. This is a bit like the old Gatsby Project. Disregard extraneous material. Stick to the paragraph. With Gatsby, we could do it with sentences. That won't work with Screwtape. You have to bite off a whole bulky paragraph.

Henry said...

Sincerity is a virtue.

The pursuit of sincerity is a vice.

In other words, to pursue sincerity is to be insincere.

Art world example: Remember outsider art? What was attractive to posturing critics and jaded millionaires about outsider art was its apparent sincerity. (To paraphrase Joni Mitchell: They wuz painting real good for free.) As soon as there was a market for outsider art, the sincerity was lost.

Henry said...

p.s. I wish Palladian was around.

Emilie said...

The assignment is to determine whether Althouse’s statement “Sincerity is for hacks” (in the context of art, but applicable to a wider range of interests) accords with the devil’s opinion of sincerity, as expressed in two passages from C.S.Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

Mitch H. has expressed the contrary opinion, and two additional opinions: 1) sincerity is NOT for hacks; 2) saying so is a depraved and unworthy sentiment; 3) C.S. Lewis would have given that opinion to the devil in The Screwtape Letters.

The first task is to define sincerity. Luckily, Lewis gives us the devil’s definition in the passages quoted: a sincere man [person] is “the man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring two-pence what other people say about it.”

By that definition, what kind of artists are sincere? Are they hacks (ie, non-experts) or are they great artists?

The artists we think of as great cared immensely what other people thought about their work. Shelley claimed (falsely, I think) that Keats’ death was caused by a bad review. Even though it is quite clear that Keats’ death was due to bad lungs rather than bad reviews, this idea does at least capture some of the intense attention to public reception of one’s work that most great artists feel. In fact, one might even say that the very act of caring how one’s work is received (whether by critics, the public, in terms of sales or box office, by posterity, etc.) is essential to the truly artistic personality.

The child who sincerely and whole-heartedly paints a picture to pin up on the refrigerator, or the amateur musician who strums away happily for hours, not caring whether anyone admires his technique, fulfill the very definition of sincerity according to Lewis’ devil. But clearly they are non-experts, hacking away at their instruments with great sincerity.

Therefore I agree with both Althouse and with Lewis’ devil: sincerity is for hacks. Unlike Mitch H., however, I think that this is not a bad thing. Caring immensely what others think of your work is exhausting. Not everyone in the world can or should be a great artist. Most of the world is contented to enjoy sincere, whole-hearted, happy hackdom.

Of additional interest is the fact that the devil identifies one additional sincere player: God, who “boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.”

Obviously, God is in a different category than every other being in terms of caring what others think of His work, since by definition there is no being able to judge or review adequately. So you might conclude that He is either the only great artist who works sincerely, unconcerned with what anyone else thinks – or that He is a hack, according to the definition of Lewis’ devil.

Thanks for the morning exercise!

Rusty said...

Hence the Dylan quote.

Fritz said...

Sincerity is good in scientists, but bad in lawyers.

raf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mitch H. said...

Ugh... "conflicting edits" ate my first pass, let me try again...

I have, on occasion, in a contrarian mood, defended hackery as a virtue. But that wasn't the formulation given here, rather it was a straightforward "inferior quality A belongs to inferior class B" statement of derision.

Some questions:

Do you consider sincerity to be synonymous with honesty?

Is the classic quote "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made." equivalent with the phrase "the pursuit of sincerity"?

Is outlaw art, in fact, sincere?

On that last note, I've started reading Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels, which, although it isn't as full of falsehood and ironic horseshit as his later Fear and Loathing books, is still strewn with pitfalls for those who read uncritically and openly. Thompson's style is piratical and treacherous, littered with both subtle BS and baldfaced lies. The outlaw artist, in many cases is not only insincere, but is incapable of telling when he is sincere, and when he's lying. This is the case especially of the drug-addled and insane, whose cognitive failings can mean that they've forgotten what was true, or have confused their con patter for their actual, intrinsic opinions.

(Thompson was a hack, a massive hack in my opinion. And yes, he did occasionally slump into moments of sad-eyed clarity that approximate sincerity, like that marvelous passage in Las Vegas about standing on a high hill in Las Vegas looking westwards. But for the most part, his best work is a flurry of carnival barker patter, as false as the night is long.)

William said...

Some people are sincere in their pursuit of cynicism. I can't imagine that anyone who merchandises the loss of his virginity as an art form is anything but cynical.

Kirk Parker said...

I'll just fail the exam up front, since I know too much other stuff I can't get out of my mind in order to focus on just the quoted text.

Anyone wanting to join me in my predicament may start by reading the Lewis essay, "The Inner Ring", then move on to The Abolition of Man and An Experiment in Criticism.

mccullough said...

Sincerity isn't the same as honesty. It's a type of earnest honesty or passionate honesty. It's wanting to show honesty or Truth or Beauty. Sincerity can be faked. Honesty can't because it's not a display.

No one has ever said be sincere to yourself. Know yourself or be true to yourself or be honesty with yourself. Sincerity is a sin and Mitch H is the devil.

Henry said...

The great pumpkin never did arrive.

Mitch H. said...

Honesty can't because it's not a display.

If honesty can't be faked, then why are they trying to prosecute people who offer to show you how to beat the polygraph? You might as well say that sincerity can't be faked either, because if there's deception involved, it isn't sincerity. Which is textbook tautology - true, but trivial.

mccullough said...

Sincerity is trying to show people you believe in what you're saying or who you are. It is important to that person that people believe what that person believes or at least that people believe that the person believes in what that person says or does even if people don't agree. It's more important or as important as what the person actually believes or who they are. Bill Clinton is a good example. It is important to him that people believe in him. This is an end in itself. His self esteem requires it.

You can believe in what you're saying or who you are and still pretend that you care that other people believe you when you don't really care what they think about you. That's one type of fake sincerity. That type of fake sincerity is worse than real sincerity. Other people's approbation is just a means to an end. Barack Obama is a good example of this.

Then there are the people who don't believe in what they say or who they are, but it is important to them that other people believe the image they want to portray because it is a means to an end. John Edwards is a good example of this.

Getting back to the original example of the public deflowering as art, it is probably sincere.

So real sincerity is worse than one type of fake sincerity. There's no tautology, then. Sincerity is bullshit.

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks to all who sat for this exam, so far, and in the future. I see some long answers and I'll think about them, but I don't see anyone yet who has taken the question as asked and tried to answer it.

The 2 quotes constitute a single long paragraph from the book, so it's really only one passage, and the question asked is only to use that passage and only to discuss whether Mitch H. or I come closer to the devil's ideas. It's a very encapsulated problem.

Too bad no one saw the potential. See my comment that says at 7:39 AM underscoring the tight scope of the problem and comparing it to the old Gatsby Project.

I'd like to provide my answer, but unless at least one person really answers the question asked, I won't do it.

Maybe some day.

I moderate comments on all posts over 2 days old, so if you write the requested essay, I will see it.

And for those of you who've been emailing me asking me why I didn't do more with the Screwtape Letters, more like Gatsby, my answer to that is that the lack of interest in the question asked in this post shows why that project doesn't fly. The Gatsby project flew. It turned on minds that accepted the turn-on and took off.

Patrick J. Shea said...

It's obvious that Screwtape views a certain kind of sincerity of preference as a dangerous shield against some of the subtler attacks of Hell, but believes the honest enjoyment of simple pleasures isn't strictly speaking a virtue in itself. Of course, a thoroughgoing background noise of falsity where everything is enjoyed with a wink and a nod of knowing self-satisfaction, is what Screwtape is encouraging his nephew to cultivate in the patient. His ideal is where the thing itself or the concomitant pleasure produced by it is not enjoyed at all or even acknowledged: Where what the human enjoys or participates in is the intellectual and emotional froth produced by analyzing other worldly secondary qualities, especially Pride. This is the opposite of what is demanded by Screwtape's Enemy.

This treatment is significantly different from Althouse's "Sincerity is for hacks" which is much more dismissive of its value and importance, at least in the context of the conversation about art school sex shows.

There are numerous ways you could interpret those four words, but none of them fits particularly well with Screwtape's passage(s). The best I can come up with to put it into Screwtape's mouth is to have it be a play on the patient's vanity, but that only really works once the foundation has been well established. The junior devil can only say "sincerity is for hacks" to his patient and have it stick and really make some sense to him after he's already been playing the world's game for a while. If the patient is already prideful and has a taste for the "right" kind of art, then a whisper of that kind might be just what the diabolical doctor called for.

But I don't think that's where Althouse was heading, and it's a rather strained interpretation to say the least.

****The following is not part of my answer****

Lewis addresses his views on the value of sincerity elsewhere in some detail, especially in terms of sincerely held albeit incorrect religious beliefs. For anyone interested in the question, check out The Great Divorce and The Abolition of Man.

Ryan said...

Mitch's ideas are in accord with the devil. The devil believes people should abandon what they truly ("sincerely") like, such as collecting stamps, in favor of some "best" norm imposed by others.

Mitch believes that "sincerity is for hacks" is depraved and unworthy, and by extension he must also believe that sincerity is not for hacks but is a goal that should always be pursued. However, this sentiment is a "best" norm that Mitch believes should be applied, presumably, even to people truly do *not* care to be sincere. Like Picasso, for example. The devil would be pleased with people drifting from their true nature by seeking to conform to the "best" norm of being sincere.

Althouse believes that sincerity shouldn't be pursued and that people should proceed as if its a non-issue. Althouse would have people motivated by their "deepest likings and impulses," which the devil strives to move people away from, thereby gaining points for himself.