Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Trouble with Authenticity

If there is anything that Rome has taught be clearly and convincingly, day after day, is that “authenticity” is a mirage and a chimera, both unrealistic, and a delusion, something we only imagine exists.  There are no real, living places that are not an accumulation of layers of the past.  Every building we deem to be “as it was” or “perfectly preserved” is simply not.   Each building is made of pieces of previous buildings – a church is built upon an earlier church, which is built upon a Roman villa and temple. The Acqua Paola, the glorious Baroque fountain a hundred yards from the American Academy where I am writing these words is largely made, like so many Roman and Renaissance buildings, of “spolia” from Roman buildings.  Rome is about recycling.  Ruins have been covered and uncovered, rearranged, their context altered by new buildings, new roads, dirt and garbage, pollution and graffiti.  To insist on the pursuit of the “authentic” which is often cloaked as the “original” and to demand “integrity” of our historic buildings is a fools errand, which leaves us with a fetish of the past that does violence to the past as well as to the present.

My longstanding concerns about this central term in preservation theory and practice, were beautifully discussed in Richard Todd’s book, The Thing Itself.  Todd, who lives in Ashfield, and teaches writing and historic preservation in Maryland, and has written some truly outstanding articles I have used in classes – on Las Vegas, for example – was after what so many of us are after:  authentic objects, places, experiences, and relationships in the midst of a world that seems increasingly designed

There is a nostalgic and vaguely reactionary tone to the book at times.  But it is a deeply personal meditation on this issue. I have assigned it several times to my students.  Most have loved it, while a few have found him cranky.  But each have focused on two stories in the book.  The first is toward the very beginning of the book.  He relates how he went to the huge antique fair in Brimfield, Massachusetts, one of the largest of its kind in the U.S.  He is drawn to a small box that is close to two hundred years old.  He pays a good chunk of change on it and puts it in the front passenger seat as he drives to visit a friend.  He continues to glance at his cherished new purchase, but slowly feels a sense of discomfort about it. He has suspicions.  He arrives at the home of his friend, an expert in material culture who very quickly confirms those suspicions – this is a fake.

The other story is about his house, definitively from the 18th century.  He decides to replace the windows.  He is thrilled to find, one day, someone in his area in the midst of getting rid of his 18th century windows.  He overly eagerly buys them – again, dropping a good amount of money in the process – and proceeds to install the windows.  He is pleased that he has managed to be authentic in his rehabilitation of his home.  He has been a good steward to the past.

But there is a nagging doubt. He has taken windows from another building and inserted them, like a surgeon, into his own.  The house is not quite true anymore; it is an artifice of sorts.   The windows are “authentic” but not authentic to this particular house.  Passersby might marvel at the completeness of this mid-1700 house, but what they are looking at is in fact a composite, something rigged to look complete.

In both stories, Todd is searching for something “real” in a world he sees as unmoored from reality, a world immersed in inventing places, fabricating reality, abandoning the sincere and the authentic.

Todd’s book pointed me to the great literary critic Lionel Trilling, and his thin volume, Sincerely and Authenticity, the product of a series of lectures in the early 1970s.   I bought the book, and it sat on my shelf.  It felt like something that could be revelatory; I needed the time and space to think about it.  And so I brought it all the way to Rome, so I could sit in the library and read it closely.  I was not disappointed.

The book meanders through much of western history and literature to ask why “at certain point in history certain men and classes of men conceived that the making of this  effort [of being sincere] was of supreme importance in the moral life, and the value they attached to the enterprise of sincerity became a salient, perhaps a definitive, characteristic of Western culture for some four hundred years.” (p. 6)  He makes a startling – if simple – point that “there have been cultural epochs in which men did not think of themselves as having a variety of selves or roles.”  (p. 10, footnote no.1)  There was a powerful backlash in the 19th century. Indeed, the quest for sincerity was seen by many on both sides of the Atlantic as in fact the height or arrogance and the clearest sign of insincerity. 

As diverse thinkers as Emerson and Nietzsche had a “principled antagonism to sincerity, both spoke in praise of what they call the mask.”  (p. 119)  Emerson put it bluntly in 1840:  “There is no deeper dissembler than the sincerest man.”  (p. 119)  Wilde not only condemned the quest for sincerity but embraced the falseness of public presentation.  Oscar Wilde famously said that  “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible…what the second duty is no one has yet discovered.”  (p. 118)

Trilling was writing from the vantage point of the early 1970s when artifice and insincerity  were not to be valued, but condemned.  Trilling’s purpose was to shine an historical light on the terms bandied about at the time, and to suggest the dark underside to a glorification of the slippery ideas of sincerity and authenticyt.

One of the lasting impressions of the book is how Trilling distinguishes the etymologies of his two keywords, sincerity and authenticity. Sin cere is the latin “without wax.”  It is a word more linked to the physical world, and refers to something that has not been fixed, its holes not filled in with wax.  Trilling wants to link this to Ruskin and his notions that the greatest buildings, like cathedrals, are built over time.  They were, by the terms of the time, “organic.”  It is Ruskin who becomes the archenemy of modernists and especially the most eloquent, aggressive and ultimately violent of the modernists, the Futurists.   For Marinetti, Ruskin is the enemy, the symbol of all that is weak, “lympathic” about England and more broadly European culture:

With his sick dream of a primitive pastoral life: with his nostalgia for Homeric cheese and legendary spinning-wheels; with his hatred of the machine, of steam and electricity, this maniac for antique simplicity resembles a man who in full maturity wants to sleep in his cot again and drink at the breasts of a nurse who has now grown old…. (p. 129)

Marinetti asks his British audience:  “When, then, will you disencumber yourselves of the lymphatic ideology of your deplorable Ruskin, whom I intend to make utterly ridiculous in your eyes…..”  (p. 129)

It is the modernists, with the Futurists in the violent lead, that will bring out another term, which Trilling wants to see as related to sincerity but with a far greater “moral intensity” and is dominated by a “censorious tone” (both from p. 101) and is animated by a call to “rigor” and is, to Trilling’s mind far more dangerous:  authenticity. 

Sincerity is a word based in a negative – something that is “without wax.”  But authenticity is derived from the Greek word authenteo, which means “to have full power over” and “to commit a murder.”   The authentes is “not only a master a doer, but also a perpetrator, a murderer, even a self-murderer, a suicide.” (p. 131)

I have long loved Heidegger’s essay, Building Dwelling Thinking, in part because of its emphasis on the echoes of language.  Bauen, he argues, has within it, the ancient German roots, which take us away from “building” to baun, which is related to “ich bin” – I am.  In other words, at the root of the word we use casually for construction is something much deeper – a call to be, to dwell.  He argues at the end of the essay that the real problem is not building of housing (he initially gave the speech that became the essay at a post-war housing conference) but of dwelling.  How should be dwell on earth?  That question must be answered before we can build true homes for people.

I like to believe, therefore, that the echoes of the original meanings are there, somehow present.  And that should give us pause.   Part of what has made me rebel against authenticity is the certainty that lies in the word, and in the concept as it is applied to preservation.  There is no “partial” authenticity.  A place is either authentic or not.  It has been a word used to make black and white distinctions, and to mask the layers of history that exist in almost all places.

Trilling’s book seems to meander from author to author, example to example.  But it builds to a powerful and disturbing conclusion. The entire last chapter examines Freudian theory.  What he argues is that the “informing idea of Freud’s mature social theory” is the “virtually resistless power of this principle of inauthenticity.”  (p. 150)   We are all inauthentic, not because we are flawed, but because inauthenticity is essential for human survival.   (This is discussed at great length in another book of roughly the same period, by another Jewish intellectual, Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death.  Our necessary denial of death dooms us to acting in ways that submerge this most basic of fears. We are, by necessity, to survive, inauthentic because we fail – we cannot! – completely confront the truth that our effort are for naught, and that we, our physical being, and our achievements, everything, will disappear).

The very last lines concern the valorization of the insane, which he finds in contemporary culture and psychology.  He can barely contain his contempt for those who find that true expression, some pure authenticity, can only be found among the insane.   “The doctrine that madness is health, that madness is liberation and authenticity, receives a happy welcome from a consequential part of the educated public,” he writes. (p. 171)  Trilling might have noted this is hardly a new notion.  Aristotle himself wrote that “no great intellect has been without a touch of madness,” while Plato said that “A man sound in mind knocks in vain at the doors of poetry.”  Both men were quoted by Seneca at the very end of his essay, “On Tranquility of Mind,” who adds that the creative individual must desert the usual track and race way, champing the bit and hurrying its driver in its course to a height it would have feared to scale by itself.”  (p. 106)

I cannot help but think about Walter Benjamin’s influential but deeply difficult essay, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The epilogue to the article, written in 193??, focuses on fascism and its relationship to art.  He quotes the Italian futurist Marinetti and his embrace of war – “war is beautiful.”

I always puzzled over this ending.  How have we moved from new ways of printing photographs to fascism?  I have come to believe that Benjamin was arguing far beyond the question of art and the machines of reproduction.  He was suggesting that our technology has leapt far beyond our ability to comprehend it, or manage it.  Our notions of aesthetics – and so much else – have been upset by industrialization, proletarianization, by machinery that we have turned to new avenues for aesthetic pleasure.  Fascism, and war, are in a sick way, our quest for a new, yes, authentic, feeling.

You can already see the ridiculous leap coming:  the quest for authenticity in preservation is fascist.  Again, ridiculous.  But I think we can step back from that intellectual pothole and suggest something less shocking, but still disturbing in the relationship between notions of personal and societal authenticity and the authenticity in an historic building or site.

I think we crave in a historic building an authenticity we know – or don’t know – that we don’t have in our lives otherwise.  I think there is also a reason why authenticity rises and falls as a value in preservation. Why does it feel so central now?  Trilling’s book makes us ask what it is about our society that directs us toward this sentiment of “authenticity.”

When we seek in the external world – in people, in buildings and landscapes – that which we crave internally, there is bound to be a disjunction, a scraping, a conflict.  The intensity of the quest for the authentic in historic places is born out of our own sense – perhaps fundamental as Freud and then Becker argued, and perhaps heightened in our own particular social setting – of the lack of authenticity.  And that is a dangerous mix.

Could it be that by battling against accepted notions of the “authentic” in preservation we can even assist ourselves, as individuals, or as society, to confront this unending, and always unsuccessful, quest?

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