The Cult of Authenticity

Ophelia Benson

The literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in Sincerity and Authenticity: “The concerted effort of a culture or of a segment of a culture to achieve authenticity generates its own conventions, its generalities, its commonplaces, its maxims, what Sartre, taking the word from Heidegger, calls the ‘gabble.’” test

Trilling said that in 1970, but it hasn’t become less true in the half century since. If you Google “authentic self,” you get 360 million results, though most of them are pop psychology and self-help rather than literary criticism.

The idea of an “authentic self” has, oddly, become a theme of political discourse as well as Oprah-style uplift. We’re being told that people have a right to live as their authentic selves, which often means as opposed to their outward appearance, that mere physical dross. It’s a weirdly religious idea, reminiscent of the contemptus mundi of medieval monks, but it’s presented as political rather than religious. What I keep wondering is how it’s possible to make a sane politics out of the denial of material reality.

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