"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Oscar Wilde once noted that the worst vice of a fanatic is his sincerity. And yet in many ways, sincerity — and its cousin, authenticity — are the traits we most value in others and hope to cultivate in ourselves. Of course, nothing is more easily faked than sincerity, or more easily marketed than authenticity. So in an age when everyone has a media criticism blog, or at least watches “The Daily Show,” why do we continue to be suckered by authenticity?
R. Jay Magill Jr. says the answer goes back centuries. In his new book “Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born 500 Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic and the Curious Notion That We ALL Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull) — hey, someone let this man title the next Fiona Apple album! — the NPR Worldwide host connects John Calvin to Bon Iver, and traces our abiding need to live sincerely and genuinely, free from the boot of society or The Man. And he notes the irony of how The Man easily sells sincerity right back to us.
In a phone interview from his home in Berlin, Magill discussed how culture moves in waves of sincerity to irony, and how in this current moments, ironists like Wes Anderson and Jon Stewart might, also ironically enough, be the most sincere.
Poll after poll shows that we long for and admire sincerity in our politicians – even though we know that sincerity is not the same thing as honesty, or frankness, or even being right. Yet we still also buy into corporate beers marketed as genuine, call heavily edited and scripted shows “reality TV” and trumpet “no spin zones” on news shows. What explains our strange relationship with sincerity?
Well, I think it has a lot to do with our religious traditions. America was founded on the church, and I don’t mean that in any political sort of way — they were these wacky Puritans who wanted to create an absolutely transparent society. (They believed) there should be no secrets, personality should be transparent, we should reveal all motives at all times to all members of the community — because that’s what God wants. And that led to a miserably crushing and horrible society where everyone was afraid. They were afraid not only of being spied on, but also that they were not of the elect. And I think that’s a hard thing to shake.
One of the reasons that sincerity sticks with us as a virtue is not only because you kind of need it on some level for relationships to function, but more broadly there are echoes of that Christian path that infiltrate the present. And I think it’s different from honesty. Sincerity has an inward directiveness where you have to reveal what your motives are—it’s subjective, in a sense, and the demand for sincerity when people mean honesty leads to demanding sincerity in the wrong places.
We’ve also gotten pretty good at faking sincerity as well. Reality TV has very little to do with actual reality. You think about Glenn Beck’s tears — which actually could be entirely sincere, I suppose.
That’s depressingly true.
And yet we claim all this media savvy — you would think that by now we would see that sincerity itself can’t always be trusted, yet it remains a gold standard.
The weird thing is, especially in the contemporary political world, since Nixon, really, everyone knows that sincerity is more often than not feigned, not real, really good for getting suckers to believe.
Everyone knows that, but certain people demand sincerity from politicians when really it’s not been the case that politicians have ever really been sincere. A quick look at sort of the history of realist political thought will reveal that no empire worth its salt has ever advised being sincere. It’s always about strategy; it’s always about cunning. That’s politics, and it’s childish to demand to know elected officials’ inner lives and to really demand that they’re sincere in what they say. There’s this echo, this sort of persistent moral demand from religion and the history of romanticism that insists we have to get beyond the political mask or the social mask to get to the real person, and that may be great in private life, but in public life it seems really misplaced and leads to a lot of icky situations.
So what you’re also saying is that sincerity and authenticity – something else we prize even when we should know better – are also two distinct things. We see plenty of examples of political figures who end up being completely insincere in their private life and still authentically hold the beliefs that they articulate in public. Eliot Spitzer, perhaps.
Those two ideas are definitely thorny. The best that I could come up with is that you could be an entirely insincere person, but as long as you’re going after the things you actually want, you can be authentic. And in some ways that speaks very poorly for authenticity as a value; I mean, an example would be exactly in the political realm where someone may be lying and deceptive, but let’s say they really, really believe in passing law X, and they’ll do anything to get to it. They have this very authentic belief, but it doesn’t mean they’re sincere. And these things can be divided. I think that sincerity is a way of behaving, and authenticity is a way of being. And I don’t even know if that holds up to counter-examples.
But it’s very much a question of this moment. We value sincerity, so elected officials feign it. We want to see authentic selves on TV, so reality shows pretend to give it to us. And in hipster enclaves, we spent $10 on authentic artisan pickles or beef jerky. It’s as if there’s no way for us to break this desire to connect with something real, no matter how fake it makes the culture as a result, no matter how much it costs, how ridiculous it seems, or how long our beards grow as a result.
(laughs) That’s totally right on. I should have mentioned pickles in the book. I saw some “Portlandia” episode about pickles after the book was done and thought ‘If only I had another couple months.’ But that’s what’s weird about sort of Portland, and parts of Brooklyn and the whole hipster thing — in some ways it’s very admirable and has provided some great content for culture. The weird thing is it’s really no different than hiccups of culture that have happened for the last, say, 250 years, where these little subcultures bubble up. They get frustrated with the saccharin quality of industrialization, of commercial culture, of the market, of capitalism, of all these things are deemed to compromise the integrity of the self. So the way out of that is to stop going to Wal-Mart and to make your own pickles or to be against everything that’s modern, crappy, kitschy American culture and to DIY everything.
There is an admirable notion in that, but it’s also — and I think this is part of the anti-hipster movement, which is in itself a little shallow — not entirely unique because lots of people are doing it, and you’re basically just sort of creating this other little economy. You may be bowing out of the system in your own little aesthetic way, but you know, the market’s also pretty smart, depressingly, and large corporations have known how to market. Corporations have found out how to do marginality from the center. Thomas Frank’s book “Commodify Your Dissent” is so brilliant. It really explains that logic that has been going on for 40 years, 50 years. And that’s part of the illusion, and what I was going to say before about the anti-hipster movement, and what’s kind of smart about the anti-hipster stuff, is that it does pick up on the fact that you can market really anything to lots of people as long as you package it right and convince them that it’s not marketing.
So is there any way to live a sincere life when corporations know how to market it to you — and even dissent is able to be turned around and sold back to you as Pabst Blue Ribbon or a trucker hat?
I think the search is the wrong search, and it’s a search for sort of perfect sincere person.
You quote Edward Albee in the book, that one can be sincere and be much worse than someone that is insincere. And yet there are these waves, and you can kind of track them over decades, these waves of sincerity and authenticity, and that search for getting real being held up and then being questioned, and there’s sort of an axis on which this all kind of teeters. At some points in time to be completely sincere is to be naive or foolish, and you have a rise of irony on the other side of it. Then irony begins to kind of outlive its usefulness and sincerity rises back up again. It’s as if they’re on a sincerity/irony teeter-totter.
(laughs) A dialectic.
That’s a much fancier word than teeter-totter.
But that’s true. There’s a mistake that I think is often made in our present American culture, less so in Europe, actually, but in America in a big way. The mistake is that what is true for politics and public life is also true for private life. And the sincerity thing as a value, as a moral ideal, started as a private thing. You should be sincere; in the beginning it was that you should be sincere with God. You should be sincere with your neighbors. It was this very personal sort of thing, and the mistake is to carry that over into public life, which was, like I said earlier, advised by people like the Puritans; it was advised by people like Rousseau. We’ve inherited all of that.
In modern American culture we’ve definitely been the inheritors of this enormous logic that’s going on, but it blends together two things that don’t really belong together. Public life has a public mask; political life has a political mask, and you don’t have to get underneath it for things to be valuable. Sincerity is great for private life, but public life involves deception and involves public faces, and that’s OK. And that’s I think the very kernel of the moral issue that you’re bringing up, that we don’t think that’s OK, and that moral itch; that’s this whole history washing up, and I think we need to say no to it.
Perhaps no one is better at getting under that public mask than someone like a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert. Are they sincere, or are they ironists?
They are ironists who make us remember our sincerity.
There’s certainly an element of both going on there. I think you see that when Stewart hosted his big rally on the mall before the last election; there’s a real yearning for sincerity coming from him, but he uses irony to get there.
I think that’s 100 percent on. At a couple spots in the book I try to remind people that these two things aren’t opposite. It depends on the cultural situation, but our culture it’s filled with spin. It’s filled with jargon. It’s filled with a lot of cunning and deceptiveness by political leaders that we know about. We know that this is going on. Irony has been in America for a long time, but especially since 9/11, it’s been the No. 1 method for being sincere. It’s very odd. But lots of people watch Jon Stewart and Colbert and read The Onion and watch “South Park”; there’s this ironic mindset, this sort of distance that we’ve been practicing for the last 20 years if not longer, at least for everyone sort of under 50. That connection we make with fellow ironists is maybe the most sincere thing we have.
And yet does that wink get in the way of authenticity and sincere connection?
That’s a great question. I don’t know; I think it’s also this public/private thing again; I think that if you’re trying to relate sincere things in public, irony is the way to do it because the direct stuff doesn’t work anymore. That’s Jimmy Swaggart and all of this horrible, Christian crap, you know? That’s the stuff that no intelligent person—I mean that’s horrible, that’s not true—but it’s hard to swallow. Direct moralizing is very, very difficult for an educated person to swallow. The wink gives a sort of autonomy, I think, to everybody and says we know what’s going on, and there is a sincere connection in that irony. But in private life, I think that’s different. I don’t think you can, if you’re just talking to your best friend who is ironic about you all the time… that person’s a jerk. (laughter)
And yet if you think of the people who have been heralded as sort of the great ironists of the age, folks like Stewart or David Foster Wallace or Dave Eggers — they’ve all become exhausted by irony, sworn it off, and looked to get back somehow to sincerity. Eggers starts a national program to help teach kids how to read. Stewart hosts a rally in defense of sanity. Foster Wallace wrote about the dangers of irony as long ago as the early ‘90s. Is it possible to carve out space in the middle, to have a sincerity that is not naïve? Perhaps we call that the Wes Anderson balance.
Wes Anderson is a superb example of combining the 1993 David Foster Wallace, Eggers and Jon Stewart. Irony and sincerity have to be balanced because both are important in different ways. Both are important for the modern sensibility because we sort of grew up or grew out of, sort of, both of these movements. And Anderson does it great. He can relay touchingly beautiful moments in stories and then a scene later, you know, have a guy in a green tracksuit. And that’s brilliant. That’s our sensibility now, and I think it’s a really tough job to be an artist or a fiction writer trying to do that. I think we are living in the moment where these two very convincing modes are balancing out and trying to win, and the most touching and intellectually fascinating productions somehow manage to do both these things.
So explain “Rock of Ages.” It’s a celebration of the crappiest songs we rebelled against in 1986, sold back to us again as something ironic and sincere and innocent. Journey and Foreigner songs in 2012 really scramble the sincerity/irony axis.
Ah, nostalgia, the third rail. It’s baffling. And that’s why it’s sort of great to be alive right now because I’m really curious about how this going to play out in about five years — it’s really not tenable. The nostalgia stuff is crazy—it’s everywhere. I think it’s hard to imagine what the culture would even look like without its obsession with nostalgia. I don’t even know. I mean, the futurists would be killing us; they’d be like, can’t you think of something new?
And it pushes us backwards. There’s that great Lionel Trilling quote in the book, though, that says that by praising something by calling it sincere, we’re in some ways saying ‘Well, at least it was conceived in innocence of heart,’ which is backhanded praise at best.
(laughs) It’s not that good, but at least it’s sincere. I think that’s credit to our own generation, where we kind of know that sincerity is not really all there is. There has to be talent, and there has to be skill and craft and technique. I think that American culture went through a phase at some point where it didn’t matter. If you were sincere, really whatever you did would be fine. It may sound like crap, it may read horribly, but you really, really meant it. And that’s a huge copout, I think, in the sincerity push in art. William Penn already, in the 1650’s or something, said sincerity goes father than capacity, which is a super quote, and really motivated a lot of romantic art for a while. I think that our generation is officially, in the realm of visual arts and music, starting to get back to realizing you have to be inventive and you have to have some sort of mastery, and you can’t just do stuff and expect everyone to love it. And that’s part of the critique of sincerity, in some way, that I think is going on.
Sincerity can be bad, or banal – and the sincere can be completely wrong.
Sarah Palin. George W. Bush. And hey, look, lots of religious fanatics believe that absolutely everything they’re doing is right. That’s fine, and that’s why sincerity needs to be looked at again right now and sort of beaten up a little bit, because just looking at the Republican debates, our Texas friend…
Perry—his sort of forgetful moment. Lots of conservative Republican web sites followed up with, like, “Well, look how authentic and sincere the guy is.”
“He’s as dumb as the rest of us!”
Exactly. Sincerity is not enough; it’s really the lowest common denominator. You expect from a president to know what his program is, for example. Can’t we care about other things a little more? Who cares if you’re authentic if you don’t know what you’re talking about.
You do conclude, though, that we need sincerity.
Yes, in private. You can’t just say sincerity’s horrible and we should all be dishonest jerks, but there really is a placement problem, I think. I conclude that it is necessary on a personal level. You definitely have to have that with your friends and family, without a doubt, but in the public realm, to quote Somerset Maugham, “I don’t think you want too much sincerity. It would be like an iron girder in a house of cards,” which is an amazing quote, and I think right on. We demand too much of it in the wrong places and not enough of it where we should.
David Daley is the editor-in-chief of SalonMore David Daley.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)