“All bad poetry is sincere”
For the past few years I’ve had the wrong wording of this quote in my head. I thought it went: “All sincere poetry is bad poetry.” But I find that is wrong. Coming from the perverse severity of the wrong version (paraphrase: it it’s sincere, it sucks), the correct version sounds too tame to me. The wrong version is funnier, therefore better (though less true).
Critic Harold Bloom is content with the correct version:
Art is perfectly useless according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere. Had I the power to do so, I would command that these words be engraved above every gate at every university, so that each student might ponder the splendor of the insight (The Western Canon, 14).
Mr. Bloom, I am with you. But as you say later in your book, the appreciation of art, of splendorous insights like Wilde’s is an individual endeavor, and therefore any attempt to win the masses is futile.
The correct version -- “All bad poetry is sincere” -- means we cannot go all the way and say sincerity is the cause of badness. There's just a high correlation.
Critique of Sincerity
The problem with making sincerity an important moral trait is that sincerity is merely an interpretation we apply to behavior. It's an ancient social dilemma explained perfectly by Shakespeare in Macbeth - “There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” If there’s a more important thought to consider as we advance in our lives, I can’t think of it right now. Faces are not dependable mental-state indicators. When emphasized in society as an important moral trait, sincerity becomes a mere show people can learn to put on in order to gain moral acceptance, or in order to manipulate gullible emotionalizers. Remember the ominous slogan from Oliver Stone's Nixon: "Nothing sells like sincerity." And as Oscar Wilde points out the more we emphasize sincerity, the more narrow we get as minds. We focus too much on people, and whether they do or do not really mean what they are saying, instead of on the ideas they present, independent of the nature of the personhood of the idea presenter. Quoting Lord Henry Wotton from A Picture of Dorian Gray:
Now, the value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it. Indeed, the probabilities are that the more insincere the man is, the more purely intellectual will the idea be, as in that case it will not be coloured by either his wants, his desires, or his prejudices (17).
As the sincerity goes up the humor goes down. The intellect goes down. Sincerity is just as harmful in art.
‘All bad poetry comes from genuine feeling,’ [Wilde] says, as Auden would say after him. ‘The great poet sings because he chooses to sing,’ and sings not in his own person but in one he has assumed: ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth’(Ellman,326).
Yet more of Wilde’s powerful insights into the paradoxical nature of human psychology. Masks bring relief. Relief from the chains of fixed identity. You don’t have to be yourself anymore. (“Yourself” understood as a moralized, socialized version of a far more horrible real you).With a mask, you don’t have to be what people erroneously think you are. You can tell the truth about yourself, but only when there is no “you.” That technique of human psychology to only ever meaningfully examine itself indirectly is what Wilde innately understands and expresses in “All bad poetry is sincere.“ It is characteristic of a bad poet that he would not know what poetry is, and would wrongly think truth and naked confession are the necessary subjects. They are the wrong subjects. Do not ask “What is true of me?” - the sincere poet's only question. Answers to that amount to mostly boring speculation. Ask rather “What could be true of me?” That way there’s imagination involved.
Communism and Sincerity
Russian critic Vladimir Pomerantsev argues sincerity is the most important quality a work can have: “The degree of sincerity -- that is, the directness of a work -- should be the first measure of its worth. Sincerity is the basic component of that sum of gifts which we call talent.” He distinguishes construction from creativity -- “to construct a work all you need is a brain, cunning, and experience. To create a work you need talent, that is to say, first and foremost, sincerity.” Pomerantsev is writing in 1953 in Communist Russia, which was being flooded with books which idealized the communist society, often presenting a false prosperity and reflecting an overzealous pro-communism message, which he explains in his essay. In Doctor Zhivago we saw how Communism brings with it a strict anti-individualism art code. This communist policing of creative thought is exactly what produced the very trend toward artificiality Pomerantsev denounces in his essay, linked below. From within communism, a voice for individualism is bound to be a controversial voice, thus Pomerantsev finds a perfect code-word: sincerity. By sincerity, Pomerantsev really means individuality. He wants the real independent you, not the conformist you aiming to please. Don't pretend.
Above we have Wilde saying the opposite - only do it if you are pretending. If you have "genuine feeling," do not create.
The difference is Wilde has a fuller understanding of psychology. He can account for an individuality which does not express itself sincerely and does so in a beautiful way. The conflicted Pomerantsev is correctly outraged by "artificial" literature, but he fails to grasp (as Wilde has) the distortion produced by the paradoxical nature of human psychology which makes simple equations like Pomerantsev's impossible. Pomerantsev's exposure to communist brainwashing leaves him mentally short of Wilde's "Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth." In the moralistic world of Communism, talent comes with a moral sense built in. The best are also the most good. In the Capitalist West however talent comes correctly with zero built-in moral sense. Here the best are also the most good at being false.
2005, Christopher Duckett