SINCERITY by R. Jay Magill Jr.


How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion that We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull)
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An illumination of the shifting attitudes and ambivalence toward a value that society claims to hold in high esteem.

The topic and treatment suggest an academic inquiry, but Magill (Chic Ironic Bitterness, 2007) engages readers with a style that is more conversational than scholastic. The author examines sincerity from a variety of perspectives—religious, philosophical, political, sociological, artistic—as Western culture has alternately feared sincerity, embraced it, or denied the very possibility of it. Perhaps the crux of Magill’s argument comes with his assertion that sincerity and irony, rather than polar opposites, are complementary correctives, with the latter exposing the hypocrisies within professions of the former. The author covers a lot of ground, as he traces the early equation of sincerity with heresy as a challenge to the dogmatic authority of the Catholic Church, through the peculiar attitudes toward authenticity taken by Beats, hippies and hipsters. In the “Hipster Semiotic Appendix,” Magill analyzes the significance of hipster totems, including the trucker hat: “It has become so tired that even to talk about how tiresome it is has itself become tiresome.” The author hopscotches his way through Montaigne and Machiavelli, Emerson and Rousseau, Duchamp and Warhol, and he encapsulates Kerouac and Sartre within the space of a couple of paragraphs (“Sincerity for Sartre is an unachievable state. The fundamental nature of man is that he is insincere in all things”). Ultimately, Magill concludes that “society…likes to turn sincerity on and off when it wants.”

Sincerity proves to be a richer, more provocative topic than readers might initially suspect.

Pub Date: July 16th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-393-08098-8
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2012


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