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August 10, 2012
The sophomoric imagination
By Msgr. Richard Antall *

By Msgr. Richard Antall *

R. Jay Magill’s book Sincerity (W.W. Norton: 2012) was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal and that tricked me into thinking that it was a serious book. It is an extraordinary exercise in pseudo-intellectual hyperbolism. What is shocking is that it would be published by a “legitimate” publishing house and presumably read as a philosophic essay.

I should have known from the subtitle that something was seriously wrong with the book. How a moral idea 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). The subtitle is certainly worthy of the book.  The sentence is a mine field of pretentious sophistry and bizarre “information” (everyone knows, for instance, that “the devil has a moustache”) and is unfortunately a very accurate summary of the book’s thesis.

“Sincerity” invented by the Protestant Reformers? As a historian of ideas, Magill is beneath all considerations of shame. The English Protestants persecuted by Henry VIII in his Catholic period were the first standard-bearers of sincerity in Western Civilization. Luther and Calvin are other stars in the firmament of this “moral idea.”  They were reacting to “the Papacy’s long history of making a mockery of basic Church tenets.”

This long history is considered proven when Magill mentions Alexander VI, the second Borgia pope.  As all serious students of history and HBO subscribers (including the insufferable governor of New York, apparently) know, Alexander VI and his family had a problem with the Ten Commandments, especially those from 5-10. Andrew Cuomo, with a self-righteous hubris worthy of his pater, and not shy about historical analogies, said that the U.S. bishops objections to the HHS mandate were ridiculous given that the Supreme Pontiffs of the Roman Church are famous for assassinating the lovers of their mistresses. This last was reported by the Madame de Stael of chic anti-Catholicism in American Culture, Maureen Dowd.

Protestantism = Sincerity, according to Magill. And Catholicism = Insincerity. 

Not since Charles Kingsley said that, “ ... truth for its own sake need not, and on the whole ought not, to be a virtue with the Roman Clergy.” (provoking Newman’s classic Apologia Pro Vita Sua) has an anti-Catholic prejudice been so un-self-consciously and confidently expressed.

The reviewer in the Wall Street Journal did not even acknowledge the enormity, leading me to think that the presumption against Catholic sincerity is a cultural cliché. In an extraordinary feat of self-restraint, Magill somehow neglected to tie in the pedophile crisis into his thesis. I cannot imagine how he managed to avoid that.

The book is a sophomoric and grotesque romp through history and culture. It reads like Plato’s Symposium redone as a pretentious frat party at an Ivy League College after the last keg has been emptied. Magill is a philosophical and artistic name dropper of the first water. He has collected all sorts of quotes, titles of literary works and paintings and musical compositions and celebrity news items and cooked them up into an unpalatable bouillabaisse of clichés and cultural idees fixes.

The “Hipster Semiotic Appendix”, which has been praised by some of his reviewers (another cultural red flag), is an example how a fawning emulation of hip writing a la Tom Wolfe and Bruce Wagner can still assert itself and be self- parody, four-letter words and all.

Magill has never met a meretricious metaphor he didn’t like or a sweeping generalization that does not seem like divine revelation. Among the faux bijoux scattered about his magpie prose are the following apercus:

History, though, has other tricks, and they are often pushed forward by the vitriol of angry youth. p. 89 (And what could be trickier than that?)

Dramatically lit paintings by artists like Georges La Tour and Caravaggio operatically staged religious parables and powerful moral instruction. p. 65 (Get it? Painters are staging pictures operatically! Put out a posse to find this guy’s Creative Writing instructor.)

Nietzsche’s view of sincerity was obviously not the heartwarming kind … p. 123 (Just in case we were laboring under that misapprehension. Thanks, R. Jay.)

Oscar Wilde would soon unleash acerbic maxims that further drove a wedge between personal appearance and intrapersonal reality. p. 129 (I had a professor who used to say “no mean feat that.” I am sure he would agree.)

Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings achieved what modern art—and the Protestant religion—had for so long wanted to be: sincerity itself. p. 167. (Imagine a "meeting of minds" like that crazy television show way back, where historical figures met others from different epochs to discuss ideas. In this case, we have Luther and Calvin checking out what Magill describes as "these large-scale all-black canvasses -- with barely detectable squares floating in the 'background'"-- kindred spirits?)

Jean Paul Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” had a strong—albeit cryptic and prolix—influence on Beat ways of thinking and living. p. 153 (Note the subtle caution here, Sartre’s influence is strong, but in a cryptic and prolix kind of way.)

I could go on—Magill provides an embarrass de richesse—but I hope there is no need to do so. The key phrase was already included in the book’s subtitle. It is indeed a curious notion “that we ALL have something to say (no matter how dull).”  Or stupid.

Msgr. Richard Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in Cleveland, Ohio. For 20 years he served as a missionary in El Salvador and as Moderator of the Curia for Archdiocese of San Salvador. He is the author of theological reflections rooted in his work among the poor, “The Way of Compassion,” “Witnesses to Calvary,” and “Jesus Has a Question for You,” all published by Our Sunday Visitor.
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