Sins Against Sincerity

Unpacking boxes from my last move, I came across the play I wrote in a workshop at university. I didn’t reread the play itself (there’s a limit to my masochism), but I did read the final feedback from the prof: “You write cynicism well – but find it hard to show the idealist/romantic/sincere believer in feelings.”

She was probably right about my play, and I’ve received similar feedback on my poetry. But it struck me that this could almost be a general pronouncement by the Baby Boomers on all of Generation X and Y and Millennials. Sincerity was the sacred cow of the 60s revolution, to the extent that if you weren’t a sincere person you had to pretend to be. It was vitally important to be earnest.

One Sunday some years ago, I almost died. As I lay in casualty, bleeding internally, I pushed aside the oxygen mask to joke to my husband about the catastrophe that had landed me there. Such gallows humour probably seems pathological (and maybe it is). Luckily I married a man much like myself, so he took it well. He helped fill the hours while they prepped theatre and called a surgeon in from the golf course by reading to me from the latest published employment law judgment. I don’t think either of us would have preferred a joint exploration of our feelings at that time.

But Hollywood tells me I am wrong. Movies and novels and plays tell me over and over that problems and griefs need to be discussed openly and sincerely. Maybe humour is an unhealthy defensive reaction in a crisis, but what can I say? It comes naturally to me, and it gets me through. If that is a disorder, I’m not sure I want to be cured of it.



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3 responses to “Sins Against Sincerity

  1. Susan McLean

    Speaking as a Baby Boomer, I think you slightly oversimplify their attitudes. They were deeply cynical about authorities and the status quo at the same time that they were optimistic (overly, as it turned out) about the potential for change to be positive. But if you don’t believe in the possibility of positive change, how can you fight for it? No matter which course one takes, disappointment is the likeliest outcome. On the other hand, Freud said that humor and sublimation were the two ego defense mechanisms most likely to have a positive rather than a negative effect on a person. Yes, humor can be used to avoid engagement with an issue, but it is probably more useful as a pressure release than honest tears.

  2. Poets are allowed to be detached. Hollub said a poet was someone who, while falling down the stairs, analysed the experience. But Camus’ Meursault learnt the risks of not expressing the expected emotion.

    Joseph O’Connor’s short story “The Wexford Girl” has a man who reacts to crises by obsessive joking. David Grossman’s “A horse walks into a bar” is a recent 200-page novel that goes from the start to the end of a stand-up’s sad act. Reviews of the latter book suggest that there’s almost a “tears of a clown” genre. It’s a genre I’ve contributed to, though I tried to resist.

  3. Susan, yes obviously I’m oversimplifying, any categorization always does. Baby Boomers could and can be cynical and later generations can be earnest. But I think most people have a default mode of operation which is partly genetic, partly learned, and largely cultural — mine is to laugh at life and at myself. I’m just saying that probably arises in part from the postmodern culture I was born into.

    Tim, tears of a clown, yikes! I think that implies a level of bathos that I try hard not to indulge in, but maybe not always successfully.

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