Thursday, July 31, 2014

Willoughby was sincere

If we wish to make something of sincerity as a virtue we must have a way to evaluate it. I won't say "measure it" because that suggests something like science. But there is something to be said for wanting to measure it for we don't just wonder if someone is sincere, we also wonder how sincere they are. The implied claim is that someone could be sincere but not sincere enough; that being sincere is not like pregnancy in that one either is or is not but rather that there are degrees of sincerity just as there are degrees of courage.

Someone might be courageous enough to kill spiders but be at a complete loss when dealing with bats. I'm not suggesting that there is a unit of courage but we all understand that some people might be brave enough for some circumstances but not for others.

Courage can also be learned and trained for: if you practice facing small things bravely, you will prepare yourself for facing the big ones.

It doesn't seem to me that you can discuss sincerity in  those terms. I think to talk about sincerity as being more or less strong is nonsensical. I fact, I'd argue that sincerity has nothing to do with strength at all—you can be the very worst sort of moral weakling and be sincere.

I don't mean to say that sincerity is nothing. I don't think it is terribly useful for building or evaluating character.

Is he or isn't he?

"Is he sincere," seems a natural enough question. Bill says he will love Janice to the end of time and she wonders if he is sincere. But is it really? If Janice really has to ask, then she obviously has little knowledge of his character. If she knew Bill to be a good, caring and responsible person, she wouldn't be asking the question because she would not only know him not to make such a statement carelessly, she would also have some notion of his ability to carry through on his promises.

For someone can make promises, both explicitly and implicitly, and be absolutely sincere in making them and yet fail miserably in keeping them. This is where John Willoughby comes into the picture for his love for Marianne Dashwood is sincere. This is not a matter of interpretation but a plot point. When Willoughby shows up while Marianne is sick late in the novel, the whole point of the conversation he has with Elinor is to bring this fact into clear light; Austen wanted to make it clear to the reader that there was no room whatsoever to doubt Willoughby's sincerity. For Marianne, it is some comfort to learn that her judgment of his sincerity was not wrong. But, having acknowledged that, we are left with another problem for if he was (and is) sincere in his love and yet behaved the way he did, what good is sincerity?

The early American pragmatists were brought face to face with this problem by the civil war when it turned out that some of those who held sincere anti-slavery views were cowards in action while some others who cared little for the plight of the slaves distinguished themselves by fighting very bravely.

Children of alcoholic parents often have the uselessness of sincerity driven home in particularly brutal fashion. Their alcoholic mother or father will make declarations and promises that are absolutely sincere and then fail to come through with heartbreaking regularity.

For Austen, the virtue that really mattered was constancy. Constancy isn't enough by itself: a constant racist is not a virtuous man or woman after all. But constancy, unlike, sincerity, can real work in a moral life.

By the way ...

A fascinating thing about Willoughby as a character in a novel is that he has failed as a man before the story even begins. Nothing he could do could make him a worthy husband for Marianne because he has already poisoned things by having sex with the 15-year-old Eliza. He'd be a better man, if he would accept his Aunt's conditions and do right by Eliza after having gotten her pregnant but he would still be less than a whole man because he no longer loves Eliza after having met Marianne.

I knew a guy who was much like Willoughby in university. Dave was very successful with women. He wasn't a pick-up artist, by which I mean he didn't run up great numbers of conquests. But he was always with a beautiful sexual partner and there were always other women vying for the chance to replace whoever his partner of the moment was.

After graduation, he got a job at the Bamboo Club in Toronto and carried on in his ways. I hadn't known him terribly well at university and had assumed that Dave was a cynical man who cleverly exploited women's emotions to have sex with them. I got to know him in those later days, however, and found that he was anything cynical: he was sincerely loved by the women who fell in with him and he sincerely loved every woman he ever was involved with.

Ultimately, though, the women all gave up on him. They didn't hate him . One of the most trying things for those of us who wished we had a quarter of Dave's attractiveness for women was that they spoke of him admiringly but regretfully even after the break up. They still seemed to wish that their relationships might be rekindled and actually work out the second time. He had everything they wanted for love but not what it took to make a marriage.

Dave, like Willoughby, was immensely attractive as a sincere lover but not much of a man in the final analysis and "constancy;" is a good word to describe what was missing in him. . I recently finished the Sylvie Simmons biography of Leonard Cohen and reached the same conclusion about him.

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