honest

I was listening to The Burdens of Being Upright by Tracy Bonham this evening, and it reminded me of a review I read of it when it came out back in 1996. The reviewer praised it for its honesty.

But how did the reviewer know?

Honest is a term of high praise for a performer. It basically means “He/she is doing or saying things that I, or most people, would hesitate to do because they would show me, or them, in a bad light or make me, or them, unwontedly vulnerable.”

Here, have a look at an example: “The Ten Most Brutally Honest Songwriters.” These songwriters are disclosing personal details, talking about things one simply doesn’t normally talk about.

Well, heck. One doesn’t normally sing, either.

I don’t doubt that many songwriters who are praised for honesty really are being truthful about details of their lives and feelings. But, in general, how do we know? How do we know that they’re telling the truth and not just making up things for better effect? They’re performers, and the point of performance is not what you feel, it’s what your audience feels.

Which is why the saying goes, “The most important thing is honesty. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” (Actually, there are many different versions of the saying; Quote Investigator has traced its origins back to actors Celeste Holm and Ed Nelson.) If people could always tell when someone was being honest, life would be different. So different.

There are cases where we can evaluate more surely whether they’re honest. I don’t mean instances where a performer is singing “honestly” about something that can be documented not possibly to have happened. I mean the even more nebulous kind of “honesty,” a kind that was very popular 15 years ago and still shows up: the band sound like they’re recording it in a public washroom while their lead singer unloads a vicious case of diarrhea (and is also suffering from a Biblical bout of catarrh). So true! So like real life! So bare and raw and unprocessed! So unlike, say, Madonna, who is clearly heavily produced in a million-dollar studio!

Except that the Folding Bowels Band (or whoever) is also in a million-dollar studio, processed and produced, but pretending not to be. And, incidentally, is it more honest to expect people to pay for a technically highly competent performance or for one that your neighbour’s shaky adolescent squawks out in the shower? I think you’re making a more honest living – delivering expected quality for money paid – in the former case, though I must admit that if people really (for whatever reason) prefer the trans-tracheal evisceration sound, then yes indeedy, it is more honest to give it to them. De gustibus non est disputandum, eh?

But what, exactly, do we even mean by honest, really? A lot of time it’s in the line of “Dude was on. Dude was onner than anyone else. Dude was onnest!” Id est, it’s a plain term of approbation for a virtuous character or performance. We say it to honour someone. And why not? Honour (or, rather, honor, the Latin original without that dishonest pseudo-classical intrusive u that I, as a Canadian, refuse to relinquish) is the etymon; its derivative honestus (which came to us by way of Middle French) means ‘deserving honour; honourable; fine; top rank; doubleplusgood; meritorious of utmost respect’.

It just happens that we esteem highly – and (whether justifiably or not) associate with people of high station – truthfulness: a correspondence between what the person appears to intend and what the person actually turns out to intend. But we used the word honest as a more general approbation for nearly a century (in the 1300s) before starting to use it specifically to mean ‘truthful; not cheating’, and we still use it sometimes in more general sense to mean ‘respectable’ without specifically referring to lack of deceit.

But here is where we run into an issue with using it for performers – actors, singers, painters (a painting is a performance too, though the movement has stopped before you get to see it), so on. We turn to aesthetic performances in order to connect with things that expand our experience without actually involving us in real-world consequences. We want a vicarious experience, a fantasy. Even if it’s not a fantasy for the performers (as in a documentary), it is one for us, our reflexive responses no more imminently significant than the refreshing fear we feel standing on the glass floor in the CN Tower. We may want to have a sense that what we are seeing truly expands our grasp of the world in some way and doesn’t just comfort us – that it’s honest and not escapist – but our experience of it is not more honest, in the sense we think of today, than a roller coaster is an honest experience of a car crash.

We want well-faked honesty. We want not honest but Heston, a great thundering Moses leading us across the gap in a rearing Red Sea between our enslavement in reality and the promised land of truer (but non-damaging) understanding and experience. We want a performance that is honest only in that it delivers to us what we are paying for: a stirring deception.

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