How do we know if we're being sincere?

from Les Mots by Jean-Paul Sartre page 69 nonfiction ~3 min read

What I have just written is false. True. Neither true nor false, like everything written about madmen, about men. I have reported the facts as accurately as my memory permitted me. But to what extent did I believe in my delirium? That's the basic question, and yet I can't tell. I realized later that we can know everything about our attachments except their force, that is, their sincerity. Acts themselves cannot serve as a measuring-rod unless one has proved that they are not gestures, which is not always easy. Con- sider the following: alone in the midst of grownups, I was a miniature adult and read books written for adults. That already sounds false, since, at the same time, I remained a child. I am claiming that I was guilty. That's how it was, and that's that. The fact remains that my hunting and exploration were part of the family play-acting, that the grown-ups were delighted by it, and that I knew it. Yes, I knew it. Each day a wonderful child awoke the books of magic that his grandfather no longer read. I loved beyond my years as one lives beyond one's means: with zeal, with fatigue, at great cost, for the sake of display. No sooner did I open the door of the library than I was again in the belly of an inert old man: the desk, the pink blotter with its red and black ink spots, the ruler, the pot of glue, the stale smell of tobacco, and, in winter, the glowing of the coal- stove, the crackling of the mica; it was Karl in person, reified. That was all that was needed to put me into a state of grace. I would rush to the books. Sincerely? What does that mean? How could I determine—especially after so many years—the imperceptible and shifting frontier that separates possession from hamming? I would lie on my stomach, facing the windows, with an open book in front of me, a glass of wine-tinted water at my right, and a slice of bread and jam on a plate at my left. Even in solitude I was putting on an act. Charlemagne and Anne Marie had turned those pages long before I was born; it was their knowledge that lay open before my eyes. In the evening, they would question me: "What did you read? What have you understood ?" I knew it, I was pregnant, I would give birth to a child's comment. To escape from the grown-ups into reading was the best way of communing with them. Though they were absent, their future gaze entered me through the back of my head, emerged from my pupils, and propelled along the floor the sentences which had been read a hundred times and which I was reading for the first time. I who was seen saw myself. I saw myself reading as one listens to oneself talking. Had I changed since the time I pretended to read The Chinese in China before knowing the alphabet? No, the game went on. The door would open behind me; someone was coming to see "what I was up to." I faked. I would spring to my feet, put Musset back in his place and, standing on tiptoe, would immediately take down the heavy Corneille. The family measured my passion by my efforts. I would hear, behind me, a dazzled voice whisper: "But it's because he likes Corneille !" I didn't like him; the alexandrines discouraged me. Luckily the volume contained in full only his most famous tragedies and gave a synopsis of the others. That was what interested me. "Rodelinde, wife of Pertharite, King of Lombardy, who has been vanquished by Grimoald, is urged by Unulphe to give her hand to the foreign prince ..." I knew Rodogune, Theodore and Agesilas before the Cid and Cinna. I filled my mouth with ringing names and my heart with sublime sentiments, and I was careful not to get lost in the bonds of kinship. The grown-ups would say: "The child has a thirst for knowledge. He devours the encyclopedia," and I let them say it. But it could hardly be said that I was educating myself. I had discovered that the Larousse contained summaries of plays and novels and I reveled in them.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots, p. 69