The Consoling Intelligence

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

David Kubal died on January 1, 1982—several months before The Consoling Intelligence was published. Kubal taught in the English Department at California State University, Los Angeles, the “city college” or urban university of the central city. It serves the general Los Angeles community but draws the bulk of its enrollment from the minorities and returning, working students. Kubal confronted the alienating forces of modern life in the classroom. No idly popular theme to be exploited by poor imitators of literary modernism, alienation (in language, moral and personal expectations, and social awareness) was a daily challenge to his teaching of writing and the works of the modern literary masters. Like his great model, Lionel Trilling, of whom he writes so eloquently in The Consoling Intelligence, Kubal came to believe that literary modernism, in general, was nihilistic rather than humanistic. Instead of criticizing the moral and cultural alienation it recorded, modernism seemed to glorify alienation in the name of art and formalist aesthetics. Unlike Trilling, who in the 1960’s simply noted the dilemma of the humanist professor married to texts that undermine the values he professes, Kubal boldly suggests that the writers in the pantheon of literary modernism—Gustave Flaubert, Fyodor Dostoevski, Friedrich Nietzsche, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot, among others—should defer to, or at least share the stage with, another group of moderns. These constitute a kind of secondary tradition, a tradition more closely identified with reason, cultural values, and moral compassion; they include Jane Austen, John Keats, Matthew Arnold, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, John Fowles, George Orwell, and Trilling.

Kubal’s insistence that “humane centers” are more important to the integrity of literature than the dirge of alienation, questions some of the central assumptions of contemporary literary theory. The relativism of literary structures and the unraveling of cultural and generic modes that characterize the shift from Structuralism to Deconstructive Criticism are the intellectual descendants of the literary modernism that provide no sustenance for the spirit, no possibility of sanctuary. His answer to those who would dismiss his humanist critique as being naïve, traditionalist, and anti-intellectual is straightforward: Look at the modern writers who are not above the ordinary. Consider the writers who offer consolation; who prefer to engage a reader’s affection rather than his skepticism; who prefer to be seen as sympathetic rather than as detached; who not only ask one to think but also know that one must believe in something. These are the writers, Kubal shows, who provide an alternative.

Comparing Jane Austen’s conclusion to Emma (1815), which he calls a “dream of personal and social peace,” with the concluding scenes of Shakespearean comedies, Kubal bases his case for a tradition of “humane centers” in literature on historical connections as rich as those which fed F. R. Leavis’ idea of The Great Tradition (1948). It is important to note, however, how Kubal’s interests differ from those of his great predecessor. Leavis insisted that Austen, James, Joseph Conrad, and Lawrence all contributed to the intensification of English moral consciousness; that their narrative and...

(The entire section is 1379 words.)