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Trilling, Lionel 1905–1975
Trilling was an American critic, novelist and essayist. The philosophy of Matthew Arnold he explored in his first book, Matthew Arnold, led to his adoption of that writer's concept of maintaining a "disinterested" mind. Trilling logically approached and dissected popular theories, ideals, and culture in his writings. His novel, The Middle of the Journey, manifests his belief that faults are inherent in the artistic liberal imagination. As a result, Trilling tries to reveal the author's responsibility to portray the complex nature of life. (See also CLC, Vol. 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 61-64.)
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[A distinct view of life is discernable in Trilling's works, revealed in the proposition that he] developed and illustrated throughout that galaxy of essays he published during the last 35 years. It is this. Intuition and perception alike show not merely that life overflows ideologies and coercive systems—so much is obvious: there would be no systems and ideologies if life were not impossibly hard to regiment. The contention is rather that the only things worth cherishing in life are necessarily destroyed by ideology and coercion from their first onset. In other words, variety and complexity are but different names for possibility; and without possibility—freedom for the unplanned and indefinite—life becomes a savourless round of predictable acts. There is then no point to literature or thought; there is in fact no literature and no thought, but a mere ideological echo of a diminished life.
For a critic, the best way to sustain the possibilist mind was clearly through the examples of literature, the lessons conveyed not by or out of an abstract of meanings, but out of the love and pleasure of literature itself; out of the fears and passions literature holds and radiates, out of the illusion of timelessness it inspires—feelings and illusions which can only be felt spontaneously; awakened, perhaps, but unlearned, and which constitute the chief freedom of the mind.
This is the "word" that Trilling felt he must utter and illumine, as indeed he did with ever-widening powers of reference and interconnection. To the very last, as in his Harvard Lectures entitled Sincerity and Authenticity (1972) and his Jefferson Essay Mind in the Modern World (1974), his affirmations were opposed not solely to overt schemes of social and political repression charged with philanthropic intent, they opposed equally all other fixities professing to be sufficient or complete, whether derived from natural science, depth psychology, or peremptory moralising.
That this outlook is not a disguised anarchism, a longing for an unconditioned life, is shown in its first full exposition in the volume of essays that has given a new phrase to the language, The Liberal Imagination of 1950. That imagination was once expansive and generous, but time and circumstance had reduced it to a mere animus propelling certain judgments triggered by certain words and images. (p. 84)
To these reflex acts and ready-made ideas, Trilling gave in effect the rejoinder that so often marked his teaching and his conversation: "It's complicated…. It's much more complicated…. It's very complicated." The positive counterpart was, also in effect: "Continue to think and feel, and to will only what you have first fully imagined…." To that imagining, literature, especially the novel, is the great inciter. The great novels are also the books that in his time Trilling could count on his readers knowing or being willing to take up….
Yet there can be no doubt that Trilling's teaching of the great books that are not novels played an important part in the formation of his thought. He differed from his peers (as we flatteringly call them) in two important respects: first, he had to reread at least once a year the works that most intellectuals sooner or later reduce to handy clichés, their own or the conventional ones. (p. 85)
[He] was virtually alone among critics in not having been reared on the French critical tradition. He read the language with difficulty and escaped the force of those writers that gave Irving Babbitt, T. S. Eliot and their followers formulas from the 1890s to adapt to the 1920s: the great troop of analysts from Rémy de Gourmont and Léon Hennique to André Gide and Ernest Seillière. Of course, Trilling read Eliot and Babbitt, but they did not "take" in the proper way, the ground not being prepared by a first-hand knowledge of the French poets and men of letters.
A different tradition more than filled this gap—the English liberal tradition that includes Mill and Arnold but is not restricted to them, whatever modern opinion may say. There is Burke and Hazlitt, Bagehot and James Fitzjames Stephen, Ruskin and Morris, Yeats and even Walter Pater in his radical early days. Since the turning of liberalism on its head that I have referred to, it is increasingly difficult to make oneself clear by referring to thinkers as "liberal" or "conservative", especially when the new criteria of social democracy, which are irrelevant historically, are added to the diagnostic list. What is clear is that the men I have just cited exhibited in their time a self-critical liberalism of the kind that Trilling thought indispensable. When he deplored the lack of an intelligent conservative tradition in American literature, he meant the absence of discussion about premises and consequences such as is found in England in the liberals themselves—Mill as well as Bagehot, Stephen, and the rest. In the United States, even before the contentious 1930s, the party lines were so drawn that only headlong advocacy or a bland assumption of moral unanimity was to be found. The truth was that, as always in the nature of important ideas, "it's much more complicated, it's very complicated."
So imaginative a vision of our 20-century predicaments and automatisms deserved to be shown in a piece of imaginative literature, and Trilling seized the earliest chance to make the attempt. The result was his novel The Middle of the Journey…. Some months after its first appearance, it attracted attention because its central figure drew upon the life and character of Whittaker Chambers, who in our day used to haunt the College campus. After the trial of Alger Hiss, inferences were made about other persons in the story; but as their creator said in the Introduction to the re-issue, the attributions are groundless.
Nor is it because of the link with a nameable hero (or villain) that the work marks a moment in our century's intellectual history, like Fathers and Sons or L'Education Sentimentale; it is because it depicts the aberration of reason and deadening of sensibility that I have been trying to suggest in discursive terms. It would take more than an essay of quasi-personal reminiscence to suggest further how The Middle of the Journey, whose title from Dante's opening line reminds us of the descent into Hell, was related in the author's mind to the vast subject of art in its modern role of angry prophet and exclusive saviour. Liberal unimaginativeness about society and eager advanced views in art go hand in hand, and the principle of perpetual displacement by a new avant-garde encourages the taste for restless change. A corrective judgment can only resist fashion by being comparative, that is to say, historical, but this is incompatible with taking pleasure in obsolescence. The product of all these sentimentalities is the culture-philistine, whom Nietzsche pinned on a labelled card a century ago. Multiplied since by access to (a half-) education and by the mass diffusion of art and thought, this new type of culture consumer finds a literature written for him, serving his predilections by contrived shock, routine political dissent, and sadistic assaults on the Old Philistine, long since dead, but theatrically still necessary.
It is at this point that, in Trilling's work … the maxim that literature is a criticism of life is given its continuation and counterpart: life is and ought to be a criticism of literature. (pp. 85-6)
One wishes in vain that he had embodied his perception of types and attitudes in other novels and that he had lived to finish the Memoir he had just begun about the middle of his journey—the 1930s and '40s. The absence of other novels is not to be explained by native bent or turn of mind. Trilling's desire to write fiction was strong. He wrote some short stories, including the superb and much anthologised "Of This Time, Of That Place", where the reader will find in the depiction of two diversely blinkered minds, who meet tangentially in the clear consciousness of a third, a prophetic refutation of the recent theories about the superiority of madness…. The main reason why Trilling did not write more novels is that teaching leaves too little energy and unbroken time for self-absorption, let alone for writing on the large scale. (p. 86)
[There] must have been in Lionel Trilling's work an opposition of some kind between the desire to show the complexity that thought must attain in order to do reality justice and the need for lucid simplifying which teaching undergraduates or reviewing books for general readers entails. The tension was there, and it was at times painful. It was the price paid for living in our odd demotic culture and working in an institution dedicated to art and intellect yet bound by the written or spoken word. (p. 87)
The outcome of this struggle was Lionel's characteristic style. It is not to everyone's taste, especially if one approaches prose with pre-established patterns of how it should sound and break up its cargo of thought. But whoever is willing to let the long roll and retreat and fresh surge of Trilling's thought carry him from outset to destination will find that it is clear, firm, undeviating despite its wave-like movements, and unambiguous in its delivery of the particular complication it proposes to establish….
Lionel Trilling was bent on developing the large consequences of the often hidden relations and implications for life that he found in literature. (p. 88)
Jacques Barzun, "Remembering Lionel Trilling," in Encounter (© 1976 by Encounter Ltd.), September, 1976, pp. 82-8.
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[Much] of what was fresh in American writing after the war came down in the fertile precipitate of ideas and attitudes released into [writers' and intellectuals'] thought by the chemistry of socialism on the wane. (p. 4)
It was in the post-war climate of stalemate and reassessment that Lionel Trilling came to prominence as a spokesman for ambivalence, moral realism (that is, the acceptance of "good-and-evil"), ideas in modulation, and the tragic view of life. He emerged in the forties as a pivotal figure among the New York intellectuals. (p. 8)
The Middle of the Journey, in its muted way, is … an account of spiritual death and rebirth, and the cycle of depression and revival in general is etched deeply into the larger movement of Trilling's work…. [The] entire emotional vista opened up by both psychoanalysis and modern literature was [extremely important] to Trilling. Trilling was aware of the precedents; psychoanalysis, as he understood it, was a codification of the great surge of self-discovery and self-healing that marked the literature of the nineteenth-century. Mill in particular served him as a model of interior regeneration, and not only his Autobiography but the essays on Bentham and Coleridge stood behind the lessons on politics and the emotional life that Trilling himself delivered to his own generation in The Liberal Imagination. (p. 9)
Trilling's case against the liberal imagination as he found it in the 1930s … [and] his estimate of its intellectual shallowness is well known and generally accepted by now, even if the general recoil from ideology that liberalism's shortcomings appeared to justify is no longer celebrated as quite the wisdom it once seemed to be…. The dominant themes of Trilling's political and cultural thought in the forties grew in tandem with his interest in psychoanalysis; it is clear that his adoption of Freud was a special feature of those attitudes toward the progressive culture that were the polemical heart of The Liberal Imagination…. (pp. 9-10)
Freudian man was a step upwards from liberal man in complication and mysteriousness, and was, in effect, his contradiction: he had an unconscious mind whose purposes were not always in accord with either his conscious will or his class interest; he was given to entertaining contrary ideas and emotions at the same time and to tormenting himself with his own ambiguities; he was prone to irrational fits of melancholy or guilt and to performing unexplained rites of apology and expiation for crimes he had not committed, and he had a fondness for self-defeat that made his failures seem more genuine expressions of will than his successes. How unlike the utilitarian man of liberalism, who maximizes pleasure at every meager opportunity, and how much closer to the neurotic hero of contemporary fiction, who confirms the modern character that Hegel called the "disintegrated consciousness!"… One thing psychoanalysis and contemporary fiction agree on is the alienation of modern consciousness from the wellsprings of will and desire, and for Trilling, the sufficient measure of liberalism's imaginative bankruptcy was its refusal to countenance the irrational component in human nature. (p. 10)
But that did not amount to a charge of political bankruptcy, for though Trilling despaired of liberalism's capacity to ameliorate the material conditions of life, nowhere did he venture an estimate of its political ideas or programs comparable in scope or trenchancy to his assessment of its imagination. Coming from a writer whose reputation owed so much to the climate of contemporary politics and who was so widely accepted as a political intellectual, Trilling's books yield surprisingly little concrete political thought. (pp. 10-11)
[This] deflection of attention from the world to the intellectuals and their perception of it was Trilling's way of detaching himself from the liberal mainstream to become its critic…. Trilling's finest essays were snapshots of the contemporary intellectuals in the act of observing and defining reality. His essays in The Liberal Imagination on Dreiser ("Reality in America") and the Kinsey Report are superb definitions of American and liberal styles of social knowledge, and if one learns little from them about the actualities of reality in America, one learns a great deal about the ideology of social perception in a society founded upon rationalized optimism. One also learns from Trilling something about the emotional impact of ideas and programs, what they feel like and what qualities of life they purvey. What we would recall most vividly of the thirties were its ideological failures and their devastating consequences for those who had committed their lives to its prevailing myths. (pp. 11-12)
Both the strengths and limitations of Trilling's approach to the politics of culture are evident in The Middle of the Journey, his sole effort at yoking political thought to literary views in order to illuminate politics, rather than to venerate literature. That book was an attempt to bring to the politics of contemporary culture a sort of synthetic Victorian sensibility, an impasto of attitudes that Trilling had concocted for himself out of Mill, Arnold, Forster, Freud, and Keats, and to disclose the deadness at the core of liberalism by demonstrating how paradoxically stultifying was the embrace of its unremitting optimism upon the human heart. (p. 12)
In later years Trilling himself observed that his intention had been to write a book about death, and about the refusal of intellectuals schooled in the liberal tradition to countenance it, because it lay outside the domain of their progressive fantasies. Or, as he would ask rhetorically in pointing up the way all things are politicized when dogma commands the imagination, "Was there not a sense in which death might be called reactionary?" John Laskell, Trilling's somewhat retiring spokesman in The Middle of the Journey, has recently lost the woman he loved to a sudden illness and has himself just recovered from a dangerous attack of scarlet fever. In his convalescence he visits the rustic Connecticut home of Arthur and Nancy Croom, vigorous, cheerful, and enlightened progressives who can scarcely pronounce the word death let alone draw tragic lessons from the presence of this walking memento mori in their midst. Arthur Croom is protected from depression by what Laskell calls "the armor of idealism." Laskell, however, needing to talk about his brush with death and to explore the meaning of that experience, finds that he is isolated from his friends and their sprightly intelligence, for he has looked into the abyss and seen there the end of ideology. He is joined at the Crooms' by another apostate from the Left, Gifford Maxim, a repentant Communist, indeed, secret agent turned staunch necessitarian or law-and-order man, whose political views have shifted radically to the right without surrendering an ounce of their millenarian zeal. Laskell thinks of him as "the man of the far future, the bloody moral apocalyptic future that was sure to come." As we now know, Maxim is modelled upon Whittaker Chambers, whose transformation from espionage agent to prosecution witness won him a starring role in the soap opera of America's post-War revulsion against Communism. Though the plot of The Middle of the Journey is full of turns, including another sudden death, which supposedly puts to the test everyone's ideas about class, character, and "reality," the book is essentially a conversation piece; the moral element that Trilling was so intent upon pushing is contained in the by-play among these four, the Socratic dialectics of competing ideas whose overall purpose is to cast all ideas into doubt.
The Middle of the Journey just coruscates with intelligence and dialectical sparkle, and it remains the most illuminating document we have of the recoil of the political imagination from dogma under the pressure of the chastened realism of the late thirties and early forties—that fall into the quotidian that was the new era's particular form of disillusionment. Maxim, Laskell, and the Crooms are sharply drawn representative figures who stand for political positions and processes that engaged, and ruined, so many intellectuals in the thirties. But the book is first of all about the imagination under the sway of social ideas, or, as Trilling would entitle a monograph later in his career, about "mind in the modern world." It is a book about the mind and about those parts of it that take their cue from and find expression in political ideas. It is especially about that region of mind that is given neither to pure will nor pure idea, where the historical sense intersects the return of the repressed, and richly "overdetermined" motives take shape as political views. The politics of The Middle of the Journey is largely a politics of the mind and of character; the book's historical dimension is drastically foreshortened, and the context of actual events and circumstances so generalized as to be unimportant. (pp. 12-13)
I don't want to oversell the book or claim for it more literary merit or thematic depth than I think it really has. To my mind it is more a document than a realized piece of fiction; its value lies in its grasp of an historical moment and of a generation's disillusionment and conversion, out of which came not only a revised and subdued politics but a reconstituted aesthetics as well. The crisis of the late thirties meant as much to art as it did to a politics, and The Middle of the Journey reflects not only the triumph of the will in repose over the will in action, of ideas in modulation over the logic of the next step, but of sensibility over agit-prop and modernism over realism….
Laskell has no character to speak of, only ideas, and it is true that he lacks either depth or definition, but there is a minimal character here, and certainly a strange one. The "disintegrated consciousness" that Trilling would later attribute to the modern character is apparent in Laskell, though in relatively benign form. Consider Laskell's situation: he is a dangling man…. His chief possessions are ideas, though he holds them with no great passion or conviction…. It is very much to the point that Laskell has been ill and is presently recuperating, for though we are told that he has been grappling with scarlet fever, we know that he has really been stricken with history and is recovering from the past. (p. 14)
For all its apparent interiority and concern with the self, The Middle of the Journey can't be taken for a psychological novel…. The Middle of the Journey is very much about the dilemmas of consciousness; the forces in contest are ideas, not instincts, and the inner dynamics of character are simple and shallow….
The Middle of the Journey's link to psychoanalysis, then, lies neither in its ideas nor in its aesthetic strategies but in the deeper rhythm of experience that plots its moral curve; the rhythm of illness and recovery, or crisis and conversion that sets us to talking about ideological movements and revolutions in the language of disease and health. Laskell, Maxim, and the Crooms all suffer from ideas—they are literally sick with modern thought. (p. 15)
[The] novel was, for Trilling, the definitive cultural document, the very measure of the Zeitgeist, and he was open to the thought that the contemporary decline of novelistic passion and the breakup of the synthesis of philosophy and precise social observation in modern fiction might well betoken nothing less than the much-advertised decline of the West. (pp. 15-16)
Where Trilling stood apart from the general mood was not in his bleak diagnosis—even announcing the death of the sexual will was not so unique—but in the prescription for relief. He distinguished himself from both the Reichians (for whom the sexual will was also distressed) and the liberals and unreconstructed Marxists in his vote for psychoanalysis and the novel as correctives to the general malaise…. He was out to form, as he would put it, a "modern self," a resilient ego that would be equal to the demands of the age, and he attempted the transformation by immersing himself in literature and assimilating the exemplary monuments of unaging intellect. Though the formation of a reinvigorated but durable self was a personal quest, Trilling always treated it as the project of his generation through the neat rhetorical gambit of turning the experiencing "I" into a "we," thus both disguising the personal stakes involved and playing up the shared aspects of the crisis. The essays in The Liberal Imagination can be read both as chapters in a moral autobiography and showcases for the acculturated ego in the process of its self-reconstruction.
It seems an odd choice to seek emotional renewal for oneself, let alone for one's culture, through the agency of, of all things, the novel…. [For Trilling], the modern crisis was not primarily a crisis of conditions, however awful they might be, but of emotions and imagination; it was to the impoverished inner life that the lessons in The Liberal Imagination were addressed. And it was in the novel, especially the great nineteenth century novels that are the richest examples of that genre, that Trilling saw the modern social imagination working at its highest pitch. (pp. 16-17)
But we should keep in mind that Trilling was almost always talking about himself, and that the essay in which his most exalted claims for the novel are made, "Art and Forture," is also a spiritual autobiography in miniature, done according to the Romantic paradigm. Ostensibly a meditation on the death of the novel, it is really about the death and rebirth of "the will," and there can hardly be any doubt about whose will is at issue. Moreover, in claiming for the novel the power to renovate the will, Trilling seems to have had in mind not only his own intimate relation to books but the example of Mill, whose youthful bout with depression was cured by the reading of Marmontel's Mémoires and whose convalescence and emotional re-education were abetted by therapeutic doses of Wordsworth. To reflect back upon The Middle of the Journey after reading The Liberal Imagination is to perceive the central weakness of Trilling's novel, which is his allowing John Laskell to speak for his convictions without giving Laskell the benefit of his vital experiences, that is to say, his reading. Laskell's recovery from liberal ideas, unmediated by anything but his post-operative meditation upon a bedside rose, rather than something more substantial … is never credible. (p. 17)
Indeed, the problem of abstraction is general throughout the book, and is not just a flaw in the characterization of Laskell. By removing the action from some natural arena of conflict to a house in rural Connecticut—that is, to a world apart—Trilling was able to write a sort of moral pastoral whose characters are largely representative abstractions. (pp. 17-18)
Connecticut is not a metaphor for the world but for the seminar room, and the odd collection of friends and haphazard acquaintances who gather at the Crooms' has nothing to work out but ideas, for nothing dramatic is at stake. To throw the emphasis of dramatic action upon the collision of ideas in isolation, as Trilling does, is both to play up their historical importance and to exaggerate their political value. (p. 18)
[Trilling's] most influential books, like The Liberal Imagination and The Opposing Self, are books of exemplary lives, exemplary minds, really, intellectual and therefore moral models whose ways of balancing pressures and reconciling tensions shine forth as salutary cases. James, Keats, Austen, Forster, Arnold, Mill, Orwell, and, especially, Freud, to rename the central figures in the pantheon, are heroes of thought, whose heroism consists of a judicious balancing of claims, a skeptical adherence to the cultural donnée, and a qualified acceptance of the conditioned nature of social existence. They are, in a phrase, mature adversaries of culture. (p. 19)
[In] view of Trilling's ardent declarations of admiration and intellectual indebtedness, perhaps nothing is so remarkable about him as the discrepancy between his zeal for Freud and his use of him. While many of Trilling's essays on literature and culture over the years may be read as applied Freud, they are largely applications of his character and his outlook rather than his ideas about the constitution of the mind. Indeed, the reader who has been struck by the discrepancy might feel justified in wondering whether such lionizing of Freud was not done at the expense of psychoanalysis as such, for it is plain that the figure of the man in Trilling's thought greatly overshadowed the method. (p. 20)
[Civilization and its Discontents] was the indispensable book for Trilling, who considered it a milepost in the cultural history of the West for its conclusion that discontent was built into the condition of man in culture and therefore inevitable, and much of what passes for Freudian thought in Trilling's writing is really applied Civilization and its Discontents. (p. 21)
[Psychoanalysis itself] was not uniformly compelling for Trilling, and if he neglected to apply it with all the rigor and zeal that has been demonstrated by more recent practitioners, it is not because he misunderstood its interpretive strategies but because he lacked enthusiasm for the diagnostic reduction of complex feelings and perceptions. As a partisan of literature he was distressed by the psychoanalytic practice of analyzing downward in pursuit of reality among the infantile, the somatic, the irrational, and the unconscious levels of being. (pp. 23-4)
[What] passes in Trilling for balance or negative capability or a full and judicious view of situations is sometimes just a pulling of punches. Even a passing familiarity with psychoanalysis and its explanatory capabilities makes it relatively plain that Trilling was often guilty of turning away from his insights and finessing conclusions about the inner dimensions of fiction that the logic of inquiry entitled him to draw.
Only once did Trilling take the wraps off his psychoanalytic curiosity and allow himself the freedom of his insights. That was in the essay, "The Poet as Hero: Keats in his Letters" (in The Opposing Self), in which he brought to bear the authority of Freudian ideas to argue for Keats's geniality, his passion, and his courage. Not incidentally, the Keats essay is, in my judgment, Trilling's most splendid essay on a single author and his work. (p. 25)
Lionel Trilling may have been a friend of literature but he was no fan of poetry, and his writing demonstrates amply that the novel, with its vistas and textures and examinations of character in society, suited his aesthetic and moral intuitions far better than did poetry, with its preference for the self in isolation and its traffic in those portions of the emotional life that lie below "character," that is, below scruples, judgment, values, reason, and the social instincts.
After the Keats essay, not only were there no more ventures into applied psychoanalysis—save, of course, the meditations on Civilization and its Discontents—but no more encounters with poetry. That side of the self that poetry and psychoanalysis hold in common was not the side that Trilling cared to pursue, at least not in public, and as James and Austen bulked larger in his thoughts, poetry diminished to the vanishing point…. The century shapes up in Trilling's portrait as the exclusive domain of its great novelists….
Trilling was captivated by the idea of the inner life, much as he was by the idea of politics or the idea of death; he Hegelianized psychoanalysis for the same reasons he Platonized politics: to refine out the cruder elements and isolate the essential ideas. (p. 28)
In reading Trilling, one often feels that he is holding too much at bay, as though his first consideration were to deny extremes. Certainly the habits of balance, skepticism, and irony that stood him in good stead during a decade of dogma and intellectual vulgarity also served to cut short lines of inquiry to which he was committed in principle but unwilling to put into practice. His first priority was to defend "mind" against whatever forces threatened to overwhelm it, even when those forces were not ideological or moral orthodoxy or unreason, but the mind's own natural propensity to explore…. To see one pressure behind Trilling's criticism as the attempt to fashion a moral self out of parts collected from books should not necessarily under-cut his judgments but rather bring them into sharper relief. Once we grasp the idea, for example, that such self-construction was a work of deliberate and skillful artifice and that the adopted literary elements could become the very scaffolding of the ego, we can more plainly recognize the basic emotional premise of a book like Sincerity and Authenticity: that the culture of authenticity that took hold in the sixties posed a vital threat to those, like Trilling, who had assembled their social egos at other times according to different rules…. (p. 29)
Trilling is elusive, especially in the face of efforts to pin down his ambiguities and link up his positions to his historical situation and to what he would call his "will." What is not ambiguous is his role in the post-War redefinition of liberalism, for he must be included among the intellectuals who transformed the prevailing rhetoric of liberalism from one of social progress and justice to one of sensibility and depth, all the while tidying up the depths by purging them of whatever was embarrassing, childish, or undignified. For the intellectuals, Trilling pointed the way from Henry Wallace to Adlai Stevenson, and from a politics of quantities that spoke of masses and dreamed of the greatest good for the greatest number, to one of qualities, that counselled personal self-development and individual self-restraint.
Trilling's brands of modulation and synthesis were a boon to his criticism; the range of voices and the purchase on ideas they brought him gave him a grasp and flexibility matched by few of his contemporaries. But such intellectual syntheses as he could effect, including the blending of psychoanalysis and liberalism, were often made at considerable cost, usually to the radical features of the original ideas. Thus psychoanalysis was asked to surrender its critical edge, while liberalism was called upon to forego its progressive fantasies. (p. 32)
Mark Shechner, "Lionel Trilling: Psychoanalysis and Liberalism," in Salmagundi: Special Issue on Lionel Trilling (copyright © 1978 by Skidmore College), Spring, 1978, pp. 3-32.
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It was common for critics to maintain, during the years in which Trilling wrote his major books, that the relation between the individual artist and society was a relation between virtue and vice, or at least a relation between the highest aesthetic purity and the worst conditions which an indifferent society would impose upon a pure intention. Society was deemed to be a bourgeois conspiracy of the worst to thwart the best: the artist was regarded as a holy man in the degree of his victimage. Artist and critic were supposed to huddle together for comfort in the storm, since their motives were equally noble. The storm was a monster compounded of money and aggression.
Trilling was never persuaded by these common assumptions, and he turned their rhetoric upside down. I do not imply that he put his talent at the disposal of a mass society or that he tried to take the harm out of the standard social purposes; but he did not encourage the artist to take spiritual comfort from the grossness of material conditions or to regard himself as a victim of social alienation. Trilling did not interpret the relation between artist and society in terms so favorable to the artist that society could only be construed as barbarism and the artist as a tragic hero. He continued to urge upon the artist a concern for social consequence even when the particular society in question merited every rebuke it received. He did not turn away from society or from the values of responsibility, companionship, and mutuality which the concept of society almost desperately entailed. He never encouraged the artist to think that he might dispense with society, despise its purposes, and find within himself a sufficient moral authority…. Trilling set out to attach to the sentiment of society an aura of conscientiousness and value. He described the idea of society as if it had, by comparison with the individual people who compose it at any moment, not of course historical priority but logical priority; not priority of time but privilege of idea and feeling. He persuaded his readers to find even in the imperfections of society a perfection lost, abused, but not destroyed. The mind engaged in the understanding of society is encouraged to see, even in the monstrous lineaments offered to its attention, a sequence of human possibilities. At a time when other critics were repudiating the idea of society as a source of value because particular societies were demonstrably corrupt, Trilling kept the lines of communication open. (pp. 161-63)
Trilling used not the general mind of society but a particular mind compounded of his own major purposes and the purposes he ascribed to the best intentions of a possible society rather than of the particular society in question and in force. Such a mind could not be entirely American, since it would not release itself from the hope of living in an answerable society and making a home for itself in forms domestic, moral, and historical. A hundred reasons prevented the mind from being entirely European, reasons of responsibility and temper, despite the attributes which enabled Trilling to keep the peace somehow between Arnold and Freud. (pp. 163-64)
It is my impression that Trilling insisted upon the validity of mind as an integral force and held himself aloof from the necessitarian argument. The idea of society, like the idea of mind, was a matter of conviction; if you released yourself from responsibility, you insisted upon providing the force of conscience from your own moral resources, perhaps enriched by your aesthetic sense. If you acted upon the assumption that mind is merely a function of the governing codes, you chose slavery in preference to freedom. Trilling was severe upon these motives: they were either abject or arrogant; they pretended that mind could float free from society or that the least evidence of a movement of mind was a delusion…. Trilling [speaks of] the mind's dependence upon society and [says] that "only the greatest minds can even seem to be free of this dependence—and they but seem to be." But while it is probably true that "all human values, all human emotions, are of social growth if not of social origin," there are certain intellectual processes which arise from a refusal to obey this truth. I have in view the act which Arnold feared and distrusted, "the dialogue of the mind with itself," a dialogue which began when "the individual, absorbed in separate interests, withdrew from the service of the commonwealth."… The modern version of that dialogue often issues as the mind's attendance upon the heuristic possibilities of language, since these arise from the grammatical and phonetic character of the language rather than from circumstances directly social or political. The names of Beckett, Borges, and the Joyce of Finnegans Wake stand for such possibilities. Trilling's sympathy did not embrace those activities, presumably because he distrusted their claim upon the ostensibly unconditioned character of language. A self-engendered style is always willful. Trilling disapproved of self-sufficiency, which he considered "the classic advice of philosophy in a disorganized society." It meant, in another formulation, "self-cultivation in loneliness, in the face of the degeneracy of the world, with reference to some eternal but ill-defined idea." Trilling also distrusted that action without end or purpose which is sometimes promoted as role-playing: he thought it a bogus abundance, a willful setting out to look for life, as though there were not enough life already to hand. Skeptical of anything we do or any experience we seek merely for the sake of knowledge, Trilling valued consciousness as a human power, but only as a means to another end. He was not one of those critics who represent consciousness as the supreme act, the sublime form of intelligence, an act more opulent than any end it might propose. In Trilling's work consciousness is respected as a means, an instrument, but the end is given as social consequence. (pp. 164-66)
Perhaps this explains why Trilling's mind was especially sensitive to the moment in which a person's feeling moves from one level of awareness to another, registering new and heavier burdens: acknowledgment of different levels, as of different burdens, entailed assent to temporal conditions and mediations. In his fictions Trilling was particularly inclined to represent moral decisions as movements from one level of awareness to another. In "The Other Margaret" there is a moment in which the young girl recognizes for the first time the fact of responsibility; it marks her entry upon the moral life. I read the recognition as a private intimation corresponding to the public act by which one participates in politics and society, the burden of The Middle of the Journey. Indeed there is a paradigm in Trilling's novel which points to the crucial moment in which one phase of feeling turns into another. (p. 166)
I have remarked that Trilling is a critic not of consciousness but of power, and for the same reason he insists upon referring to consciousness as mind. He does not take pleasure in the latitude, the mobility, the imperative nature of consciousness: he is not a critic of, say, the persuasion of Georges Poulet, who regards the act of consciousness as the ultimate human sign. Poulet's account of consciousness is always expansive: he does not care what consciousness does so long as it does not die. Trilling's understanding of consciousness is more pragmatic, more administrative, turned toward the near future in which urgent work must be done. He is interested not in the possibilities of mind but only in its consequences…. Trilling thought of mind as concerned with the imposition of order upon general experience, the reduction of multiplicity to unity, and the determination of choices. He judged mind upon its results. (pp. 167-68)
Trilling maintained that our contemporary ideology reveals a disaffection from history, as if amnesia were a virtue. The mind, he said, is increasingly discredited on the grounds that its activity is necessarily indirect: "It cannot be in an immediate relation to experience, but must always stand merely proximate to it." Thus far the theme is fairly common. The philosopher Merleau-Ponty, for instance, has spoken of certain great works in this century which express "the revolt of life's immediacy against reason." Trilling spoke … of the "contemporary ideology of irrationalism" which celebrates "the attainment of an immediacy of experience and perception which is beyond the power of rational mind." "In our day," he argued, "it has become just possible to claim just such credence for the idea that madness is a beneficent condition, to be understood as the paradigm of authentic existence and cognition." I share Trilling's sense of a crisis in modern society as a perturbation in the relation between mind and experience, but I wonder to what extent Trilling's argument was forced upon him by his settling upon a certain terminology…. It is well established that Trilling associated mind with the idea of order and even with the idea of hierarchy, "the subordination of some elements of thought to others." He put the force of his authority in favor of objectivity, meaning "the respect we give to the object as object, as it exists apart from us," the fullest recognition of "the integral and entire existence of the object."
It is not surprising, then, that he was deeply suspicious of those forms of consciousness for which the word mind seems blunt, and for which we find ourselves resorting to the more daring concepts imagination and genius. We want an understanding of consciousness which takes risk in its stride. Trilling was suspicious of those powers not chiefly in themselves but in their consequences at large: he did not think they would provide the authority of a valid culture. He would admit them, I feel, only as a critical force bearing upon the administrative function of mind, keeping its orders and hierarchies lively by keeping them under scrutiny. He spoke of genius as "a unique originating power of mind," and showed himself responsive to its manifestations when they appeared in literature as action and power, but he did not include its qualities in the ideal form of a true society. I assume that he wanted to think of a society's intellectual resources as held to some extent in common rather than in a few exceptional people. He wanted the artist to embody the highest form of the common mind, including a degree of critical force and scruple found in the common mind only on its strenuous occasions. He did not want the artist's mind to differ in kind from the common forms of intelligence: he thought it an advantage, for example, that an artist's mind could maintain a consecutive argument just as scrupulously as the mind of a scientist, a philosopher, or a schoolmaster…. The idiom of mind was more congenial to Trilling than the idiom of genius and imagination because mind could be translated into practical terms and put to work in society; imagination and genius could not be put to work, or could be only indirectly and in forms too wayward to be trusted. (pp. 169-70)
To Trilling the hardest question turned upon the presence of will in society: he did not favor an ethic of inertia, but he could find a justification for will only when its defeat, in the long or the short run, was inevitable; then it might be entertained as critique, lest the official purposes of society weary of themselves. (p. 172)
I have been maintaining that Trilling's theme is the mutual bearing of mind and society. Society is never represented as a mere aggregate of philistines; mind is never represented as if its freedom were absolute and its activity unconditioned. The happiest situation is one in which spirit and matter, self and circumstance, make a harmony together and mind acknowledges its responsibility to society. This situation rarely obtains, as Trilling knew when he referred in The Liberal Imagination to "the chronic American belief that there exists an opposition between reality and mind and that one must enlist oneself in the party of reality." He resented the common assumption that reality is merely "external and hard, gross, unpleasant," and that mind is respectable only when it resembles that reality and reproduces the sensation it affords. Trilling refused to make the mind a sacred object or to think it omnipotent. (pp. 172-73)
In his early essays he invoked mind with some confidence: he could not believe that a society would deprive itself of the power embodied in consecutive thought, the relation between one image and another, the response of a practical intelligence to the facts of a case. But in later essays he felt that society was indeed depriving itself of this power and of the security of purpose it certified…. Trilling's understanding of mind presents it … as the distinctively human attribute, the disinterested act of intelligence propelled by a sense of experience held in common, the speech of people who share the common experience. It is not the dialogue of the mind with itself, since that dialogue has lost or set aside its sense of general human nature and the universal conditions in which life is lived. Mind is the power used by "a man speaking to men" about the continuities of shared experience in the hope of understanding it. Trilling was aware of the exorbitance of mind, "the desiccation of spirit which results from an allegiance to mind that excludes impulse and will, and desire and preference." But he refused to disown mind for that or any other reason. In fact his later essays are designed to circumvent the low repute in which mind is held and to ensure that the work of mind is carried out by resorting, if necessary, to a more congenial terminology. The new word is culture.
But the word we need at once is society. In Sincerity and Authenticity Trilling refers to society as "an entity whose nature is not to be exactly defined by the nature of the individuals who constitute it." Society is "a concept that is readily hypostatized—the things that are said about it suggest that it has a life of its own and its own laws. An aggregate of individual human beings, society is yet something other than this, something other than human, and its being conceived in this way, as having indeed a life of its own but not a human life, gives rise to the human desire to bring it into accord with humanity." The repetition of human and humanity reflects the desperation in Trilling's rhetoric, the need to recite these syllables as if to recite them were to make them tell upon our consciences. Trilling is referring to the modern meaning of society, for the moment, and taking for granted the low repute in which it is held. In that sense the laws which originally reflected the fellowship and mutuality of people living together are now deemed to have forgotten their origin and become forces in themselves, independent and therefore monstrous. Conventions which were once amenities have lost their responsiveness: they are now chains…. Trilling assumes that mind has always known its human bearing and that the temptation to release itself from the claims of feeling, impulse, and will is merely occasional: generally this knowledge makes mind what it is and keeps it true to its vocation. Culture is the process by which a forgetful Society is reminded of its human responsibility and recalled from the monstrous forms it has taken. (pp. 173-76)
It seems to me that when Trilling speaks of society's being brought into accord with humanity, the evidence he produces is invariably an image or an idea or a set of ideas. Ideas are certainly the chief instruments of the cultural process in Trilling's version: "By culture we must mean," he writes in The Liberal Imagination, "not merely the general social condition to which the novel responds but also a particular congeries of formulated ideas." If the work of Culture were to be successful, it would establish the presence of ideas in society as having about the same authority as that of beliefs and doctrines in religion. Society would authenticate its conscience by virtue of its ideas: it would be a secular version of the City of God. In Beyond Culture Trilling describes the work of Culture as the attempt to "make a coherent life, to confront the terrors of the outer and the inner world, to establish the ritual and art, the pieties and duties which make possible the life of the group and the individual." The energy of Society must be transformed into human images: events must become experiences. (p. 176)
It is clear that by Culture Trilling meant High Culture, an action with ideas as its content and an urbane style as its form and bearing. The actions of Popular Culture are not observed, presumably because Trilling thinks them of little interest or imperfect and fitful in their bearing upon society, effecting only a simpleminded and perhaps corrupt transformation of society. I assume that there is a direct relation between his insistence upon High Culture and his equal insistence upon the unbroken circumference of the self: in both cases Trilling's tone is severe because he is maintaining a position under continuous attack. In the past few years it has become unfashionable to speak of the self as a circle defined by an irrefutable center. Trilling's insistence was widely taken as proof that he was dismally out of touch with contemporary ways of feeling. (p. 177)
[It may be useful] to represent Trilling's major books in a narrative sequence, because they reveal a certain development, not a change of attitude on his part but a more explicit set of strategies to cope with a changing situation. It has been alleged that he merely turned Tory and adopted the morality of inertia rather than participate in the spirit of the age. The truth is more complex. In his early essays Trilling maintained the hope of a mutual relation between society and the individual mind. He took for granted the integral self, and he considered its highest form disclosed in mind: the most serious acts of the mind were directed upon the public objective world and took their morality from the universally respected good of society. Mind acted upon reality: reality was not merely given—it was received by mind and modified by the spirit of that reception. The pure of heart were those who maintained a social conscience and did not merely cultivate their sensibilities. The grand themes were social, personal, historical, political; the most pressing arguments were ideological. Ideally there would be a fine adjustment of pressure between mind and society. But in frequent practice the adjustment was disturbed, mind was intimidated by society, browbeaten by institutions, conventions, impersonations, monsters of the marketplace.
But there remained another possibility: mind could define itself and establish its character by opposition to the imperatives of society. This is the official theme of The Opposing Self, in which Trilling reflected upon the self which emerged at the end of the eighteenth century, exhibiting an "intense and adverse imagination of the culture in which it has its being."… Keats is the hero of The Opposing Self because he is the purest example of that conflict, holding in balance "the reality of self and the reality of circumstance." Mutual support is the best condition, but mutual tension even to the degree of opposition and conflict will answer nearly as well, because it keeps both terms alive. In The Opposing Self Trilling praises the adversary mind in Keats, Tolstoy, Dickens, Jane Austen, James, and Orwell. He is not distressed to find the self quarreling with society, because the quarrel is good for each participant.
In his later books, especially in Beyond Culture, Trilling was dispirited to see that the hard-earned achievements of an opposing self were now mass-produced and sold in cheap plastic imitations, the rhetoric of a counterculture which he could not help despising. The rhetorical flourishes of the counterculture seemed cheap, glib in their easily acquired alienation, their borrowed sentiments. I think that Trilling was outraged by the vulgarization of a motive which he sometimes felt in himself, the dream of freedom representing itself as a rage for unconditioned spirit. He protested against unconditioned spirit, and perhaps protested so vehemently because he had to resist its temptation in himself: in any case he rebuked those who went the low road by simply disengaging themselves from the daily concerns of society. (pp. 178-80)
Disengagement from society was to Trilling a grave scandal even though it was a natural temptation, offering a holiday in reality. There is a passage in "On the Teaching of Modern Literature" in which he expounds the implications of modern literature in these terms and represents it in ways which are, I think, misleading. Trilling quotes Thomas Mann as saying that his fiction could be understood as an effort to free himself from the middle class. He then goes further: the aim of modern literature as a whole is "not merely freedom from the middle class but freedom from society itself." "I venture to say," he continues, "that the idea of losing oneself up to the point of self-destruction, of surrendering oneself to experience without regard to self-interest or conventional morality, of escaping wholly from the societal bonds, is an 'element' somewhere in the mind of every modern person who dares to think of what Arnold in his unaffected Victorian way called 'the fulness of spiritual perfection.'" Up to this point the argument seems to me sound, but Trilling goes on to warn the teacher that "if he is committed to an admiration of modern literature, he must also be committed to this chief idea of modern literature." "I press the logic of the situation," he goes on, "not in order to question the legitimacy of the commitment, or even the propriety of expressing the commitment in the college classroom (although it does seem odd!), but to confront those of us who do teach modern literature with the striking actuality of our enterprise." I think he presses the logic exorbitantly. Even if we grant that the end of modern literature is to achieve freedom from society, the end is never reached…. In any case the chief idea to which Trilling refers is merely an idea, and it must make its way in the world against the force of other ideas and interests and against the more sullen dogged force of those states of being which do not entertain ideas at all. Besides, the idea abstracted from a novel or poem is not the same as the idea when it is involved in the texture, density, and organization of the work: an idea is nothing more or less than a motif when it is implicated in the structure of the work. And since Trilling was anxious about the consequences of his idea in the world at large, it is necessary to remark that a reader of a novel or poem does not go out into the world and act upon an idea, even a chief idea, he has encountered in his reading. He is much more likely to act upon his prejudice, habit, routine, all those persuasive imperatives which he has received without the labor of taking thought…. Literature is not important for what it can do: it cannot cure a toothache. In the idiom of action literature never goes beyond gesture: it is always a play, or a play within a play; its intensities are always virtual, a mime of passion. But literature is not reduced or humiliated by this consideration: the fact that it keeps itself within parentheses and refuses to compete in any direct sense with the forces engaged in society means that it stays true to its nature as a vision of life—not life as lived but life as seen, known, felt, suffered, understood. It is my impression that Trilling pressed his logic too far on this occasion not because he misunderstood the action of ideas in literature but because the idea in question was this particular one. (pp. 180-82)
The occasion on which Trilling expounded these matters most directly was the essay "Hawthorne in Our Time," in which he distinguished not so much between Hawthorne, James, and Kafka as between our diverse understanding of their tempers and achievements. He maintained—not very convincingly—that we have lost interest in James because we have turned against his conviction "that the world is there: the unquestionable, inescapable world; the world so beautifully and so disastrously solid, physical, material, 'natural.'" We have decided that James is not one of us, after all, because he does not share our intransigence; he takes undue pleasure in the world, and yields to it for that reason. I find this argument unpersuasive not because I do not recognize a feeling at large in the world which is indeed what Trilling describes it as being but because I cannot see any evidence that James has fallen in our esteem for any such reason. (p. 182)
In Trilling's argument Kafka is the modern hero because he refuses to yield his imagination to the apparent intractability of the world. Kafka gives very little recognition to the ordinary world "as we know it socially, politically, erotically, domestically": he does not concern himself with the relations between one person and another, or with cases of conscience, or with morality. The modern consciousness requires, according to Trilling, "that an artist have an imagination which is more intransigent than James could allow, more spontaneous, peremptory, and obligatory, which shall impose itself upon us with such unquestionable authority that 'the actual' can have no power over us but shall seem the creation of some inferior imagination, that of mere convention and habit." We are preoccupied by "the ideal of the autonomous self." Trilling is outraged by modern willfulness, our alleged contempt for conditions and circumstances, the "angelism" with which we insist upon direct access to spirit and essence. Essence means, in that insistence, the immediacy of our experience, and spirit is the attribute that makes the insistence what it is, our autonomous identity. Trilling is pointing to a force that is undoubtedly active in contemporary feeling. But I wonder why he finds it necessary to represent Kafka in such terms. Kafka is not interested in miming our daily activities, but he does not ignore "the actual" or encourage us to ignore society. It is an essential principle of his art to conceive social institutions at such an advanced stage of reification that they are already congealed in their monstrous forms: they are systems rather than societas. Trilling admires Kafka's art but with reluctance, I think. I suggest that the reason is not that Kafka scorns the actual detail of our lives but that he does not hold out the possibility of redeeming the monstrous forms of society. (pp. 183-84)
Kafka is crucial in Trilling's criticism because he represents an outer limit of his sympathies. Consider these sentences in which Trilling reflects upon "the extraordinary aesthetic success which Kafka consistently achieves": "Aesthetically, it seems, it is impossible for him to fail. There is never a fault of conception or execution, never an error of taste, or logic, or emphasis. As why should there be? An imagination so boldly autonomous, once it has brought itself into being, conceives of nothing that can throw it off its stride. Like the dream, it confronts subjective fact only, and there are no aesthetically unsuccessful dreams, no failed nightmares." It is a revealing passage, starting with that "aesthetically" in which the adverb imposes a limiting judgment while its official assertion is appreciative. Trilling drives a wedge between aesthetics and morality by associating the first with dream and nightmare, irrefutable but narrow activities, and by implication associating those values to which Kafka is indifferent with nearly everything of density and substance in a serious life. (p. 184)
I have been maintaining that Trilling was unwilling, even in a grim time, to find the poetic experience in dissociation from the texture of society and that he insisted upon attaching even to an imperfect society an aura of inherited value. But if nearly every social institution harbors corruption, where is a scrupulous image of society to be found? He can hardly say, with Plato's disputant in The Republic, "Not here, O Ademantus, but in another world." And yet there is a sense in which, given such desperate conditions in practice, Trilling points beyond them not to any particular society but to the idea of a society, an idea sustained only by his need of such a thing. He can also point in another direction, toward Language: or, rather, toward a certain kind of language, a certain style, eloquentia. This is "the mind of the old European society" to which [R. P. Blackmur] referred, "taken as corrective and as prophecy." It is a corrective by virtue of the tradition it embodies, at once a rhetoric, a poetic, and a politics: it is a prophecy by virtue of its persistence as a working possibility. But of course it is beautiful only in its potentiality.
Normally we do not think of Lionel Trilling as a critic of language in the sense in which we apply that description to R. P. Blackmur, Leo Spitzer, or Erich Auerbach. Close intensive reading of a text is never the substance of Trilling's work, though it may have occupied his preparatory hours: he disposes of a poem's language before he deals with it in any explicit way. The poetic experience reaches him of course in language, but he does not settle upon it professionally until the language has ventured into the public world in the form of ideas. Indeed it may be one of the limitations of his criticism that its author is content with a strictly instrumental theory of language and that he has circumvented the questions raised by modern linguistics and hermeneutics. But the explanation is probably simple enough. Trilling values in language chiefly its self-forgetful character, the nonchalance with which it sometimes takes its nature for granted and turns toward something more interesting, the ideas and attitudes which make for life and death. He suspects any manifestations of language which call attention to themselves as constituents rather than as instruments, or which appeal to a particular class of reader rather than to readers in general. What Trilling values in language corresponds to what he values in society: reasonable energies at work, fair purposes and consequences, more nonchalance than self-consciousness, and just enough tension to foster and maintain vitality. For the same reason Trilling distrusted every version of formalism: the forms he valued were transparent rather than opaque, functional rather than problematical. A form offers itself as a problem when its motives are not sustained by forces in the world at large and the available analogies are deemed useless. In both language and form Trilling values those procedures which can be construed as corresponding to a certain way of life, reasonable, cultivated, urbane. The rhetorical function of criticism is to maintain the correspondence. (pp. 185-86)
Denis Donoghue, "Trilling, Mind, and Society," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1978 by The University of the South), Spring, 1978, pp. 161-86.
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