Beyond Criticism

Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning

by Lionel Trilling
Viking, 235 pp., $5.00

Lionel Trilling
Lionel Trilling; drawing by David Levine

Beyond Culture is Lionel Trilling’s first collection of essays in ten years. Three of these essays were published in the mid or the late 1950s, the remaining five date from the present period. A number have appeared in Partisan Review and the concluding one, “The Two Environments,” recently printed in Encounter, created something of a stir. All are carefully composed, or over-composed, depending on how you view Professor Trilling’s later prose style. I view it, unhappily, as a good deal more attenuated than what one found in The Liberal Imagination or The Opposing Self. Aside from an acute and amiable assessment of Babel’s short stories, the usual impression is that of trudging uphill, scanning hazy vistas, martyred with abstractions, pestered by fuddy-duddy phrases: “for such it can be called,” “if we consent to call it that,” “in the degree that,” and so on.

Plain speech, of course, has never been one of Professor Trilling’s numerous virtues, though Wordsworth has always been one of his interests, not to mention Lawrence. And possibly, given both the friskiness of American journalism and the tight brilliance of much little magazine writing, Professor Trilling’s liturgical modulations once held considerable charm, seeming, perhaps, formidably “English”: Bloomsbury Square on Morningside Heights, to put it crudely. But the tone now is wearily genteel. And that is unfortunate. Trilling is an academic and literary figure of tremendous distinction, and I assume he again has something of importance to say.

Several of the essays touch on the especial difficulty of making oneself aware of the assumptions and preconceptions of the adversary culture by reason of the dominant part that is played in it by art. My sense of this difficulty leads me to approach a view which will seem disastrous to many readers and which, indeed, rather surprises me. This is the view that art does not always tell the truth or the best kind of truth and does not always point out the right way, that it can even generate falsehood and habituate us to it, and that, on frequent occasions, it might well be subject, in the interests of autonomy, to the scrutiny of the rational intellect. The history of this faculty scarcely assures us that it is exempt from the influences of the cultures in which it has sought its development, but at the present juncture its informing purpose of standing beyond any culture, even an adversary one, may be of use.

I confess that only after a second reading of that spun-glass passage did something shine through, and then only in a verbal sense. For if one wishes to know what art or artist is or has been lying, if one wants a definition of “the best kind of truth,” or if one is curious about the exact maneuvers involved in standing beyond any culture, one will have a hard time finding answers either in the…

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