Diana Trilling’s unique voice is too infrequently heard in our criticism, so that a volume of her essays and reviews is a welcome event. It is reassuring to see that of its thirteen pieces, written over twenty years, six were written in the last two years; she is, apparently, stepping up her pace. Mrs. Trilling is a cultural rather than a literary critic, and, at her best, she works at the crossroads where literature, sociology, psychology, and ethics meet. I am not aware of anyone else in this country who habitually works that busy corner; it seems very French.
Such scope requires considerable strengths, and Mrs. Trilling has them. For one thing, she can write with eloquence and style. A 1945 review of a book about Caruso, otherwise rather slight, concludes beautifully: “The mind turns to images of great noble animals and their long death throes, to the tremendous overwhelming of the force of life by its opposite.” A 1948 review of Virginia Woolf’s essays begins, marvelously, by describing her appearance:
Probably anyone acquainted with the name of Virginia Woolf is familiar with the remarkable photograph of her which has so regularly appeared along with her work—the long, tense face at once so suffering and so impervious, the large, too-precisely socketed eyes and the full, too-precisely outlined mouth rimmed with humor but also with conscious vanity, the aristocratic nose and the surely troublesome hair dressed in such defiance of whatever fashion.
One of Mrs. Trilling’s great advantages is that her psychology is orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis, not any of the sticky lollipops that have tended to replace it in this country. This is not a doctrinal test: it is of no significance whatsoever, for example, that she believes in Freud’s “penis-envy” rather than the Revisionists’ “womb-envy.” What is important for criticism is that she perceives, and shares, Freud’s tragic vision. “He knew better than most the price that civilization exacts in denied instinct,” Mrs. Trilling writes, “and tragically, resentfully, he was prepared to pay it.”
Her greatest strength, of course, is the fine quality of her intelligence. “Men, Women and Sex,” a 1950 review of Margaret Mead’s Male and Female, is a brilliant exposure of its contradictions, and an entirely convincing explanation of them in a tendentious purpose: “to guarantee to women a full participation in the life of culture.” Mrs. Trilling would like this too, surely, but she will not bend theory or deny facts to promote it. “Pious sentimentality,” she says, ruthlessly, of Dr. Mead’s conclusion.
Mrs. Trilling’s 1962 article, “The Moral Radicalism of Norman Mailer,” has a similarly perceptive account of Mailer’s duality (although I do not share its high estimate of his talents). Mailer shows, she writes,
so much affirmation coupled with so much moral anarchism; so much innocence yet so much guile; so much defensive caution but such headlong recklessness; so much despair together with so imperious a demand for salvation; so strong a charismatic charge …
Are You Kidding? May 28, 1964