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 but also so much that offends or even repels; so much intellection but such a frequency of unsound thinking; such a grand and manly impulse to heroism but so inadequate a capacity for self-discipline; so much sensitiveness and so little sensibility; so much imagination and such insufficient art.
A 1963 lecture, “The Riddle of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” is equally perceptive in another area, the sociology of literary taste. Here her question is: what in that peculiar play so delights its Broadway audiences? Her answer is the most convincing one I have so far seen: it gives the audience an illusion of admittance to the world of intellectuals, which they are reassured to find as degraded as their own. (I would add only that its hostility to heterosexual love satisfies other deep-seated needs.)
The best of all the essays in the volume is “The Other Night at Columbia: A Report from the Academy,” written in 1958. It is the best because it is the most personal, the broadest in sympathy, and the most profound. It is an account of a reading at Columbia by a group of Beat poets and Mrs. Trilling has organized it like a short story. She goes back in time to describe Allen Ginsberg’s undergraduate history at Columbia and his relationship to the Trillings, then returns to the performance and discusses it at length. Mrs. Trilling brings the piece to a climax when Ginsberg reads what she describes as “a passionate love-poem” addressed to Lionel Trilling. Afraid to tell Ginsberg that she liked the poem, she goes home and finds a meeting of the Morning-side Heights Establishment in her living room, and announces publicly: “Allen Ginsberg read a love-poem to you, Lionel. I liked it very much.” In what it says and even more in what it implies, this essay is the best account I know of the roots of Beat poetry and of its ambivalent relationship to the academy.
A piece almost as good (it is flawed only by the heavy-handed satire with which it begins) is “Tom Sawyer, Delinquent,” written in 1962. This studies Tom Sawyer as a paean to the freedom of the instinctual life, in which Twain anticipates Freud’s thesis in Civilization and Its Discontents. “In every page of Tom’s history,” Mrs. Trilling writes, “Mark Twain proclaims his passionate belief that civilization, as it erodes instinct, destroys that which is most valuable in man: affection, honor, loyalty, manly pride, joy, imagination, community with Nature.” This essay, which never mentions Freud, is one of the finest pieces of Freudian criticism that I know.
Having said so much, one must gainsay a bit. Mrs. Trilling is not always at this exalted level. If her prose is usually stylish, it is occasionally incomprehensible. If Sigmund Freud is her strength, D. H. Lawrence is her weakness—surely she of all people should know that if one is prepared to pay the price of civilization with Freud, one cannot reject the bill with Lawrence. It is her softness toward Lawrence that makes her a sucker for Mailer, whose “adversary disposition recalls D. H. Lawrence,” as does his instrumental view of sex.
Another weakness is a nostalgia for the political world of the Thirties, that imbecile decade. “There was never a less lonely time for intellectuals than the Depression, or a less depressed time,” she writes in 1958. Albert Camus is a much overrated writer, in my opinion, but his work has one great historical importance: it showed us that ultimately the issues are not political but moral. At her best, Mrs. Trilling knows this, but nostalgia weakens her. Her other hangover from the Thirties is talk of “advanced” literature or literature “on the advanced front,” with its military metaphor that she might be hard-pressed to defend.
More important, in this humane and scrupulous woman there is sometimes a failure of sympathy, of human charity. Her piece “The Oppenheimer Case.” written in 1954, is a triumph of empathy. But “A Memorandum on the Hiss Case,” written in 1950, is oddly cold and unfeeling. Her conclusion about Oppenheimer shows concern for the man: the decision to deprive him of security clearance was “tragic ineptitude.” But her conclusion about Hiss turns away from the man: “the Hiss case may be useful—because it can help teach liberals.” To say, for example, that Hiss and Chambers are “two men whose lives have been ruined” is desperately indiscriminate. There is something about Hiss that fails to engage her sympathy: he is Harvard where Chambers is Columbia; he is priggish and austere and Episcopalian, a monument of “eminent respectability.” (Mrs. Trilling, herself a figure of eminent respectability, shows herself deeply drawn to the Lawrences, the Mailers, the Ginsbergs.)
Finally, she sometimes over-simplifies drastically. This is most visible in the book in regard to politics, as in a criticism of the British Labour Party’s conduct in the Profumo Case (this piece is much the weakest in the book), where she simply does not know enough. Since politics is not my cupcake either, I prefer to debate a literary example. In the essay on Albee, Mrs. Trilling charges that like him our best novelists ignore the real world with its “social and individual complexity” and insist that there is nothing visible but emptiness. She instances “Malamud, Roth, Gold, Updike.”
In the first place, this indiscriminate lumping of two of the finest writers in America, Malamud and Updike, with the promising author of a first novel, Roth, and a slick third-rater, Gold, is shocking in a serious critic. In the second place, Malamud and Updike are two of the most realistic and affirmative writers writing today. I submit as evidence The Assistant, The Magic Barrel, The Centaur, “Dentistry and Doubt.”
In a context of her best work, these flaws are trivial. Mrs. Trilling is an excellent critic, and we are in her debt for a moving and often profound book.
Are You Kidding? May 28, 1964