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Lionel Trilling

In response to:

Beyond Criticism from the December 9, 1965 issue

To the Editors:

Robert Mazzocco’s review of Lionel Trilling’s essays in Beyond Culture is one long indignant complaint that he can’t understand them. Indeed he can’t. But with the audacity of ignorance he blames the author of the book he is incompetent to judge, not himself.

It is impossible in a letter to detail the reviewer’s confusions and absurdities: and anyhow it probably doesn’t matter. Suffice it to say that he hasn’t a glimmer of understanding of the complex critical attitude toward modern culture which is developed in so much of what Professor Trilling has written; the reviewer himself seems to swim in that culture with happy unselfconsciousness. When Trilling in his Freud Anniversary Lecture opposes “biological reason” to the growing power of culture to control life, Mr. Mazzocco can’t follow him; maybe, he suggests, like the knowing, up-to-date fellow he is what Trilling means by biological reason is “infantile sexuality,” the “polymorphous-perverse,” only Trilling is afraid to come right out and say since he is “evasive” and “genteel.” He can’t understand, either, why Trilling makes so much of Keats’s saying that poetry isn’t so fine a thing as philosophy, an eagle as truth. “After all,” Mr. Mazzocco observes with egregious sophomorism, “anything can be called a ‘truth’….” That perfectly expresses the culture attitude; anything can be called a truth. But it is just Trilling’s point that without a truth by which to judge culture, culture will do the judging; and the only standard of a culture unrestrained by any truth is the “interesting,” the aesthetic. In this way we arrive at that aestheticized morality and moralized aesthetics which he criticizes in the contemporary culture-and-art-frenzy. Trilling finds in whatever is irreducible about our biological nature the hope of a truth by which to judge culture and in judging it to revise and control it rationally.

But if Mr. Mazzocco can’t understand Trilling, he knows how to label him—he is a conservative: “a thoroughly conservative spirit, heavy with humanist and/or Hebraic ‘conduct and obedience’ out of Arnold and ‘night side’ exposure out of Freud, both employed in problematic disingenuous fashion.” And that is enough to dispose of Trilling in a time of fake radicalism.

What a shame that the work of a serious thinker should be treated in the tone Mr. Mazzocco treats Beyond Culture. I don’t in the end object to the ignorance of his review; there are bound to be ignorant reviews too. I object to the sneering contemptuous tone in which his ignorance expresses itself, to the brutality of his callowness.

Martin Greenberg

New York City

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