Lionel Trilling (1905–1975)

Many readers of this review will be among those who feel most deeply the death of Lionel Trilling. He had long been known and honored everywhere, in England and Europe as well as here. But he had begun as a New York intellectual, speaking to that small peculiar bunch, often enough about itself and its ways, attacking its misconceptions, defending its existence. Once years ago when its weakness for taking up literary fads was ridiculed, he replied to the effect that it was a good thing for a lot of people to be talking about, say, Kafka this year. It made for a kind of community. We are among the dispersed and doubtless much diminished heirs of that tribe. Of course Trilling belongs to the world, but he belonged particularly to the New York intellectuals, ever since his early writings appeared in the Menorah Journal.

Now that Lionel Trilling has died, we can do little but recall at random a few of the things he brought to us. How we ate up those essays that appeared so often in Partisan Review or Kenyon! I do not mean here even to pretend to sketch the history of his writing. But surely many decades of American thought are contained in his sentence of 1950, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” and then in his demonstration of how little any of us liberals were to congratulate ourselves on this fact.

Trilling began and ended his writing in profound concern with the relations of the intellect and art. This had many terms, psychoanalysis and poetry, politics and literature, philosophy and drama, tradition and revolution, Apollo and Dionysus, duty and pleasure, ego and id. In some of his last works, Sincerity and Authenticity, 1972, and Mind in the Modern World, 1973, he surveyed in his masterly way the threat to the intellect and to art that is represented by what he called the “adversary culture” of our day. To Trilling it is a much deeper threat than the mindless liberalism of twenty-five years before. Yet as Trilling shows, the adversary culture is inherently and direfully connected for literary intellectuals and thus—he never for a moment doubted—connected for our civilization with certain destructive qualities in contemporary art.

Long ago Trilling said, “Intellectual power and emotional power go together.” Because he insisted so much on the necessity of ideas, it has sometimes been supposed that he denigrated emotion or even was not fully responsive to its urgencies. Nothing could be further from the reality of his thought and character. True, his love for reason was powerful and abiding. But note that it was love. The great object of his intellectual love was of course the encounter with reason’s enemy and source, the old adversary, the nihilistic forces of the deepest self and the destructive powers at the root of human society and art.

One of the legacies Trilling left us is …

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