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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 the fact that this love for reason was strong enough to be recognized by many of us less faithful and less potent lovers. Not only his writing but his very presence made people aware that there could be such an activity of the soul—if that is the name for it. We have had brilliant writers in our time, heroic all of them after their fashions. But this particular virtue—others will have sensed it elsewhere but I think it is rare—seems to me to have existed in this pure and selfless state only in one other man, though a very different one, John Crowe Ransom. It is dramatized in a parable by Plato.

After a night of drinking and discussing Love and Mind, and being terrorized by Alcibiades, all the others but Socrates, Aristophanes, and Agathon are under the table. But Socrates is still discoursing, explaining their business to the two great drowsy poets, saying something unrecovered about the unity of comedy and tragedy. “Socrates, having laid them to sleep, rose to depart…. At the Lyceum he took a bath, and passed the day as usual. In the evening he retired to rest at his home.” The violence of Alcibiades’ passions could be subsumed in Love and Mind, in comedy and tragedy, by Socrates, unruffled. This is the courage of Mind.

Trilling liked to deliver such paradoxical discourses himself, sometimes also to the bemusement of his audience. He liked to say things like this, for instance, about one of his own arguments. “It asks a question which is inevitably adversary in some degree, if only by reason of the irony that is implicit in the historical approach to a fact of moral culture.” The irony that is implicit? Did I know this?

But the essays, if sometimes we must backtrack in them, are themselves comic and tragic masterpieces, as Sophocles and Nietzsche, Jane Austen and Frazer, and always his great heroes Shakespeare and Freud, confront one another in dramas of recognition. “And yet I think it can be said without more extravagance than marks my whole comparison that it is precisely here, where they most seem to differ, that the Rabbis and Wordsworth are most at one.” He liked to astonish us with reversals. “If, then, we undertake to explain in Hegelian terms the English trait to which Emerson responded so warmly, we must ascribe it to the archaic intractability of the English social organization: the English sincerity depends upon English class structure.” Hegelian terms!

Because, as I have tried to say, Lionel Trilling’s qualities of mind and soul were as evident in his person as in his writing, I may attach a small snapshot. Fishing as a figurative experience is omnipresent in our literature, as a way of showing how warily men must go about it to snare any elusive truth, and indeed it appears in his own novel, The Middle of the Journey, that work so telling of its time. The day after his death, two of us who had been his angling companions were talking, and Quentin Anderson and I at once remembered the same moment from some years ago, when, having retired to the bank, we watched Lionel, wading waist-deep in a long pool of the Carmans River, casting a tiny Fan Wing Royal Coachman. There was a rise and strike, the fish was hooked; a big brook trout spanked brilliantly in the setting sun, and Lionel played him with extended and altogether necessary art to net. “Who can describe,” Trilling said, laughing, holding his trophy and rod, “the profound relations between a fish at the end of a 5x leader and a fisherman?”

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