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Night Vision

A critic who continues to be read twenty-five years after his death is sufficiently rare to be called, in the colloquial sense of the word, a phenomenon. The odds are against it, in part because criticism tends to be entangled in a web of current references that unravels over time, leaving future readers perplexed or indifferent. This new selection of essays by Lionel Trilling constitutes a wager that he has beaten the odds, and will last.

I want to believe it. When I arrived fifteen years ago at Columbia University, where Trilling had taught for some forty years (except for visiting stints at Harvard and Oxford), he had been dead for a decade, but his name was invoked as if he were still present. His widow, Diana Trilling, presided over dinner parties at which newcomers coveted her blessing and dreaded her disapproval as if her late husband were passing posthumous judgment through her. Framed in the window of their first-floor apartment, she could be seen receiving a stream of callers who had the demeanor of official mourners.

With Diana’s death in 1996, the Trilling presence in the neighborhood became ghostly. The English department had moved out of its quarters in Hamilton Hall, and the room in which he had once met with students has since been turned into an administrative office. A lecture series named in his memory fell into dormancy. As for his standing in the wider academy, he now tends to be condescended to as a naive believer in Matthew Arnold’s ideal of “disinterestedness.” Outside the academy, his photograph has appeared under the dubious title “The Forebear” in a New York Times article on the origins of neoconservatism. In a recent mystery novel by Robert Parker about sordid doings on a college campus, his name is invoked as the lost exemplar of intelligence and personal virtue. Yet others accuse him of being muted or even embarrassed about being a Jew.

These claims are somewhere between cant and slander—the sort of judgments that attach to a writer who has become a figure more caricatured than read. The multivolume edition of Trilling’s works that appeared in the late 1970s has been out of print for years; and when one comes across it in secondhand bookstores, the dust jackets tend to have the undulled shine of books that have been displayed and admired but seldom opened. Now we have a new selection, chosen and introduced by Leon Wieseltier, who was a student at Columbia during Trilling’s last years of teaching, and whose introduction does the rare thing of rising to the level of its subject. The book is intended to arrest Trilling’s descent into the condition of an outmoded sage, and to restore him to currency in the minds of new readers.


Trilling’s prose style will be both an attraction and an impediment. For one thing, it has an old-fashioned courtliness that sounds odd in contemporary ears (“aged, venerable, and often rather inert,” according to one recent critic, Mark Edmundson), though it can also have a conversational intimacy and “a curious ability,” as Diana Trilling once put it, “to suggest that space was being saved for what the author had left unsaid.” Trilling’s typical procedure was to cite some expert who states the prevailing view about a given issue—that Wordsworth was not a Christian (“Wordsworth and the Rabbis,” 1950), that sexual health can be measured by frequency of intercourse (“The Kinsey Report,” 1948), that Robert Frost was a wholesome rural poet (“A Speech on Robert Frost: A Cultural Episode,” 1959)—and then to bring the orthodoxy into collision with an opposing idea. This approach can seem (to use a term that came into common use in Trilling’s day) a kind of “passive aggression”—especially when it takes the form of a long preamble professing respect for believers in the soon-to-be-debunked idea, or a certain pretense of diffidence (“Professor Fairchild, I need scarcely say, understands Christianity far better than I do”) before the onslaught begins.

To readers with a taste for the spare and blunt, Trilling’s essays will seem maddeningly indirect. Yet he had his own brand of quiet pugnacity that marked him off as much from what might be called the soft appreciationism of colleagues and contemporaries like Mark Van Doren or Clifton Fadiman as from the in-your-face belligerence of his friend Elliot Cohen, the famously brooding founder of Commentary, or the ferocious partisanship (first on the left, then on the right) of his student Norman Podhoretz.

Trilling’s real distinctiveness, I think, is that he was at heart a teacher. He carried into his writing the classroom principle that stating any proposition without at least a hint of doubt about its validity is a form of bullying. His only dogma was that, pending further thought, all claims ought to be provisional—a conviction whose effect on his prose Wieseltier sums up in an excellent phrase: “There was order in his writing, but there was no repose.”

Consider the essay, published in 1941, in which Trilling rescued Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” from interpreters bent on reducing it to a poet’s whine over the waning of his creative powers. In Trilling’s hands, the poem becomes instead an account of the contradictory—but paired and fused—sensations of losing one’s childhood astonishment at every new sight or taste or touch while gaining the compensatory adult awareness of connections and patterns in accumulated experience. He reads the poem as a kind of psychoanalysis performed by Wordsworth on himself—a process that incorporates the faded sensations of childhood into mature self-understanding: “Wordsworth, like Freud,…knew that the child’s way of apprehension was but a stage which, in the course of nature, would give way to another.”

The career of most academic critics amounts to a quarrel in installments with other professors over matters of parochial interest. But Trilling’s was a lifelong encounter with writing—any writing, old or new, classic or unheralded—that could help with the strenuous business of living. For a time, he turned especially to Freud, of whom he was an early champion when psychoanalysis was still widely regarded as a crackpot method with suspicious appeal for a few New York intellectuals (mostly Jews) who liked to talk about sex. Seeking help for his recurrent depressions and bouts of writer’s block, he underwent analysis for many years. When he invoked Freud in his criticism, as in the essay on Wordsworth’s ode, it was not in order to hunt down phallic or womb symbols but to amplify the basic insight of the poem—that the “infantile” capacity for sensory excitement is but one stage in a lifelong process of mental growth.

Like all criticism worth reading, Trilling’s was urgently personal. When he said of the Ode that “the ‘philosophic mind’ has not decreased but, on the contrary, increased the power to feel,” he was arguing against his own fear—reported by his widow in her memoir of their marriage—of the desiccating effect of ratiocination. One feels beneath the composure of his prose a vulnerable, and volatile, spirit. “There is sorrow in the Ode,” he wrote, “the inevitable sorrow of giving up an old habit of vision for a new one.” But he admired the poem precisely for its refusal to indulge in self-pity, and grasped at the poet’s reassurance that

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

And so, Trilling writes,

Inevitably we resist change and turn back with passionate nostalgia to the stage we are leaving. Still, we fulfill ourselves by choosing what is painful and difficult and necessary, and we develop by moving toward death.

Like many writers who retrieve ideas and formulations from previous authors in order to criticize the present, Trilling is sometimes accused of living, nostalgically, in an idealized past. In fact, as the Wordsworth essay shows, he regarded merely retrospective longing as a sign of intellectual and spiritual defeat.

He is also sometimes charged with having appointed himself to speak for all educated and sensitive persons—a presumption that some readers found concentrated in his notoriously inclusive pronoun “we.” One anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement complained that Trilling’s “we” sometimes seemed to mean “the people of our time as a whole,” at other times “Americans in general,” and, at still other times, the “narrow class…of New York intellectuals.” Today, no critic could use that pronoun with anything like Trilling’s copiousness and confidence without being denounced for mimicking the usage of popes and kings.

But Trilling’s “we” was not arrogant. It was the “we” of the classroom where, once the door closes, everyone submits to the noble fiction that one’s personal circumstances are incidental to the common work of confronting fundamental human problems in a spirit of open inquiry. It was self-questioning and even self-admonishing—as when he wrote, in an essay about Jane Austen left unfinished upon his death, “We should never take it for granted that young people inevitably respond affirmatively to what is innovative and antitraditional in the high artistic culture of their time…,” or,

When we bring into conjunction with each other the certitude that great spiritual good is to be derived from the art of the past and the no less firmly held belief that an artistic style cannot be validly used in any age other than that in which it was invented, we confront what is surely one of the significant mysteries of man’s life in culture.

We hear in these sentences the voice of a teacher opening a discussion with no thought of closing it.

What Trilling hoped for from such discussion—in the classroom and on the page—was nothing less than a deepened awareness of the paradox of being human, as he defined it in an essay on Freud published in 1949:

No doubt the thing we respond to in great tragedy is the implication of some meaningful relation between free will and necessity, and it is what we respond to in Freud…. Like any tragic poet, like any true moralist, Freud took it as one of his tasks to define the borders of necessity in order to establish the realm of freedom…. He sees man as conditioned and limited by his own nature—by his biological heritage (in the id), by his long cultural history (in the super-ego). He believes that man in society will always be subject to more or less painful tensions, the result of ascertainable causes. Man as Freud conceives him makes his own limiting necessity by being man.

These sentences illuminate Trilling’s dual sense of his vocation. Literature belonged to the “long cultural history” by which human beings are inhibited and constrained, but it also expressed their struggle to free themselves from all forms of limiting inheritance. Part of the mission of the teacher and critic is to awaken students and readers to the contingency of their own culture and to the mistake of confusing its dictates with those of nature. This was the aspect of literary studies that came into dominance over the span of Trilling’s career, though in his later writings he stressed a different and, he thought, increasingly overlooked dimension of experience to which Freud was acutely attuned—that sense of tragic necessity to which human beings must reconcile themselves if they are to attain self-knowledge.

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