Lionel Trilling
Lionel Trilling; drawing by David Levine

Beyond Culture is Lionel Trilling’s first collection of essays in ten years. Three of these essays were published in the mid or the late 1950s, the remaining five date from the present period. A number have appeared in Partisan Review and the concluding one, “The Two Environments,” recently printed in Encounter, created something of a stir. All are carefully composed, or over-composed, depending on how you view Professor Trilling’s later prose style. I view it, unhappily, as a good deal more attenuated than what one found in The Liberal Imagination or The Opposing Self. Aside from an acute and amiable assessment of Babel’s short stories, the usual impression is that of trudging uphill, scanning hazy vistas, martyred with abstractions, pestered by fuddy-duddy phrases: “for such it can be called,” “if we consent to call it that,” “in the degree that,” and so on.

Plain speech, of course, has never been one of Professor Trilling’s numerous virtues, though Wordsworth has always been one of his interests, not to mention Lawrence. And possibly, given both the friskiness of American journalism and the tight brilliance of much little magazine writing, Professor Trilling’s liturgical modulations once held considerable charm, seeming, perhaps, formidably “English”: Bloomsbury Square on Morningside Heights, to put it crudely. But the tone now is wearily genteel. And that is unfortunate. Trilling is an academic and literary figure of tremendous distinction, and I assume he again has something of importance to say.

Several of the essays touch on the especial difficulty of making oneself aware of the assumptions and preconceptions of the adversary culture by reason of the dominant part that is played in it by art. My sense of this difficulty leads me to approach a view which will seem disastrous to many readers and which, indeed, rather surprises me. This is the view that art does not always tell the truth or the best kind of truth and does not always point out the right way, that it can even generate falsehood and habituate us to it, and that, on frequent occasions, it might well be subject, in the interests of autonomy, to the scrutiny of the rational intellect. The history of this faculty scarcely assures us that it is exempt from the influences of the cultures in which it has sought its development, but at the present juncture its informing purpose of standing beyond any culture, even an adversary one, may be of use.

I confess that only after a second reading of that spun-glass passage did something shine through, and then only in a verbal sense. For if one wishes to know what art or artist is or has been lying, if one wants a definition of “the best kind of truth,” or if one is curious about the exact maneuvers involved in standing beyond any culture, one will have a hard time finding answers either in the Preface from which the passage is taken, or anywhere else.

The trouble is not with Trilling’s overall message; stripped of its finery, it is simple enough, or familiar enough. Trilling contends that the intent of modern literature has always been subversive, and being subversive it has acted in opposition to the dominant culture, thereby creating the adversary culture he mentions. But now that very culture is working its way into the dominant culture, with the latter’s more or less willing assistance, and thus it is losing, or has lost, its bite. The animal is domesticated, the beast in the jungle is a matter of aesthetics or chit-chat, “as witness the present ideational or ideological status of sex, violence, madness, and art itself.” But though Trilling makes a number of remote overtures towards the political arena, that is not his province; it is culture, and culture of a perplexing sort, at once pedagogically circumscribed and spacious.

The fact is that the student today is at liberty to choose between two cultural environments. One of them can no doubt be described in terms not unlike those that Sidgwick and Arnold used of the class-bound England of a century ago—it is perhaps less proud and less self-praising, but we can take it to be Philistine and dull, satisfied with its unexamined, unpromising beliefs. The other environment defines itself by its difference from and its antagonism to the first, by its commitment to the “sources of life,” by its adherence to the imagination of fullness, freedom, and potency…and to what goes with this imagination, the concern with moralized taste and with the styles which indicate that one has successfully gained control of the sources of life or which are themselves a means of gaining that control.

The phrase in quotes comes from Yeats, and two of the illustrations Trilling presents are odd, if memorable. “It was D. H. Lawrence who said that not until men once again got themselves up in tight red hose and short jerkins that showed the buttocks would they come into a right relation with the sources of life.” Nor is the sentence which follows more illuminating. “It was Yeats who asserted the peculiar moral authenticity of gray Connemara cloth.”


Now Professor Trilling’s argument as it appears and disappears like knitting needles within these essays, is ultimately concerned with the question of morals and manners—to my mind, a stuffy subject, but one which he has in the past invested with vigor, and which he here now and again brightens with a favorite word. For Trilling, the darkness of modern thought is always “liberating,” if only because it can renew our reverence for the light. Thus while Beyond the Pleasure Principle ends in a vast gloom, and thus while much in our literature is unduly morbid, “let us recall that although Freud did indeed say that ‘the aim of all life is death,’ the course of his argument leads him to the statement that ‘the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion,’ only through the complex fullness of its appropriate life.”

The equanimity observed here concludes an extraordinary examination of “The Fate of Pleasure,” in which Trilling describes, with his customary erudition, the erosion of Wordsworth’s Edenic ideal of “the naked and native dignity of man,” first in the person of Keats, who unwittingly produced “an erotic fulfillment which implies castration,” and then, and most devastatingly, through the dank, demeaning utterances of the Underground Man, Dostoevsky’s anti-hero who scorns “the sublime and the beautiful,” whether as mouthed by the bourgeois world or by the socialist brotherhood. Trilling then links the “spiritual freedom,” exemplified by Dostoevsky’s nouvelle, one based on “unpleasure,” and obscurely directed “toward self-definition and self-affirmation,” with Freud’s ego instincts, which he reminds us are synonymous with the death instincts, and seemingly suggests that the psychic energies these represent (whether expressed or suppressed, I’m not sure which) may very well have to be “taken into eventual account by a rational and positive politics.” But why any such account should be made (given Dostoevsky’s denunciation of rationalism), or how (given Freud’s ambivalent summary of civilization), or toward what political ends (given Professor Trilling’s own idea of “gratification” as “not within the purview of ordinary democratic progressivism”)—well, there, as with so much else in Beyond Culture, your guess is as good as mine. Professor Trilling is an adventurous voyager; only he always drops anchor in the middle of the journey. And adventures of that kind, I regret to say, are depressingly evident throughout.

In his fine, Solomon-like disquisition on “The Leavis-Snow Controversy,” both gentlemen come off a little soiled. Sir Charles is rapped for his scientific bias and his blunder concerning the Victorian writers; Dr. Leavis is chastised for fumbling the literary advantage and for speaking with undue emphasis. Later, however, they are redeemed, or held up, as cautionary figures “who have jointly demonstrated how far the cultural mode of thought can go in excess and distortion.” What the cultural mode of thought constitutes is, or has something to do with, the very fabric of society, and though that fabric may present its seamy side, there are “the passions which attend it,” as well as a certain puritanical strain. “An instance of mediocrity or failure in art or thought is not only what it is but also a sin, deserving to be treated as such.” In “The Fate of Pleasure,” there’s a similar stringency: “Now and then it must occur to us that the life of competition for spiritual status is not without its own peculiar sordidness and absurdity.” In any case, out of the trinity of modernism—Marx, Freud, and existentialism—a lesson triumphantly emerges: “we learn that the one thing that can be disputed, and that is worth disputing, is preference or taste.” That may sound flat, but it has, according to Trilling, interesting implications. For what is taste but a life-style, and what does a life-style presuppose but the organization of classes, and how are classes set in motion today, as distinct from the materialist vulgarity of the past, except along aesthetic lines: “even when we judge moralities, the criterion by which we choose between two moralities of, say, equal strictness or equal laxness is likely to be an aesthetic one.” In our post-Victorian age, however, aesthetics can degenerate into Madison Avenue, and here Professor Trilling pauses for a characteristic reflection:

In our more depressed moments we might be led to ask whether there is a real difference between being the Person Who defines himself by his commitment to one or another idea of morality, politics, literature, or city-planning, and being the Person Who defines himself by wearing trousers without pleats.

Professor Trilling has other worries, equally weighty. In “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” he recalls, with much grace, how after singular deliberation he introduced his students to “the official version of terror,” by which he means the writings of, among others, Diderot and Conrad, Nietzsche and Mann. Now these men, disparate as personalities and distant from one another in time, were all nevertheless involved not merely with freedom from the middle class, “but freedom from society itself,” even “to the point of self-destruction,” or to the point of pathology, for as The Genealogy of Morals troublingly insists, “only by his sickness does man become interesting.” Professor Trilling offered these insights not without concern. At Columbia College, alas, his students “looked into the Abyss,” as he says, and far from being desolated, merely found it a suitable subject for a term paper. Curiously enough, as presented here, the gap existing between generations is a gap not without an element of self-congratulation, for it confronts “those of us who do teach modern literature with the striking actuality of our enterprise.” Or as Trilling puts it more endearingly in his essay on Freud: “it is worth noting that, for perhaps the first time in history, the pedagogue is believed to have a sense of reality.”


Trilling’s Freud Anniversary Lecture was delivered before the New York Psychoanalytical Society and the New York Psychoanalytical Institute. It too has a liberating cadenza. “We reflect that somewhere in the child, somewhere in the adult, there is a hard, irreducible, stubborn core of biological urgency, and biological necessity, and biological reason, that culture cannot reach, and that reserves the right, which sooner or later it will exercise, to judge the culture and resist and revise it.” It is liberating because when “we think of the growing power of culture to control us by seduction or coercion, we must be glad and not sorry that some part of our fate comes from outside the culture.”

Here I am at a loss to understand what is meant. Historically or psychologically, man has always possessed such drives, and if they have not prevented tyranny in the past, why should it be assumed they will do so in the future? Leaving aside that disputed business of the unconscious and one’s awareness of it, what is to stop these drives from being sociologically or bureaucratically shaped like everything else? Certainly, one can say, to take two obvious examples, that the behaviorists seek to control (and apparently with success) subliminal responses, and that propaganda, whether in the East or West, is used, in some compelling sense, to exploit passive or aggressive impulses, or sado-masochistic drives. More important, what is “biological reason“? Is that, paradoxically, Professor Trilling’s euphemism for infantile sexuality, for that great prairie of childhood called the “polymorphousperverse”?

Now the idea of a sexual revolution one could easily credit, if only because sex is so readily adaptable to fantasy, but no such revolution is either mentioned or implied. What Professor Trilling considers consequential is that Freud “conceived of the self as being not wholly continuous with culture, as being not wholly created by culture, as maintaining a standing quarrel with its great benefactor,” and he honors Freud for placing so radical a conception “at the very center of his thought.”

The conception may be radical, but how radical is Professor Trilling’s appreciation? Trilling duly deplores our loss of “instinctual” power, and at the same time he deplores us for deploring it. In one breath he is attracted, in the next repelled, by what he calls the “furthest reaches,” the primitive depths—a ticklish state he regards as one emotionally shared by all intellectuals today. True or not, what particular import does the implication have? In “The Two Environments” we are told that culture is now construed “rather as if it were a work of art,” and we judge ourselves and others “in the feel of the chosen cloth, in the fashion of the house inhabited.” Such judgments are “rather cruel, really, but fascinating,” and constitute the new critical mode. The image apparently conveyed is that those of us who are, so to speak, à la mode are now equipped with a personal radar with which we can detect the latent epic in the most modest or effete event. On the other hand, modern literature, Trilling acknowledges, is one of doctrine; damnation and salvation are its subject; but it is a doctrine upon which the “moralizing attitude” of the intelligentsia has fastened uncritically, full of pieties about alienation, and fatted with a spoils system of its own.

One must, he exhorts, grapple ethically with the phenomenon. And he approvingly cites Saul Bellow’s National Book Award address, in which the author admonished that unless our novelists begin to think and make “a clear estimate” of things, what they produce will be “truly irrelevant.” But one could as well say the opposite: that the trouble with the modern novel, with the essay-novel (and perhaps even with Herzog), is that it exudes too much “thought,” and precious little life-blood. And one might contend that the fundamental question is why our society, with all its rather fascinating judgments, offers an increasing depletion of the senses, leaving less and less to do, less and less to react with. (The other society of the newspaper headline, it goes without saying, is notably absent from the discussion.) Moreover, if generalizations are to be made about the contemporary novel, why limit them to Bellow? Or if one does, why not present Bellow where his position has some strength, namely in his “Recent American Fiction” essay, published in Encounter two years ago? Is it because Professor Trilling would then not be able to say, as he is able to say here, that Bellow’s so-called controversial speech entered “that great new transcendent gossip of the second environment” or “the mythos of that environment”? And how piddling, anyway, is all such talk of two environments, and how suspect that use of “gossip.” It seems to me, over and over, that at the heart of these essays is a complex but thoroughly conservative spirit, heavy with humanist and/or Hebraic “conduct and obedience” out of Arnold and “night side” exposure out of Frend, both employed in problematic or disingenuous fashion. Thus it is hardly surprising that in professor Trilling’s comments on Jane Austen, the novelist assumes legendary size precisely because she represents “the possibility of controlling the personal life…of creating a community of ‘intelligent love’,” which is an “extraordinary promise” and a “rare hope.” Rare indeed. But what does it mean? As read within the context of Trilling’s essay. “intelligent love” amounts to nothing more than the blossoming of one human being under the tender and beneficient guidance of another. That is surely “idyllic” (not to say trite). but it does appear more appropriate to horticulture than to the modern condition, or to the modern quest for personal autonomy, a quest, incidentally, which Trilling puzzlingly assents to and dissents from.

A related dichotomy seems to be at work in “Hawthorne in Our Time.” Here Professor Trilling goes to extreme, and often truly ingenious, lengths to both identify and later disinfect our new understanding of Hawthorne—that is the Hawthorne of “Dionysian darkness,” of “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” For Trilling, ultimately, Hawthorne’s “ambivalence and ambiguity” do not bring him close to Kalka; “through them, rather, he approaches to Montaigne’s ‘Que sais-jet‘…the question which conscious or calculated modesty asks, out of which all questions come.” And so, if as readers we now wish to be left alone to look into the dangerous aspects of Hawthorne in our own way, then “our judgment of Hawthrone may have to be that he is not for us today, and perhaps not even tomorrow. He is, in Nietzsche’s phrase, one of the spirits of yesterday—and the day after tomorrow.” While I hesitate to press the point, it is possible that some of us, instead of floating harmoniously between ports, might very well wish to lonch land.

Professor Trilling concludes “The Two Environments,” which closes the book, with a valiant thrust presumably intended to clarify the preceding two hundred-odd pages:

There is a passage in Keals’ letters which, when it is read by anyone who has anything to do with literature, should make the earth shake, although it does not; which should momently haunt our minds, although it does not. It is the passage in which Keats, having previously said that poetry is not so fine a thing as philosophy, ends with the phrase, “…an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth.” Considering the man who wrote it, it is an awesome utterance…

But why, I wonder, should Professor Trilling portentously render it an “awesome utterance,” even given the facts of Kents’s life? After all, anything can be called “a truth,” as the history of philosophy, for example, monotonously demonstrates. And if one is interested in Keats’s letters, one could quote the contrary: “The only thing that can ever affect me personally for more than one short passing day, is any doubt about my powers for poetry—I seldom have any, and I look forward to the nighing time when I shall have none.” One can also quote Yeats: “The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refuse Hegel, but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence.”

What these lines express, perhaps best, of course, is the irrational temper, the modern mystique, the exultation in some sort of vatic force, and about that Professor Trilling has always had doubts. Fifteen years ago, in his essay on Wordsworth, another eagle dropped out of the sky:

…that eagle which André Gide’s Prometheus says is necessary for the successful spiritual and poetic life: “t faut avoir un aigle.” This fierce but validating bird, this bird comme il faut, suggests the status of the feral and the violent in our literature. Nothing is better established in our literary life than the knowledge that the tigers of wealth are better than the horses of instruction….We do not, to be sure, live in the fashion of the beasts we admire in our literary lives—the discrepancy is much to the point…

It is; and at bottom, I believe, such a discrepancy is what Professor Trilling is indicting; and such an indictment of our literary “bad faith” might well have been salutary. But I do think, if one wishes to strike through the mask, one should not be masked oneself. I think if one desires to prepare an indictment, one should name names, define terms, delineate issues. Evasive effusions, however learned, however humane, are not enough. Looking back, whether these essays represent, by and large, an interminable muddle, or a subtley “refined beyond the point of civilization,” I do not know; though I imagine the latter estimate is the truer. Whatever the case, in the end, I’m afraid, Professor Trilling’s book is really beyond criticism and, in that sense, I suppose, “beyond culture” as well.

This Issue

December 9, 1965