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.
In a prescient and very funny essay about the Kinsey Report published in 1948, he noted that, to the exuberant postwar American mind, nature itself seemed to be issuing an invitation to defy all previously observed limits as nothing more than taboos rooted in superstition. That is a risky sort of reasoning, he pointed out, since people tend to see in nature whatever they want to see:
It is inevitable that the concept of the Natural should haunt any discussion of sex. It is inevitable that it should make trouble, but most of all for a scientific discussion that bars judgments of value. Thus, in order to show that homosexuality is not a neurotic manifestation, as the Freudians say it is, the Report adduces the homosexual behaviour of rats. But the argument de animalibus must surely stand by its ability to be inverted and extended. Thus, in having lost sexual periodicity, has the human animal lost naturalness? Again, the female mink, as we learn from the Report itself, fiercely resists intercourse and must be actually coerced into submission. Is it she who is unnatural or is her defense of her chastity to be taken as a comment on the females, animal or human, who willingly submit or who merely play at escape? Professor Kinsey is like no one so much as Sir Percival in Malory, who, seeing a lion and a serpent in battle with each other, decided to help the lion, “for he was the more natural beast of the two.”
One feels behind these sentences the salutary pressure of Trilling’s favorite form of teaching—the “small undergraduate classes or seminars,” as Diana Trilling recalled, “in which he could engage his students in discussion, throw out an idea and have it questioned or perhaps given a new direction.” He did not especially like lecturing, with its presumption that the teacher is master and the student a passive disciple, or the tense professionalism of graduate training; his best essays have the college rhythm of give-and-take—introducing analogies to see where they will lead, testing hypotheses by bringing common sense to bear upon them even while questioning what we commonly consider to be sensible.
Trilling was particularly sensitive to the moral uncertainties of the young. In his famous introduction to Huckleberry Finn (1948), after describing how Huck mocks Jim for being frightened (about Huck’s fate) while they are separated in the fog, he writes about Huck’s subsequent shame at his own cruelty.
No one who reads thoughtfully the dialectic of Huck’s great moral crisis will ever again be wholly able to accept without some question and some irony the assumptions of the respectable morality by which he lives, nor will ever again be certain that what he considers the clear dictates of moral reason are not merely the engrained customary beliefs of his time and place.
This remarkably emphatic sentence retrieves the word dialectic from its then-customary use in the Marxian account of history (“dialectical materialism”) as a series of inevitable conflicts between classes, and turns it into a description of the inner workings of a young man’s conscience.
This inner drama of the divided self (Trilling entitled his 1955 collection The Opposing Self) was his lifelong preoccupation—not merely because it was a psychologically interesting spectacle, but because he believed that a genuinely free society depends upon citizens capable of self-questioning. As early as his 1938 review of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. (the earliest of the pieces reprinted in Wieseltier’s book), he had insisted that the most consequential conflicts are those within the individual mind:
Class…is a useful but often undetermined category of political and social thought…. The “midway people” of Dos Passos represent this moral-paradoxical aspect of class…. It is they who show the symptoms of cultural change. Their movement from social group to social group—from class to class, if you will—makes for the uncertainty of their moral codes, their confusion, their indecision. … If Dos Passos has omitted the class struggle,…it is only the external class struggle he has left out; within his characters the class struggle is going on constantly.
And so, when he wrote, in the essay on Huckleberry Finn, that “no one who reads thoughtfully…will ever again be certain,” he was stating his credo—that reading can shock into consciousness our buried doubts about the rationality or praiseworthiness of the conditioned responses we confuse with “the clear dictates of moral reason.” Reading can lead us out of the grip of unconsidered opinion, toward that disorienting but delicious state that Keats called “Negative Capability”—a generous skepticism that lifts the mind out of all certainties without corrupting it with cynicism. When Trilling writes of “Keats’s urge toward the dialectical view of any large question, of his refusal to be fixed in a final judgment,” he is writing about himself. And when he writes about Huck’s surprise at his compulsion to beg a “nigger” for forgiveness, he is writing about his own antipathy to all forms of ideology and groupthink. His motive in returning year after year to the undergraduate classroom was his belief that young people have a native capacity for reflective freedom from pieties of the past and fashions of the present, and that an encounter with literature can strengthen it.
That is why Trilling never regarded the university as a haven from worldly contention but as a place where young people are encouraged to fight out among and within themselves their contending ideas of the meaningful life. The university, to use another phrase of Keats’s that he loved, was a “vale of soul-making.” It was a transit point for those whom he called, in the essay on Dos Passos, “midway people” whose “movement from social group to social group…makes for the uncertainty of their moral codes, their confusion, their indecision.” Even Columbia College, which in his day was not notably hospitable to such people, was becoming a gateway for the “midway” children of immigrants—of whom Trilling himself, son of a Russian-Jewish tailor, was one.
Trilling’s lifelong connection to and dependence on the university—on, as it happens, one particular university—has sometimes been held against him. Delmore Schwartz once described him as “a guardian of [the] interests” of “the educated class.” He is cited as a prototype for today’s “public intellectuals” who, as Joseph Epstein has recently complained, mostly “operate with a net under them—the net of academic tenure.” No doubt, the patronage of the university exacted a price—as when Trilling opened his lecture on Robert Frost with a long stretch of donnish jokes of the after-dinner-speech sort that has everyone staring at the floor. One hazard of spending years in the academy is sententiousness—and Trilling was not immune.
But the deepest sense, I think, in which he was marked by his life in the university was his earned awareness of the fragility of all institutions by which culture is transmitted and sustained (his own university was badly damaged a few years before his death by the student protest and police assault of 1968). And here we arrive at one of several aspects of his thought from which contemporary readers may feel estranged.
To read Trilling today—to “get” him in the sense of recognizing with sympathy his preoccupations and anxieties—requires some exercise of the historical imagination. This is so because his essays are built on assumptions we no longer share. We are not likely to believe with him that the fate of civilization rests on the fate of fiction—that if the novel should falter as a vital literary form, “we shall have reason to be sad not only over a waning form of art but also over our waning freedom.” Now that our genetic inheritance no longer seems beyond willed enhancement, we cannot be as sure as he was that man is “conditioned and limited by his…biological heritage.” In our new Gilded Age it would be dubious to claim, as he did some fifty years ago, that “our competitive, acquisitive society ritualistically condemns what it practices—[that] with us money gives status, yet we consider a high regard for money a debasing thing.” As for the local context in which Trilling spent his life, “the assumption which was prepotent in Columbia College—that intelligence was connected with literature”—has retreated not only at Trilling’s home campus but at most research universities, where it would be more accurate to call it post-potent.
The most important sense in which Trilling has receded from us has to do with the feeling of danger—danger to reason, to judgment, to civilization itself—that permeates his work. He was, as Wieseltier puts it, “one of the most formidable critics of totalism that his dogmatic and pitiless century produced.” But for readers coming to him for the first time, the “totalism” he hated and feared is likely to seem remote—the stuff of textbooks and newsreels. In a sense, it was already remote to him. It may have been hinted at by the genteel anti-Semitism he encountered as a young instructor in a conventionally Anglophile English department, but only a little of the real viciousness that was at large in the world leaked into the university—in the form of a few fascist sympathizers and not so few Communists and fellow travelers. Like many of his contemporaries (born in 1905, Trilling barely met the age eligibility for military service when it was raised from 35 to 36 in 1941; and, in any case, his wife’s health problems deterred his local draft board from calling him up), he had a faraway view of the “totalism” against which men a little younger than he were fighting at risk to their lives. The staggering facts of the twentieth century—the concentration camps and the gulag—are visible through his works only fleetingly; and when they do appear, they are blurred like distant objects glimpsed through a haze.
Yet it is a mistake, I think, to imagine him as inattentive to or insouciant about the horrors of his time. The essays he composed over the decade beginning in the late 1930s and collected in his most influential book, The Liberal Imagination (1950), return again and again to writers or literary characters who are blasted out of complacency. Dos Passos is worth reading because he understands that “the highest idealism may corrupt.” The young protagonist in Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima, who enlists in an anarchist cell, “has learned something of what may lie behind abstract ideals, the envy, the impulse to revenge and to dominance.” During these years, Trilling’s work amounts to one prolonged revelation of the human capacity for self-deception—for giving assent to false promises of liberation, for cruelty in the name of some glorious ideal. As he comes to maturity as a critic, he reveals himself to be—along with his contemporary Isaiah Berlin and his Morningside Heights neighbor Reinhold Niebuhr—one of those whom Wieseltier calls “rationalists with night vision.”
His most sustained meditation on these dark themes was written in 1948 as the introduction to a new edition of The Princess Casamassima. In an essay published the previous year, “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” he had proposed “that the moral passions are even more willful and imperious and impatient than the self-seeking passions”—a theme of signal importance in all of Henry James’s fiction. Now he followed this idea through its intricate exposition in James’s great novel about a young man who discovers, with ecstatic surrender, that there is, in James’s words, “something to which one can give one’s self”—a program, a cause, a vision of the future purified. There was never anything antiquarian about Trilling. The introduction he wrote to James’s “startlingly prescient” novel is about how the impulse for reform can satisfy the needs of a damaged psyche and thereby produce a monster—a theme urgently pertinent to the events and commanding personalities of his own time.
In close proximity to the introduction to The Princess, Trilling published a novel of his own—The Middle of the Journey (1947). He believed that the United States, having led (or at least finished) the fight against the fascist monster who had almost conquered Europe, was indulging in what his Columbia colleague Richard Hofstadter called “national self-congratulation.” While Hofstadter, in his famous book The American Political Tradition (1948), attacked the myth of virtue that dominated the writing of American history, Trilling brought a comparable motive not only to his criticism, but also, for the first and only time in his life, to a sustained work of fiction of his own. Contemporary novelists, he insisted, should not be in the business of abetting self-love, but should demand the most stringent self-examination—a standard they were failing to meet. Thinking, in part, of John Steinbeck, he wrote in 1947,
We have the books that point out the bad conditions, that praise us for taking progressive attitudes. We have no books that raise questions in our minds not only about conditions but about ourselves, that lead us to refine our motives and ask what might lie behind our good impulses.
And so, with laudable ambition and a touch of hubris, he appointed himself to fill the gap. The Middle of the Journey is still worth reading for its portrayal, loosely based on his acquaintance Whittaker Chambers, of a man who renounces the Communist cause and goes into hiding from his former comrades—and, in some measure, from himself. He had written about issues of personal responsibility in several short stories published earlier, two of which, “Of this Time, Of that Place” (1943), and “The Other Margaret” (1945), retain a certain power and poignancy. Trilling was a modestly gifted fiction writer in the sense that he was able to register internal feelings through precisely rendered external expressions—shrugs, tics, telltale tones of voice, as when he says of a character in The Middle of the Journey that “he sent his voice in some other direction than toward his listener, as if he intended it to reach its destination by ricochet.” But he was hampered by his studious inclination to examine, stage by stage, the process by which thoughts and feelings become conjoined into the patterns we call “personality.” In the end, his stories have too much of the pedagogic quality of parables.
After The Middle of the Journey was coolly reviewed, he published no more fiction—a cause of lifelong regret, according to Diana Trilling. But there was compensation. His creative energies did not flag; they were displaced to the critical essays he wrote from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s—the strongest of his career. The themes he had attempted in fiction remained those of his criticism: the imperative to accept responsibility for one’s actions even while incurring injustice from that abstraction, “society,” and the conviction that pity for others can be a form of fear for oneself.
It was this kind of self-interrogation that Trilling regarded as the end of education—an end never to be achieved but always to be sought, since education is not a condition but a process. By the 1960s, he was convinced that this way of understanding the nature and purpose of education—of culture itself—was badly in retreat. When the faculty of Columbia College received with torpor and indifference a searching report in 1964 from his colleague Daniel Bell on the future of general education for undergraduates, Trilling was shocked.* His dismay at the shift in the minds of faculty away from teaching to regarding themselves as producers and dispensers of specialized knowledge (a change analyzed by Christopher Jencks and David Riesman in their book The Academic Revolution, 1968) was just one instance of his failure to make a happy transition into the transformative decade of the 1960s.
In the 1950s he had been the closest thing to America’s official intellectual, and had been half-willingly installed in the position of moral exemplar—a role, his widow remarks, that he did not “create or encourage,” but in which he “unconsciously…conspired.” Young people came to him for counsel on intimate issues such as how to cope with the moral and emotional demands of fatherhood—even before he had become a father. He never quite adjusted to the insolence and carnival atmosphere of the 1960s. (There is a story about a student who persisted in referring to Shakespeare’s play as “Lear” until Trilling corrected him: “That’s King Lear to you.”) When Archibald Cox, in his report as chair of the commission investigating the Columbia “troubles” of 1968, described contemporary students as “the best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic this country has ever known,” Trilling was incensed. “In his high estimate of the young,” he wrote in a withering sentence, “Professor Cox accepted the simulacrum for the real thing.” He went further, in the same vein: “The great store now placed on selfhood and the energies of the self” was triumphing at the expense of the “conceived and executed life.” By this he meant that the old assumption that in young adulthood one begins to emulate certain carefully chosen models of the purposeful life was giving way to a new ideal of life as unfixed and improvisational.
This was a partial—and sometimes sour—account of what was happening. And there were contradictions and elisions in it. Even as he claimed that young people were increasingly unwilling to “preclude any other kind of selfhood” than that prescribed by this or that course of study, Trilling decried the encroaching pre-professionalism of the university for its shriveling effect on the imagination. He lamented the demise of “strenuous effort,” but brushed aside the obviously growing importance of scientific learning—where discipline and rigor never flagged as prerequisites for success.
But the most interesting contradiction was his own warm enthusiasm for certain expressions of the new radical freedom even as he denounced it—such as Norman O. Brown’s book Life Against Death (1959), which, with its messianic call for an end to all repression and a return to the “polymorphous perversity” of infancy, became a campus favorite long before R.D. Laing and Michel Foucault made madness the byword of self-consciously alienated intellectuals. When Brown came to Columbia to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa oration in 1960, it was Trilling who had invited him.
Here was an instance of the vitalizing self-contradiction—or, to use one of Trilling’s favorite terms, the dialectic within his own mind—that made him an enduring writer. Now, approaching sixty, he became an éminence grise. Perhaps he consented too soon to his own supersededness. But he remained alert, if disapprovingly so, to the currents of his time—as in his melancholy final essay, left incomplete in 1975 when he became too ill to continue it, about his recent experience teaching Jane Austen to undergraduates. In the surviving fragment he revealed that his confidence in the premise of his lifework was waning:
Humanism does not in the least question the good effect of reading about the conduct of other people of one’s own time, but it does put a special value upon ranging backward in time to find in a past culture the paradigms by which our own moral lives are put to test. In its predilection for the moral instructiveness of past cultures, humanism is resolute in the belief that there is very little in this transaction that is problematic; it is confident that the paradigms will be properly derived and that the judgments made on the basis they offer will be valid. Humanism takes for granted that any culture of the past out of which has come a work of art that commands our interest must be the product, and also, of course, the shaping condition, of minds which are essentially the same as our own.
Perhaps this is so, but after the Jane Austen course had gone on for a time, the enormous qualifying power of that word “essentially” became manifest to me. Essentially like our own that past culture and those minds, or selves, which created it and were created by it doubtless were, but between them and us there stretched a great range of existential differences.
This is more than a wail on behalf of the Old Way. It is a shrewd recognition that a new anthropological relativism was making a great upheaval in Western intellectual life—sweeping away the idea that art and literature offer usable wisdom for the present as well as registering the practices of the past. In the face of this challenge to all forms of judgment, Trilling could be simultaneously irascible and sentimental, as when he wrote, a few years earlier in the Charles Eliot Norton lectures he delivered at Harvard, about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:
Today it is scarcely possible to read Marlow’s celebration of England without irony; to many, especially among the English themselves, it is bound to seem patently absurd. The present state of opinion does not countenance the making of discriminations among imperialisms, present or past, and the idea that more virtue might be claimed for one nation than another is given scant credence. But this was not always the case. Having the choice to make, Conrad himself elected to become English exactly because he believed England to be a good nation.
In the aftermath of the changes he witnessed at the end of his life, Trilling would not, I think, be surprised to find that intellectual life has divided between fundamentalism on the one hand (the subject of his essay on the Kinsey Report—the idea that nature and history contain unmediated moral lessons) and relativism on the other (the idea that there is no transcendent basis for moral judgment). Both fail his test of intellectual value because both are deficient as ways of dealing with the exigencies of experience. And so he spent his life trying to invigorate and defend the always-threatened liberalism that stands between these dogmas—the idea of living self-critically with respect but without idolatry toward standards inherited from the past.
The clear and present salience of Trilling’s way of reading and writing may be no longer immediately evident. Although the world has not—and never will—rid itself of demagogues who fit the prophetic description he found in the charismatic Paul Muniment of James’s The Princess Casamassima, his interpretations can today seem anachronistic. His impassioned advocacy of “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty” as the only defense against fanaticism in all its protean forms seems less urgent than it once was. It is hard, by now, to recall how the imagination of Europe was seized by fascism, or the rapture with which many American intellectuals thrilled to the promise of Soviet communism. This kind of thralldom has been rendered incredible by the totalism of our own time—by the total triumph, in our managerial age, of free-market values over all competing ideas about how society should be organized. The great essays Trilling wrote from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s—with the figures of Hitler and Stalin lurking behind all of them—are liable to seem cerebral documents of merely historical interest.
To the extent that this is so, it is our failure—not his. There is nothing transient or archaic in his insight that the consequences of every human action exfoliate beyond the actor’s foresight or control (this awareness, I think, is what drew him especially to James), or in his refusal to allow any generalization about human experience to settle into dogma. He understood deeply the proximity of indignation to self-love—and the susceptibility of both to be transformed into hate. These are not sententiae from another time. They are provocations that continue to exert on us the demand for rethinking everything of which we are convinced.
January 11, 2001