Class & Culture
We Must March My Darlings.
by Diana Trilling.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 320 pp. $10.00.
In the lengthy note that Diana Trilling appended to her piece on “Liberal Anti-Communism Revisited” in her new book of essays,1 causing it to be rejected by her original publisher, she speaks with evident anxiety about “a new generation of readers” who are likely to be bewildered by “the very idea of writing in 1976 about something called ‘anti-Communism.’ ” “As to a division, and an ever-sharpening one,” she observes, “between the anti-Communist ‘position’ and the anti-anti-Communist ‘position’ such as I write about . . . it can only strike them as bizarre—what factions are these and who are their members? I must seem to speak not only of a world they never made but of a world they don’t inhabit. . . .”
It turned out, as we know, that she had even more cause for worry than she had anticipated. For it was not only this “new generation”—the generation that came of age politically in the 60’s—that was not prepared to be reminded of the basic issues separating these anti-Communist and anti-anti-Communist “positions,” but an older generation of eminently successful publishing executives as well. In undertaking to respond to Lillian Hellman’s cleverly stated criticism of Lionel Trilling and herself in Scoundrel Time—an accusation of grave political error, if not of dishonor, couched in terms of a friendly and puzzled solicitude—Mrs. Trilling discovered that she was in conflict with a valuable literary property. And since the value of this literary property was inseparable from the political position its author espoused—a not uncommon convergence of “progressive” ideology and commercial success in the Broadway and Hollywood milieu that had made Miss Hell-man both famous and rich—there was no way for Mrs. Trilling to set the record straight without also injuring, if only inadvertently and belatedly, the runaway success of Scoundrel Time. That Mrs. Trilling’s note on Scoundrel Time turned up at the very moment when the lavish, uncritical praise heaped upon the book had at last prompted some vigorous attacks on its historical veracity, was probably not irrelevant to the decision to reject her book either. For Mrs. Trilling had placed the publishers of Scoundrel Time in the awkward position of making common cause with the book’s adversaries. It was precisely in this combination of political and commercial motives that the rejection of Mrs. Trilling’s book was indeed a matter of some significance.
Now that We Must March My Darlings has appeared under another imprint, it has become the thing to say that Mrs. Trilling’s reply to Lillian Hellman really did not amount to much anyway, and that the publisher who rejected the book was merely being obtuse. But this, I think, is quite unjust, not only to Mrs. Trilling but to her original publisher too. The truth is, though her note on Lillian Hell-man is brief, Mrs. Trilling had nonetheless touched a nerve in openly identifying the author of Scoundrel Time as someone “who has been able to countenance all the atrocities of Communist power since she and I came of political age in the 30’s”—the very nerve that gave Scoundrel Time its aura of injured innocence and moral heroism, and won its author an unearned historical prestige—and Miss Hellman’s publisher was quick to recognize its implications. They went, after all, to the very heart of Lillian Hellman’s “act,” and gave to Mrs. Trilling’s book an added edge of currency. The real significance of the whole episode was precisely this: that it revealed the extent to which the issue of Stalinism persists as an endemic feature of our cultural life.
It is indeed the great virtue of a good many of the essays that are brought together in We Must March My Darlings that they make us vividly aware, insofar as we are susceptible of such awareness, that we, all of us, young and old and middle-aged, do, alas, inhabit a world in which the political “division” Mrs. Trilling speaks of continues to determine not only our basic political attitudes but—and this is the arena of Mrs. Trilling’s special strength as a critic, of course—the wider sphere of culture in which these political attitudes wear so many beguiling disguises. In the note I have already quoted she makes explicit the point that elsewhere in the book informs her whole sense of the culture she has placed under examination. About the “new generation of readers” whose real ignorance of the recent past makes her so uneasy, Mrs. Trilling writes:
. . . while they properly look upon the congressional investigations and McCarthyism as dangerous phenomena in our country’s past, they fail to understand the political situation of that period, or the political and cultural conditions to which they were a reaction, conditions which had their origin in an intense Communist partisanship among our ostensibly most conscientious and enlightened classes. Or it they read established, respected periodicals such as the New York Review of Books or even the New York Times Book Review, it rarely occurs to them to ask how, other than perhaps in response to advertising pressures, their editors determine which book is worth notice, or on what principle its reviewer is selected, and how the prominence or lack of prominence given a review is decided upon: are there considerations other than those of interest and merit? And not alone for this younger generation of readers but for most of their parent generation as well, the possibility that these decisions reflect, as they so often do, present-day political choices which, in turn, sometimes directly and consciously, sometimes indirectly and automatically, refer to the divisions of as much as thirty or forty years ago on the Communist issue, is virtually inconceivable.
It is something of a relief to have the matter restated in such emphatic terms. And if one harbored any doubt about the accuracy of this analysis, which I do not, it has been amply confirmed in the early reviews of Mrs. Trilling’s own book—the one in the Kirkus Reviews of April 15, for example, or Thomas R. Edwards’s review in the New York Times Book Review of May 29, or Bruce Cook’s in the Saturday Review of May 28. Reading such pieces, one may even yearn a little for that earlier period when the “intense Communist partisanship” Mrs. Trilling speaks of was so much more open and acknowledged than it ever is today in the blur and mush that is allowed to pass for serious commentary in the most popular and respectable journals.
Not that the present situation is exactly lacking in avowals of sympathy for Communist power. Far from it. Mrs. Trilling herself reminds us of the influential voices that, increasingly in the past decade, have “commandeered the word ‘liberal’ for views which often have their primary source in a reluctance to speak out against Communism.” But the radical pieties bequeathed us by the upheavals of the 60’s—pieties now so deeply embedded in the respectable middle-class culture of the 70’s that they are virtually indistinguishable from the very substance of that culture—are far more insidious than the old Stalinist clichés in their power to shape our lives. The great strength of Mrs. Trilling’s criticism lies in its keen perception of the relation that obtains between the “dictates” of this culture and the lives, especially the lives of the young, that are shaped by its governing impulses and ideas. Much of We Must March My Darlings is concerned with the young, with the disaffected offspring of the educated middle class—with their education, their “aesthetic,” their sexuality, their tastes and manners and morals, even more than with their politics, which are viewed less as a cause of their characteristic actions than as an expression of a fundamental cultural disposition. In one of the longest and best essays in the book—Mrs. Trilling’s extraordinary account of the student revolt at Columbia University in the spring of 1968, “On the Steps of Low Library”2—she speaks of “the triumph of culture over politics,” and this is her abiding theme in We Must March My Darlings.
In the triumph of culture over politics, the modern college classroom plays a great part, of course, and Mrs. Trilling is very much in her element in discussing it. She understands the extent to which the authority enjoyed by Timothy Leary as one of the prophets of the youth drug culture in the late 60’s, for example, rested on his position as a defrocked college professor. It was at college, after all, that his addled followers learned to admire the kind of rebellion he came to exemplify; it was in the classroom that they were initiated into the mystery of employing the resources of professional mind for a purpose of utter mindlessness. “In a society as mobile as that of America and as unavailable to the ethical instruction once conveyed through established religion,” Mrs. Trilling writes in “Celebrating with Dr. Leary,” “the school is more than an institution for teaching the intellectual disciplines, it is the matrix of our cultural values, the chief source and guardian of our personal and social morality. What the school establishes today, it hopes that the home will have absorbed by tomorrow. . . .”
She returns to this theme—and to the unexamined consequences that follow from it—in “On the Steps of Low Library” when she observes:
The teaching of modern subjects in our universities, especially literature, proceeds on some unadmitted assumption of a drastic discontinuity between art and life. It is as if the professor who sanctions the revolutionary content of the contemporary works which he teaches were still speaking from the platform of a hundred years ago, when art was outside the stream of “real” life, outside the world of action and political choice, its influence upon public affairs a matter of some slow unfathomable penetration of the public consciousness by a remote mysterious object called culture. Among the many assumptions undermined by the attack on Columbia, not the least important was the illusion that contemporary art is an academic subject like any other, adequately dealt with without doctrinal commitment. Only the blindest eye could fail to see the extent to which the revolutionary scene at the University represented the moral substance of contemporary art translated into actuality; indeed the triumph of culture over politics.
In the essay on Timothy Leary, she speaks of “the tide of nihilism” then (1967) engulfing the young, and while she is under no illusion that the classroom alone was responsible for unleashing it, she is forthright about the role that the classroom will be obliged to assume in correcting it. “But if anything is to be done to stem it,” she writes, “this will have to be undertaken by the same class of people who did such a successful job of bringing the failure of the modern world to our educated consciousness.”
It was in search of what this “same class of people” were up to at her old college that Mrs. Trilling returned to Radcliffe for nine weeks in the spring of 1971, living in her old residence hall and interviewing many of its students. It is this section of We Must March My Darlings, which gives the book its title (out of a poem by Walt Whitman), that is at once the most poignant and the most alarming. Clearly Mrs. Trilling liked a good many of the undergraduate students she met at Radcliffe and Harvard that spring, despite her distaste for their unkempt appearance and their unfeeling habit of littering the public rooms of their residences with the rubbish of their daily life. They seem to have talked freely to her, and there are some fine moments of tenderness, sympathy, humor, and intellectual exchange in her account of their conversations. But she was just as clearly appalled at the way these students were being victimized, and at the degree of their acquiescence in and even enthusiasm for their victimization, by the cultural, pedagogic, and sexual imperatives that were systematically incapacitating them for the emotional as well as the professional burdens of adult life. She found these students not only ignorant of the rudiments of history—even, as she points out, about the history of the radical ideas they sometimes espoused—and generally aimless in anything having to do with future professional attainment, but simply and smugly adrift in an intellectual wasteland.
Yet the intellectual deficiencies of the education offered at Radcliffe—more a reflection of abdication on the part of the college, Mrs. Trilling seems to feel, than on the part of the students (she is, in any case, hardest of all on the college president)—were very far from being the whole of the sad story. It is about the very lives these students were being induced to live—the proud fruit of all the vaunted “liberations” of our time—that Mrs. Trilling has the bleakest story to tell. Behind the appealing “ease and casualness with which the men and the girls seemed to have come together as the wish took them,” she found a dismal loneliness, “the endemic isolateness of Cambridge undergraduate life.” Behind the much-admired sexual freedom and the “institutional permission for the sexes to cohabit,” using the same toilets and sleeping in the same beds, she discovered a life that represented an induction into sexual sterility, a phenomenon of “de-eroticization” in the relation of the sexes that seemed to nullify everything that the sexual revolution of our time had promised. There is nothing sadder in this book than the account given Mrs. Trilling by a Harvard undergraduate of his lengthy “affair” with a Radcliffe girl, with whom he regularly shared a bed but with whom he had never made love. In this example of “the new chastity,” as Midge Decter once called it, we are given a glimpse of the triumph of culture over the very capacity to live—and it is this that leaves the most lasting impression in Mrs. Trilling’s account of her return to the Radcliffe campus.
But she is also concerned in this essay about the effect of this and other modes of “liberation” on the Radcliffe student as they manifest themselves in her preparation for “the brutal world of economic competition,” which, as Mrs. Trilling observes, “looks as if it will be our universe for still some time to come.” Here too she found a bleak prospect. “It would seem to me that, especially today, a process of natural selection was necessarily at work to put the mark of restlessness and unattained aspiration on most of the girls I had interviewed,” she writes, and goes on:
Obviously there were dangling men at Harvard too, intellectual spendthrift men, who squandered what was offered them in preparation for their futures. . . . [But] even in a period of extraordinary narcissism—which is how I judged it—among college students, the students at Harvard apparently recognized the extent to which the search for personal identity depends on the way in which we earn our livings. . . . It is the fierce imperative of money, the need to earn a living not for one year or five but always, that gives men their immeasurable advantage over women in the quest for identity.
That the Radcliffe of 1971, no more than the Radcliffe of Mrs. Trilling’s day, had done little or nothing to alter the situation—had, indeed, by encouraging a “flaccid sentimental idealism,” abetted it—is a source of considerable distress to her. “For if the purportedly outstanding women’s college of America,” she writes, “can do no better for its students . . . what chance, I must wonder, have we for a female social force equal to the task of claiming full citizenship for the second sex?”
Mrs. Trilling offers us little hope, then, that the “people who did such a successful job of bringing the failure of the modern world to our educated consciousness” are going to bring us much else. Perhaps the reason—she does not quite say this—lies in their attitude toward their own class, an attitude that Mrs. Trilling, oddly enough, seems to share. Prompted by her experience at Radcliffe, she writes:
One dreams of a Tocqueville to deal as it deserves with the subject of America’s present-day ambivalence toward the very idea of the middle class, that bulwark of American society which provides the economic sustenance of our idealism at the same time as, all anomalously, it nourishes the most lethal assaults on our tranquility. Surely there was never a period when our feelings about middle-class privilege, middle-class advantage, were as double-edged as they are today. On the one hand, we despise the middle class as the source and repository of those assumptions and attitudes at which, in our modern liberal consciousness, we are most angry and which we most fear. On the other hand, what except the middle class is the promised land toward which we wish to move all who were not born its citizens—after which it will presumably have so different a character that it will no longer generate anger and fear!
This is finely said, but there is, all the same, something important missing from it. For is it only an “economic” sustenance that the middle class has given “our idealism”? Has it given us—has it given Mrs. Trilling—no moral or political or cultural sustenance? There are times when the “ambivalence” Mrs. Trilling invokes in this passage has a hollow ring, when it is made to serve as a euphemism for a harsher and less equivocal avowal than she can usually bring herself to make.
Elsewhere in We Must March My Darlings she does make such an avowal, however, when she writes that “Within a capitalist society like our own, whose form of government is democratic, it is capitalism which I regard as the corrupting element.” This, I think, is an astonishing statement, not only in its context—it occurs in Mrs. Trilling’s essay on “Liberal Anti-Communism Revisited”—but in its relation to everything else that is discussed in her book. We know, of course, that it is the prerogative of an essayist like Mrs. Trilling to raise more questions than she will ever be called upon to answer, but this particular one—the question of capitalism as “the corrupting element” in our society—is not exactly marginal to her concerns, and it is a little stunning to discover that she harbors such a superficial and unexamined view of an important part of her subject. For how can one uphold the ethos of the middle class, which Mrs. Trilling repeatedly does in these essays, and yet take refuge in this simplistic piety about the economic system that gives the middle class its enabling power? What is at work here, I suspect—what is often at work even in the invocation of “ambivalence”—is less a considered political analysis than the liberal’s craven fear of being stigmatized as a conservative. If one compares Mrs. Trilling’s remark about capitalism as “the corrupting element” with the very different discussion of capitalism to be found in two books that have come to us this season from the anti-Communist Left in Europe—Jean-François Revel’s The Totalitarian Temptation, and Paul Johnson’s Enemies of Society—one can better appreciate, I think, the hollowness of her position on this question.
There are other curiosities in Mrs. Trilling’s book that likewise point to some pretty basic inconsistencies. About Mrs. Trilling’s attitude toward Norman Mailer, one could say a good deal—there is now ample material for an essay on the subject—but it may suffice for the moment to point out that, while disapproving and even abhorring much that he has to say about politics and sex, she remains inclined to absolve him on purely “aesthetic” grounds. This, of course, is the reverse of her usual position; there is not much else in the culture of her time to which Mrs. Trilling grants a similar exemption. No doubt it is because Mailer’s aesthetic is so firmly grounded in the mode of ambivalence in which she herself takes frequent refuge that she is disinclined to follow the logic of her own often astringent criticism of his work to the conclusion it seems to invite. In one of the best passages of Mrs. Trilling’s essay on the Columbia upheaval, she writes:
One of the lessons taught in the uprising—it bears on the old question of why the center cannot hold—is the speed with which whatever makes its appeal to direct action achieves emotional advantage over whatever is committed to the slower and more passive (as it would appear) process of reasonableness; how to activate decency and teach it to stop feeling deficient because of its low quotient of drama is obviously one of the urgent problems of modern society.
Yet, though she is quick to see and speak against the way Mailer’s ideas abet this destructive priority, she is reluctant to see in his style an even more insidious contribution to the phenomenon she deplores.
Perhaps the oddest of all Mrs. Trilling’s essays, however, is the piece called “Our Uncomplaining Homosexuals,” in which she compares two authors and two books—J. R. Ackerley in My Father and Myself and Philip Roth in Portnoy’s Complaint—very much to the latter’s disadvantage. Here too we are in the presence of an “aesthetic” exemption disguised as a hard-headed social analysis. What she admires so much in Ackerley is the “guiltlessness” with which he speaks of his homosexual life—that, and what she calls the “laws of good taste” that are observed in his account of it. “Where the whole pedagogic point of Roth’s book lies in its insistence that our personal disorders are a consequence of our disordered civilization, the pedagogic point, which is also the human point, of Ackerley’s book lies in its reminder that imperfect man makes for an imperfect world,” she writes. Portnoy, on the other hand, is said to “call for a state of unconditioned bliss for all of mankind.”
This is not quite my reading of Portnoy’s Complaint, or of My Father and Myself either. There is something bizarre, in any case, in the spectacle of Mrs. Trilling admonishing the obstreperous and indelicate author of Portnoy’s Complaint to mind his manners and take a lesson from the dispassionate prose of an English gentleman who had the good taste to solve his sexual complaint by settling into a cozy, sexless—if sexless it was—domesticity with a pet Alsatian bitch. There is much to admire in Ackerley’s book, and there is plenty to question in Roth’s, but as soon as we set them beside each other, as Mrs. Trilling invites us to do, it is abundantly clear, I think, that while the author of Portnoy’s Complaint is emphatically on the side of life, the author of My Father and Myself is first in a miserable and then in a resigned flight from it. This is indeed the whole poignancy of My Father and Myself, and it is startling to see it commended as some kind of model—of all things, as a model of manliness. Both in this essay and in another—the discussion of Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage that gives her book a rather limp conclusion—Mrs. Trilling proves to be an unreliable guide to the vagaries of English literary society. She is too easily impressed with its fine, easy manners and what she calls “a sense of self”—which she cannot always distinguish, I think, from its endemic snobbery—to be able to measure its failure and waste. She is in a much better position to measure our own, even though she herself is by no means as unswayed by the “dictates” of our culture as she would have us believe.
1 The piece in question, now revised, appeared in a COMMENTARY symposium, September 1967.
2 Originally published in COMMENTARY, November 1968.