I want to call attention to an event in our literary life which is probably not without political meaning: a number of writers who once sharply attacked Lionel Trilling (died 1975) have recently recanted, substituting praise for their former criticism. I am thinking most immediately of Professor Mark Krupnick, who in the 70’s savaged Trilling for his views on literature and culture but now, in the just-published Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism,1 tries to convince us that his new-found admiration is genuine. Moreover, in his book Krupnick does some apologizing for, and explaining of, his nastiness during the 70’s. And other critics have followed the same pattern of attacking Trilling and then praising him.
Perhaps the writer who established the pattern was the critic Irving Howe. In 1954, he published in Partisan Review a very well written though intellectually feeble essay, “This Age of Conformity.” At the time, Howe’s particular targets were the American intellectuals who were uninterested in his brand of radicalism; the most prominent of these was Lionel Trilling, who had befriended Howe and helped him find a publisher for his book on Sherwood Anderson.
In his 1954 article—the date, as will be seen, is important—Howe wrote:
Trilling believes that there is an unmistakable improvement in the American cultural situation of today over that of, say, thirty years ago, while to me it seems that any comparison between the buoyant, free-spirited cultural life of 1923 and the dreariness of 1953, or between their literary achievements, must lead to the conclusion that Trilling is indulging in a pleasant fantasy.
But was not Howe the one indulging in a fantasy, and not a pleasant fantasy at that? Nineteen-twenty-three was only some two years after the Palmer raids on alleged political subversives. The segregation of blacks in this country was complete, uncontested, and defended by lynchings. In the “buoyant” culture of 1923 one could not buy a drink of hard liquor without breaking the law. There were great writers in 1923, but many of them were expatriates, finding the cultural climate inhospitable. We had one great playwright, Eugene O’Neill, who had made it on Broadway, but any efforts at theatrical productions less bourgeois and costly than those uptown had to wait until 1953, the very year in which Howe was overwhelmed by our cultural dreariness.
In 1954, the year Howe’s essay was published, came the decision of the Supreme Court which declared for the desegregation of our schools. In those same years Faulkner was still adding to a body of work equal to anything written in the previous century, and our abstract expressionist painters were making New York City the art center of the world. And I must not fail to mention Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Robert Lowell, who did some of their best writing during the early 50’s. I submit that after his attempt at cultural judgment Howe, instead of being encouraged in such efforts, should have been sat on by his peers.
In later years, Howe wrote admiringly of Trilling’s efforts in criticism, countering with two and sometimes three compliments each of his initial statements of dispraise. In his 1984 memoir, A Margin of Hope, Howe mentions but does not cite his former criticisms of Trilling; instead, he invokes there a 1956 essay by the literary historian Joseph Frank which was even more severely critical of Trilling than Howe at his most outspokenly radical had allowed himself to be. Howe cites Joseph Frank’s essay with what I take to be full approval. And in this connection I must note that Mark Krupnick in his present, favorable book on Trilling has also not neglected to praise Frank’s piece. Finally, Robert Boyers, the editor of the quarterly Salmagundi, in his own effort in a little volumet2 to do some minor damage to Trilling’s reputation, has called his work on Trilling an “extension of Joseph Frank’s essay.”
Frank’s essay, “Lionel Trilling and the Conservative Imagination,” originally appeared in Sewanee Review and was occasioned by the publication of a collection of Trilling’s literary pieces under the title The Opposing Self. Before considering the essay I should observe that Frank too has felt some need to account for the criticisms of Trilling he made there. In an appendix to the essay, published in 1978 (in a special issue of Salmagundi devoted to Trilling), Frank gave his explanation of the state of mind in which it was written, and some of the circumstances that influenced his point of view in writing it. But the fact is that Frank’s explanation itself needs much explaining.
In his explanatory note Frank writes: “These were, it should be remembered, the Eisenhower years . . . when McCarthyism was still very much of a force.” As I remember, however, Senator McCarthy had been extinguished by the Eisenhower administration, and before 1956, the year the essay appeared. But no doubt Joseph Frank has in mind earlier doings of our government when the notions for his critique of Trilling were germinating. He quotes from a piece he published in 1952 in Partisan Review: “I think the first job for every American intellectual is to protest against the intellectual witchhunting and the drive for conformist thought control that is making our country the laughing stock—as well as the bugaboo—of the rest of the civilized world.” Yet, again as I remember, Joseph Frank hardly did anything further on this “first job of every American intellectual”; it may be that Trilling did nothing, either, but then he evidently did not believe that to be an intellectual’s first job.
In his 1978 explanation Joseph Frank goes on:
During the early 1950’s, as a matter of fact, I had spent several years living in France, which then seemed to me to be producing works of art and ideas (particularly the latter) of great interest and vitality. I had been particularly struck by the attempt of such writers as Sartre and Camus (not to mention many others) to work out a synthesis of Marxism and existentialism, to unite the social with the artistic and the metaphysical, and in this way to enlarge the previous narrow boundaries of official Marxist-Leninist dogma. Such efforts had of course been familiar to me since my student days in the 1930’s, which had seen in the United States the important attempt made by Partisan Review to unite a social radicalism rooted in Marxist ideas with literary experimentalism and an openness to the cultural avant-garde independent of political prescriptions. . . .
[T]he same endeavor was being carried forward, in an even more philosophically rigorous, energetic, and ambitious fashion, in such works of the immediate post-World War II period as Sartre’s What Is Literature? and Camus’s L’homme révolté [The Rebel]. . . . In these works, whatever my disagreement . . . on specific matters of detail, I could feel the tension of the same struggle that had animated The Liberal Imagination—the struggle between social idealism and artistic or metaphysical awareness, the ambition to work out a new synthesis of the two or, at the very least, not to sacrifice one in the presumed interests of the other. It was thus in a frame of mind sensitized to this particular issue that I received The Opposing Self for review, and began to grapple with the problem of defining my reaction to it.
What I accept as true and rightly put in this statement of Joseph Frank’s case for his essay is the notion that a similar tension animated the essays of Trilling and Camus’s The Rebel, as well as certain essays that Sartre wrote before What Is Literature? But there are unacceptable errors in this explanation, both of understanding and of fact, and this from a critic whose scholarship I, for one, had assumed to be impeccable. Camus did not try to synthesize existentialism and Marxism; he denied that he was an existentialist, and he polemicized strongly against Marxism (being influenced in this regard by Nicola Chiaromonte and Andrea Caffi). The Rebel was an attack on the Marxist faith, and it was not long after its publication that Sartre broke off with Camus. As for Sartre, his What Is Literature? was a call to writers to stop thinking of aesthetic values and to commit themselves politically; in it, Sartre asked writers not to be independent of political prescriptions.
Sartre and Camus were both great writers, and I was friendly to both of them; but they were not both urging the same doctrine. In fact, they were ideological opponents, from 1950 until Camus’s death. Indeed, what is most strange is that in Frank’s 1956 essay, which he is here defending, he criticized in Trilling precisely what Sartre had criticized in Camus: the idea, held by both Camus and Trilling, that politics should not be pursued as the all-important ideal objective. If Trilling at times exhibited and even preached a kind of political quietism, so did Camus, who argued that all politics can accomplish is to clean up the kitchen, it cannot tell us how to live. Sartre, by contrast, was telling his readers how to live, how to think, and how to write politically even when not writing about politics.
In his explanation, Frank makes it appear that civilized Europeans, in a unified trend represented by Sartre and Camus alike, were scandalized by the particular political course being taken by the U.S. That may have been true of Sartre, who in 1954 called America fascist; but, again, it does not hold for Camus, who opposed Sartre, and with whose views I believe Trilling was largely in agreement. Against Frank’s lineup of Sartre, Camus, and civilized Europeans generally opposed to the U.S. and those of its intellectuals who had not devoted themselves to the defeat of McCarthyism, I suggest that it would be more in accordance with actual fact to set up a different division of forces and persons. On one side there were the USSR, the Communist party, and its supporters, including Sartre and his colleagues on Les Temps Modernes, which as late as 1950 had advised voters to support the French Communist party’s candidates in the elections. On the other side we may place the anti-Communist Camus alongside Lionel Trilling.
The misstatements and confusions in Frank’s explanation of his essay have led me to read the original text much less sympathetically than when I first saw it in 1956. And the essay itself contains statements I find I must criticize.
Take, for example, Frank’s assertion that Trilling has a tendency to “. . . identify all forms of being in which the will is absent or quiescent with the ideal values of the aesthetic attitude.” It is this aestheticism that has led Trilling, Frank concludes, “. . . by a devious path, to end up in justifying a good many of the degrading objects of the social world which the will had once been required to shun and to despise.”
Just what are the “degrading objects of the social world” which Trilling ended up by justifying, objects which “the will had once been required to shun and to despise”? Perhaps Frank has in mind, as one of these objects, the investigations of the congressional committee on un-American activities, but in that case he should have adduced some evidence to show that Trilling had justified its practices. To my knowledge there is nothing to suggest he did. Perhaps Frank has in mind Trilling’s candid acceptance of certain social conventions, which out-and-out bohemians might regard as philistine—in which case Frank should have stated just what these “degrading” conventions are, and also numbered himself among the bohemians who have rejected them. Frank makes a charge that is as serious as it is unspecific, leaving his readers to conjecture about whatever “degrading objects of the social world” they might like to think that Trilling justified. Here I believe Frank has joined in his judgment the two extremes of bad criticism, saying much too much and not nearly enough.
When I first read Joseph Frank’s essay I thought he had made a devastating attack on Trilling’s “Wordsworth and the Rabbis,” an essay included in The Opposing Self. Here is Frank:
Whatever one may say about the feelings depicted in the lines from “Tintern Abbey,” it is obvious that they have little to do with the routine trivialities of modern middle-class life. . . . [B]y lumping Wordsworth’s “beatitude” with Eliot’s “the common routine,” Trilling is being false to the spirit of Wordsworth; but even more, he is trying to make us believe that a passive acceptance of social convention is on the same level of spiritual dignity as the quasimystic experience of Wordsworth.
Today I ask: is that what Trilling was trying to make us believe? Alerted to the political bias underlying Frank’s argument in his own account of how he came to write his essay, I have looked carefully into Trilling’s “Wordsworth and the Rabbis,” and, behold, what Frank saw is not there at all.
Nowhere in his essay does Trilling equate the mundane routine of middle-class life with the beatitudes of Wordsworth. What he does say is that there is an important value in the common routine which T.S. Eliot, in his play The Cocktail Party, ignored. He says that in that play Eliot failed to conceive the actuality of ordinary life. I quote from Trilling:
This failure to conceive the actuality of the life of common routine is typical of modern literature since, say, Tolstoy. I do not say this to suggest that domestic life, the common routine, makes an especially appropriate subject for literature—I don’t think it does—but in order to suggest a limitation of our conception of the spiritual life. . . . We imagine, with nothing in between, the dull not-being of life, the intense not-being of death; but we do not imagine being—we do not imagine that it can be joy. We are in love, at least in our literature, with the fantasy of death. Death and suffering, when we read, are our only means of conceiving the actuality of life.
Trilling is making an important point here, but it is a very different point from the one Frank claims he made. He is not asking writers falsely to embellish the actualities of ordinary life, nor is he claiming there is a good in it which is in fact not there. He is asking that whatever is good in ordinary life be represented in our literature (and he finds something of it represented in Joyce’s Ulysses).
But what has any of this to do with Wordsworth, who managed to have experiences the ordinary man does not have? There is this, Frank claims: Trilling’s liking for Wordsworth, specifically for Wordsworth’s yielding to the forces of nature, somehow justifies (in Trilling’s eyes) our yielding to the socially given, and our being social, as distinct from mystical, quietists.
I myself see no ground for thinking that in praising Wordsworth’s experience of nature Trilling was defending the norms of middle-class life, and I cannot accept Frank’s reading here. What can the boring problems of middle-class life, of dealing with nagging spouses and disobedient children, of getting jobs and paying debts, have to do with the high spirituality of the poet who told us that “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”? There is nothing to praise, morally, in anyone’s, even Wordsworth’s, mystical contact with nature, and Trilling in his praise of Wordsworth has simply put moral judgment in parentheses. But he is thinking entirely in moral terms when he recommends an acceptance of the socially given. One may judge that he was mistaken or correct in taking this attitude, but I see no ground or evidence for connecting his view of middle-class life with his praise of Wordsworth.
For what it is worth, I believe that Trilling in his own life wanted to be even more bourgeois—taking the term in its social, not in its political, sense—than it is possible for an American in this century to be. He longed for the elaborate style of bourgeois life which the British and the French had developed, which so many French writers attacked, and which Americans who have not lived abroad hardly know at all. But this taste of his implied nothing in the way of a commitment to any particular social policy or socioeconomic system—something his left-wing critics have never understood.
The important point Trilling is making, and which Frank has missed entirely, is this: whatever value there may be in any escape from or transcendence of the actualities of ordinary life will finally depend on there being some unimpeachable value in ordinary life itself. And I think this view, an extremely subtle one, which Trilling himself associates with the ancient rabbis, is completely right.
In defending Trilling’s contention that there is “joy” in ordinary experience I am not implying, of course, a defense of every literary judgment he made. For instance, I do not agree with his negative judgment of Dreiser’s work. But unlike Frank I do not think his error here a morally philistine one; he was mistaken, as the best of critics have been. And rereading Trilling’s deliberately controversial essay on the American realist novelist William Dean Howells, also included in The Opposing Self, I could not but smile at the snare it seems to me he was setting for unwary critics, and I could not but wonder how it was that Joseph Frank, who must have known he was being led on, could so blunder, and fall into it. Clearly Trilling, in praising Howells, was looking toward some denunciation of his judgment by critics who did not understand it, or his motive for stating and defending it; so the indignant Frank provided him with just the kind of attack he may have wished and must have relished. For there is an ironic pleasure to be had in arousing an indignation one knows is quite mistaken.
Did Trilling in fact overpraise Howells, as Frank charges? He called the novelist an “engaging” writer, comparing him with, but placing him well below, Trollope. Did not Trilling note that Howells was not “intelligent” in his attitude toward creative invention in fiction, relying stupidly on his peculiar notions of realism? Trilling does indeed praise Howells for his creation of character; perhaps there is some overestimation here, but surely nothing to elicit moral indignation. Apparently what makes Joseph Frank wrathful is a judgment I find quite unobjectionable, namely, Trilling’s commendation of Howells for making the middle-class family the center of his spiritual concerns, as well as Trilling’s daring to suggest that Howells knew something about the antagonism between spirit and the circumstances which may condition it, even as did Donne, Pascal, and Tolstoy. This brings down on the critic the sermonizing he may well have desired. Frank writes:
[T]his invocation of Donne, Pascal, and Tolstoy is unexpected, to say the least. What has Howells to do with Donne’s conflict between a skeptical sensuality and a passionate religiosity? With Pascal’s conflict between the impasses of reason and the eternal silence of the infinite spaces? With Tolstoy’s titanic search for the meaning of history, and his anguished struggle to reconcile the abundance of life with the gnawing awareness of physical death?
But these questions, put so rhetorically by Frank, are so much hapless rodomontade. Frank, thrice wrong, is saying three times that he is right. Trilling is comparing Howells to Donne, Pascal, and Tolstoy with respect to the nature, not the depth, of his concerns. All Trilling says of Howells is that he had an interest in whatever conditions the spirit, as did the three Europeans. To be sure, Donne, Pascal, and Tolstoy were interested in all sorts of things which could not possibly have interested Howells. But the poet who wrote, “I can love any so she love not me”; the mathematician and philosopher who warned against revolution, since it was very likely to make one long for the ancien régime; the novelist who so loved family life yet was alert to its tragic side—all were interested in the actualities which condition and limit our spiritual endeavors. To say these many-sided geniuses were like Howells in one respect, and that perhaps the only respect in which he counts at all, is not to diminish their stature, or to enlarge that of Howells.
Now there are other criticisms of Trilling in Frank’s essay besides the political thrust with which I have dealt so far; Frank had some purely intellectual objections to Trilling’s writings which do not have to be answered politically. But I believe those critics who disagreed with Trilling politically, and have praised Frank’s essay, commend it in order to bolster the positions they defend. Thus Irving Howe in A Margin of Hope:
Trilling, said Frank, attacked “the liberal imagination” on the ground that most liberals assumed the complexities of reality could be adequately apprehended through the categories of politics. “Only literature, Trilling argued”—I quote again from Frank—“could truly cope with the intricacies of the moral life; and he recommended that politics appropriate for itself some of the suppleness of literature.” Then came Frank’s final thrust: “It is hardly necesary to say that no such . . . politics has ever existed—or ever will exist. . . . No political ideology of any kind can compete with literature in the delicacy of its reaction to human experience.”
Irving Howe approves, but of course he wants to approve. He does not want to think about the matter. Otherwise he would have noted that Frank has set up a straw man to demolish. For in Frank’s quotations from Trilling it nowhere appears that Trilling said politics could compete with literature in suppleness, delicacy, or anything else. Trilling was dealing with a different fact of life, which in his own way, and in a different context, Harold Rosenberg once documented: namely, that in modern times, politics has set out to compete with literature. It is not so easy to answer what intellectuals must do about this, but all Trilling argued for was that politics take in some of the suppleness we had come to expect from literature. “Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind,” Trilling declared in The Liberal Imagination, “we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.” He clearly was thinking of Communist politics.
Here I want to go back to one statement of Frank’s which Howe should have challenged radically. The statement is: “. . . no such . . . politics has ever existed—or ever will exist.” I want to know, no such politics as—what? No politics equal to literature in suppleness? But Trilling was not suggesting there has been any such thing. What about a politics with some of the qualities we appreciate in imaginative literature? That is in fact, as I have noted, what Trilling was asking for, and that has existed and I am certain will exist again.
Examples abound. Did not Jefferson declare that the thirteen colonies could not continue under British rule because the bond of feeling had been broken by the acts of George III? Can one easily distinguish this statement as a purely political and not at all a literary one? When Napoleon wrote the code under which most Europeans would live for the rest of the century, and whose prose Stendhal would imitate in his novels, did he not in imagination conceive of under what laws the people of France and Europe wanted to live, very much as Balzac had to imagine the kind of fiction his audience of that time wanted to read? The fact that no Soviet political thinker has made any effort analogous to Napoleon’s is one of the things from which Soviet citizens suffer, and will continue to suffer until some imagination is expressed in Soviet social policy; and it may be safely said that this cannot happen as long as imagination is not welcomed in Soviet literature. The politics which, Frank writes, has never existed and cannot exist has existed and will exist again. We saw an aspect of it in Solidarity; and if we do not see more, life in Eastern Europe will continue to be unlivable.
At this point someone may ask, wasn’t Frank right in any of his criticisms? How is it then that “Lionel Trilling and the Conservative Imagination” has steadily acquired such a reputation, so that any serious criticism of Trilling has to refer to it or deal with it? My answer is this: first of all, nobody else writing on Trilling took up fundamental issues as Joseph Frank did, and it required courage for him to write as he did at the time he did. This does not mean, however, that for all his seriousness he was right in his judgments. But wasn’t he right on anything? There are two criticisms Frank made of Trilling about which he may have been right; when I first read Frank’s essay I thought him completely right on these two points. Today I am less sure.
The first point on which Frank may have been right is this: Trilling claimed that in Hegel he could find justification for making the aesthetic the criterion of the moral. And Frank contested this judgment. In fact, it is not utterly clear to me that Frank is right, though I am going to concede the point to him. The reason I think the matter unclear is that Hegel never laid great store by ethics. He thought ethical action consisted in upholding the laws of the community, as long as the community was stable, its government unlikely to be overthrown. In a situation such as we see in South Africa today, the ethical for Hegel would have been to support the laws if one thought the South African government stable, and able to defeat attacks on it, but to resist the government if one thought there were some real likelihood it could be overthrown.
Now such a view of the ethical is not as opposed as Frank thinks to the notion that the aesthetic may be a criterion of the ethical, a view Trilling deduced from Hegel’s remarks on personality. It was possible for Hegel to think this way, while a real ethicist could not. I would argue, too, that by “criterion,” Trilling may have meant “symptom,” in which case I could agree with his judgment. The two terms, we have learned from Wittgenstein, are easily confused. But I am going to grant this point against Trilling to his most serious critic.
The other point has to do with Trilling’s belief that the conscience is buttressed by ego strength, which is often (would he have said, always?) based on biology. Frank writes:
It is difficult to comprehend how someone as intelligent and perceptive as Lionel Trilling should not have understood that “martyrs of the intellect” died for an ideal of “truth” that could hardly have been derived solely from their biological existence. Indeed, I find it slightly repellent even to speak of “immutable biological facts” . . . as if all treasures of the human capacity for heroism, self-sacrifice, and supreme dedication to a moral ideal—as if all the values that Trilling himself is actually urging us to admire—could be reduced to the sum total of a few instinctual drives.
This point I cannot, on reflection, grant altogether. For Frank has slanted Trilling’s notion of the biological so as to make it seem that Trilling said something much more objectionable than he did. There is all the difference in the world between saying that Freud, or Giordano Bruno for that matter, was capable of intellectual heroism because of his ego strength (which had a biological basis), and saying that heroism for the truth can be reduced to a few instinctual drives. Yet I am going to allow this criticism of Trilling, too, and not try to look behind it.
But there have been critics of Trilling to whom I feel no obligation to concede anything whatsoever.
Surely I need concede nothing to the very poor critique of Trilling made by the poet Delmore Schwartz in his 1953 essay, “The Duchess’s Red Shoes,” reprinted in his Selected Essays. Schwartz criticized the emphasis Trilling placed on manners, first in the novel and then in moral life. He made the point that manners are hardly important in the greatest of novels, The Brothers Karamazov, and have as little importance in Moby-Dick. And he suggested that often there are conflicts between the values of being moral and of being mannerly, bringing up Proust’s account in Remembrance of Things Past of the difficult moment when Swann tells the Duchess he is dying and she responds by denying that he is and allows herself to be taken off to a party by the Duke. Schwartz interprets the incident thus: manners required the Duchess to attend the party, and appear there promptly; morals required her to be late to the party or not go at all, and instead spend some time with her friend.
But this is a point which Trilling or Proust—both admirers of Dostoevsky, by the way—might have judged differently from Schwartz. They might have thought it unmannerly for the Duchess to take leave of her friend. (This she did because of the Duke, who did not even care about being late to the party, but insisted that she change her shoes.) In any case, some things may be much more important than manners, but to say this does not tell us just what importance manners have.
I am reminded of a question I put to a friend who had just returned from a visit to Poland. He spoke the language, and so I felt I could trust his judgment of social life in that country. He said to me, “You should visit Poland, too,” mentioning that Saul Bellow had been there. I then asked him: “If one can speak Polish, how long would one have to live in Poland, have social relations with Poles, and not make a faux pas?” I was horrified when he said that one week would be quite sufficient—for in Paris one can live for ten years, speak perfect French, and still be guilty of a social gaffe. So if after a week’s stay in Poland one can be perfectly at ease when with others, we may conclude that Poland’s has not been a truly human society at least since the advent of Communism.
Noting that manners are not important in The Brothers Karamazov, Delmore Schwartz failed to notice how important religious values are in the novel. Now Lionel Trilling was both without serious interest in religious values and critical of them, which should have been taken into account by Schwartz. In what society were manners most important? In China, whose people for the most part never knew the worship of a transcendent God.
Robert Boyers is another critic who, for all his praise of Trilling in the little book he devotes to him, has sharply questioned the fundamental attitudes Trilling took. This appears in Boyers’s examination of a very interesting short story by Trilling, “Of This Time, Of That Place,” which is about the relations of a professor named Joseph Howe with a bright but mentally deranged student whom he tries to help.
Boyers’s strictures have to do with the notion of tragedy which so interested Trilling (Boyers does not even inquire as to the reasons for that interest). But his criticism amounts to a charge of cowardice against Trilling, who, claims Boyers, wanted to grant a certain tragic pathos to the professor but should really have brought out the tragic quality in the student, Tertan, who is initially described as having something heroic about him; instead, Howe in the end leaves the student to the mercies of the dean, reasoning that the boy is “certifiably mad.” “What is unsatisfactory,” Boyers writes, “is Trilling’s attempt to claim for Howe a stature to which he is definitely not entitled.” And Boyers makes it quite clear that Trilling is not entitled to such stature, either.
Yet elsewhere in his discussion Boyers contradicts himself, as writers tend to do when out of their depth. He asserts:
[I]f Trilling had wanted to confer a kind of tragic stature upon Howe, he would also have had to consider the relation between tragic character and social convention. Nowhere in his commentary does he make an effort to do so.
Then perhaps Trilling did not want to confer tragic stature on Howe? What did he mean to do in his story?
Boyers makes the point that the teacher, Howe, does not have the “courage to undertake further elusive intercourse with the afflicted” Tertan. “Freud,” Boyers writes, “would not have turned away so readily from Tertan, had the young man been his patient. . . .” Now this is monstrously unjust. A doctor, especially a therapist for mental troubles, could hardly turn away from a patient—by whom, incidentally, he is paid, as Freud always insisted analysts must be—without incurring the stigma of unprofessional behavior. But it is not part of the professional duty of any teacher of literature to help the mentally deranged, since a teacher is not equipped to do this.
Looking at Trilling’s story again I should say that Professor Joseph Howe’s place in the dramatic events is like that of the chorus in a Greek tragedy. He urges moderation on the two student protagonists, Tertan and Blackburn, both of whom are mad, and this is all the chorus does in Greek tragedy. But even that is only possible with protagonists who are sane. It is hard enough to argue with Antigone, Philoctetes, and Oedipus, who are presented as sane; were they mad, it would be comical to urge moderation on them. Madness places the protagonist in a different world, one which the words of the chorus cannot reach. And Trilling understood perfectly well that the professor, Joseph Howe, is the chorus, or, as Schiller put it, the audience on stage.
What is characteristic of the two mad students, Tertan and Blackburn, is that they both suffer from hubris. The professor recognizes this about both students, but he laments the hubris of Tertan while he is repelled by that of Blackburn, who for all his faults is going to escape tragic destruction. In my reading of Trilling’s story I do not find anything whatsoever to indicate that he wanted to give an aura of tragedy to the professor. The man is presented as moderate, perhaps even marginal in the world of letters, worried about holding his job and making his literary reputation more solid. He is not said to be a hero, and (to quote Eliot) “was not meant to be.” Joseph Howe, like Prufrock, is not going to disturb the universe. But there is nothing he can do further for the mad student Tertan; of his feeling about this, as a reader of the story, I am convinced. I myself find that it is almost impossible to be interested in another person once I come to think of him as mad. Trilling puts it very well: what was a person has become a fact.
So Boyers’s reading is wrong—and utterly political. The “conservative imagination,” which, having read Joseph Frank’s essay, he sees in the character of Joseph Howe, is what accounts for the teacher’s inability to help the mad student Tertan, and this, says Boyers, is disappointing. It does not disappoint me. For the life of me I do not see how any teacher could have helped the student. Even Freud, whom Boyers invokes, admitted he could not help the insane.
If Boyers’s critique is absurd, all the same it does have a certain heuristic value for me, for it has led me to want to formulate one aspect of Trilling’s contribution to American literary thinking. It is my notion that Trilling’s critical writings, with their blend of the moral, the literary, and the political, were centered on a critique of hubris in modernist literature, in left-wing politics, and more generally in the moral life. I am tempted even to deny that he was a conservative in any political sense; I think he would have attacked the hubris of conservative politics had he noted it dangerously in those quarters.3
But if Trilling attacked hubris for the most part in left-wing politics and in modernist literature, that is where hubris is for the most part to be found. Who but a modernist like Joyce would have spent seventeen years writing a novel, Finnegans Wake, which, he admitted, it might take as many years for his audience to read? Even such modernists as Pound and Eliot disapproved of Finnegans Wake, though not publicly; it is, of course, full of wonderful prose, but only a critic committed not only to modernism but to modernist hubris can fully approve it.
Trilling told us candidly that Baudelaire and Rimbaud were not his favorite writers. Now the contemporary French poet Yves Bonnefoy—it has been said that he is all that is left of French literature—has claimed, in an otherwise excellent essay on Rimbaud, that Rimbaud’s message, and Baudelaire’s, to contemporary poets is to live divine lives without believing in God. I hardly think hubris, and a hubris based on reflection, could go farther.
As to leftism, in Trilling’s time and today it has always been accusatory and almost always wrong: wrong about our sending military aid to Greece, wrong about Korea, wrong about E1 Salvador, wrong about the missile crisis, wrong in promoting a hysteria over Watergate which made U.S. foreign policy impotent for years. With all these errors behind it the Left has learned not even one lesson in modesty. It is not possible to atone for many years of supporting the Soviet Union by saying that one is critical today of its policies. I think there was less hubris in the old Trotskyist Left, which at least understood that the only way to atone for having backed the Soviet state was to call for and conspire toward its overthrow. Our milktoast leftists around Dissent, the quarterly edited by Irving Howe, will not even permit themselves to call for the overthrow of the Soviet fiefdom in Nicaragua. But their pretensions to political virtue are constant, and they advance their weak political notions with the strongest abuse of their adversaries.
Trilling’s criticism of hubris appears in those of his essays which have been most criticized, and are among his best, like his essays on Jane Austen’s Emma and Mansfield Park and Henry James’s The Bostonians, pieces in which he is said to have yielded to the promptings of the conservative imagination. Joseph Frank, in making this charge, goes even farther. He writes: “It is one of the paradoxes of his [Trilling’s] position that his aversion to the apocalyptic and charismatic, instead of causing him to reprobate extremism in any form, should simply have driven him to adopt the alternative extreme himself.” Or, to put it in my terms, Trilling was himself guilty of hubris.
I do not think so, for I deny the notion on which the charge rests, that Trilling was, in Frank’s phrase, a “spokesman of the conservative imagination.” The charge is a political one, but there is no party of the conservative imagination, as there is no party of anti-hubris. I think Trilling was the spokesman for his own views, his own fears, hopes, and valuations; that these did not always coincide with those of radicals or liberals does not mean Trilling was committed to some other cause, and an extremist cause at that.
I believe that Frank’s criticisms, many of which I have already indicated are invalid when not quite beside the point, are fundamentally political. Now Joseph Frank is not a writer who often expresses himself politically. I think this most unfortunate. People who hold political views but only infrequently express them in writing often lose a clear sense of what their political views are. I have friends who support the political views expressed in Dissent, by which I am nowadays scandalized, simply because they do not want to take the trouble to state—this might also require them to defend—their own opinions. And I think Joseph Frank in his essay on Trilling made himself the spokesman for political views whose bias, clear to others, he did not undertake thoroughly to understand and which, if stated clearly, he might be reluctant to defend.
All in all, Frank’s essay, together with the support of it by critics who have praised it, constitutes to my mind a telling argument for Trilling’s thesis that liberals will do almost anything in preference to taking a clear stand—by which I mean something more than rhetoric—against political radicalism. Perhaps Trilling thought—I myself thought this at the time—that while McCarthy would go, the Communists would still be with us. And is it not a fact that this very essay by Joseph Frank, written after McCarthy had been driven from the scene, is itself an effort to restate the issue of McCarthyism as the moral and political issue of the period? There is a kind of liberal who will still today insist that McCarthyism is the issue even now.
But my subject is Lionel Trilling and his critics, not his critics and Lionel Trilling, and I realize that I have not said nearly enough about Trilling’s character and predilections, or about what his contribution to our criticism has been. Evidently, when you undertake to defend someone you cannot always keep him in sight; you are too occupied studying his opponents. But I hope I have cleared away enough of the graffiti clustered around Trilling’s figure so that the man and the work can be seen more plainly.
I think I can say of him something akin to what he said of Wordsworth—and which his critics have not noticed. Trilling praised Wordsworth for always maintaining an interest in politics; this was true of Trilling, too. But what animated him most of all was a love of literature unusual even among literary critics; thus his judgment of literary works was never subverted by political, theoretical, or ideological considerations. He was that rare kind of critic: incapable of saying he liked what he disliked. And this love of literature—not just for itself, but for what it shows the human mind to be capable of—made him attentive to the work of beginners who showed even the slightest talent.
He was, moreover, generous to a fault. Robert Warshow wrote a devastating critique of Trilling’s novel, The Middle of the Journey, but this did not keep Trilling from writing an admiring introduction to Warshow’s book of essays, The Immediate Experience. And esteeming, as he did, Harold Rosenberg’s Tradition of the New, he overlooked some catty remarks made about him by Rosenberg in one of the latter’s essays. Not, however, what Howe wrote of him in “This Age of Conformity”: Trilling could tell the difference between a criticism that was sincere and might even be justified, and one that was politically motivated.
In his own criticism Trilling exhibited a gentle strength of thought capable of registering faithfully the harshness of real facts. He notes, for instance, about James’s The Bostonians that feminism is unlike any other political extremism, and also more radical, for it assails the relations of the sexes, and no one can foresee where this may lead. Now this is a judgment which other critics of James’s work might well have made, but none did; I could almost say it is a judgment they took great care not to make. Of course, in great criticism, as in all art, there has to be a certain daring, and such daring, for all his gentility, was not lacking in Lionel Trilling.
Was he objective in his literary judgments? This is a difficult question, and in response I should rely on a valuable point made by the English philosopher Roger Scruton, who has written two interesting books on aesthetics. Scruton tells us that just as there are primary qualities in things (size, weight) which can be measured, and secondary qualities (scent, taste) which cannot, so there are in works of art and literature what he calls tertiary qualities, such as irony and elegance, which are even less capable of measurement.
Irony and elegance are indeed hardly measureable. Yet it is qualities of this kind that enter most importantly into our literary judgments, and it is with just such tertiary qualities that Trilling’s criticism is in the main concerned. But if these qualities are hardly susceptible of measurement, then those who can discern them, and who value them, must probably constitute an elite; and may not an elite of this sort be an expression of, and a force for, conservatism? Perhaps. In this restricted and nonpolitical sense Trilling was certainly a conservative, as any true critic of literature must be.
1 Northwestern University Press, 207 pp., $21.95 hardcover, $10.95 paper.
2 Lionel Trilling: Negative Capability and the Wisdom of Avoidance (University of Wisconsin Press, 1977).
3 Did Norman Podhoretz criticize Trilling's politics in Breaking Ranks because he felt Trilling would have attacked positions he himself accepted? Podhoretz denies this, but still I wonder. Interestingly, anti-conservative critics sometimes praise Trilling in order to attack Podhoretz; witness Robert Boyers's review of Mark Krupnick's book on Trilling in the New York Times Book Review, and for that matter the book itself.