The Liberal Imagination.
By Lionel Trilling.
Viking. 303 pp. $3.50.
This is a difficult book to review. The difficulty is that Mr. Trilling has a single theme—a critical examination of the influence of liberal ideas on contemporary literature—but this theme is too often not at the center of his book. Indeed, at moments one almost suspects that he discovered his theme after he had finished it. The Liberal Imagination consists of writings suited to occasions; lectures delivered, papers read, essays, prefaces, and so on. All these are certainly worth collecting into a volume. But the book falls rather between two stools of being a miscellaneous collection and being a series of connected essays to illustrate one thesis.
In an earlier review which I have destroyed, I allowed myself to be too easily distracted by trailing several of Mr. Trilling’s opinions which—important as they are—remain outside his main argument. For example, his view—extravagant to my mind—that The Princess Casamassima can be grouped with the great realist novels of the 19th century: Le Rouge et le Noir, Le Père Goriot, Great Expectations, and L’Educatìon Sentimentale. But—I protested—is it conceivable that if Balzac or Flaubert had been writing in English a novel of London low political life, he would have called his hero “Hyacinth”? All Mr. Trilling’s demonstrations that the kind of fantastic plotting in which James involves his characters is feasible because such things did happen at the time in St. Petersburg, Dublin, and Paris, do not convince me that The Princess Casamassima is a Londonish novel: and that is what has to be proved.
The foregoing remarks will illustrate how easy it is to be led away from the subject of Mr. Trilling’s book into a discussion of his critical views. So now I shall resolutely direct my attention to the main subject, which gives the title to this book: The Liberal Imagination.
Mr. Trilling thinks the liberal imagination defective, and it is scarcely too much to say that his book might well be entitled “The Liberal Lack of Imagination.” What it amounts to is that liberals are inclined to—or do—live within a spiritual orthodoxy of belief in progress and support of humanitarian causes, which is based on their having a generalized view of humanity as a whole and neglecting to examine closely the nature of the individual human heart. Thus the situation arises that the liberal creative writers, with their diffused social vision, have not had the profoundest things to say about people, and are in fact not the best writers: despite the generally accepted liberalism of our educated society, the best writers are men with illiberal views.
It is necessary here to quote rather extensively from Mr. Trilling’s analysis of the situation, in order to discuss it without the risk of distortion. One reason for quoting is that Mr. Trilling makes assertions about liberalism in the United States which could not possibly be made about it in Europe; and as a European it is necessary for me to keep this distinction before me; it is very evident in the following:
In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.
The above paragraph is very puzzling to a European like myself, firstly because, from three thousand miles away, America often appears the most conservative country in the world. However, it is quite possible that America could be conservative and all the writers liberals—though I am left wondering whether Allen Tate, William Faulkner, and a few others can be described as such, and if they are not, whether their conservatism can be dismissed as a gesture. But my second reason for being amazed is that European intellectual life without “conservative or reactionary ideas” seems almost unthinkable. For instance, a great part of the genius of modern French literature is profoundly conservative and even reactionary. And in England, a conservative movement, led by the ex-American T. S. Eliot, and certainly including writers like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, has a wide influence.
In fact, I can only consider a liberal orthodoxy in relation to a conservative one. To me, liberalism is the belief in the improvability, if not the perfectibility, of map: conservatism (from a literary point of view at all events-politicians we need not discuss, because they have long ceased to know what political principles are about) is the belief that individual man cannot be improved, therefore he must be disciplined and must exist in a hierarchy which owes much to a tradition based on an understanding of the unchanging qualities of human nature; though the order of the hierarchy and the conditions it imposes may be adjusted in order to alleviate men’s circumstances.
So, fundamentally, the conservative-liberal controversy is a debate about the nature of man. And curiously enough this kind of political thinking exists far more deeply today in our intellectual life than in politics itself, where divisions of interest have more and more superseded divisions of philosophy.
The difficulty of Mr. Trilling’s position—which appears to be that, being an American intellectual, he simply cannot believe that a conservative intellectual life exists—is that he still has to explain why the best writers in our time are not ideologically liberals, and why the liberal critics are so sentimental as to regard Theodore Dreiser as a realist and the world of Henry James as quite unreal. The great and enormous virtue of Mr. Trilling is that he is extremely honest and he sees all the liberal failings very clearly. Faced, though, by the illiberalism of the best modern writers, he simply shrugs off their conservatism as though it were accidental, and uses their creative achievement as a critical weapon against the liberals:
If . . . we name those ‘writers who . . . are to be thought of as the monumental figures of our time, we see that to these writers the liberal ideology has at best been a matter of indifference. Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot, Yeats, Mann (in his creative work), Kafka, Rilke, Gide [why Gide?—S.S.]—all have their own love of justice and the good life, but in not one of them does it take the form of a love of the ideas which liberal democracy, as known by our educated class, has declared respectable. So that we can say that no connection exists between our liberal educated class and the best of the literary minds of our time. [But it is fallacious to argue that because the best writers are not liberals therefore the liberals have no connection with their work.—S.S.] The same fatal separation is to be seen in the tendency of our educated liberal class to reject the tough, complex psychology of Freud for the easy, rationalistic optimism of Horney and Fromm. [But surely if ever there was a liberal it was Freud himself, and by the argument which Mr. Trilling himself has just used, this would seem to show that there is a connection between the liberals and the liberal Freud.—S.S.]
My inserted remarks demonstrate how difficult it is to review Mr. Trilling without being led astray by the red herrings of his generalizations. Generalization, of course, is not necessarily wrong, or “fatal” as Mr. Trilling would probably call it. It is a method of argument, but a peculiarly disconcerting one if misused: and I think that Mr. Trilling’s generalizations (like the one about there being no American conservative intellectual life—which I really am beginning to doubt at this stage of my review) make his main argument into a kind of obstacle race in which one is continually being tripped up by some extremely dubious statement.
However, I agree with the general drift of the paragraph I have quoted, even though the drift is far too general. Mr. Trilling defends the writers he has cited for their seriousness, and accepts their position as critics of a too easygoing liberalism. But he does not inquire what that orthodoxy is which all these writers share, and which is absent from the liberal intellectuals. I suggest that it is belief in original sin. Leaving Gide out of it (I don’t know why Mr. Trilling ever put him in), what Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Rilke, Eliot, Yeats, and perhaps even Lawrence have in common, is an underlying conviction that man has fallen, and that each individual human being has inherited a burden of guilt which extends far beyond himself and for which nevertheless he must in some way atone in order that he may be redeemed.
I do not have to inquire into the theological implications of such a view in order to pose what I think is the central question of a debate between the liberal and the “traditionalist conservative” views. It is: does the view that man is fallen and innately sinful give us a deeper insight into the individual human heart than the one that he is a creature whose bad qualities are entirely the result of his environment, so that individual man improves in a ratio proportionate to the improvement of social conditions?
Now the opposition of these points of view confronts us with the discomforting paradox which explains, among other things, the defection of many writers, during the past century, from a youthful liberalism to a middle-aged conservatism. The paradox is that the views which politically are most useful to humanity may give us a too optimistic picture of individual man: whereas those which tell us the most important truth about the human heart—that it is indeed black—encourage reactionary and even tyrannical politics. Writers shift from liberalism to conservatism because it is more important to them in their work to have an exact picture of the nature of individuals than to have vaguely beneficial views about the whole of society.
Both conservative and liberal views if they are developed in isolation from one another are false, and, if pushed to extremes, reveal their falsity. Contemporary politics does push things to extremes, and we get the extreme of one aspect of the liberal view in Communism; and the extreme of cynicism about human nature in fascism. The Communist argument (economic liberty under political dictatorship) is that given good conditions, human nature will improve, therefore the men who are committed to introducing good conditions (i.e. the members of the Party) can use whatever methods an abstract necessity dictates. This leaves out of account the fact that the men who direct the Communist society are bad and fallen like all men, and are motivated not just by objective history, but by self-interest, vanity, and lust for power. The fascists start from the opposite point of view that all men are bad and therefore must be dictated to by a reactionary traditionalist elite.
What democracy really requires is a synthesis of that which is true in conservatism and that which is true in liberalism. Liberalism should be tested by the capacity of liberals to combine their programs for improvement with a realistic view of the qualities of human individuals; conservatism should be tested by the determination of those who believe in original sin to improve man’s environment nonetheless. In effect, the conservative-liberal opposition should wither away in a living democracy and be superseded by a kind of revolutionary traditionalism; that is to say, a determination to improve conditions, inseparably fused with a determination that the most valuable characteristics of tradition should be reborn within the future.
This brings me back to The Liberal Imagination. Mr. Trilling has stated two or three of the positions which most need stating in this book. He has analyzed with great authority the relationship of literature to the deepest political currents of a country and an age. He puts his finger on the weaknesses of the liberal orthodoxy, and he has indicated the self-criticism of which the progressive thinkers stand in need: “A criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its general sense of lightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time. If liberalism is, as I believe it to be, a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine, then, as that large tendency makes itself explicit, certain of its particular expressions are bound to be relatively weaker than others, and some even useless and mistaken.”
He might be criticized for analyzing the symptoms of liberal weaknesses rather than searching for the root of the disease. He accepts perhaps too easily the Goethean view that “there is no such thing as a liberal idea, only liberal sentiments.” The test of sentiments today lies in action: and action seems to be above all what is required of American liberals. For liberals, action may mean giving up a great deal, if not all, in order to save the soul of the world: and it is this kind of action which the vague liberal benevolence seems disinclined to undertake. But perhaps to have considered this would have led Mr. Trilling too far into politics. What seems the most serious defect in his book is his quite remarkable unawareness of any points of view which seriously challenge liberalism. The kind of discussion which is to be found in the remarkable correspondence between the socialist-minded J. B. Yeats and his son, the poet W. B: Yeats, does not exist here. Yet surely there are not just liberal writers and those who are not liberal through some kind of deficiency which nevertheless enables them to write better than the liberals? There is a serious anti-liberal ideology which has produced the best literature of our time, and this is the real challenge to liberal intellectuals. It is a pity that Mr. Trilling can find nothing to take seriously in the conservatism of W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Peter Viereck, and others—considered, that is, as conservatism, and not just as lack of liberal ideology.