Lionel Trilling was a graceful man. I was reminded of the fact recently by happening upon an old publicity photograph that shows him bowling. I had never seen him bowl, and did not know that he indulged, but there in this unexpected setting the familiar and natural grace of the man seems to overflow the picture. For the public at large, this grace showed itself principally in his writing: he wrote possibly the best critical prose of his time—supple, flexible, fluent, yet firm. But the inherent gracefulness of the man came out also in a multitude of small ways. In a casual letter or note, for example, there would always be some distinctive touch of style, though never labored—the personal voice of the man without being affected, overassertive, or strident. He had style in the classic sense—ars celare artem—style that seemed to be second nature with the man himself.
This gracefulness was, I think, something of a moral quality, or at least allied to the moral character of the man. It is remarkable that in the circle of New York intellectuals centered on Partisan Review in the years following World War II, a circle much given to character analysis—or backbiting, if you prefer the blunter term—so little was said against Trilling. There were grumblings, of course, against his ideas, or what those ideas might imply, particularly if you pressed them in a certain direction; and there was the inevitable envy of the prestige he was beginning to enjoy in the 1940’s and that would grow greater as time went on; but no rumors of scandal or personal defamation seemed ever to be whispered against him. The Trillings, Lionel and Diana, were thoroughly civilized people, and behaved as such: they arrived at parties in time, behaved affably without any touch of being there to carry on some private business or personal vendetta; and they left in time—before the small hours of the morning when too much has been drunk and the gathering that remains becomes loud and bathetic. They acted, in short, as if they had a life of their own to lead and were intent on living it without losing any more of it than they had to on the formless sprawl of an end-of-the-evening.
However, there was nothing tight or boxed-in about the man; throughout his many years as a professor of English at Columbia University, and also as a literary critic whose influence extended far beyond the academy, he gave of himself generously to younger people, and in consequence inspired a deep affection in many of them. At his funeral services in 1975 I was surprised and moved by the number of mourners and the sincerity of their grief: not only had he inspired devotion among a small band of followers, but he had touched the lives of many others with whom one might have thought he would make no contact. He was, to use the old-fashioned term, a virtuous man and, moreover, a virtuous man without any touch of the prig. And in the particular environment of New York in which we moved that was indeed an accomplishment.
Confronted with somebody like Trilling, Philip Rahv’s “analytic exuberance”—his passion for dissecting character into its lowest possible motives—seemed to stand at bay. But as the editor of Partisan Review, Rahv would not have been Rahv if he had not found everything to worry over and grumble about in one of his contributors. And in this case, as the guardian of the magazine’s revered idols of Marxism and modernism, he had good grounds to be uneasy about Trilling’s position, or what that position might be if its implications were followed out. For on the subjects both of literature and of politics Trilling seemed headed in a more conservative direction than the magazine could endorse. Yet, despite such growing uneasiness, he remained personally on very cordial terms with Trilling.
The personal animosity came this time from the poet Delmore Schwartz (who along with me also served as an editor at Partisan Review), and the reasons for it throw some light on the tangled state of his psyche at this period. For some time Delmore had felt unhappy teaching at Harvard, particularly because he did not like living in Cambridge. If only he could move to New York, he felt, his personal problems would be easier to handle. (They were, in fact, to become drastically more difficult and his behavior more self-destructive.) Since he needed a job, he made overtures to the English Department at Columbia, and it appeared that he was under serious consideration. But the appointment did not come through, and he was convinced that Lionel Trilling had blocked it. Whether or not there were any objective reasons for this belief, I do not know, but the point was that Delmore himself felt absolutely sure that Trilling was the single one who had stood in his way.
Of course, his own paranoid imagination was at work here, and looking back now, I realize that this paranoia was more operative even at this early period than most of his close friends suspected. Delmore could joke at his own paranoid promptings, and this spontaneous and overflowing humor of his gave one to think that perhaps the psychological malady was not really there at all. Indeed, he himself seemed to think his neurosis was not so bad as long as he could make jokes about it: in one sense, he kidded himself into psychosis. To be able to joke about your symptoms may be some sign of health, but it is hardly evidence that the symptoms do not indicate something real. Still, there may have been some objective basis for his suspicions of Trilling’s opposition. “Even a paranoid has enemies,” to quote one of Delmore’s own aphorisms; and the suspicions of a paranoid may sometimes correspond with reality. I do not know in this case. There would have been reason for Trilling’s opposition: Delmore’s behavior (which I saw in more casual and bohemian situations) had by this time become sufficiently eccentric that he might have been considered an unstable force in an academic department.
This animosity of Delmore’s was all the more surprising because he had begun as an admirer of Trilling in the late 1930’s. He had read Trilling’s book on Matthew Arnold when it first appeared, and had been greatly impressed with it. Here was no run-of-the-mill professor but a genuine literary intelligence for whom the past of English literature was a living thing; and since for Delmore too that literature was a living whole, Trilling seemed a kindred spirit. The appearance of the book was all the more remarkable coming when it did in a period of debased Marxism with its plebeian emphasis upon “social consciousness” and proletarian literature. Now animosity and rancor overshadowed that earlier admiration. Not that he had totally switched and denied Trilling’s abilities, but somehow his recognition of them, very real still, was buried under this other feeling. The change showed itself in the jibes he tossed off in conversation. He had once labeled Trilling “the Matthew Arnold of Morningside Heights” (the area of Columbia University), where the irony still had a certain gruff good humor. But now the jibe became grimmer simply by switching the location a few blocks: Trilling, Delmore now declared, was “the Matthew Arnold of Grant’s tomb”—one of the dreariest and dullest monuments in all of New York City.
For Philip Rahv, however, there were good impersonal reasons for being uneasy at the direction of Trilling’s ideas. Partisan Review had been founded as a magazine dedicated to the ideals of radicalism in politics and the avant-garde in art, and it had no intention of abjuring these twin articles of its faith. But here was Trilling calling attention to the value of class distinctions for the writer, speaking sympathetically, even when critically, of the middle class, and bringing forward a less audacious and experimental canon of authors to be admired. Where the intellectuals had been preoccupied with figures like Joyce or Proust, or Dostoevsky and Kafka, Trilling urged the case of more conventional novelists like E. M. Forster and Jane Austen. Almost single-handedly, in fact, he had brought the case of E. M. Forster before American readers, and had established Forster’s permanent place. All of this was disquieting to the more austerely modernist tastes of the magazine.
One tiny incident seemed to bring all Rahv’s uneasiness to a head. He had come into the office one day after running into the critic Harold Rosenberg, who, witty and waspish as ever, had asked where Partisan Review was headed when it kept printing somebody like Trilling, who was simply making a case for “bourgeois values.” This last phrase of Rosenberg’s had been the twist of the knife, and Rahv was now visibly shaken. Like the Catholic lady in Stendhal’s novel who enjoys trysts with her lover until one day the word “adultery” crosses her mind and she is overwhelmed at the sinfulness of her act and the awful damnation she is incurring, so at the dread expression “bourgeois values” all Rahv’s Marxist pieties were shaken to their depths. Bourgeois values! What a specter! And to think that he, as an editor, had been helping to promote them.
Yet Trilling had been close to the magazine from its very beginning, and the distinction of his performance, both literary and intellectual, made any contribution of his something to be coveted. What, then, was he up to? Could it be a case of what the Marxists called “boring from within”? Delmore Schwartz suggested an explanation that somewhat relieved Rahv: Trilling, he suggested, was using Partisan Review to “protect his Left flank.” That is, by appearing in a left-wing magazine Trilling could hide from the world how conservative his real message was. Rahv liked this metaphor from military strategy, and he appropriated the phrase so that he came to use it as his own: Trilling, he declared, needed to appear in Partisan Review in order to protect his left flank. He seemed more satisfied when he gave the explanation this turn since it left the relation of dependence (Trilling upon the magazine for protection) in the proper order.
It was into this muddle that Delmore eventually jumped with both feet by launching a critical attack upon Trilling. Under the personal circumstances involved here, Rahv himself would not have ventured on a frontal assault; he preferred leaving that explicit act to his auxiliary forces. “Philip Rahv doesn’t mind someone else going out on a limb for him,” Delmore had once said, warning me against some foolish polemical project of my own. But this was one limb on which Delmore himself did not mind going out, for it enabled him to discharge some of his pent-up animosity against Trilling. As for the ideas at issue, however, there was nothing captious in Delmore’s attitude: he had very serious objections to Trilling’s position, and wished to make those objections known; if by the way he were to have some fun letting off a bit of personal steam, that was not to be taken to compromise the underlying seriousness of his intent. Indeed, these ideas had been long gestating with him, so that the piece, entitled “The Duchess’s Red Shoes,” did not appear until 1953. While the attack encompasses the whole of Trilling’s position, it is directed principally against the latter’s essay, “Manners, Morals, and the Novel” (reprinted now in The Liberal Imagination).
If the two—Trilling’s original essay and Delmore’s counterblast—are read together, they make extraordinary reading indeed, both as an illumination of their period and for their permanent interest. The matters they deal with are ones which we are far from clear about now, and they are considered here on an intellectual level hard to match today. Trilling’s original essay had no directly polemical intent; but in the context I am supplying here, the two pieces take on the appearance of a confrontation, with all its various suggestions of personal drama.
One cannot forget, for example, in reading them together the extraordinary difference in personality of the two antagonists. Indeed, as human types they were almost opposites. Trilling was a successful man, par excellence, where that somewhat unfortunate adjective is not given any of its usual disparaging connotations; he was a success both in the academy and the world without, and, more remarkable still, which so few do, in negotiating both worlds at once. He led a tidy and constructive life, and enjoyed a long and devoted marriage of unassailable stability. Delmore, on the other hand, much as he was haunted and preoccupied with the idea of success, had almost a perverse will not to succeed: if he had friends, to break with them; if he had talents, to squander them; and where worldly opportunity presented itself, to step on the toes of those who would open its doors for him. There are the words of Yeats that the human intellect is forced to choose between “perfection of the life or of the work.” Trilling—and perhaps this was another instance of his rejection of the extremism of modern writers—seemed to escape this dreadful antinomy by achieving both: he made the most of his talents and of himself as a human being. Delmore, in his pursuit of the one, destroyed both goals at once—and himself in the process. And yet, in this moment of confrontation between the two that we are imagining here, this solitary combat mano a mano, who is to say that the fallen and self-destructive angel does not at least hold his own?
To be sure, the attack is marred by a certain snide tone here and there. That much of his animosity Delmore could not keep back. Some few mollifying changes of expression had been suggested as the manuscript passed among us, but they were few, and fewer still were accepted. Wishing, for example, to say that Trilling was ambiguous, if not two-faced, on certain issues, Delmore had observed his great skill in writing on both sides of any question. This was emended to read that he showed great solicitude in writing on all sides of a question, which would directly convey Trilling’s concern always for the qualifying circumstances of any intellectual thesis but somehow leave the original imputation of duplicity still there. Also, certain touches of comedy seemed off-key. By this time Delmore had begun taking the role of the buffoon, that mask of a later self that Saul Bellow was to record in his novel Humboldt’s Gift. When in his cups, which was more and more often now, Delmore found it congenial to read Ring Lardner, and the latter’s flatness of style began to creep into his own writing. As a result, he did get off some funny things, but their whimsical tone was inappropriate in a serious polemic against an opponent of Trilling’s stature. But despite such lapses, Delmore at this time was still in possession of his critical faculties, which were naturally very sharp indeed; and this piece marks, I believe, the last occasion when he was able to bring all his intellectual energies into focus in any piece of prose exposition. Poetry was another matter; he was still to go on to write a few good poems.
The title, “The Duchess’s Red Shoes,” refers to that incident in Proust when Swann visits the Duchesse de Guermantes to tell her that he cannot go with her and the Duke to Italy because his doctor has told him he is dying and will soon be dead. Swann is a dear friend, and the Guermantes would like to stay and console him, but they are on their way to a dinner party to which they cannot be late. And to make even more poignant the contrast between the social ritual, with all its trivial and external compunctions, and the awful fact of death, the Duke notices as the Duchess is getting into the carriage that she is wearing the wrong shoes and he sends her back to change them.
What does the incident show? For Delmore, it reveals the callousness of the aristocratic and upper classes, involved as they are in their social rituals, to the most elementary human sympathies. And these are the aristocrats whose virtues Trilling seems to be extolling in his essay, “Manners, Morals, and- the Novel.” But was this really Trilling’s point? He had recommended that manners are important to the novelist, and that he should be a careful observer of them, because it is through them that human beings reveal themselves, as here the trivial business of changing one’s shoes for a party brings out the indifference to the death of others as a universal tendency in all of us, whether we be aristocrats or plebeians. This seems to me much more in line with Proust’s actual intention. The virtues and vices in his novel are not distributed according to any political scheme of classes: the lower orders—his cooks, maids, menials, and elevator boys—are just as vicious and mean as his aristocrats. Perhaps without knowing it, Delmore was simply following in the path of Edmund Wilson’s interpretation of Proust in Axel’s Castle. Wilson, writing in the pervasive social-democratic atmosphere of the 1930’s, had given a rather egalitarian slant to Proust’s treatment of social classes. To be sure, Proust in part is writing about the decay of the aristocratic classes—that decline is a historic fact which he records—but he is not writing a socialist tract against those classes.
What was troubling Delmore (and the rest of us at that time) was what would happen if one carried over the argument from literature into life. Trilling writes with such enthusiasm about the virtues of class distinctions and the social manners that go with them as material for the writer that he seems to be recommending that they be kept as a desirable part of the good society. And it is against these possible anti-democratic implications that Delmore protests in words that sound almost threatening in their solemnity:
He entertains social views (and social misgivings) which would be intolerable if they were presented nakedly, as social criticism of a political program, instead of being united with literary considerations.
And here we come upon such a tangle of questions, so much of their particular period, that we have to take a step backward and look at the controversy of our two antagonists within the context of Trilling’s work as a whole in its time.
The Liberal Imagination—to my mind, still the most considerable of Trilling’s works—appeared in 1950. The essays that make up the book were elaborated over the previous decade; and it strikes me, when I look back now, as something of a minor miracle that the book could have evolved from the background of that and the preceding decade. Trilling, as it turns out, was ahead of his time.
Nowadays one hears much of the phenomenon of “neoconservatism,” but the public at large does not appear to be quite clear about this new doctrine. Some of the leading nonconservatives were once very close to Trilling, admired his mind and his writing, and virtually took him as a master. If their thinking on social matters is more explicit and goes farther than his, that does not cancel the fact of a certain derivation from him. Events themselves have moved farther; the evidence of the last thirty years makes us much more dubious about socialism and more questioning of the Marxist philosophy that begot it. We can no longer prevent ourselves from asking the questions we once shirked, nor can we postpone judgment while waiting for some miraculous transformation of the socialist societies. They have so obviously settled down into the grim realities they are that only internal revolutions can possibly liberate them. But apart from the limitations of this earlier situation in which he was writing, Trilling’s own temperament did not lead him to push his questions farther, for at heart he was a dedicated liberal.
In The Liberal Imagination the audience he addresses himself to is the liberal, educated middle class—and a good deal of the book’s persuasiveness derives from the fact that he includes himself among the readers he would instruct. In 1950 many in that audience would at one time have been Stalinists and fellow-travelers of the Communist line, or would have gone through such influences, perhaps even without being aware of them. They would also in large part be members of what is now called “the New Class”—a class of professionals and intellectuals who swing free of the ties of the corporations and of labor. The term did not exist then, but the class itself was in existence (though not so preponderantly as today), for it had emerged into the open with the New Deal; and its views then, as now, were always automatically of the liberal Left.
Trilling did not attack the political beliefs of his audience; he left that task to the more restricted political critics among his colleagues. In this sense, it was true that Partisan Review did protect his Left flank—or, perhaps more exactly, it waged war on the Left flank, where he was content to follow along as a more silent foot soldier. He had another job to do, and he was perhaps the one man in America uniquely qualified to do it: he was concerned with the sensibility, capacities of response, and general intelligence about literature of his liberal audience—which means, of course, their capacities for sensitive and intelligent response to life too. Here he had no particular doctrine to offer but only an attitude of mind, being in this respect a true heir of his master Matthew Arnold, but also with the consequent limitations of Arnold that though you could be sure of the critic’s intelligence, you could not always be sure what specific conclusions that intelligence had reached.
Trilling was concerned that the liberal democratic mind, as we now know it in America, might be becoming too doctrinaire in its views, too fixed and rigid in its outlook to perceive the complex and ambivalent situations in life on which it would pass peremptory judgment. He also urged the same point in his book on E. M. Forster: that it was necessary not only to know good from evil, but to be flexible enough to perceive the good-and-evil that are always so perplexingly mixed in the actual occasions of life. For this purpose, he suggested, liberals ought to listen carefully to the great conservatives of tradition; for only by appropriating something of the message of these conservatives could their own thinking become more concrete and adequate. In all of this he was speaking for himself, and addressing himself at the same time, as a liberal. For, despite his plea that the conservatives had a case, he himself remained a thoroughgoing liberal to the end: the cast of his mind was the rational, secular, and non-religious one of classical liberalism.
Yet at the heart of this liberalism of his there lurked a troubling question. The great works of modern literature—of Yeats or Eliot, Joyce or Lawrence—which we as cultivated readers admire and extol are not, to put it mildly, in accord with the liberal and democratic mentality to which we give our allegiance as citizens. How are we to account for this discrepancy? For someone like Trilling, whose life revolved around literature, the matter was a very serious one: it pointed to some cleft between the rationality of mind which we profess in our political beliefs and the deeper, more intractable regions of the spirit that these authors would seek to reach. The question never quite left Trilling throughout his life; he returned to it again and again, but I do not believe that he ever succeeded in giving a satisfactory answer to it.
At this earlier stage Trilling was fighting a battle against the residues of taste left by the 1930’s. In the wake of the Great Depression and the vogue of Marxist or quasi-Marxist thought it fathered, the slogans of “social realism” still lingered, and they could, moreover, be allied with the older populist yearnings of our American inheritance. But in their actual performance the results of these literary tendencies were dismal: a literature that was dull and bathetic, stereotyped, and shallow in its portrayal of human beings. Why then—and this was only another aspect of his more basic question—should we eschew a literature of depth and complexity, or refinement and subtlety, in the name of the empty slogans of equality? So far as the past was concerned, there could be no doubt of the fact that writers had made rich use of class distinctions, and of the fine observation of manners and character that were possible within those distinctions. The characters they portrayed, who dwelt within their class and station, evidently seemed able to develop a rich personality within those constraints.
Well, the rejoinder might run, that might be all very well for the past, but would not do at all for the future we socialists envisaged. The past was aristocratic, it tolerated and even promoted a society of classes; but what our socialist and democratic conscience imagined for the future was the Classless Society.
But it was just here that Trilling might seduce us to think the unthinkable thought—or at least unthinkable by most of us at that time: might it not be that the conditions which led to a more interesting literature also produced a more satisfying life within society itself? If in the literature of the past we observe human personality developing its varied riches within the framework of class distinctions, might it not be that those distinctions permitted, and in their own way even promoted, the well-being of society? Trilling himself did not think this thought, at least not aloud, and at the time probably would have recoiled from it. But his writing could lead one that way, and this was the awful threat, the sin that dared not speak its name, to which Delmore Schwartz could only make a veiled allusion in the quotation above.
Thirty years have gone by since that time, years in which a good deal was to be learned, and some of us have found ourselves able to think the unthinkable thought after all, and find it not so dire as we had expected. The Classless Society looks more and more like a utopian illusion. The socialist countries develop a class structure of their own, which proceeds inevitably out of the apparatus of the state, and revolves around whichever group has a stronger grasp of the powers of the bureaucracy. With regard to their human qualities, such classes tend to become grim, faceless, and homogenized. Since we are bound, then, to have classes in any case, why not have them in the more organic, heterogeneous, and variegated fashion of the older free societies? Nor would the requirements of justice be violated in such a society. Indeed, a society that imposed a strict equality upon its citizens would be a thoroughly unjust one, since it would fail to recognize the differences among individuals in talent and character. For a class society to be humanly equitable it is required only that there be some means by which the exceptional individual can rise out of his class if he so desires, or that an entire group may be able, through its own proper efforts, to lift its level as a whole. It is just to get what is one’s due, which is not necessarily an equal share.
And so far as literature is concerned, the advantage again seems to lie with the older class societies. After sixty years of Soviet rule, it seems clear that if the future is to be Marxist, then the future will be without a literature—at least a literature interesting enough to be comparable with the past. And here literature, or the absence of it, is indeed a good indication of life: a Marxist regime could not produce a literature because it imposes such a reign of regimented boredom and monotony that there is nothing interesting to write about—except, of course, the underground life of the dissenters or of the prison camps, as in the case of Solzhenitsyn.
As a poet, Delmore Schwartz did not A give much time to thinking through social problems as such. He found Marxism ready to hand as a framework within which his imagination could operate. Others have done so without the excuse of being poets. How confining that framework really was we see only as we review these old debates among the intellectuals, all of whom during those decades were far less free in their thinking than they imagined. It was when Delmore moved to the areas of his own sensibility that his attack upon Trilling became more telling.
Society and class—we are bound within them indeed. But how much of the human spirit may transcend this framework must always be a concern of the novelist. Trilling had written so persuasively about the novelist’s need to deal seriously with manners and social class that, carried away by his own enthusiasm, he wished to embrace even Dostoevsky in his prescription:
The Russian novel, exploring the ultimate possibilities of the human spirit, must start and end in class—every situation in Dostoevsky, no matter how spiritual, starts with a point of social pride and a certain number of rubles.
Starts, we may say, but does not end there. And if the reference here is, as it seems to be, to Crime and Punishment, then we must doubt whether the hero’s crime really starts with his impoverished social position and his need for a certain number of rubles. Those are the incidental facts with which Raskolnikov seeks to “normalize” his crime—to disguise it to himself as a run-of-the-mill murder for the sake of robbery, as if even here in his crime the unconscious of this self-isolated man was struggling to join the ranks of ordinary humanity, even if in this case it be criminal humanity. But the crime in fact is generated by an idea that has taken over his own febrile mind, as the criminal himself comes later to recognize. Dostoevsky understood that we are now in the Age of Ideology, when ideas beget crime and terror. Men kill out of a desperation of mind, and not necessarily because their social condition is desperate. The Nihilists in Dostoevsky emerge anywhere along the social scale; Stavrogin, in The Possessed, is affluent, but he finds in this affluence itself the temptation to desperate crime.
We are here in a very different world from the novels of Jane Austen. That exquisite writer offers us perhaps the last satisfying picture of a harmonious and self-contained world before the onslaught of the modern imagination takes over. To be sure, it is a very materialistic world; her people speak publicly and bluntly about matters of social position and money that most of us now would only dare whisper privately to a few chosen ears. And yet within the conditions of that small and closed world she has produced her own beautiful commentary on human nature. It is well that Trilling should have brought the case of Jane Austen again before the sensibility of American intellectuals. And it would have been well, too, had he pushed farther, and reminded those intellectuals of the importance of her social realities when one theorizes about society itself. But Jane Austen cannot be comprehended under the same critical formula as Dostoevsky, as Trilling in his enthusiasm recommends. Dostoevsky is writing about something different. He reaches into regions of the human spirit that are not to be found in Jane Austen.
What, then, are Dostoevsky’s novels about? Delmore had answered:
[These novels] are of permanent interest to all human beings not because they present the observation of the manners of a given society . . . but because they are about the innermost depths of all human beings.
“The innermost depths of all human beings”! That is a very vague phrase, and here one does indeed wish for something more specific. Since the confrontation of the two, Trilling and Schwartz, seems at this point to converge upon a single author and a particular work, Crime and Punishment, it may be worthwhile to pause here for a moment to sum this work up in its thematic simplicity.
A young student, Raskolnikov, becomes infected with a modern ideology. In this case, oddly enough, it is a British import, Utilitarianism. Odd because the British were the most conservative nation in the 19th century in holding fast against the ravages of radical thought. They seem to have launched Utilitarianism without being aware of how radical and nihilistic its implications were, simply because it sounded like business and commerce as usual. According to the Utilitarian doctrine, an act is justified if it produces a greater balance of pleasures over pains. Raskolnikov happens to have dealings with an old woman pawnbroker, a miserable specimen of humanity, mean and spiteful to others and unhappy in herself, who might be better off dead than alive and whose death would make a great many of her clients happier. Furthermore, the money he would rob her of would pay for his own education, and since he is brilliant and gifted, would enable him to bring his gifts to the service of humankind generally. The balance of pleasures over pains is thus all on the side of the murder. There is required only the will and the daring on his part to assert himself as the exceptional individual who can transcend the ordinary and routine laws of morality for the benefit of himself and mankind. He murders the woman, but that is the beginning of a long nightmare from which he comes to learn more about life than from his flimsy reasonings. He learns, among other things, that his crime has been the product of a deranged rationality.
Why deranged? A certain spirit of calculation and objectivity has taken over human thinking. The pawnbroker is an object to be dissected into so many units of pain and pleasure, self-inflicted and inflicted upon others. Yet a single image breaks into this thinking. What reader can forget that moment in the novel when Raskolnikov raises the ax over the old woman’s head? The gray-streaked head, its greasy hair plaited in a rat’s tail held by a broken comb. How loathsome she is! How easily quantifiable into negative units! And yet not; for she too is a human life, a human soul, and the image of his victim at this moment will not leave the murderer. The individual human soul belongs to another order of phenomena than he calculated. He can take a life because in his thinking he had already cut himself off from life. The modern mind, in Dostoevsky’s view, is threatened by just such a deranged rationality—deranged because reason has cut itself off from the deepest instincts of life, as these are embodied in the common feelings of humanity, and ultimately expressed in a religious faith. For Dostoevsky that faith was the Christian faith. For others it will be different, but in the end it will be a faith of some kind.
On the subject of faith Trilling is studiously silent. He remained an uncompromising rationalist to the end. It may seem strange to apply the adjective “uncompromising” to a writer who charms us by the luminous and flexible play of his intelligence, so that we are enlightened by that free play whether or not it arrives at any hard-and-fast conclusion. If he could be called doctrinaire about anything, it is in his adherence to Freudianism. Freud is the one fixed pillar of conviction to which he personally held. He had had a “successful” psychoanalysis, which seems to have come at a crucial period, and evidently remained one of the central and transforming experiences of his life. While in such happy cases a transference usually occurs between patient and doctor, here it had reached beyond the particular analyst to invest with a compelling glow the primal father-figure of psychoanalysis, Freud himself. When Freud’s name is invoked by Trilling, it is nearly always bathed in something of a numinous glow.
Trilling’s Freud, therefore, is a very selective and idealized Freud: a heroic figure, in his way a great poet who brings myth once again to the attention of modern readers and who urges upon the enlightened liberal mind the unpleasant reminder that it too is bound within the confines of our instinctive life. No doubt, there is a heroic side to Freud in the courage and stubbornness with which he fought to bring his ideas before the world; but admiration for the man should not lead us to overlook the persistently negative and reductive aspects of those ideas. Trilling once wrote about a threat now stalking our culture in words that are frequently quoted:
A specter haunts our culture—it is that people will eventually be unable to say, “They fell in love and married,” let alone understand the language of Romeo and Juliet, but will as a matter of course say, “Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference.”
He did not perceive, apparently, that these words could very well apply to Freud himself. To be sure, Freud is a stylist and would not put matters quite so crassly, but the deflating and reductive aspects of his systematic thought come to the same thing. But this was a side of Freud that Trilling chose not to see, and when he says, “The pleasure I have in responding to Freud I find very difficult to distinguish from the pleasure which is involved in responding to a satisfactory work of art,” we are puzzled by what seems an extraordinary confusion of genres until we realize that Trilling is reading another Freud, a poem that he himself has created.
Time has passed, and the situation of Freud and psychoanalysis looks different to us today from the way it did in 1950. Trilling belonged to the generation for whom D. H. Lawrence and Freud were a challenge and a revelation. Since then, familiarity has rubbed away the sharp edge of shock. So many people have been through therapy, are under therapy, or are clamoring for therapy that we have to wonder what it is in this civilization that produces such a crying need. The needs seem clearly to lie beyond the purview of the original theory. The psychotherapist, even when he considers himself a Freudian, is usually operating in a domain of human problems quite beyond the confines of his theory. Freud’s psychology, we now perceive, with its emphasis upon libido or sexuality as motive force, was tied too closely to the Victorian primness that surrounded the question of sex at the turn of the century. We have had the sexual revolution since, and it has brought some very different problems in its wake. Sexual liberation has turned into the sexual nihilism of Venice Beach, California, which in this respect is merely a concentration of attitudes that are dispersed throughout American life. The patient in treatment now is no longer your Victorian aunt who came to the doctor plagued by some nervous tic from the excessive repressiveness of her life; she is more likely to have gone through all the adventures of sex in an atmosphere of “anything goes,” and is now confused about the sense of it all. What is it all about? What does it mean? In short, the questions of Nihilism again.
And for such perplexities Freud does not offer a philosophy of life or even an adequate theory of the human self. His tripartite map of the soul—ego, id, and superego—is an arid and artificial construction. The ego is so obviously the ego of Utilitarianism, calculating pleasures and pains. The id, the unconscious, is a morass of desires, to be drained away like the Zuyder Zee (one of Freud’s most famous metaphors); it has little connection with the creative and revelatory unconscious of the Romantics, as Trilling tries to suggest. And the superego is the repressive voice of the parents, never the call of conscience that is able to stir our latent and unconscious energies. In short, a picture of bourgeois man according to the model of classical economic theory, but now in disarray and going to ruin, stirred by unruly desires, and his touted morality experienced only as an irksome restraint. What is lacking in the theory is any adequate conception of the unity of the self.
Trilling was, in my view, the most intelligent man of his generation—or at least the most intelligent I knew. The reader will therefore understand, I hope, why we are trying to follow the workings of that intelligence here in some detail. It was also a very subtle and complex intelligence, far more so than the lucid and engaging surface of his prose would lead one to believe on first reading. Delmore Schwartz, in his hostility, found it devious; we could at least agree that it was sometimes labyrinthine. And nowhere is it more labyrinthine than when he is touching on a topic in any way religious, as in his well-known essay on Wordsworth’s ode, “Intimations of Immortality.” It is only on repeated reading that one becomes aware how uncompromisingly naturalistic and Freudian is Trilling’s outlook, and how unwilling he is to entertain any knd of religious experience or belief in its own terms.
The essay also seems to me the only one of Trilling’s where I find him deliberately at odds with his subject. When one disagrees with him elsewhere, it is usually a matter of tone, emphasis, fine shading, or for not pushing his point far enough, but never for being at variance with the plain sense of the text he is to expound. He begins, for example, by telling us that Wordsworth’s ode is not about immortality at all. This would be news to poor Wordsworth unless he was altogether woolgathering when he gave the poem its title. But if not about immortality, then what is the poem “really” about? It really deals, says Trilling, with “optical” phenomena—the ways in which we look at nature. (The introduction of optics here is a touch of pseudo-technical contrivance in which literary critics so often indulge but from which Trilling himself is usually beautifully free.)
True enough, the poem is about the ways in which we see nature; but our vision of nature, for Wordsworth, is different as it is or is not accompanied by the sense of some encompassing presence within which we and our lives unfold. But this is the kind of idea into which Trilling cannot enter on its own terms; he must somehow incorporate his own aesthetic enjoyment of Wordsworth’s poem into some more naturalistic position of his own. Thus Wordsworth’s mysticism is to be understood in Freudian fashion as an extension of our infantile narcissism. Our adult sense of oneness with nature—what is usually called the mystical experience—is a carryover from the stage of early life when the infant cannot distinguish the stimuli of his own body from those of the external environment. When one thinks of the long history of mysticism, and the variety of cultures and human types in which it has been expressed, from Lao-tse to T. S. Eliot and Wittgenstein, this is a vast body of human culture and reflection to drop into the lap, or should we say crib, of infantile narcissism. It is surely a strange civilization we live in where such a view can become intellectually fashionable.
It happens also to be a reductive view which deflates not only Wordsworth’s experience but the poetry he made out of it. If you keep the Freudian interpretation in the forefront of your mind, the sense and force of the poetry disappear. Even if you hold the Freudian view on other grounds, it is only when you forget it that you can have any satisfactory enjoyment of the poetry. Wordsworth himself would have preferred the interpretation of Kant, which he probably heard from Coleridge: that in our experience of the sublime and beautiful in nature the unknown depths of the self seem to respond to some unknown and supersensible depths of nature itself, and to be at one with the latter. In the modern parlance: this is one experience in which at last alienation is overcome. But this may be an experience which the modern intellectual, preferring his alienation, has chosen to abandon.
All roads lead to literature, especially for a literary review. Partisan Review had been conceived under the sign of the avant-garde, and it was dedicated to the tradition of modernist literature. In the late 40’s and early 50’s that tradition had to be guarded all the more zealously since no great new examples of this literature seemed to be springing up in the wake of the war, as we had expected. The more moribund they become, the more tenaciously traditions have to be guarded. It was therefore on this particular point that Trilling’s impact would be sensitively felt. And it was here that Delmore’s sharpest stroke fell—sharpest because directed at the personal sensibility of the man himself. Trilling, he said, did not really respond to the literature of the moderns toward which he made verbal gestures of admiration:
He is much more drawn to Forster, James, Howells, and Keats, than to Joyce and Eliot; and he has the most serious misgivings about the extremism, the bias, and the methods of all modernist authors.
To put the charge in more blunt form: Trilling was a reincarnation of the Genteel Tradition, for whom modern literature was still too destructive and shocking to be accepted.
I think there is some justice to the accusation. Trilling had been trained in the literature of 19th-century England, which for the most part had escaped the deeper convulsions of literature on the continent; and by temperament he was not attracted to literary experimentation. We all remain tied to our profession; underneath his extraordinary alertness to modern issues, Trilling still retained the sensibility of a professor of English whose field was that of the 19th century.
We are not yet able to define the term “modern.” Perhaps the next century will have some comprehensive grasp of its meaning, which is denied to us who are still floundering in the midst of the thing itself. Yet we are able to recognize the meaning of the word in particular instances, and perhaps this is how we must proceed. Dickens, for example, is a very great writer, but we should not say that he is “modern”—-in a sense perfectly recognizable but yet to be determined—whereas Dostoevsky is a modern. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair are almost contemporary, yet the former belongs to the modernist canon—it is in its way the progenitor of the modern novel—while Thackeray’s work, despite his various touches of personal temperament, fits in with the conventional novel. No disparagement is intended by this, and indeed there are resources of expression available to Thackeray that Flaubert, in the purity of his detachment, cannot avail himself of. That detachment, as we shall see shortly, is one of the hallmarks of the modern consciousness.
To bring these comparisons to their sharpest point, we might turn to the genre of religious writing itself. England had one great religious writer in the 19th century—Newman—while his contemporary on the continent is Kierkegaard. Within the Christian fold there could hardly be a greater difference than between these two. Newman is encased in the tradition of the Church, and his quest is to seek out and embed himself in what he comes to believe is the deeper and more authentic stream of that tradition. Kierkegaard attacks the institution of the Danish Church ferociously; he gives us the naked individual facing the extreme and ultimate questions in their anguish and desperation, and does so with a boldness and inventiveness of mind that would have scandalized the Englishman. I am not recommending one of these writers to the exclusion of the other, and there are aspects of Newman which even the most devout Kierkegaardian must now take to heart. The point is that Newman is traditional, while Kierkegaard is a “modern”—again in a sense which I think we all perfectly recognize.
Coming as he did from this more conservative British literary background, Trilling did approach the moderns somewhat gingerly. Yet he could not rest easy with Delmore’s accusation. It was an embarrassing position for him to be put in. He was not given to rapid-fire polemics, and to have answered directly would have dragged him down into an aimless personal squabble. Instead, he would meet the issue more slowly and deliberately. He had been accused of not being really responsive to modern literature, and of taking its name in vain whenever he spoke of it. Very well; it was a serious charge, and he would meet it, and meet it in the most appropriate way in which he as a professor could: he would give a course in the subject! And in the process he would expose himself to this alien element of modern literature. Thus his answer came almost ten years later in an essay, “The Modern Element in Modern Literature,” which does not at all refer to Delmore’s attack, though I believe the latter was the original propelling force. The essay is in good part an account of his experiences in giving the course, and of what he learned from it, and it is to my mind one of the most stimulating and fertile pieces that Trilling ever wrote.
What is “the modern element in modern literature”? The question may look like one of those remote and mandarin reflections in which our literary critics sometimes like to indulge. In fact, it is one of the most direct and urgent questions we can ask of ourselves at this time. For if we knew what was distinctively “modern” about our literature, we would know what lies at the heart of our own age, what makes us tick, what the human situation really is in which we find ourselves today. It would be enlightening, though too tedious here, to go through the authors one by one whom Trilling selected, his sometimes unexpected inclusions and exclusions (Kafka and Joyce, for example, are excluded, and Gide included), what he makes of each, and how he fits them into his general scheme. We may leave it to some scholarly Ph.D. to give us such a detailed anatomy of Trilling’s mind. Here we confine ourselves to the blunt statement of his conclusions from that ten years’ search.
What is modern about modern literature? Trilling’s answer, as we should expect, falls within the Freudian pattern of his thinking. Modern literature is distinguished by its deliberate search into the unconscious psyche. It attempts not only to lay bare but, in a Dionysian spirit, to celebrate those unconscious forces. Trilling puts this in one of his more striking and memorable phrases:
Nothing is more characteristic of modern literature than its discovery and canonization of the primal, non-ethical energies.
A second leading characteristic is the rebellion within this literature: the modern writer has taken on himself an “adversary role” against his civilization—a phrase that has become well-known by this time. But if an adversary, what then is he fighting? Writers in the past—satirists from Horace and Juvenal to Pope and Swift—have attacked one or another feature of their society, so that the adversary role as such would not be enough to distinguish the modernity of the modern writer. Trilling therefore specifies by pushing his point further: the modern writer has taken up an adversary role, not merely toward this or that feature of his own society, but toward civilization itself. Fittingly, he chose as a concluding text for the course and its grand summation Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.
One would not want to quarrel with either of these two points as such, but they seem to me radically incomplete as they stand. Psychologically, for example, the detachment from feeling, or the striving toward such detachment, that we find in modern literature is as momentous a fact as the plunge into the unconscious. Consider the case of Madame Bovary again. It is in its way the archetypal, the paradigmatic, work of modernism—at least in the novel. Read it again after many years and it becomes more shocking. Here is a work in which detachment and objectivity have been so rigorously and beautifully pursued that the world has become emptied of values altogether. The authorities at the time, shocked by the infidelities of its heroine, sought to censor the book. Today we find such “scandals” commonplace; but the instincts of the censors, without their knowing it, may have really been frightened by something else: the vision of a world stripped of value.
The mark of Flaubert is everywhere in subsequent literature. Sometimes this inability to feel takes on an overwhelming pathos of its own, as in Kafka and Beckett. This impulse toward detachment in literature is all the more momentous when we consider that the detachment from feeling is an accomplishment and outcome of the workings of modern society in its ever more intricate and impersonal structures. And, of course, this detachment finds its own ideological expressions. What, after all, was that specter Trilling found haunting modern culture—the deflation of love into libidinal impulses—but one more manifestation of the detachment from feeling?
But we are lacking still in our picture the large overriding pattern within which all the agitations of modernity fit. Whether it be Trilling’s Freudian bias or his oversubtlety of mind, he seems to me to have missed the very plain figure in the carpet. I do not know what constitutes the essential modernity of modern literature, but I do know—and I think most students of intellectual history know—what is the large overriding framework within which this literature is written. It is the continuing secularization of our culture and the gradual withdrawal of God that have been going on in the West since the 17th century. For Nietzsche, this disappearance of God is the paramount event in Western history, indeed in the history of mankind, beside which all other events like wars and revolutions pale into relative insignificance. Matthew Arnold knew this, at least as a poet. As a critic, he himself had written an early essay, “The Modern Element in Modern Literature,” from which Trilling deliberately borrowed his own title. There Arnold had spoken as a man of the Enlightenment and extolled the modern element in literature as the free play of reason and intelligence. But as a poet he knew that something deeper was afoot in the modern world:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s
shore . . .
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.
But it is not merely a matter of ebbing faith. The whole intellect of Western man has been changed, if we look at it as mirrored in the progress of philosophy from Descartes to Kant into the varied forms of contemporary Positivism.
Alongside this withdrawal of God, there have been the vast social and political upheavals of modern history in the direction of equality. Unlike the momentary revolts of antiquity or the Middle Ages, the conflicts between rich and poor, nobles and serfs, which were sporadic and relatively local, the modern egalitarian process has been continuous, systematic, and worldwide. These two great movements—the retreat of God and the social revolution—have run parallel to each other, but their courses have been intricately linked in many ways. In a more external and obvious way, the egalitarian revolution had to begin by appropriating, where it could, the property of church and clergy. But the two are more subtly linked than that; the social revolution has been aided and abetted by technology and the technological organization of modern society, which in turn foster a thoroughly secular outlook. Where these two great historic tendencies will end, what future they may bring to humankind, we cannot now know. But we are not without our anxieties about the outcome, and these too are a part of the distinctively modern element of modern literature.
Writers have responded to these cataclysmic changes differently. Some have been greatly shaken by the death of God, and made heroic efforts to restore or compensate for the loss; some appear to be untouched and to go on as if nothing had happened. But I would not be too sure of this last. If something has departed from this world and we do not notice it, the world is still very different for us from what it was for human beings in the past; and sooner or later we find ourselves making unconscious adjustments. Liberals who had seemed secure and at ease within their own secular mind may be suddenly driven to find substitutes for religion in political causes and crusades, and to carry utopian hankerings into the field of politics. They may even aspire to bring about heaven on earth for the dream of heaven they have lost. Hence that very troubling and paradoxical phenomenon of our time: the liberals’ susceptibility to totalitarianism.
Trilling, of course, was too chaste a mind ever to succumb to that temptation. His intelligence is too cool and cautious, forever balancing and qualifying its own judgments, to betray even for a moment a passing longing for the absolute. In this he departs from his idol and model, E. M. Forster, at least for one moment in the latter’s career. Between the opposites of belief and non-belief there is a middle region where the mind, hanging loose, can permit itself the imagination that religion might be true in some way we cannot conceive. This imagination that religion might be true—and true in some way which we cannot grasp—might seem a small thing in comparison with the positive faith of the believer or the militant conviction of the non-believer; and yet it can make all the difference in reminding us how narrow and one-sided our rationalism can be. Forster has this imagination in his A Passage to India: the experience is so engulfing that it upsets the neat rationalism of the European mind. He had already rejected the prim and tidy Christianity he had been exposed to in his youth; but there is also a prim tidiness about the enlightened mind of Cambridge and Bloomsbury, which had formed him, that seems inadequate to the extremes of life, the depths a heights, he encounters in India: the dismal a nihilistic echoes of the Marabar caves against affirmation and joy of the Hindu celebration the birth of Shiva. Toward the end of the no/?/ the tough-minded and reasonable Fielding, who Forster’s spokesman throughout for sound o/?/mon sense, declares: “There is a truth in religi/?/ that has not yet been sung.” Trilling could /?/ follow Forster that far.
It is to be wondered why a mind as sensit/?/ as Lionel Trilling’s should never have been /?/ ited by this imagination, or should have clo/?/ itself off from it if it ever came. There is /?/ fact that he was educated at Columbia Univers/?/ at a time when John Dewey and F. J. Woodbrid in their very different ways, had been power advocates of Naturalism, and had virtually fix the naturalistic view as the orthodoxy of /?/ campus. Trilling had a deep pietas toward university, and considerable sensitivity toward influences. There is also the fact, which we /?/ already copiously noted, of his adherence to Fre/?/ and the disparagement of religious experience /?/ would inevitably bring with it. But beyond /?/ two influences, there seems to me to be a /?/ which I advance here only very speculatively a/?/ tentatively; and this has to do with his Jew/?/ inheritance and the position of his generation Jews in American life.
He was of that generation whose parents /?/ just made the transition, the great leap, by be assimilated into American life. To them “the religion” meant earlocks, beards, prayer sha/?/ dark suits—a whole apparatus of life that wo mean their exclusion and self-exile from this /?/ world. Their children, for whom America and opportunities were to open even more widely, /?/ up in this atmosphere, absorbed it unconsciou and grew even farther apart from the old a giances. For the first time in history, at least /?/ the Exile, here in this American democracy the /?/ was on his way to becoming an accepted mem of the community. To be religious somehow plied a step backward in history, toward ghe/?/ and the pale and the exclusion generally /?/ American life. In this respect, though in /?/ ways, they were radically different personalit Trilling’s case seems to me perhaps compara with that of Walter Lippmann, who eschewed ligious attachment lest it exclude him from American mainstream.
Lionel Trilling died in 1975, a /?/ after Philip Rahv. Funeral serv/?/ were held in St. Paul’s chapel on the campus Columbia University. Both a rabbi and a mini/?/ presided; some psalms were read and there wa/?/ brief musical offering. The casket was then borne out and the mourners quietly left the church. All was in perfect taste, and perfectly appropriate to the person whom we mourned. It was as if the grace and modesty of the man himself somehow overflowed into the rites of death that were performed in his name.
Yet I remember being faintly troubled at the time; and as I reflect on those last rites I find myself more and more troubled by the perplexing questions they beget. Was the service religious or not? In some sense it was not completely secular—there was the chapel and there were the psalms. Suppose there had been a completely secular service. Imagine it taking place in one of those funeral parlors—they often dignify themselves by the name of chapels—farther down on Broadway. The mourners—or, more accurately, the invited guests—sit around on folding chairs; a meeting is assembled, there are speakers in eulogy, and the business of the session proceeds apace. Whatever solemn notes may be invoked, it is, after all, a business session of a kind, convened for the purpose of dispatching a corpse in some socially acceptable manner. Even the imagination of such a service seems shocking and inappropriate for a man like Trilling. It was fitting that there should be a chapel and those psalms.
Death is the one part of life where a thoroughly secular attitude seems to hit us as crudely inadequate. Whatever our sophistication, in the death of someone close to us we are thrown back into the same emotions as primitive man. Death thrusts us into the great darkness, the mystery that envelops all that is, and we have to reach back for the language with which men could once address themselves to those matters. Hence the psalms.
But here the nagging question. We, as moderns, may still feel the aesthetic need for this archaic language at such times. But how many generations before its use as an aesthetic adornment for a funeral service begins to lose its force, and becomes a routine gesture? And when we are at last fully conscious that it is mere routine, what then? Then we have sunk—or risen, according to some minds—to the purely secular level where we are merely dispatching a corpse, in some socially approved way, into the ground or the crematorium, as the case may be. And if that archaic language does become at last routine, what would be required for its renewal?
These are unpleasant thoughts, and perhaps it is ungracious to raise them in the case of this particular funeral. But Trilling was an exemplary figure—perhaps the best example of the civilized humanist our period has had to offer—and he is worthy therefore of the most searching questions we can ask. For in pressing these questions, we place ourselves and our whole culture in question along with him.