Robert Fulford's review of two Lionel Trilling books

(The National Post, July 15, 2000)

W.H. Auden, an astute critic as well as a great poet, once explained that a work of literature reads us while we read it. Lionel Trilling, the unquestioned prince of American literary intellectuals fifty years ago, said that remark certainly applied to him. "I have been read by Eliot's poems and by Ulysses and by Remembrance of Things Past and by The Castle for a good many years now," he wrote. Often these great books of modernism, the works of T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka, found him inadequate. As he put it, they rejected him. "I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me."

That passage, published originally in 1961, appears in The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent: Selected Essays of Lionel Trilling, an excellent collection that Leon Wieseltier has put together as a way of reviving the work of a great teacher and critic who has fallen into relative obscurity since his death in 1975. Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has assembled 32 essays that he hopes will attract new readers. Another recent volume, Lionel Trilling & the Critics: Opposing Selves, edited by John Rodden, deftly charts the course of Trilling's ideas as reflected in 70 critical essays about his work, written over 50 years by many hands.

Is it time for a Trilling revival? In my view, he should never have been allowed to vanish beneath the waves of fashion. In university departments dominated by mad theory expressed in barbarous prose, Trilling today sits quietly on the shelf, usually unread but never ceasing to make elegant sense. And he is needed now more than in his own time, because his natural enemies have multiplied. Public discourse is riddled with the simple-mindedness that Trilling spent his life opposing. All around us, the people speaking for rights-seeking groups -- and the people opposing them -- routinely reduce arguments to slogans. They think it proper to ignore the beliefs of their opponents and to consider only those facts that support their own causes. No one is concerned when the popular arts turn into sentimental propaganda, so long as the propaganda supports fashionable opinion. To all of these poisons, the writing of Lionel Trilling remains a powerful antidote.

He taught his readers that simplicity is overrated and confident answers are rarely of much use. In place of certainty he offered qualification, elaboration, and ambiguity. On matters of literature and morals, he never promised (O hated word!) "closure." For Trilling, an important problem was something to be explored, perhaps indefinitely. No matter what subject he approached -- Jane Austen, the Kinsey Report on sexuality, Rudyard Kipling, or "Art and Neurosis," all of which appear in the Wieseltier collection -- he left his readers with a heightened sense of its complexity. As Wieseltier writes, "In Trilling's hands, nuance was an instrument of clarification, not an instrument of equivocation."

What set Trilling apart from even his most talented contemporaries was his way of drawing subtle lines of understanding between literature and crucial aspects of current life, including education, relations between the sexes, and political allegiances. He moved far beyond the esthetic concerns of poetry and fiction. While his ostensible subject was literature, his theme was civilization.

Morris Dickstein says in his foreword to the Rodden anthology, "What meant most to him was to be possessed by a book, to be disoriented and changed by it." For Trilling a great book was the verbal enactment of will and desire by an author determined to impose himself; at some level, reading for Trilling was an act of submission.

The most famous of his own books, The Liberal Imagination, a brilliant collection of essays that is now precisely fifty years old, was framed as a critique of post-war political and social attitudes. As he saw it, liberalism was the only philosophical, political and literary tradition still alive in the United States; conservatives existed, but they produced on paper nothing but "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." Liberalism, left without serious enemies, had become glib and self-deceiving, above all in its often genial relationship with Soviet tyranny. In the 1930s, liberals found it natural to grow angry over the plight of American sharecroppers while brushing aside, as unfortunate excesses, the murder of millions of peasants under Stalin. Then as now, teachers who told their students "think for yourselves" actually meant that students should think in progressive pieties rather than in conservative pieties.

Trilling became official liberalism's chief critic, and performed that office superbly. He saw literature, with its sensitivity and wisdom, as the corrective to politics. If politics pushes us toward the banal, literature pulls us back to a more subtle and realistic account of life. Politics makes us dumb, literature makes us aware -- of the world and of ourselves. Better than almost any other critic of the 20th century, Trilling could point his readers toward the moral subtleties in the work of writers ranging from Keats to Orwell.

Eventually neoconservatism took over from Trilling the task of criticizing liberalism. It was springing to life around the time of his death, in 1975, asserting itself as the gravest challenge to liberalism in half a century. In his last years Trilling resisted Norman Podhoretz's attempts to recruit him for the new movement, but he became in any case one of its ancestors. The Rodden anthology shows Irving Kristol, neoconservatism's chief architect, admiring Trilling's social thought in a 1944 article. And Podhoretz, the most vigorous publicist of neoconservatism, was Trilling's student and friend.

In the academic world and in highbrow journalism, much of Trilling's influence was tonal. His voice, solemn and tentative, was widely imitated. And perhaps it was the voice that we readers missed most when finally there were no more Trilling essays. Did this voice represent, with total honesty, the personality of Trilling the man? Of course not. A literary voice expresses the author, but not all of the author. Typically, an authorial voice hides as much as it reveals. In Trilling's case, his voice did not betray either his regrets or his hysteria, to name two elements in his private life. Today we understand something about the other Trilling behind the persona he presented to the world.

Wieseltier has suggested that Trilling was trying to refresh for his time the attitudes of stoicism. Like the ancient Stoics, he acted out the ideal of the wise man who becomes self-sufficient through virtue, attention to duty, and the putting aside of the angers and passions that govern others. To Trilling, Sigmund Freud was stoicism's modern standard-bearer. He often quoted the argument in Freud's Civilization and its Discontents that society demands the suppression of our instincts, with the result that we all to some degree pay the price of neurosis.

But in his private life he was, it seems, more regretful, more self-conscious and more self-disparaging than anyone might have guessed. The world admired him for the judicious sanity of his writing, but his journals show that he sometimes yearned to lose control. He wrote one good novel and two much-admired stories, but otherwise he found himself stalled as a fiction writer. He blamed this failure on his respectability and rationality, and he envied Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer the craziness and nerve that fuelled their work.

His widow, Diana Trilling, wrote in her 1993 memoir, The Beginning of the Journey, that he experienced periods of depression and bouts of heavy drinking. As she told it, he was not above self-pity and grievance-collecting. At his worst he blamed his wife rather than his own instincts for making him into a mere professor rather than the free-wheeling writer he might have been. His work contained only a few hints of these conflicts. In one of his most enduring essays, "On the Teaching of Modern Literature," he wrote that dealing in the classroom with a writer such as D.H. Lawrence was uncomfortably self-revealing: "How does one say that Lawrence is right in his great rage against the modern emotions, against the modern sense of life and ways of being, unless one speaks from the intimacies of one's own feelings, and one's own sense of life, and one's own wished-for way of being?"

Diana's memoirs, and the diary fragments Trilling left behind, show a sad and ugly process at work: His idle dreams somehow festered into resentments, and his fame and achievements were reconfigured in his mind as burdens. Last year, an astonishing article in The American Scholar magazine threw another kind of light on the Trilling household. James Trilling, his son, 50 years old, reported that he had suffered all his life from attention deficit disorder, or ADD, and that he had decided Lionel was a victim of the same condition. He insisted that typical ADD characteristics (hyperactivity, abrupt shifts of attention, inability to stick to a task) were also his father's characteristics. This was obvious nonsense to those who know Trilling's work -- for one thing, he stuck to so many tasks that he produced an enviable shelf of excellent books while teaching wave after wave of grateful undergraduates.

Strangely, James Trilling claimed that his father's subtle way of thinking was also a product of ADD, since ADD can encourage vacillation. James, it appears, dislikes complexity, at least in his father's work: "Why couldn't he be simply for or against, just once, like everybody else?... he built his career on the mistrust of certainties and was rarely content with a simple answer when a complex one could be found." Thus, Lionel Trilling's son committed the ultimate act of Oedipal revenge against an intellectual father: He proved that he is simple-minded. Lionel Trilling, though a lifelong Freudian, might have found it hard to see the joke.

The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent: Selected Essays of Lionel Trilling (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 572 pp. $55), Ed. Leon Wieseltier.

Lionel Trilling & the Critics: Opposing Selves (University of Nebraska Press, 490 pp., $46.50), Ed. John Rodden.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image