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In Pursuit of Authenticity

THE MORAL OBLIGATION TO BE INTELLIGENT, \o7 Selected Essays \f7 By Lionel Trilling, Edited by Leon Wieseltier; \o7 Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 572 pp., $35\f7

August 27, 2000|SUSIE LINFIELD | Susie Linfield teaches in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program at New York University and is a contributing writer to Book Review


Lionel Trilling came between me and my students last year, and the results were not pretty. I had assigned the first chapter of "Sincerity and Authenticity," which I consider his best book; they were singularly unimpressed. I hectored, I pleaded--"Note Trilling's subtlety! his dialectical method! his historicism!"--and when that failed, as it was bound to, I went on the offensive, accusing my students of intellectual laziness, superficiality and self-imposed ignorance. I became a bully, a nag and a shrew and, like most bullies, nags and shrews, I was notably unsuccessful. As I became increasingly desperate, they became increasingly bored.

The publication of "The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent," a hefty tome of Trilling's essays spanning the years 1938 to 1975 (when Trilling died), is an occasion to revisit, and reevaluate, his work. Many of these pieces, chosen by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, first appeared in "The Liberal Imagination" (1950), "The Opposing Self" (1955) and "Beyond Culture" (1965). (Nothing from "Sincerity and Authenticity," published in 1971, is included.) The new compendium was also an occasion for me to reevaluate my students' resistance to Trilling--a resistance that is not, I suspect, peculiar to them but may speak to something larger in the culture--and to clarify why their rejection of him was so wrong. But somewhat to my surprise, "The Moral Obligation" also made me understand why, in some crucial ways, my resolutely anti-Trilling students were so right.

The most striking aspect of Trilling's work that emerges here (and even more strongly in rereading "The Liberal Imagination") is the absolute seriousness with which Trilling regarded literature, his unwavering sense that literature matters, his stubborn belief in an unbreakable bond between writer and reader (and between the writer and what we might more generally term "society"). This faith in literature's power is Trilling's noblest quality and the one that draws us to him even if (or when) we wholeheartedly reject his judgments.

For Trilling, literature--and in particular the novel--was the medium through which modern men and women could best grasp and engage the emotions and the intellect, the private world and the social one; it was literature that would recall us to the "essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty." Literature was the idiom through which we might begin to understand the ways "by which, half-unconsciously, we make our own moral selves," Trilling wrote in 1938; later he described the novel as "the most effective agent of the moral imagination ... of the last two hundred years. . . . It taught us, as no other genre ever did, the extent of human variety and the value of this variety."

Trilling would have been appalled, I think, at the mushy culture of confession and unexamined feeling--the bratty culture of consumption--that engulfs us now. "What Hemingway wanted first to do was to get rid of the 'feelings,' the comfortable liberal humanitarian feelings, and to replace them with the truth," he wrote. "Not cynicism . . . not despair . but this admirable desire shaped his famous style. . . . The trick of understatement . . . sprang from this desire. Men had made so many utterances in such fine language that it had become time to shut up." Similarly, he loved Huck Finn--the boy and the book--for Huck's rejection of pathos and for his willingness to tell us "intense truth[s]," unadorned yet never simplified.

Hemingway and Twain were exceptions, though; "The Liberal Imagination" was in large part an attack on American realists (Dreiser, Steinbeck, Dos Passos) and a paean to Henry James. And Trilling's real gods were not "intense truths" but rather irony, ambiguity, subtlety, ambivalence and, perhaps above all, contradiction. "A culture ... is struggle, or at least debate--it is nothing if not a dialectic," Trilling argued. What interested him most were those writers who contained "a large part of the dialectic within themselves, their meaning and power lying in their contradictions; they contain ... both the yes and the no of their culture." It was Trilling's own supple use of the dialectic--his ability to discern the surprising antithesis hidden beneath the supposedly obvious thesis--that makes him so valuable to us now. Thus, for instance, to the observation of the critic V.L. Parrington that Hawthorne was "forever dealing with shadows," Trilling responded, "Perhaps so, but shadows are also part of reality and one would not want a world without shadows, it would not even be a 'real' world.".


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