Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Get Smart

Lionel Trilling's Exhilarating Pursuit of Moral Realism

THE MORAL OBLIGATION TO BE INTELLIGENT Selected Essays By Lionel Trilling; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 576 pp., $35

June 11, 2000|LEON WIESELTIER

In 1971 Lionel Trilling gave a talk at Purdue University on the subject of his work as a critic. He spoke autobiographically, which was not his custom. His notes for the occasion dwell at length on his experience as an undergraduate at Columbia College in the 1920s. "The great word in the college was INTELLIGENCE," he wrote. "An eminent teacher of ours, John Erskine, provided a kind of slogan by the title he gave to an essay of his which, chiefly through its title, gained a kind of fame: THE MORAL OBLIGATION TO BE INTELLIGENT." Trilling must have startled his audience when he submitted that as a young man, "I did not count myself among those who were intelligent." Instead "I was intuitive; and I rather prided myself on a quality that went by the name of subtlety." He did not aspire to intelligence, he explained, because it was not a quality that was required of a novelist, and he aspired to be a novelist, a calling that required "only a quick eye for behavior and motive and a feeling heart." In Trilling's criticism, certainly, there is no trace of this depleted conception of the novel. In 1947 he gave his own demonstration of the utility of "intelligence" for the writer of fiction in his novel "The Middle of the Journey," which shrewdly examined the fideist mentality of American communism and recorded the disfigurements that ideology visits upon experience. (It included a portrait of Whittaker Chambers as George Eliot might have drawn him.) It is hard to imagine a waking moment in Trilling's life in which he was not consecrated to the intellect and to its cause. He had almost no higher term of approbation than to call something or someone "exigent" and "strenuous." But youth is unexigent and unstrenuous. In any event, Trilling's early indifference to intellectuality did not last long. (As he later remarked fondly about Elliot Cohen, "he never played the game of being young.") And so he recalled that he was soon "seduced into bucking to be intelligent by the assumption which was prepotent in Columbia College--that intelligence was connected with literature, that it was advanced by literature." It must be said that Trilling's professor did not always live up to his own maxim. John Erskine's works included the novels "Galahad: Enough of His Life to Explain His Reputation" and "Penelope's Man: The Homing Instinct" and a particularly witless essay in misogyny called "The Influence of Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic and the author, most recently, of "Kaddish." His essay will appear as the introduction to "The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent." Women--And Its Cure." (It concludes with a coarse colloquium among Socrates, Diogenes, Herodotus, Pericles, Casanova and Andre Chenier.) But still Erskine earned a place in the history of the humanities in America. A scholar of the English literature of the Renaissance, he created the General Honors course at Columbia, the immersion in great books that eventually transformed undergraduate education in America. "We were assigned nothing else but the great books themselves," Trilling recalled in his seminar at Purdue, "confronting them as best we could without the mediation of ancillary works." The excitement of a canon, of this canon: There was a time when there was such an excitement, though Trilling typically animadverted that the course "was not exigent enough." In 1961, in Partisan Review, he complained famously of the complacence, the "delighted glibness" with which his own students at Columbia experienced, and thereby betrayed, their collision with the literary monuments of modernity. (Trilling was appointed an instructor in the English department at Columbia in 1931, and a few years later he completed the dissertation on Matthew Arnold that became his first book in 1939. Also in 1939, Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of the university, invoked his "summer powers" to appoint Trilling an assistant professor of English and the first Jew in the department to become a member of the Columbia faculty. Trilling taught at Columbia until his death in 1975. In a life without external incident, he became an authority on internal incident.) "The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent" had appeared in The Hibbert Journal in 1914. "The disposition to consider intelligence a peril," Erskine began, "is an old Anglo-Saxon inheritance." The grounds of this hoary demotion of the mind were moral, religious and emotional--this "assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the heart and the mind are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced--full mind, starved heart--stout heart, weak head." The aim of Erskine's manifesto was to end "the peculiar warfare between character and intellect." Conscience, in his account, originated not in the English tradition but in the German tradition, and not in the mind but in the will. Yet it was in America that the party of the intellect was formed. Americans, Erskine proclaimed, were "confederated in a Greek love of knowledge, in a Greek assurance that sin and misery are the fruit of ignorance." Americans momentously understood that "if you want to get out of prison, what you need is the key to the lock [and] if you cannot get that, have courage and steadfastness." Social and economic problems were not problems of will, they were problems of mind. Erskine's essay was not immune, clearly, to the racialist idiosyncrasies of its time, and its survey of anti-intellectualism in English literature (in the English novel especially) was sorely inadequate. Its construction of mental life in America was somewhat imbued with the new enthusiasm for expertise, with the technocratic inflection of the intellectual vocation. Yet finally Erskine extolled intelligence for more than its utility. Shifting rather fitfully from the pragmatic mood to the transcendental mood, he finished his essay with the vatic announcement that "we really seek intelligence not for the answers it may suggest to the problems of life, but because we believe it is life--not for the aid in making the will of God prevail, but because we believe it is the will of God. We love it, as we love virtue, for its own sake, and we believe it is only virtue's other and more precise name." This is an exalted jumble, and there is much in it from which Trilling would have recoiled--its supernaturalism in particular, though he allowed that there are sublimities of character and understanding that may not be competently captured by an exclusively naturalistic vocabulary. (Of Eliot's supernaturalism, Trilling wrote, "I have spoken of it with respect because it suggests elements which a rational and naturalistic philosophy, to be adequate, must encompass.") And Trilling emphatically believed that "the problems of life" must indeed be brought before the mind, though not for the purpose of eliciting anything so simple and so heartening as "answers." The elements of Erskine's creed to which Trilling must have kindled, and to which he hewed in all his criticism, were its avowal of the intrinsic worth of the mind, and its affiliation of the mental with the moral. The influence of the teacher upon the student is unmistakable, for example, in a withering commentary on Dreiser that Trilling wrote in 1946: "But with us it is always too late for mind, yet never too late for honest stupidity; always a little too late for understanding, never too late for righteous, bewildered wrath; always too late for thought, never too late for naive moralizing." Trilling never encountered a good reason to postpone thinking, though he lived in an age when such reasons were regularly and popularly advanced, in the forms of totalistic philosophies and totalistic politics. He was one of the most formidable critics of totalism that his dogmatic and pitiless century produced. Trilling was a distinguished enemy of his time. There was never just one thing, in his work: no single lock, no single key. He was mentally indefatigable; there Please see Page 4 Continued from Page 3 was order in his writing, but there was no repose. This made Trilling an exceedingly unmoralistic moralist. His interest in virtue included also an interest in a doubting regard of the prevailing notions of virtue. He exemplified the intellectual vocation not least by his impiety about it. He bore down on people like himself--on the infamous "we" in his essays--almost to the point of provincialism. But this was the cheerless and thankless virtue of the true intellectual: to disquiet his own side, to "unmask the unmaskers," to "dissent from the orthodoxies of dissent." The intellectual life, if it is genuine, is a life of strain. The business of the intellectual is the stringency business. Those were Trilling's onerous instructions. A half century later, it is impossible to read the golden preface to "The Liberal Imagination," the influential collection of essays that he published in 1950--"it has for some time seemed to me that a criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time"--and not to feel the sting. There is a lasting profit in Trilling's sting. In his polemic against the undiscomfited progressivism of the 1930s and 1940s lies a lesson about the relationship of honesty to love. He deplored ease more than he deplored error. He prized fearlessness more than he prized happiness. Innocence bored him; purity he refused to credit; sanctity was more than he wished to grasp. His gospel was complexity--or as he put it, "variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty." This was not a theory or a method. It was a cast of mind and a pedagogical scruple. In Trilling's hands, nuance was an instrument of clarification, not an instrument of equivocation. This made his work exhilarating and exasperating. He was always warning about appearances and worrying that a life without illusions was itself an illusion. Trilling cherished the modern novel for its worldliness, for its ability to provide an accurate picture of the problem of reality and appearance in modern life. The subject of the novel was society, or complication. A multiplicity of classes had engendered a multiplicity of meanings, Trilling contended, so that certainty was no longer possible, and appearances, in the form of manners, acquired a new prestige as a condition of knowledge; and of these appearances the novel was made. Since the novel was social, it was epistemological. It was the art that was born when the settled sense of reality died. Trilling's criticism was a long search for the sense of reality and a long tribute to it. "When, generations from now, the historian of our time undertakes to describe the assumptions of our culture, he will surely discover that the word 'reality' is of central importance in his understanding of us." Trilling deeply resented the obscurantist uses of realism in American culture, "the chronic American belief that there exists an opposition between reality and mind and that one must enlist oneself in the party of reality." But he was not quite a party man, philosophically or politically. He inhabited an essentially inharmonious world. He was enough of an idealist not to mistake reality for mind, but not so much of an idealist that he mistook mind for reality. He was, instead, a scholar of the relation. Trilling took the sense of reality to be one of the most precious attainments of the mind and also one of the most unlikely. "Let us not deceive ourselves," he declared at the end of an introduction to "Anna Karenina" in 1951. "To comprehend unconditioned spirit is not so very hard, but there is no knowledge rarer than the understanding of spirit as it exists in the inescapable conditions which the actual and the trivial make for it." Trilling ardently defended William Dean Howells for devoting many chapters of a novel to its hero's hunt for an apartment. In this way, he argued, the writer had acknowledged "the actuality of the conditioned, the literality of matter." And "to lose this is to lose not a material fact but a spiritual one, for it is a fact of spirit that it must exist in a world which requires it to engage in so dispiriting an occupation as hunting for a house." Trilling was not a materialist, but he was not an escapist. The objective of his work as a critic was a lucid apprehension of the thick tangle of freedom and necessity. He had no doubt that the tangle was final, that the poles of existence would never part. But lucidity--the mixture of clarity and courage that Camus in particular promoted into a new stoical ideal--was not all that Trilling meant by "mind." When he spoke of mind, he was speaking of reason. To be sure, he might not have been delighted by the characterization of his point of regard as rationalism. The career of rationalism in modern culture did not exactly dazzle him. "To be rational, to be reasonable, is a good thing, but when we say of a thinker that he is committed to rationalism, we mean to convey a pejorative judgment. It expresses our sense that he conceives of the universe and man in a simplistic way, and often it suggests that his thought proceeds on the assumption that there is a close analogy to be drawn between man and a machine." The modern misadventures of reason were many: the reason of the utilitarians and their liberal heirs had desiccated the spirit, but the Reason of the Hegelians and their totalitarian heirs had killed it. Historically, reason had often behaved like the enemy of imagination and the enemy of decency. It had given absolution to middlebrows and murderers. And the enemies of reason repelled Trilling as completely as some of reason's friends. His later writings in particular were a sustained assault upon "the contemporary ideology of irrationalism," a rubric of intellectual irresponsibility under which he included the sins of "intuition, inspiration, revelation; the annihilation of selfhood--perhaps through contemplation, but also through ecstasy and the various forms of intoxication; violence; madness"; in a word, the sins of immediacy. In 1972, in "Sincerity and Authenticity," he traced the history of "the disintegrated consciousness" from Diderot and Hegel to Marcuse and Laing. Trilling inquired frequently and penetratingly into the nonethical or anti-ethical energies in modern literature. He acknowledged the vitality of what he famously called "the adversary culture," and he was himself the most forceful (and the most wry) adversary of the adversary culture. The important point is that Trilling's fascination with unreason followed strictly from his commitment to reason. In this respect he belonged to the most superb line of modern rationalism, to the sturdy, disabused company of Freud and Mann (who once remarked, against Nietzsche, that the world is never suffering from a surfeit of reason) and Isaiah Berlin. These were the rationalists with night vision. When Trilling cautioned that "we must be aware of the dangers which lie in our most generous wishes," when he detected traces of evil in the good and traces of good in the evil, he was practicing this night vision. These rationalists trained reason's gaze upon its contrary, and they held fast to the study of disorder until reason no longer flinched. They rejected the day vision, the flinching rationalism, of the Enlightenment, for which the rational was the real, or at least all the real that reason would consent to recognize. Instead they preached rationalism after romanticism. For the rational is plainly not the real; and before the reality of the irrational, reason's scorn will not suffice. These rationalists demanded of reason what Milton demanded of virtue, that it not be a youngling in the contemplation of evil. (The greatest of the rationalists with night vision was Primo Levi, who actually lived the night.) Trilling, too, was undeceived about the immunity of the world to mind; but it was this sobering knowledge of the world's punishing way with human purposes --Trilling called this knowledge "moral realism"--that gave to mind its muscle and its magnanimity, its power to withstand its own weakness and not be put to flight by what it could not master. In a review of "The Liberal Imagination" that R.P. Blackmur later collected among his "essays in solicitude and critique," he patronizingly described Trilling as "an administrator of the affairs of the mind" and as "a liberal humanist in hard straits" as if there were no glory in liberal humanism and the straits were not hard. Trilling "has cut down on tykish impulses and wild insights," Blackmur observed, more in critique than in solicitude. "The trouble is that his masters, Arnold and Freud, both extremists in thought, make him think too much." To the charge of thinking too much, Trilling would have gladly pleaded guilty; but he would have demanded to know how it was possible to think too much about problems whose solutions can be discovered only by means of reflection. He understood, of course, that not all of life's problems are of that kind. In the notes for his autobiographical lecture, he reminisced about "the rational life" of the 1930s and 1940s: "Every aspect of existence was touched by ideas, or the simulacra of ideas. Not only politics, but child-rearing, the sexual life, the life of the psyche, the innermost part of existence was subject to ideation." The mordancy of his reminiscence is evident. The "ideation" of which Trilling speaks in this passage is a little comic, almost a deformation. And many of the "New York intellectuals"--Trilling's colleagues in the great mid-century metropolitan experiment in balancing the claims of Marxism and modernism, Europe and America, alienation and solidarity, justice and beauty--were in this way deformed. In their delegitimation of Stalinism and in their divorce of the criticism of literature from the criticism of politics, they made themselves genuinely indispensable to the intellectual history of their country; but they often exaggerated the transparency of the world to their minds, and in their worship of "ideas" they often failed to observe the difference between an idea and an opinion. Trilling was not noisy in the New York manner. For this reason, he wrote the most lasting prose of any of the New Yorkers. His writing is precious not least for its patience. The imperturbability of his style was the consequence of a pained and permanent sense of the opacity of life. The dialectical toil of his essays was Trilling's way of walking diligently before what he could not promptly and cleverly understand. About one thing, then, Blackmur was right. Trilling was indeed an extremist in thought, or an extremist for thought. This marked his limitation as a critic of literature. He was singularly unstimulated by form and by the machinery of beauty. (He wrote about Keats as if Keats, too, was an intellectual.) He did not read to be ravished. He was exercised more by "the moral imagination" than by the imagination. And he grew increasingly suspicious of art. (He became especially absorbed, in his later years, by Rousseau's letter to d'Alembert.) In works of literature Trilling found mainly the records of concepts and sentiments and values. "For our time the most effective agent of the moral imagination has been the novel of the last two hundred years. It was never, either aesthetically or morally, a perfect form and its faults and failures can quickly be enumerated. But its greatness and its practical usefulness lay in its unremitting work of involving the reader himself in the moral life, inviting him to put his own motives under examination, suggesting that reality is not as his conventional education has led him to see it. . . ." In this regard, Trilling was a very unliterary literary critic. His conception of his critical duty was less professional and less playful--and bigger. The novels and the poems that he pondered were documents for a moral history of his culture. Finally he was a historian of morality working with literary materials, and the exquisiteness of the result is most perfectly on display in the great essay on "The Princess Casamassima." So there is indeed nothing tykish or wild here. There is instead a climate of philosophy and deferred felicity, of renunciation and unceasing examination. There are ironies, but not shabby ones. And art, too, falls under the moral obligation to be intelligent. At the time of his death, Trilling was working on an essay about Jane Austen. He was a little baffled by the apparent revival of the writer's reputation among his students--the uprisings at Columbia and elsewhere in 1968 were still fresh in memory--and he dared to hope that "in reading about the conduct of other people as presented by a writer highly endowed with moral imagination and in consenting to see this conduct as relevant to their own, they had undertaken an activity which humanism holds precious, in that it redeems the individual from moral torpor." Trilling left the essay unfinished, though it is clear from the fragment that remains that the piece was conceived as an admonition against aesthetic ideals of life. His partisan devotion to the critical intellect, to the dignity of dialectic, was the subject of the very last sentence that he wrote: "It is, I think, open to us to believe that our alternations of view on this matter of life seeking to approximate art are not a mere display of cultural indecisiveness but, rather, that they constitute a dialectic, with all the dignity that inheres in that word. . . ." And still inheres in it, if Lionel Trilling's teaching still lives.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|