Yes and No

John Bayley

  • Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism by Mark Krupnick
    Northwestern, 207 pp, $25.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 8101 0712 0

Criticism dates far quicker than art. That is only to be expected: just, as well as natural. Now that F.R. Leavis’s sword no longer sleeps – or rather does not sleep – in his hand, his attitudes to chosen texts are no longer inculcated, the students no longer exhorted to place themselves on the side of life by reading books that will show them ‘where life flows’. Those socio-religious and poetic metaphors seem a little quaint now, but no doubt the time is not far off when ‘discourses’ and le jeu des signifiants will seem equally quaint.

There remains a style of criticism, however, which does not date in the same way because it presents itself as literature rather than as criticism, not as something radically urgent and ongoing, the new truth and the new vocabulary, but as an attempt to contemplate the cultural scene by arresting it and viewing it in an evening light, as the stasis of history, the time when, as Hegel said, Minerva’s bird takes to the air on soundless wing. The art of such criticism is to be at once contemporary and retrospective, to give an overview of the present in terms of how it is becoming the past. It is pervasive, sceptical, wry, melancholic and – a favourite Trilling word – perdurable, because founded not on mental enthusiasm but on biological need. We all need to rest, and where better to rest than in the company of cool, humouring, compassionate observers like Matthew Arnold and E.M. Forster, or of Lionel Trilling himself?

Naturally if you write as if present and past were one, you tend to write about purely notional things and people; like Matthew Arnold, you attach your imagination to the idea. And since ideas are bloodless you run the risk that living people will turn away in search of something stronger, more disciplined, more inspirational. This is the fate of ‘cultural criticism’. Professor Krupnick is not exactly a follower of Trilling, for in the world of cultural criticism there could hardly be such a person. His sympathy for the subject is wholly detached, and his tone increasingly sceptical. In his first chapter he is already suggesting that Trilling’s ‘style bodies forth a counter-historical ideal community, a society that did not in fact exist’. That was part of the risk of writing about the present as if it were already the past.

No doubt Trilling himself was well aware of it, for there are unexpected moments when his discourse, normally meticulous and bland, makes strenuous attempts to sound tough. In 1946 he spoke of cultural criticism as ‘the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet’, and added: ‘one does not go there gladly.’ Eyebrows might well be raised at this, for in practice Trilling’s crossroads are clean, quiet and well-lighted, with no sign of blood or any other bodily fluid. How could there be? In his essay ‘On the Teaching of Modern Literature’ it is hard to know whether he is being naive or extremely serpentine when, as Krupnick says, ‘he describes his dismay over his students’ easy adaptation to a body of work that he himself professed still to fear on account of its energy of subversion. Having led his students into the promised land of cultural criticism, he found, or professed to find, that they accepted its dark and bloody realities not only without anguish and travail of spirit but with what he called ‘delighted glibness, a joyous sense of power in the use of received or receivable generalisations’.

Can Trilling really have thought that the students would read modern literature – any literature – in a state of fear and trembling? Or was he finding cause for disillusion, of an Arnoldian kind, with the way things had turned out? Modern literature is supposed to be ‘exciting’ – the eternal cliché – and thus, like all modern art, to have a special appeal, particularly to the young. In times of educational optimism and university expansion, courses in it might expect to be popular, go-ahead. But Trilling, like many American university intellectuals, expected more than that of courses in modern culture. By studying selected modern texts – The Great Gatsby, The Secret Sharer, The Dead, ‘The Metamorphosis’, Notes from Underground – titles which today, and in the context of an English school, have the almost forlorn ring of incontestable distinction – students would really begin to understand what life and death were all about, would attain the right perspective on politics and progress and culture and society, would become wise men, in short, and not only wise but chastened, purged by the catharsis of those revelations and realities.

Trilling’s disillusion with the young who failed to respond in this way expresses something honourably naive, but naive nonetheless. In such a fashion did the intellectuals of Tsarist Russia expect revolution to bring civilised enlightenment where it was to bring a return to the most ancient political barbarities, or the disciples of Freud proclaim that where Id was shall Ego be. Updating Arnold, Trilling had confidence that the right sort of exposure to the fine grim realities of modern writing would make educated men of the barbarians and the philistines. But the barbarians and philistines looked on it as just another course, to be got through alongside their normally unregenerate youthful activities. The counter-historical ideal community never arrived. What did arrive was ‘adversary culture’, a backlash of philistinism on a massive scale. Exposure to masterpieces of modern writing bred by reaction a taste for pop, rock, punk and so forth; and it is difficult not to feel a sneaking sympathy with those who upheld the cause of unpredictability by reacting in this way.

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