The Heart’s Cause

Michael Wood

  • The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling by Diana Trilling
    Harcourt Brace, 442 pp, $24.95, May 1994, ISBN 0 15 111685 7

Slugging it out with Diana Trilling in the pages of Commentary, Robert Lowell remarked: ‘Controversy is bad for the mind and worse for the heart.’ Mrs Trilling, for all the world like Dorothea Brooke or some other 19th-century heroine of the strenuously examined life, replied: ‘I have never thought controversy bad for either the mind or the heart.’ She missed the grace and weariness of Lowell’s phrase, as well as the sense of genuine damage which lurked in his irony, but she had found a triumphant definition of what she herself was about. She was a controversialist not out of belligerence or righteousness or arrogance, but out of cultural conviction. There are things we don’t need to argue about, she would say, but not many. Argument is the visible, sequential life of ideas. Controversy is good for the heart, and indispensable for any but the lazy mind.

This is a stance which leads to stridency, almost entails it. It also tends to literalism, to an underrating of the meanings of silence, or of motivations which are signalled but not fully declared. Mrs Trilling has been belligerent and righteous, and she herself, in her remarkable new book, speaks of her arrogance (‘an intellectual confidence – an arrogance, if you will’), and says, with beautiful understatement, that her mother left her ‘a substantial legacy of determination.’ Or again: ‘The lust for honesty in my family was ravaging and incurable. I am its product.’ More tellingly still, evoking her childhood fear of sharing the fate of the crazy lady next door, who died with her clothes off and her furniture all upside down, she writes: ‘On emotional tiptoe, daring as I could, dodging as I had to, I approached a first vagrant notion of rape; also, more soundly, an intuition of the fiercer manifestations of insanity. For all of my life, the fear of insanity has blocked the free play of my imagination and made me too intent upon reasonableness.’

There is a poem by R.P. Blackmur which speaks of marrying reason when the heart’s cause is lost. But one might also marry reason for the heart’s sake; for the heart’s peace. Mrs Trilling’s sense of herself as too intent on reasonableness allows us to understand, and shows us that she understands, what many of her most extravagant arguments were about. The controversy with Lowell (and not only with Lowell – Mrs Trilling, in We Must March, My Darlings, 1977, speaks of ‘a considerable correspondence, most of it hostile to my view’) concerned a long essay of hers about the Columbia student uprising of April 1968. Students occupied university buildings, and after a week were forcibly ejected by the police; there was fear of racial riot; flying rhetoric, some vandalism, much dissension among teachers and students and administrators who had previously not known how much room there was for disagreement in their lives. Mrs Trilling has some sympathy for the black demonstrators – she admires their dignity and self-respect, and thinks they have a case against American society – but thinks the white student radicals were just spoilt and ungrateful kids, peeing on the carpet that welcomed them. One of these delinquents, famously photographed during the occupation smoking a cigar, with his feet on the university president’s desk, later called to ask why Lionel Trilling was not out there defending the students against the police, as many faculty members were. We may well think that this was some cheek, or some chic, chutzpah well beyond the call of Oedipal protest. But it’s not so easy to see why Mrs Trilling should be ‘shaken’ by the photograph, and her reading of the telephone call is extraordinary. ‘This was revolutionary scorekeeping, its own fine intimation of terror; to my ear it spoke all too reverberantly of concentration camps and the knock on the door in the night.’

This is the sort of thing that led Lowell to say that all was twisted in the essay’s ‘rattled sentences’, and that ‘no one thought Mrs Trilling heaves into my thoughts lands straight.’ But for her the students had not simply taken over a large university, they had stormed the house of reason, desecrated some noble, elective family of the mind. ‘I admit a possible bias,’ she says. ‘One marries into a university much as one once married into one’s husband’s family: there develops a not insignificant attachment and a perhaps distorting intimacy.’ And in The Beginning of the Journey she writes of Columbia as if it were self-evidently the centre of the charted intellectual world in the first half of the century. Didn’t these fractious children know where they were? ‘Still, with all allowance for subjectivity, I find myself unable to locate a sufficient cause of revolution at Columbia – reason for complaint, certainly; reason for protest, yes, especially in the graduate schools ... but no reason, no reasonable reason, to tear the place to pieces.’ This is certainly true – what would be a reasonable reason for tearing any place to pieces? But the trouble with insisting on reasonable reasons, and harshly judging all those who lack them, is that you fail to care about the other kinds of reason, the ones that aren’t reasonable and won’t speak, or won’t measure up. The students were not rioting for nothing, and the proper response to the accusatory telephone call, even on Mrs Trilling’s own terms, is either to refuse to answer or to explain one’s actions, not to treat the question as if it could only have come from the secret police. There is a remarkable anticipation here of one of the key strategies in the attribution of political correctness. A question is asked, characteristically by someone with very little institutional or political power except that which your conscience concedes them. You are so outraged or scared or worried by the question that you can’t ignore it or answer it, you can only wish it hadn’t been asked. But it has been asked, so the next best thing is to turn the asker into a Stalinist or a Nazi.

We need to go further, though. If Mrs Trilling’s understanding of herself as too intent on reasonableness gives us a context for what seem to be her extravagances, we must remember that she was also saying, all along, some very stern and quite unextravagant things about what we have been doing to our minds and hearts. ‘Almost with each passing day,’ she wrote in her essay about the Columbia uprising

it becomes harder for liberalism to claim that it has been adequate to the tasks it undertook. We caution against capitulation to the revolution designed by the New Left, point to its ugly violence ... But must we not also caution against the comfortable assumption that liberalism has only to shine up its old medals and resurrect its old rhetoric of responsibility ...? By confusing quiet with quietism, by buttressing legality with inertia, liberalism has earned at least some part of its present poor reputation on the campus. Yet it will suffer more than disrepute, destruction, if in admitting its deficiencies it either rests with these as its cosy guilt or, in its desire for revitalisation, takes the revolution as its alternative.

We may think that there were in 1968 and ought to be now radical alternatives to liberalism which don’t lead straight to the Gulag or the Apocalypse, but the case for liberalism itself could hardly be better put, and there is no mistaking Mrs Trilling for a neo-conservative.

Diana and Lionel Trilling were born in July 1905; they married in 1929. They came from well-to-do Jewish families who lived, at various times, in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Westchester County. She studied at Radcliffe, he at Columbia. After a year in Wisconsin, he got a job at Columbia, and for the rest of their lives, apart from vacations and stints as visitors at Oxford, they lived in New York – most of the time on Morningside Heights, close to Columbia. Lionel Trilling died in 1975, and the book ends as an elegy, not only for him and their marriage, but for their friends and their world. The tone here is as far from stridency as it could be.

Seventeen years have now passed since Lionel’s death, and hour by hour, minute by minute, I still listen for a clock which no longer ticks ... I have not found a substitute for his unhurried and unostentatious thoughtfulness. He lived in the world of ideas and he constantly brought me its news. He valued his intellectual endowment all too lightly and I am afraid that I also undervalued it.

She goes on to speak of ‘the strange difficult ungenerous unreliable unkind and not always honest people who created the world in which Lionel and I shared’, and you understand a lot about them and their time when you realise that all of those apparently negative ascriptions are to be taken as compliments. In similar fashion Lionel Trilling, in full awareness that Whittaker Chambers had betrayed his country and his friends, could nevertheless describe him as ‘a man of honour’. Mrs Trilling (twice) says this was ‘a careless phrase’, and perhaps she’s right. Her gloss makes clear, though, the sort of moral evaluation she and Lionel Trilling were after. ‘I too felt,’ she says of Chambers, ‘that while he would perhaps have killed for his cause, he would not lie to destroy a friend.’ These distinctions are a way of saying not that we can’t make a better world, but that we can’t make a world at all with anyone other than the people we’ve got, reliable and unreliable, kind and unkind, and the rest. It’s a Brechtian perception, a recognition that the land is unhappy when it needs heroes, not when it hasn’t got them, although both the Trillings would say it was a Freudian perception, an acknowledgment of what they endlessly called the conditioned life. One of the weirdest features of this particular patch of intellectual history – I’m not in a position to dispute it, I only note its strangeness – is that Communism, once flirted with and for ever after abhorred, is seen as a striving for the unconditioned life, an escape from social constriction into a vast and enchanted theology. Lionel Trilling, in his 1975 Introduction to a new edition of his novel The Middle of the Journey (1947) writes of ‘an impassioned longing to believe’, and ‘an ever more imperious and bitter refusal to consent to the conditioned nature of human existence’. I don’t doubt that this is where many American intellectuals found themselves, or that this location represented a real moral danger in American life, but I don’t see how they can have got there from Marx, The script has somehow been rewritten by Emerson and Captain Ahab. Or rather – this is clearer in Mrs Trilling’s writing – the script has been moralised, aligned exclusively with the individual conscience. What skews the aftermath of this moment, and makes Mrs Trilling look like the neoconservative she is not, is the notion of the single colossal error – an error so interesting that everything pales into insignificance beside it. It may also be that people who feel they were wrong only once have an even stiffer and more exalted sense of virtue than those who believe they were never wrong at all. We certainly need to know why people would want to dedicate themselves to a murderous dream of ruthlessness when they didn’t have to, but we also need an understanding of all those, Communists and other, in Europe, Africa and Asia, whose only choice was between forms of ruthlessness.

Mrs Trilling’s elegy also evokes a critical time and style. ‘The New York intellectuals had their moment in history and it has passed. Theirs was uniquely the age of criticism. Their criticism went everywhere. They had no gods, no protectorates or sacred constituencies. They were a small, geographically concentrated group, but if they did nothing else, they kept the general culture in balance.’ I’m not sure about the balance, and the age of criticism – the phrase is Randall Jarrell’s – was well represented by writers who weren’t New York intellectuals at all. We could think of Kenneth Burke, R.P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, many more. But Mrs Trilling’s point is important. What hides in the phrase ‘general culture’ is the belief that literature and culture and politics are connected, that controversy is good and bad for the mind and heart, that we can share moral and intellectual ground only if we care enough about the principle of sharing it – or if you like, that only a myth of shared ground will allow us to find whatever ground we share. The work of James Agee, Hannah Arendt, Fred Dupee, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, Philip Rahv, Delmore Schwartz, Edmund Wilson – these are some of the names Mrs Trilling mentions – gave the myth one of the best runs it has had anywhere. The language of the myth looks a little odd now – people have repeatedly attacked both Trillings’ use of the Morningside ‘we’ – but what is odd is its distinctive hovering between the highly local and the grandly universal.

This is very clearly seen in Lionel Trilling’s wonderful (and strange) essay of 1951 on Anna Karenina, where he argues that Tolstoy’s apparent objectivity is really a deep subjectivity, and that we accept his world as real because it is the world we want to be real. Unlike Dostoevsky’s world, that is, which is the one we know to be real.

We so happily give our assent to what Tolstoy shows us and so willingly call it reality because we have something to gain from its being reality. For it is the hope of every decent, reasonably honest person to be judged under the aspect of Tolstoy’s representation of human nature. Perhaps, indeed, what Tolstoy has done is to constitute as reality the judgment which every decent, reasonably honest person is likely to make of himself.

This is further than the darkest deconstructionist would go. The practical limits to deconstruction are political and historical – it is the point of deconstruction to show that that is what they are, but the world Lionel Trilling evokes is a universal flung across a void. ‘We’ are decent and reasonably honest, likely to make certain (rather tame) judgments of ourselves. But what if we don’t see ourselves this way? Or if we have quite other notions of what decency and honesty are? Or just can’t understand the categories? The world of Tolstoy evaporates, and with it the world we wanted. To say nothing of whoever ‘we’ are. Yet it is a sign of Trilling’s courage that he looks at the void, even as his generalities allow him to look away again, and the rest of his argument is very closely pursued. Believing in Dostoevsky, and the truths of horror and evil, as our century means we must, we are in danger of believing only in those truths. This is the great modern orthodoxy, and an overwhelming heresy against the kindness and ordinariness we also know. Since Tolstoy, Trilling says, ‘virtually no writer has been able to tell us of pain in terms of life’s possible joy.’ We see Trilling’s own commitment to the orthodoxy in the fact that pain is unqualified and joy is just ‘possible’, and one of Diana Trilling’s purposes in writing her book is to remind us of the ‘essentially tragic view of life’ which underlay Lionel Trilling’s justly famed grace and moderation. This point is very well made, and a glance at The Liberal Imagination (1950), for instance, confirms it amply. There the echoing words are ‘complex’, ‘terrible’, ‘difficulty’, ‘pain’. ‘What marks the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have.’ This is a doctrine not of pain as the source of art, as in Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow, but of pain as one of the crucial grounds of life.

One of the most controversial claims of The Beginning of the Journey, flamboyantly offered as such, is Mrs Trilling’s assertion that she taught her husband to write:

Lionel taught me to think; I taught him to write ... In a society such as ours, where despite the efforts of feminism, women continue to be treated with less generosity than men, I realise of course that whereas my statement that Lionel taught me to think will be received without a murmur, I put myself at risk by saying that I played a role in his literary accomplishment. In fact, I recently tested the response which I might expect to this bald assertion: I tried it on an old friend, the editor of a magazine to which Lionel and I had contributed. He made no attempt to conceal his displeasure. ‘How could you teach Lionel to write?’ he asked irritably. ‘He was a better writer than you are.’

But Mrs Trilling wasn’t saying he wasn’t the better writer, only that she taught him to be the writer he was.

Lionel was a writer of broader vision than mine and of more complex purpose and in the course of time he developed a prose which I could only envy. It was the perfect instrument of his ideas, cadenced yet forceful, precisely elegant, with a curious ability to suggest that space was being saved for what the author had left unsaid.

Mrs Trilling did not usually save such space, and even in this book, with its admirable honesty and vulnerability, she often makes announcements rather than gives clues. ‘I knew that I would be vindicated by history,’ she says of an old quarrel with Mary McCarthy, forgetting no doubt that Fidel Castro famously used much the same phrase. ‘Communism was not the fulfilment of an ideal. It was itself a movement of power, and like all movements of power it was led by ambition and self-interest.’ ‘It would have been unthinkable for Lionel and his Columbia friends to be moved by ideology in their judgment of literature.’ ‘British intellectuals are more accomplished than Americans at being rude.’ The evidence here is Cyril Connolly’s flicking ash into a cream dessert, as compared to Randall Jarrell’s deliberately dropping Mrs Trilling’s watch on the floor: pretty close thing. But then there are marvellously stealthy phrases here, and some fine musical paragraphs. I wonder if the fact that Mrs Trilling (who is almost blind) had to dictate the book was a help rather than a hindrance here – stylistically, I mean, since it obviously complicated her labour immensely in other ways. She says the world of the Fifties was ‘perhaps too complex for our imaginative grasp’, and that she ‘would not have thought to describe any of Lionel’s friends, in college or after college, as sunlit’. Her jokes about her husband manage to be both sharp-edged and amiable, even fond: ‘even for a literary man he danced badly’; ‘Poor Lionel! As man-about-town he had a long way to go and would never really make the course.’ And writing about her father and mother, she comes close to saying the unsayable:

My father’s early life is almost more vivid to me than my own ... At will, I conjure up the little boy he was then: I see him rising at dawn and treading the worn earth behind his tenement as he goes about the preparation of his long dark day. I see him at heder, bright-eyed, timid, shrewd, studying his Talmud, rocking and chanting in unison with the other little scholars, all of them hungry and sleepy and scared, all of them at the mercy of the Reb, that seedy and greedy tyrant over the young ... There is no Chagall in my father’s Jewish boyhood: nothing floats, there is no scent of flowers in the air ...

  On a winter’s day, I stood at the window of my father’s apartment and looked out at the season’s first snowfall. I thought of my mother’s body freezing in the cold ground and my heart ached. I sometimes think that my heart has never stopped aching, whether with my masked and injured love for my father or my injured and buried love for my mother.

The Beginning of the Journey has its repetitions, often literal ones; the journey isn’t always interesting, and its circles sometimes seem small. Maybe New York isn’t really the Big Apple; just a little apple with great expectations. But there are admirable notations of American Jewish life in the early part of the century; shrewd comments on the Depression and on the American response to World War Two; on what it meant to be a woman in an intellectual world assumed to belong to men. There is a powerful description of becoming the mother of a first and only child at 42.

The finest critical insight in the book concerns Lionel Trilling’s hesitation between fiction and criticism. He idealised the creative writer as a recklessly liberated figure, trampling on the codes that fetter the rest of us, but he became (mainly) a critic through decency. And yet – this is Mrs Trilling’s shrewd suggestion the – whole perspective was mythological, and Lionel Trilling’s criticism was always informed by what we usually regard as the novelists gifts.

Lionel Trilling was often depressed; Diana Trilling endlessly phobic. She was frequently, on her own account, almost impossible to live with. But she creates, seemingly without trying and certainly without boasting, the impression of a woman of great courage – the courage which comes from getting the best of your terrible nerves – and of remarkable generosity. She doesn’t forgive her enemies (or her doctors or her analysts), but she recognises the complicated worth of her friends, and she knows there are wonders to be found among imperfections. ‘The miracle of marriage,’ she says, ‘if it works, is that it makes you the most important person in the world for at least one other person.’ And this in turn allows you to lose, at least with one person, your craving for importance.