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

In any case, Trilling’s inherently sensible pessimism would leave him not too surprised. His uniqueness as a committed observer and engaged critic lay in his equal commitment to the idea of the opposing or divided self. As Krupnick says, every ‘yes’ in his writing is followed by a ‘no’ – ‘in a rhythm nearly as regular as breathing, or the systole and disatole of the heart’. His early and remarkable short story, ‘Of this time, of that place’, had already shown that when thinking against himself, or creating against himself, he was well aware of the limitations and complexities in the path of educational and cultural progress. Trilling is unique among modern critics in that he makes fiction a specific form of criticism. A story in his work has the same function as an essay: to illuminate a topic from all sides, to say yes and no in such a way that advocacy becomes acceptance, the clenched fist a gentle shrug. It is a very seductive technique, and not quite like any other in recent writing, however much it may borrow from Billy Budd, Bartleby the Scrivener, the Schlegels and Wilcoxes of Howards End.

It borrows in the sense that the stories and characters deployed are mythological and exemplary, as they are in the American tradition of Hawthorne and Melville. Trilling had reverence for such a tradition, and associated it with that insight into the nature of good and evil, innocence and guilt, with which he sought to animate his own fables. In ‘Of this time, of that place’, the college teacher, Howe, has two such exemplary ones among his pupils: Tertan, an original, perhaps brilliant, but wholly unstable creature, and the horrible Blackburn, a clean-limbed undergraduate type who is adroit, insensitive, dishonest and on the make. Howe does his best to encourage Tertan and see that Blackburn does not receive the degree he does not deserve: but Tertan goes off his head and Blackburn successfully gets round Howe and ends up a success in the eyes of the Dean and college.

Though the story is told with great feeling and style, its schematism may seem crude. But this is done to lure the reader on. Trilling’s ulterior purpose is to show, not how things go wrong which a liberal society ought to be able to put right, but how terrible things are, and have to be. (‘Terrible’ was a word he often used of modern masterpieces, even referring in a formal speech of eulogy on Robert Frost’s 85th birthday to the ‘terrible realities’ in Frost’s poetry.) The Tertans lose out irrevocably, the Blackburns win irrevocably, and the well-meaning Howe ends up with good career prospects and colluding with the Dean and Blackburn. A later story, ‘The Other Margaret’, seems to be intended even more as a slap in the face for liberal pieties. A nice middle-class family – the daughter is called Margaret – employs a black maid, the ‘other Margaret’, who secretly hates and envies them and breaks their most treasured possessions out of pure spite. Good Margaret, who has been conditioned to believe that bad behaviour is never the fault of the deprived, ends up realising that the other Margaret’s evil nature has nothing to do with class or money.

What Trilling seems to be doing in such tales is to call in literature to redress the balance of current liberal assumption. Literature is about terrors: therefore terrors are what life is inevitably about, and we ought to face the fact. There is something wrong about this logic, as is shown by the insouciant response of Trilling’s pupils to the subversive terrors of modern literature, and Trilling’s apparent consternation at the fact. The truth is, of course, that ‘terrible’ literature has as deep a consolatory function as any other kind, quite apart from the fact that young students have neither the experience nor the will to understand it, nor – in most cases – the need to draw consolation from it. Trilling, like most good critics, is simply taking literature too seriously, because it has come to mean so much to him. And the seriousness can be gauged from the use he makes of it in his own writing. The good Margaret, like the poet’s (‘Margaret, are you grieving?’), learns to grieve at the way things are instead of enjoying false and sentimental notions about them; Blackburn and the other Margaret are intimations of evil, like Claggart in Billy Budd; Tertan fades out of life and sanity like Bartleby; Howe, like Margaret Schlegel, ends up at the side of the Wilcoxes.

Trilling’s novel, The Middle of the Journey, could be said in the same way to take its inspiration from Forster’s observation that ‘death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him.’ But with much more leisure to deploy his theme Trilling also perfects his seductive technique, and produces a novel which, in spite of its flaws, is undoubtedly a masterpiece, not just a curiosity of its age. However much it dwindles into near-conventionality towards its end (the hero Laskell’s obligatory love passage with Emily Caldwell), it is sustained throughout by the strength, originality and humour of its earlier sequences. Trilling is apt to adopt a tone of grave and puckish humour, as in his rather embarrassing essay on the Kinsey Report, but this is no more than the ritual display of a mandarin who takes himself seriously, even solemnly. Laskell’s illness in The Middle of the Journey is quite different: it is genuinely funny. To begin with, there is something deeply and engagingly ludicrous about an intellectual whose committed participation in the high-minded debates and conspiracies of American fellow-travellers is brought to an abrupt end by the childish disease of scarlet fever, admittedly in an acute, even dangerous form. Laskell’s illness is supposed to be a brush with death, but we know he will not die – it is too near the beginning of the novel – and we know that he knows it too. Inveterately literary as everything in Trilling’s fiction is (Krupnick rightly calls his chapter on it ‘Fiction as Criticism’), the scene clearly has its source in Mrs Moore’s experience in the Marabar Caves, as a result of which she does die, however contingently. Mrs Moore has suffered what Henry James’s father experienced and called a ‘vastation’, which may permanently deprive the sufferer of the power to take anything in life rationally or seriously. What it imprints is the fact of death, and the consequent unimportance of – among other things – liberal politics. And this is supposed to be what happens to Laskell, who after his illness feels estranged from his kind, blinkered, fellow-travelling friends the Crooms, and also from the renegade Communist Gifford Maxim (based upon Whittaker Chambers, as the Crooms were upon Alger Hiss and his wife), who has reacted into what Laskell feels to be half-baked religious belief.

This schematic aspect of the novel is not its ‘real’ subject, however. Trilling had at last brought off in a work of imagination what his critical attitudes had always covertly or implicitly suggested: that every yes should be followed by a no, every ‘modernist’ confounded by an anti-modernist. When the novel came out reviews were unfavourable, and, as Krupnick shows, the most acute one, by Robert Warshow, not only castigated Trilling’s abstractionism – his characters being mere ideas – but also noted that a Freudian showed surprisingly little interest in deep unconscious motivations, and a historically-minded culture critic no awareness of the pressures of history and ideology on social beings. That was no doubt true, but Warshow presumably missed the point that the novel’s real subject was the discovery of the self.

Trilling always had a lot to say about the self, but, as Krupnick points out, was usually rather vague as to how to embody the idea. Laskell’s illness makes him real, to himself and to us. It is his self, and for the book’s scope he needs no other. When he falls ill he discovers, or rediscovers, who he really is. However ‘grave’, the illness is really a state of happy regressive serenity, which has nothing to do with the realisation of death but everything to do with the awareness of life – the kind of life which fits Laskell’s self. The joke is either very discreet or quite unintentional, even though a kind of humour is from time to time put forward with Trilling’s own very individual brand of ponderousness. The door of the sickroom opens; a voice says: ‘I am pain.’ It is the nurse come to look after him, English, very plain, very supportive, name of Payne. She and Laskell become, in their relation to each other, wholly real and convincing characters. Payne alternates with another nurse, a pretty young Canadian, who has a habit of leaning over the bed so that Laskell can see her fine breasts. This he finds distasteful, and he contrives to get rid of her, so that he can enjoy the sole society of the undemonstrative and unromantic Payne. It is one of the rare cases in fiction where symbolism fits beautifully, with no open or concealed emphasis. Trilling is Laskell; nurse is literature – English literature, that is. And perhaps it could be said that illness and the nurse make both important and unimportant what goes on in the world of politics, ideology, even ‘personal relations’.

This, it seems to me, is the hidden message of Trilling’s novel, and it is made with a singular force. It could not be further from the overt council he gives us, in his many essays and in his stories, though in everything he writes it has a kind of shadowy shameless presence, quite modifying the dominant impression of Trilling as urbanely sophisticated teacher, wise mediator of what is most urgent and important in the world of ideas we are supposed to live by and in. It is related to the much more decorous treatment that Trilling gave in his later lectures to the twin concepts of Sincerity and Authenticity. Sincerity, roughly speaking, is the ideal of ourselves as social beings. Authenticity, that of ourselves as private beings, secretly saying, like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man: ‘for all that, I am more real than you are.’ Trilling connected authenticity, in its various manifestations since the Romantic era, with the Hegelian concept of Geist, the solitary spirit that moves purposefully through history; and according to more professional historians of ideas, like Isaiah Berlin, he is wrong about this. However that may be, the underlying purpose of Trilling’s contrast seems to be to confront, as usual, the two halves of the opposing self, so as to suggest not only how each appears in literary representation, but how each needs the other, and must be schooled to the other.

It is for this reason that his essay on Keats – one of his most revealing – suggests that Keats’s authenticity, as man and poet, comes from his self’s natural attachment to reality – ‘an attachment stronger and more complex than ours usually is’. He has both social and absolute self, a Wordsworthian ‘sentiment of being’ (in his two essays on Wordsworth Trilling makes the same point about him). ‘The sentiment of being’ – Wordsworth’s phrase from The Prelude – is what Laskell rediscovers when he falls ill. This romanticism, even hero-worship, about the self, as something shaped and shapely, to be stroked almost like a cat, is one of the oddest but also most compelling features of Trilling’s literary personality. It can make him surprisingly unorthodox, as when he strongly deprecates such fashionably representative figures of the modern period as Kafka and Beckett on the grounds that their sense of things is ‘without the contradictory knowledge of the self in its health and validity’. But it can also make him a bit absurd, as in his essay on ‘William Dean Howells and the Roots of Modern Taste’, in which he exalts the rather dim American novelist as embodying the whole and confident self in his characters, who are fully able to participate in the commonplace joys of life. As Krupnick says, the essay is like ‘a prayer for a certain kind of selfhood, a certain kind of being’. It is a prayer in praise of what Trilling calls Howells’s passionate wish to speak out ‘for the benign relaxation of the will, for goodness and gentleness ... for the charm of the mysterious, precarious, little flame that lies at the heart of the commonplace’. In thus combining religious fervour with the language of Pater’s aestheticism, Trilling was going out of his way doubly to offend the pieties of contemporary intellectuals, especially as he was praising a novelist who, in an essay on Dostoevsky, had made the unfortunate comment that ‘the smiling aspects of life’ were ‘more American’.

Offending contemporary pieties in this way was a part of Trilling’s technique. Nor in this case was he unprophetic. The backlash against Kafka and Co, and against what Mary McCarthy called ‘the Proust-Joyce-Mann course’, has taken many forms, not all mindlessly Philistine, and Trilling would be disconcerted today to find Barbara Pym a new heroine of the campus course, and her novels the subject of doctorates. One suspects he would backtrack hastily, for as Krupnick says, ‘it was in the logic of his position as enemy of all orthodoxies that he should disavow any stance, even his own, once it had become widely espoused.’ He needed to point out old fashioned middle-class pieties as in some sense ‘radical’. He rightly saw what we now call ‘radical chic’ as the enemy of true belief – Newman’s ‘real’ as opposed to ‘notional’ assent, or Matthew Arnold’s deep underlying current of ‘what we feel indeed’. He wrote that ‘it is characteristic of the intellectual life of our culture that it fosters a form of assent that does not involve actual credence.’ Such credence must be based on the gut feeling of the self, the ‘sentiment of being’ as opposed to the modern ‘weightlessness’ of being, which for Nietzsche logically followed the death of God. Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being copies Trilling’s stance so closely here that it might have been written as an exact, though presumably unconscious exemplification of it. For Kundera, ‘lightness’ is the domain of socialism and the political nightmare of Eastern Europe under the tyranny of the old-fashioned Luft-menschen, while weight can only reside in the private self and its eternally valid preoccupations. The future historian of ideas may well couple Trilling’s and Kundera’s novels together as examples of our current anti-modernist attitudes, even though Kundera is writing of a real and grim political situation, and Trilling on the playing around of American Thirties radicals, and on ‘modernism as a middle-class revolt against its own mode of existence’.

Like all ‘serious’ critics, Trilling finds in the books he takes as exemplary what he wants to find, which is not necessarily what the author put there. The author of The Vacation of the Kelwyns and The Rise of Silas Lapham would be surprised at the ideological weight which Trilling attaches to his amiable fictions. Jane Austen would no doubt be as surprised as William Dean Howells, though probably more amused, at the grave weight of ideological imagining which Emma and Mansfield Park are called upon to bear. The trouble with attaching such importance to homely humorous commonplace things is that they inevitably become denatured by the scrutiny and appear self-conscious and not themselves, as Barbara Pym’s jokes and small comforts would do in a doctoral thesis. The critic who exalts the daily round, the common task, is putting himself out of business: we can see the point of these things, and the art that describes them, for ourselves. And yet Trilling remains unique among critics in his capacity to face all ways, and to demonstrate, not so much by precept as by scope and tone, how much good art is apt to do the same. He has been a remarkably accurate barometer of changes in taste, outlook and cultural fashion. And in charting his course with detachment and sympathy Professor Krupnick has produced a primer of sixty-odd years of cultural history.

He has neglected, however, perhaps deliberately, to utter a contemporary verdict on Trilling, such a verdict as would be implicit, for instance, in the view of him taken in the Deconstructionist lobby. There his various yeses and noes would go for nothing: what would matter is his mode of speech, modelled on natural authoritarians like Arnold and Forster, and hence full of unconscious assumptions about the personal self, and truth and reality, and the nature of the objective world. As Gerald Graff told us in his essays on ‘The Politics of Realism’ and ‘Textual Leftism’, bourgeois society controls its rank and file and its intellectuals alike, not by censorship or repression, but by the use of language, truth and logic. By this criterion Trilling was as bourgeois as they come, and his view of culture and society, in deconstructive jargon, wholly ‘hegemonic’. If truth is indeed a bourgeois hegemony, perhaps it is coming back into fashion again. Trilling was certainly on its side, though usually deviously, and often perhaps unconsciously. But as a critic he had that in common with the artists.

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