Culture and Sincerity

Graham Hough

It is not often that a literary critic receives the crown of a collected edition, and if he does he is probably something more than a literary critic. So it is with Lionel Trilling, whose complete works are now appearing from the Oxford University Press. There is indeed a novel, and a few short stories, besides the works of literary history and criticism, but it is not chiefly by these that he exceeds the limits of the man of letters. It is as a critic of culture, habits of thought and feeling, extending on occasion to the borders of politics, that Trilling has chiefly presented himself. ‘My own interests,’ he says, ‘lead me to see literary situations as cultural situations, and cultural situations as great elaborate fights about moral issues.’ He speaks of his ‘cultural and non-literary method’, and defines as his first concern ‘the animus of the author, the objects of his will, the things he wants or wants to have happen’. This brings Trilling a good deal nearer to the Victorian sage than to the 20th-century New Critic; and, as has often been said, his purposes, his relation to the life around him, were close in spirit to those of the subject of his first book – Matthew Arnold.

An American Arnold: for it is to American culture that Trilling addresses himself – often more specifically than we are apt to suppose. It is a tribute to his breadth and persuasiveness that the present edition should come from Oxford, not from Columbia or Harvard; and that his sallies into purely American combats, often notably different from what was going on elsewhere, should have been so easily received as having their application farther afield, or even, as they often claim, to the general condition of the literate world. This means that his whiff of grapeshot sometimes spreads wide enough to score hits on targets very different from the one actually aimed at. Probably the best-known of Trilling’s books is The Liberal Imagination, of 1950; and I think the title is understood by most English readers as a vaguely honorific salutation to the values of freedom and generosity of mind that its own style and texture exemplify. But that is not what it means. In American usage ‘liberal’ does not mean liberal (still less Liberal) in English. On the contrary, it means socialist. Or, to be more precise, intellectual socialist of the middle class, with the various fragments of Aberglaube that adhere to that outlook. Trilling defines the position in several places. Here is one of them: ‘In its political feeling our educated class is predominantly liberal ... I mean only that our educated class has a ready if mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning and international co-operation, perhaps especially where Russia is in question.’ There is a decided suggestion of Communist fellow-travelling. Partisan Review began its career in 1933 as an organ devoted to the interests of the Communist Party. The liberal imagination means (to use an anachronism but a handy one) the imagination of the trendy Left. This was the milieu to which Trilling belonged, and throughout the Forties he found himself increasingly ill at ease within it – ultimately in clear opposition. His book on Forster (1944) is particularly rich in evidence of the profound irritation this ethos caused him. In other places he goes out of his way to point out that no writer of any stature has ever espoused it, and that the liberal intelligentsia is bound to deplore all the most characteristic beliefs of the writers it most admires.

Like Arnold at odds with the very different liberalism of his day, Trilling retains a sort of nominal allegiance, and refers to himself half-ironically as part of the liberal phalanx: but he also believes 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.’ A reading of the works of this period – The Liberal Imagination, the study of Forster, the novel The Middle of the Journey – shows his attitude towards this complex of ideas as a cautiously expressed revisionism which nevertheless, on examination, amounts to a jettison of most of the cargo. He describes Forster as ‘at war with the liberal imagination’: his own opposition to it went very much farther. Forster managed to summon up two cheers for democracy: at heart Trilling could hardly rise to more than one. And in the 1968 preface to a new edition of The Middle of the Journey he goes out of his way to describe Whitaker Chambers, the man who betrayed his friend in the interests of his country, as ‘a man of honour’.

Stepping out of the circle of leftist orthodoxy opened up the large question of where he was to go. The answer of course was to the wide fields of literature: had it not been, we would hardly be thinking about him now. But there is much to suggest that he would have been glad of a less spectral sodality – more than that, that he felt a real yearning for a community in culture that he could not find: both culture as the man of letters understands it, and culture in the miscellaneous anthropological sense of shared habits and manners. However much he might distance himself spiritually from the New York intelligentsia, there was really no one else to talk to. ‘The conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse,’ he remarks, ‘do not express themselves in ideas.’ And beyond that there was only the alien corn of Middle America. Not that that was entirely repugnant: it had its mild unconscious allurement. There is a touching early short story, ‘Notes on a Departure’ (1929), about a young intellectual, a Jew and a New Yorker, on his first teaching job at some up-country university. He feels a charm in the place, something accepting, unrancorous, easy-going: but he knows it is not for him. ‘Upon [his students] was set the sweet sign of eternal youth. And upon the town the same sign was also set ... And he was very old ... Yet early in his acquaintance with the town, even before he had been intimidated into age, he thought he perceived in it, despite its youth, a spot of death.’ He has a brief kindling vision of American America, but the memory of Zion drives it away. And the real poignancy of the story is that there is no longer any Zion: he cannot stay, but what he is going back to has no zest and no promise. He returns to the city, to ‘the outworn friends who kept one talking in the dead jargon of one’s past’, to face the bare necessity of making his own soul, creating his own culture, without help from environment or institutions.

This is essentially the effort of the central books of Trilling’s career, The Liberal Imagination (1950), The Opposing Self (1955) and Beyond Culture (1965): the attempt to create a culture, often to conjure one into being simply by asserting that it exists. He has several strategies to this end, and the major one is to deploy his literary and critical authority. Every sage, besides his general claims, needs a trade, a special accomplishment through which to work. Carlyle was a historian, Ruskin an art-critic, Arnold, and Trilling after him, a critic of literature. These books of Trilling’s are simply collections of essays – commissioned pieces written over a number of years. In this they resemble most of the great critical work of modern times – Arnold’s and Eliot’s, for example. They stand up well to the comparison. Like Arnold’s, his specific critical discussions are always deeply imbued with a general concern for the health of the world of letters. Like Eliot’s, his judgments are formulated with precision and solicitude. Never startling, they do one of the solidest jobs that criticism can have before it – they deepen and make more accurate the half-formed perceptions of the serious reader.

What distinguishes these superior collections of essays from the run of able literary journalism is that, although they consist of occasional pieces, with much unexpected variety, they are also informed by a few leading tendencies and ideas. One of these in Trilling’s case is a concerned and affectionate quarrel with American literature. Affectionate, because he has a strong sense of the validity of the American literary tradition, a desire to build it up and make it properly articulate. A quarrel, because, as he finds it, the American literary tradition has not been subject to real discrimination, has suffered from a lack of critical rigour. Concurrently with his reaction against left-wing ideology Trilling experiences a reaction against the writers who dominated the American literary scene at that time – O’Neill, Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Steinbeck and Van Wyck Brooks. Against their plodding artlessness, their dullness, their pious social simplicities, he utters a firm recall to more exacting standards. The astringent note must sometimes have been unwelcome to his audience. The Conference on American Literature at Rochester University in 1949, having invited Trilling to speak on the debt of O’Neill, Dos Passos, Wolfe and Faulkner to Freud and Spengler, cannot have been gratified to hear, as they did, that these writers are without intellectual capital of their own and don’t owe a sufficient debt of ideas to anyone. At the same time his feelings for the American scene are essentially warm and generous. His estimate of Hawthorne is surely excessive; he shows almost a touch of Schwarmerei towards Scott Fitzgerald; and his essay on W.D. Howells is cordially appreciative – willing to show how Howells’s real but modest literary merits are supplemented and enlarged by his status as representative of a particular phase of American social history.

These qualified appreciations are thrown into perspective by the large foreground figure of Henry James, who stands for Trilling as the exemplar, in subtlety, scrupulosity and adequacy, of what an American writer can be. He is a critical landmark – an essentially American writer who can take a natural place among the great international masters of the novel. He makes a bridge by which Trilling can do what he always aspires to do – speak of American literature in the same tone and by the same scale of values as he employs in discussing his other interests in world literature. He attempts this in the essay on Hawthorne, but the result is strained and unreal, and the parallel of Hawthorne with Kafka is more than a little absurd. With James he is on surer ground, and on the ground that he really wished to occupy – the subtle and critical examination of social life. It is notable that the two important essays are on James’s least popular novels, The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima; and the two novels in which James engages with specific and particularised social scenes. One has an American, the other an English setting; and these two pieces amount to a celebration of a novelist who had a footing in both worlds.

Just as Arnold was wont to use France as a supplement and corrective to English culture, so Trilling, though more cautiously, used England to confront America. Parallel to his interest in James is an interest in Forster, and what attracts him in both is the evolution in their work of a serious, undocuinal morality, developed not in the void, or by reasoning from first principles, but entirely worked out through the social scene. The struggle of sincerity against social falsehood – a theme but little represented in American literature. The book on Forster was written before Trilling had ever been to England, and without any knowledge of the King’s-and-Bloomsbury atmosphere and its peculiarities: yet its judgments, both appreciative and limiting, are extremely sure. Forster’s attitude to the bourgeois society of his own country could be described as that of the loyal outsider, one who stands away without rejecting, who criticises within the limits of an inescapable bond. And that, in quite other circumstances and for quite different reasons, served as something of a model for Trilling’s relation to his own world. We might expect a certain impatience with the Edwardian tea-table ambience of much of Forster’s work, but there is no trace of this. On the contrary, though he rejects some of the too-playful Forster charm, he finds the greatest interest in the working out of quite fundamental moral questions within the bounds of a settled and limited society. The same interest pervades his essays on Jane Austen, where he passes lightly over the wit, the satirical edge, the structural elegance of her works, to celebrate them as the vehicles of insight and practical morality. Again, he is not in the least troubled by the confinement of their social sphere. Indeed, he insists in all his writing on the novel that the social sphere, by definition contingent and confined, is its proper territory. We are not to be surprised if snobbery, rapacity and social climbing are central motifs: it is against such forces that sincerity must make its way, and that is the very nature of the struggle that the novel is fitted to describe. In writing of English fiction Trilling may sometimes screw up the moral tension rather high: but he is very far from finicking or high-faluting views of these matters. He sees the novel as the vehicle of freedom and insight: but he sees it too as inextricably involved with the shifts and compromises of common social life.

He has written less on poetry and less well. The explication of the ‘Immortality Ode’ is merely dutiful; or perhaps a quasi-New Critical exercise, to show that he could do it. The other Wordsworth essay, drawing a parallel between the quietism of Wordsworth and that of the Rabbis, only shows that Trilling doesn’t much like either. It is the energy of self-assertion that attracts him. Even in the quieter reaches of the novel, in Jane Austen or Forster, what he notices is the choice of an image of personal being. And later, when he became more deeply engaged with modern literature, these energies and demands presented themselves to him in a more arresting fashion. He quotes Yeats on magic, whose object ‘was, and is, to obtain control of the sources of life’. This, Trilling says, has always been part of the purpose of literature too. ‘But the intention has never so fully governed literature as it does today.’ The extravagance of this aim, and the desperate extremes – moral, symbolic or stylistic – to which it could be pursued began to strike Trilling with great force about 1960. And while his old concerns continue, these new ones introduce a note of anxiety into his collection of the Sixties, Beyond Culture.

Beyond Culture is the weakest of Trilling’s books, though it raises a pressing question. It is the weakest because it is pervaded by a nagging worry about institutional education, the fatal Mrs Grundy whose grim embrace so regularly leads Anglo-Saxon critics to conflate the curriculum committee with the courts of Parnassus. The question is about modern literature – can it, with any decent degree of solicitude and responsibility, be used as a basis for the education of the young? Are they to be taught, as they will be if the classics of modern literature are to be their texts, to reject the state, the family, the pieties of kin and neighbourhood, the imperatives of duty, to choose exile and cunning, to lurk in cellars writing notes from the underground? The answer almost certainly ought to be no: but of course it had already been given, in a thousand voices – it was unanimously yes. In the first essay of Beyond Culture Trilling is wrestling with the design of a new Columbia course in modern literature: but with less foresight and concern, the academies in general had already decided that there was to be no free zone at the latter end of literary history, where they forbore to enter. Everything up to yesterday, however ill-digested and imperfectly absorbed into the cultural tradition, was to be solemnly taught. Most of them seem hardly to have been given pause by this. But Trilling was. ‘Any historian of the modern age,’ he wrote, ‘will take virtually for granted the adversary situation, the actually subversive intention that characterises modern writing.’ Trilling’s anxiety was not about what might bring a blush to the cheek of the young person, but about the fact that nothing did. It was the bland acceptance of the most subversive attitudes, the general assumption by his students of the whole adversary package, that he found extraordinary, even shocking. These in themselves are not really literary concerns; we can already see campus riots and the occupation of the dean’s office in the middle distance. The status of modern literature is not to be settled on grounds like these. But for Trilling to call the adversary culture in question is both a serious and a necessary enterprise; and it causes him some distress – for the adversary culture seems to spring from what is most vital in the experience of the age.

There is a certain amount of overheating in all this. A different choice of texts would have produced a less antinomian view of modern literature, and a different student body would have produced a different response. However, the events of 1968 were a sufficient demonstration that the tendencies of which Trilling wrote were not local and accidental. What is important for his development is that these clustered anxieties pressed him to a re-examination of his own position. Hitherto, in writing of Arnold and Forster and Jane Austen and James, he had been concerned with a literature which simply assumed that somewhere in existing society a deposit of authentic value was to be found. For some, it was not too difficult of access – good sense and the traditional disciplines would show the way. For others, it was more elusive. But however remote, attenuated, battered or compromised it might be, value had not been banished from the social world or dismissed as merely imaginary. The sincere man, the honest consciousness, had a reasonable hope of grasping it at last. But now Trilling finds himself confronted with a literature and a culture in which sincerity and the honest consciousness are only impotent survivals; and he comes to terms with that state of affairs in his last and finest book, Sincerity and Authenticity (1971).

This has the advantage of being composed as a whole – the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard – instead of being made up of separate essays. But it is clearly a development of the train of thought started in Beyond Culture. It uses the same landmarks, Le Neveu de Rameau, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Nietzsche, especially The Birth of Tragedy, and, standing over against these, the English novelists of the 19th century. The densest part of the discussion centres on Le Neveu de Rameau, or rather on the interpretation of it offered by Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Diderot’s dialogue is between himself, Diderot-Moi, a rational social being, accepting and accepted, and Rameau’s nephew, blighted by being only the nephew of the great musician, disappointed, embittered, a sycophant, a hypocrite and a mountebank. In Hegel’s analysis Diderot-Moi appears as ‘the honest soul’ and the nephew as ‘the disintegrated consciousness’. On the face of it, all that is worthy of respect appears to belong to the first, all the baseness to the second. And Hegel comes down decisively on the other side, in favour of the base, the disintegrated consciousness. Simply (no, not simply, for nothing in Hegel is simple, but mainly) because it does not accept, does not submit, rejects the social order – and so represents the effort of Spirit to resist the constraints imposed upon it from outside. While the honest soul is arrested in a static harmony, the disintegrated soul is the next necessary phase in the evolution towards the freedom of the Absolute. This comfortless antithesis, with its reversal of the expected values, had evidently haunted Trilling’s imagination for some time. Perhaps it had even been present to him from the beginning – for something like it, in a limpid and untheoretic form, appears in the early story ‘Notes on a Departure’.

Now, in something like a summing-up of the reflections of many years, he gives new names to the opposing forces. Sincerity is the state of the honest consciousness, authenticity the state which might be reached through the travail of the disintegrated consciousness. And once the claim of authenticity has gained a foothold sincerity is on the defensive. The self-division of consciousness is not a 20th-century disease curable by a judicious modifying of the educational programme: it is inherent in man’s nature that he should turn part of his energies against himself and against the society that nourishes him. With great subtlety and great width of reference Trilling traces the polarity between the sincere and the authentic through its various guises – in the novelists, in Nietzsche, in Freud. He traces, too, the gross distortions to which it has been subject, the misinterpretation of the classic texts by which Nietzsche’s Apollo is forgotten and only an unopposed Dionysus recalled, by which Freud is seen as the champion of the anarchic forces of the Id. Trilling, as we would expect, is at pains to dispel these errors. But that does not offer any return to the reliable harmony of the honest consciousness. Sincerity and Authenticity is a book that does not reach a point of rest. And we may surmise that its author did not either.

Though Trilling passed his whole life as a university professor he stands well outside the academic criticism of his time. The Arnold book is a substantial, traditional life-and-works; beyond that, he made no claim to specialised learning or scholarly accomplishment. And all that we group vaguely under the head of the old New Criticism – ‘close reading’, the short-range examination of short texts – seems equally to have passed him by. He shows no sign of the schematic interest in literary theory exemplified by Wellek and Warren or the Chicago school. And as for myths, symbols and archetypes – he never seems to have employed these ghostly presences at all. His mind was expansive; he had a large and easy way with genre and historical period. He liked to move in a wide field and choose his examples freely: not much from the ancient classics or the Renaissance, but a great deal from European literature from the 18th century on; and from philosophers and psychologists. His true subject was the history of the modern mind. Extremely sensitive to formal excellences and defects, he rarely expatiates on them: it is the tendency and direction of a writer that interests him, ‘the animus of the author, the objects of his will, the things he wants, or wants to have happen’. This being how he conceived his work, he is bound in the end to offer a personal testimony. And this in the end he always does. Discreet, qualified, reserved in manner, the personal commitment is always present: it is this that binds his scattered essays together. Indeed, his work is a triumph of personal authority.

‘Nowadays the teaching of literature inclines to a considerable technicality,’ he once deprecatingly remarked; and since his time the inclination has grown a good deal steeper. One can only imagine how he would have stood up to current educational practice – with juveniles who are barely literate brought up on the arcane exhibitionism of yesterday’s Paris fashions. But probably he would have gone his own way, and with success. For after all the technical apparatus, some ingenious, some merely obstructive, with which literary converse is beset, there will always be a place for the man of reflective temperament and great general powers, who talks of literature in the language that literature itself would choose, and who offers to bring to the common stock, not an expertise or performing skill, but his own due ration of thought, of scrupulosity, of wisdom.