We Laughed, We Clowned

Michael Wood

  • The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling by Natalie Robins
    Columbia, 399 pp, £25.00, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 231 18208 9

It was an anxious, analysed time, where everything was shifting and complicated except the enduring family romance, the troublesome siblings, the failure to escape the baleful relation with mum and dad. It was a time, as Natalie Robins says in one of her wry moments, ‘when paediatricians functioned as parents, psychiatrists and book critics; when psychoanalysts functioned as judges; and when most mothers and fathers were considered slightly off course’. She is talking about the 1950s in New York, but the picture seems to work for the whole book, which takes us from the start of the 20th century to its end. Diana Trilling was born in the East Bronx in 1905, and died in Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in 1996.

Trilling, née Rubin, went to Radcliffe College when she was 16, ‘one of three Jewish women in her freshman class’, Robins says, ‘and the only one to admit being so’. She met Lionel Trilling in 1927 and married him two years later. She had hopes of being a singer, but two thyroid operations wrecked her vocal cords, and she turned to writing. She wrote a regular column for the Nation, articles and reviews for a host of other New York papers and journals, and a number of books, including Mrs Harris, an account of the trial of a headmistress accused of murdering her lover. She famously said of her literary collaboration with her husband that ‘Lionel taught me to think; I taught him to write.’ ‘It was a great marriage,’ she said, ‘not one of the great love affairs.’ That sounds a little grim, but in the context Robins provides, it comes to seem rather mild.

Freud is everywhere in Diana Trilling’s story. Not the Freud of Vienna or London or Paris, and not the dialectical Freud of Lionel Trilling’s vision (‘we are ill in the service of health, or ill in the service of life’), but the Freud of much analytic practice in New York, and especially of the clinical lingo of the patients themselves. ‘Her Freudian leanings structured her life,’ Robins says. ‘Freud was always next to her every step of the way.’ Diana spoke of the ‘pent-up unexplored passion of my infant love for my father’, of her husband’s ‘unadmitted early love for his mother’. ‘I suspect,’ she wrote in The Beginning of the Journey (1993), ‘that he never forgave her … the injury of having been betrayed by his mother’s having another child’.

Both Trillings were in analysis for most of their lives, and inducted their son when he was seven. Diana herself shrewdly said, quite late in the day, that she had ‘used a sense of reality in daily life as a defence against analytical reality’. It’s hard to think of a better definition of repression. A sense of reality is a plausible illusion and analytical reality is what we know we don’t want to know. The first has the full social backing of our culture, and we feel virtuous in our denial of the wilder drives, turning to them in language only when we feel the need for a little melodramatic theory. ‘There’s something in me he really loathes,’ Diana said of her son’s feelings for her. ‘We’re friends, but he hates me.’

There are remarks in Robins’s book suggesting Diana’s Freudianism was unusual, or unusually earnest. Robins herself says: ‘Diana was serious in her use of psychoanalytic jargon.’ The writer Daphne Merkin remarks that ‘if there ever was someone who was literal about psychoanalytic concepts, it was Diana … Metaphor would get lost.’ But the people cited in this work – friends and associates, ex-friends, children, students, enemies – all speak a version of this language, generically if not specifically Freudian. The world is full of unfinished business and stories of childhood hang-ups, and the idiom, never merely metaphorical, is always theatrical, a way of raising the psychological stakes. The sedate-seeming Lionel Trilling wrote in his journal of his ‘intense disgust with my official and public self’.

One of the attractions of this language, if you can bear the tension, is that people can talk about unhappiness; and denial, even while fully in place as denial, can be elaborately discussed. The word ‘fear’ runs through Robins’s book like an unappeased ghost. ‘Fear was my accustomed state as a child,’ Diana says. And with a slightly different emphasis: ‘The emotion I remember best from childhood is fear.’ ‘I brought with me to college and took away from college a fear of success.’ Her love for her father left her, she said, with a ‘lasting fear of rejected love’. Anger gets plenty of play too, and Robins, although eager to celebrate Diana’s achievements (‘words that seem to shimmer with candour and wisdom’), is ruthless when it comes to her quarrels: ‘Diana seemed to be using the full force of a free-floating anger against everyone who had ever angered her in her life’; ‘she managed to convey her grave disappointment … in a way that was insulting’; ‘Diana’s aggressiveness … did not win her new friends.’

‘We were funny,’ Diana says of herself and Lionel in 1934. ‘We clowned, we laughed, we had parties, we went to parties’ but ‘pleasure and adventure’ were absent. Being funny is not part of the reputation of either of them. But Frank Kermode went so far as to call Diana the writer ‘among other things, a comedian’, and we can ask how many ardent anti-communists would say about Trotsky, as Diana did: ‘He was such an intellectual … he wrote such good prose; and he made fun of Jewish dentists in the Bronx.’

There is a lot of history here, although it won’t lie still, as history is sometimes supposed to (Roland Barthes: ‘Is History not simply that time when we were not born?’), and it may have an element of fiction in it. ‘We launched our marriage in guilt,’ Diana says. ‘Everyone had to be listened to, apologised to, thanked for giving us permission to live our lives. On our first day of marriage, starting our honeymoon, all we could think of was propitiation: how to win back our families, how to win their forgiveness for deserting them.’

The honeymoon was ‘a bit of a let-down’, in Robins’s words, because it took the couple to a cabin in Connecticut rather than the European cities Diana had dreamed of. This was Lionel’s decision rather than the family’s, since he wanted to keep working towards his PhD at Columbia, but the combined pressure of family and career later elicited from Diana a strong theory of negative conditioning. Lionel’s decision ‘laid a pattern of nonpleasure in his life’, and as for her, ‘to be reared in the belief that there is little that you have the right to look for in this world other than what comes to you by happy accident, to be conditioned from earliest memory in such an all-embracing minimalism of expectation, is subtly and permanently disabling.’ Her writing life, and perhaps much of her non-writing life, look like a long, principled and (necessarily) not entirely successful refusal of this rearing.

Robins uses a rather old-fashioned phrase about Diana: she ‘enjoyed throwing her weight around’; and she quotes the same phrase from Elisabeth Sifton (‘she began to throw her weight around’). This is certainly true, and I saw her at it in the years after Lionel Trilling’s death. I once rashly suggested in a committee meeting that a certain issue wasn’t worth arguing about, and Diana firmly said there were no such issues. But the biography makes something else clear: she was never sure she had quite enough weight for throwing purposes. And we can surely see a curious, troubled loyalty in the diction of the remarks about the start of the marriage. Apology, propitiation, forgiveness, desertion: all hyperbole and a little angry, but no suggestion of revolt. Of Lionel, she said: ‘He had his secrets and his cunning with which to subvert his upbringing and devise a tolerable destiny.’ Only tolerable, we note, and Diana may have felt she herself was still at work on her own devising. She continued, as if in dialogue with Lionel’s thoughts on Freud: ‘Which of us was sicker? I would have to leave it to the doctors to say, but my symptoms were certainly more colourful.’

There is one wonderful Freudian slip recorded in the book, and one grand ambiguity that must, I think, be semi-intentional. The slip is in what I take to be the upside-down ending of this sentence of Diana’s about her marriage: ‘I’ve never been able to find in our relationship … a single instance of competitiveness with each other or putting the other’s welfare before our own.’ There’s individualism for you. Fortunately the record shows this claim is entirely wrong, since Diana constantly put her husband’s welfare before her own. That was part of her tenaciously old-fashioned idea of what a wife was, even if she couldn’t get it to live at peace with her ambitions and her independence of mind. And she was not wrong to think that wives were at that time (and still all too often are) ‘just wives’. One of Robins’s chapters is called ‘Not Merely a Critic’s Wife’.

The ambiguity is in the splendid phrase ‘terribly married’, but the words need a bit of framing. Lionel, Diana said, was obsessed by ‘his belief that all of his problems had been created by me’, and that ‘this kind of anger that Lionel directed at me lasted the whole of his life, really, although he never tore or broke things, or even screamed. But he could be fiercely angry and verbally cruel to me, very cruel … And for a long long time, far longer than it should have, it absolutely undid me.’ She then says that when they were angry (this time including her own anger), they would think about divorce. ‘Come on,’ they would say. ‘Let’s get rid of this marriage. Enough already.’ ‘But you know,’ she concludes, ‘there was no more chance of our having done that than fly – we were so terribly married to each other.’

Each called the other a monster, and it doesn’t seem quite enough to speak, as Robins does, of ‘a powerful sense of loyalty that transcended their acute emotional difficulties’. Diana’s own language doesn’t evoke transcendence, only the monsters’ mutual need: ‘Our neuroses meshed. Yes, sure, Lionel suffered from my neurotic symptoms, but it didn’t ruin his life … And he similarly inflicted his neurotic symptoms on me. In the long run it evened out.’ They weren’t monsters, though, and Diana has a telling phrase on this topic. Lionel’s rages ‘were just crazy talk that passed each time the words erupted’. They weren’t crazy but they were talk. They were a kind of theatre, and they spoke the cultural language I have been trying to evoke. Lionel and Diana and their friends and families weren’t the unhappiest of persons in the grand scale of things – they were certainly happier than many. But they were voluble, and the verbal show had to go on. ‘Terribly’ allows the show to play in two very different venues. In a 1982 interview with Martin Amis, Diana used a lovely phrase about Lionel, combining fondness for him with irony against herself and a sort of belated revenge: ‘I wish now I had worshipped him a bit more.’

Language like this, along with the experience of rereading Diana, as well as learning about her and remembering her, invites us to wonder what we may have missed on previous occasions. Two of her Partisan Review essays – on the cancellation of Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954 and on a Beat poets’ reading at Columbia in 1958 – stand out for me in this respect. Like a good liberal – ‘I was against both communism and McCarthyism. They were enemies of each other, but I was the enemy of both’ – she thought at first that an old left sympathiser like Oppenheimer, as she and Lionel had briefly been in the early 1930s, was obviously a security risk. Then she read the documents in the case and changed her mind. ‘I am wholly persuaded,’ she wrote, ‘that it was precisely because of Dr Oppenheimer’s difference with the H-bomb enthusiasts … that his communist past was reopened.’ Shedding what she called ‘the preconceptions of a conventional anti-Stalinist position’, she decided that ‘neither pacifism nor tenderness for the Soviet Union animated Dr Oppenheimer’s moral and political considerations.’

This is generous and lucid, but Diana managed to find a place for the old preconceptions even so. The decision of the hearing was wrong about Oppenheimer, but his defence had failed him too, because it didn’t understand the history of the old left, the way in which ‘virtue’ and ‘error’ are inextricably linked in the politics of ‘the honest radical intellectual’. This claim leads to a wonderfully sinuous bit of logic: if Oppenheimer was granted security clearance when his sympathies might have led him (but didn’t) to spill secrets to the Russians, why take it away from him when ‘he has learned the error of his way.’ Of course there is something sententious and simple about the confident use of terms like ‘virtue’ and ‘error’ in this context, but Diana has larger game in mind than either Oppenheimer’s opponents or his defenders. America itself had long been wrong about Russia, lacking ‘an understanding that her interests were deeply in conflict with ours and that her way of life was deeply repugnant to the democratic way … Much United States policy and enlightened public opinion during the Roosevelt administration rested on a misapprehension of the nature of the Soviet Union.’ When Diana fought in the Cold War it always warmed up, and we may recognise here something of the structure of the Freudian childhood stories. We don’t understand what is happening now because we can’t face what was happening then; we are governed by ‘unexplored’ and ‘unadmitted’ engagements with the past.

This impression is confirmed – on a lighter note – in the essay on the Beats at Columbia, and even the up-to-date present has its share of failed acknowledgments. Diana got into trouble for her apparent snobbery in mentioning that Lionel and Auden were waiting for her at home two minutes away on Claremont Avenue while she went to mingle with the riff-raff on campus, and for her professed surprise that the Beats were so ‘clean’ and didn’t smell. But this is mischief surely, part of the comedy that Kermode identified. The Beats were supposed to be rebellious and scruffy but couldn’t resist an invitation to respectability, and Lionel and Auden, not exempt from Diana’s moral gaze, were intellectuals taking it easy. At the heart of the essay is a concern very similar to the one animating the Oppenheimer piece. America is smitten by ‘the common need to deny free will, divest oneself of responsibility and yet stay alive’, and this is what everyone should (and probably won’t) resist. Claremont Avenue and the Columbia campus come to stand for modes of quietism and revolt, complacent and spurious respectively. ‘The moral difference between a respectable and a disreputable acceptance of defeat,’ Diana wrote, ‘seems to me to constitute little more than a cultural footnote to history.’

There’s a lot to be said for accepting defeat when you’ve lost – when it doesn’t matter whether you accept it or not. And I think it’s often good to give metaphors of war a rest. But Diana wouldn’t agree. In the full knowledge of approaching death she said: ‘I don’t like taking death without fighting a little.’ Or more than a little.