By RICHARD GILMAN
THE MORAL OBLIGATION TO BE INTELLIGENT
By Lionel Trilling.
Edited by Leon Wieseltier.
572 pp. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35.
ike many New Yorkers a generation ago, I didn't know Lionel Trilling was Jewish, and when I learned he was, I thought he must be an English Jew, a migratory Oxbridge don, or more likely the son of one. Someone of Trilling's enormous erudition must have had a head start at home, like Matthew Arnold, his lifelong model, or John Stuart Mill. There seemed to be no other way to account for his vast stock of learning or the immense air of authority his writing projected, a self-assuredness that hadn't been seen in American criticism since the early Edmund Wilson, and wouldn't appear again until the later Harold Bloom.
The authority of Trilling's writing dwarfed that of his colleagues and rivals. From the 1940's until his death at 70 in 1975, as both writer and sage he seemed to enjoy an immunity from scrutiny. In light of nearly universal praise, I must confess to having suffered a temporary blindness to the fact that on more than one occasion I found his judgments questionable and sometimes found his writing, which was ordinarily straightforward and often elegant, dense and even unfathomable. So it's not really surprising that of the critics and scholars who have published the proliferating studies and memoirs of Trilling, very few have looked at his writing from the standpoint of its language, its resonances and imagery, in short, its literary qualities. They have generally preferred instead to talk about his ''identity'' problems as a Jew, or what he meant by ''history,'' ''culture'' or the ''self,'' or, most frequently and polemically, his politics, centering on what he meant by ''liberal'' in his first and still most famous collection, ''The Liberal Imagination.'' The title is a phrase from his second full-length book, ''E. M. Forster,'' a sort of companion volume to his ''Matthew Arnold,'' which was originally his doctoral dissertation at Columbia.
The effort to cope with my timidity vis--vis Trilling, together with a wish to check on my early strictures, was among the reasons that to write about ''The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent,'' the collection of Trilling's essays edited by Leon Wieseltier, I ended by going through nearly everything Trilling had published, and much that's been written about him. (The project took about two months, the equivalent of earning a master's in 19th-century English and American literature in a semester, without having to attend classes or write any papers, except this one.)
I was never close to Trilling, even after in the early 1960's we became loose colleagues at Partisan Review, for which he had long been an advisory editor and regular contributor. He was what he liked to call (but didn't like to be called) a ''figure,'' an important artist or thinker around whom some extra-
aesthetic, extra-intellectual aura has formed. In Trilling's case it was not only his reputation as a sage, an almost mythic mandarin, whose negative judgments were as feared as his positive ones were coveted. It was his writing. I would find myself trapped in its ''sinuous dialectical turnings,'' as Morris Dickstein, Trilling's devoted student and later colleague (and mine), has called them. I blamed my own inadequacy for not ''getting'' him, and not until my recent travels through his books did I see that he really didn't want to be ''gotten.''
Trilling didn't have Eliot's gravitas, or Kenneth Burke's intricate theories, or Leslie Fiedler's bluster, or F. R. Leavis's belligerence (Leavis's traditionalist literary views were mostly congenial to him), or William Empson's emphasis on a perspective like ''ambiguity.'' He didn't have any trait or practice by which he could be identified -- and thereby defused and domesticated, as we tend to do to our literary heroes. That was precisely a source of his strength. He had no system, made no pretense of possessing the keys to the kingdom, was reserved, withdrawn behind his English mannerisms. Still, the only other American critics who came close to his intellectual power and influence were Wilson, John Crowe Ransom and R. P. Blackmur, with all of whom Trilling had affinities as well as differences, and who spoke highly of Trilling, as he did of them.
As a literary person Trilling appeared at the end of a long line of (mostly) British writers, from Edmund Burke, Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge (in their capacity as thinkers) through Hazlitt, Carlyle, Mill and Arnold, down to Henry James, who left deep marks on Trilling's style, and Leavis. ''Literary critic'' doesn't do justice to these men's influence. (Trilling mentions no women as intellectual influences, though he wrote about some as novelists -- Willa Cather, Tess Schlesinger and, notably, Jane Austen. His practice of invariably calling a hypothetical reader, author or fictional character ''he'' or ''him'' sometimes made reading him feel like a visit to a place or event from which women had been banned, a literary Boy Scout jamboree.) Anyway, these writers' explorations and speculations went much beyond literature, so the term ''literary historian'' or ''philosopher'' is too narrow. Intellectual/cultural/moral historian is unwieldy, but that is what they in fact were, along with -- or issuing from -- their being poets, all but Burke, Carlyle and Leavis.
From Keats via Arnold, Trilling absorbed the notion of ''negative capability''; what Keats meant by this isn't entirely clear, but Trilling offered his own ideas in his great essay on James's novel ''The Princess Casamassima,'' which is included in Wieseltier's volume. Trilling spoke of James's protagonist's mind as being, at the end, in a ''perfect equilibrium,'' his awareness of ''social horror'' balanced by ''his newer sense of the glory of the world.'' This is the sort of poised sensitivity that illustrates Trilling's central idea of good-and-evil -- the hyphens serving as spikes fiercely connecting the two terms in a relationship far more intimate and ''real'' than the more common ''good and evil.'' Trilling also took from Arnold the famous dictum that ''art is a criticism of life.'' But ''criticism'' -- and even ''life'' -- here are hedged round with oppositions, contradictions and ambiguities. These+are all conditions of Trilling's thinking and writing, usually marked by great clarity and wide-ranging knowledge, but also sometimes by annoying idiosyncrasies.
Trilling's career testified to his resistance to the fixed ideas, the complacencies of the ''liberal-radical 30's,'' a decade of ideology. The exercise of such mental elasticity is at the heart of his controversial, not yet completely understood, turn -- or, as some enemies say, defection -- to the conservative side of American politics during his last decades. Whatever was behind that (if indeed it really happened), the notion of his political ''treachery'' is a justification of Trilling's acute dislike of the either-this-or-that structure of so much recent American cultural-political debate; it is enough to say that Trilling's political ''liberalism'' was much more complex and long-lived than his leftist detractors could allow, and his literary ''conservatism'' was more liberal -- that is, open, positive and resilient -- than has usually been seen.
In his selection of Trilling's essays in this collection, Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has chosen wisely. As in any such enterprise there will be differences of opinion about choices and omissions; the omissions are neither numerous nor glaring. In a volume presumably intended for young people who may never have heard of Trilling, along with older readers on whose memories time has worked its erosions, it would have been appropriate to include another of Trilling's pieces on James, either ''The Ambassadors'' or ''The Bostonians,'' in addition to the superlative ''Princess Casamassima.'' Wieseltier's introduction is very intelligent, but seems hurried and lacking a clear perspective on Trilling's work, or, for the uninformed, on his place in American letters. There are also some substantive arguments to be made. Wieseltier writes of Blackmur, for instance, as having ''patronizingly described Trilling as an 'administrator of the affairs of the mind,' ''but unfortunately ignores Blackmur's remark that Trilling exemplified ''the rational mind at work to control the irrational mind in the name of wholeness, virtue and humanity.'' The observation may be objectively wrong (though in fact it is not), but there is nothing patronizing about it.
It should be said here that Trilling didn't like to think of himself, or be thought of, as a ''critic'' at all; at the beginning of his career he dreamed of writing fiction; and managed to publish a mediocre, formulaic novel, ''The Middle of the Journey,'' and a volume of six short stories, ''Of This Time, of That Place,'' of which four are competent and two (the title story and ''The Other Margaret'') are memorable. It seems clear that fiction as a form, with its thick texture of actuality, its social knottings, moral dilemmas and spiritual perplexities, was what interested him most.
Let us turn to the question of Trilling's actual writing, as opposed to his ideas and themes or praise (deserved) for him as teacher and exemplar. Chief among his favorite words -- the mainstay of his vocabulary, and so of his thought -- was ''irony'' in all its grammatical forms, and, infuriatingly, all its possible meanings. Trilling kept reaching for ''irony'' as noun, adverb or adjective, with motives that the context seldom justified or made clear. ''Brilliant'' was his highest accolade, unless it was ''high'' itself. He used ''tragedy'' and ''tragic'' a lot, but loosely, as many people do, as a synonym for sad or deplorable. He wasn't interested in drama except in a narrow Aristotelian sense, or in poetry from which he couldn't extrapolate paraphraseable themes. He had a taste for ideas but not for aesthetic truth. To put it another way, he liked the way social ideas linked up with artistic truths but not art in itself.
Briticisms and other oddities crop up in his writing -- pawky charm,''+ ''fancy-picture'' -- as do a number of strange elongations, including ''occasionalness,'' ''multitudinousness,'' ''excrementitiousness'' and, most oddly, ''Spinozistically.'' He also occasionally fell into cliche and into priggishness: ''Not to like Jane Austen is to put oneself under suspicion of a general personal inadequacy and even -- let us face it -- of a want of breeding.''
As for the ''magic'' he'd used to gain such influence over his contemporaries, Trilling was notorious for his editorial ''we'' -- we think,'' ''we believe,'' ''our interest in.'' In this way, and in other more subtle constructions -- Everyone perceives certain likenesses between Hawthorne and Kafka'' -- he made accomplices of us all. (Then, too, he made us take things gravely, portentously, for, as far as I can tell, he lacked a sense of humor.)
Such a list of gaffes and weaknesses can be compiled for any writer, no matter how brilliant. But it can also be a device for liberation; quite a few other writers, it turns out, freed themselves from awe by similar means. Stephen Spender speaks of ''how difficult it is to review Mr. Trilling without being led astray by the red herrings of his generalizations.'' Robert Warshow, in one of the best-known -- and best -- essays on Trilling, writes that ''he is removed from experience as experience; the problem of feeling -- and thus the problem of art -- is not faced.''
Some years ago the British critic John Bayley, a friend of Trilling, attacked a number of books by younger American critics, for the sin of writing about -- and praising -- some new young writers. Bayley's quarrel was as much with the praise as with the daring to write about living writers: it was premature to say anything definite about one's contemporaries, because history (and so, it follows, judgment) hadn't had time to settle. For whatever reasons, Trilling almost always wrote about the past, or the present only as it was directly connected to the past. He never wrote, except glancingly, about literary modernism; toward what someone, maybe Leavis, had called the ''big Six'' -- Proust, Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, Lawrence and Gide (for whom I'd substitute Kafka) -- he was indifferent, when not actually in fear, as he himself confessed.
Now, one of Trilling's traits his advocates most admire is his ''imperturbability,'' his calm loftiness. I suggest that his preference for the past, for dead writers, say, may be related to a remark that appeared in his posthumously published autobiographical notes. In the entry for July 23, 1952, we find: ''fame: it is the thing I have most wanted since childhood.'' In turn, the hunger for fame, a common craving among writers, may have -- to speak with as much Trillingesque circumspection as can be mustered -- may have something to do with what John Rodden, who edited the best single book on Trilling, ''Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves,'' called ''his carefully crafted persona of moderation.''
Rodden went on to say of ''The Beginning of the Journey,'' by Trilling's widow, Diana, that in this memoir of their marriage ''Diana casts herself as the shocking truth-teller, the figure of Authenticity appointed to unmask Lionel's sham life of Sincerity.'' Whatever the truth of this, Morris Dickstein sensed that Trilling ''lived in fear of pronouncing a wrong judgment or perpetrating a bad sentence.'' What better protection against this could there have been than Trilling's decision, or compulsion, to be mostly silent about his contemporaries and to hide his fallible style within the abstractions and convolutions of the classical -- and greatly verbose -- styles of men like Arnold? Trilling himself wrote that the ''intellectual+. . .+turns things into words,'' and, it could be added, concrete words into abstractions.
For anyone startled or puzzled by this new book's title, ''the moral obligation to be intelligent'' is a phrase used by the writer-academician John Erskine, who in the early 1920's started to teach a ''great books'' course at Columbia. Lionel Trilling was one of Erskine's students and later taught the course himself, from all accounts with verve, imagination and wit.
The phrase, Erskine made it known, was in the spirit of Matthew Arnold, if not his exact words, and, while arresting, it suffers, as does so much of Arnold's rhetoric, from several problems: vagueness, an openness to the charge of elitism and, most damagingly, the impossibility of being widely achieved. I can understand, and applaud, an obligation to try to be intelligent, but to succeed isn't within many, or even most, people's will or capacity. There will always be those who may not know even the meaning of ''obligation.'' Still, one can recommend this book as either an introduction to or reminder of Lionel Trilling, one of the few intelligent men of our time toward whose work, however opaque on occasion, an intellectual obligation exists.
Richard Gilman's most recent book is ''Chekhov's Plays: An Opening Into Eternity.''
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Lionel Trilling, (born July 4, 1905, New York, N.Y., U.S.—died Nov. 5, 1975, New York, N.Y.), American literary critic and teacher whose criticism was informed by psychological, sociological, and philosophical methods and insights.
Educated at Columbia University (M.A., 1926; Ph.D., 1938), Trilling taught briefly at the University of Wisconsin and at Hunter College in New York City and in 1931 joined the faculty of Columbia, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Trilling’s critical writings include studies of Matthew Arnold (1939) and E.M. Forster (1943), as well as collections of literary essays: The Liberal Imagination (1950), Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning (1965), and Sincerity and Authenticity and Mind in the Modern World (both 1972). He also wrote Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture (1955) and The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1962). While Trilling maintained an interest in Freud and psychoanalysis throughout his intellectual career, his criticism was not based on any one system of thought. He saw his role and the role of all useful criticism as similar to that of his important predecessor Matthew Arnold: the “disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” To do this, Trilling brought a wide range of ideas and positions to bear on his subjects. While he covered many social and cultural topics, Trilling remained concerned with the tradition of humanistic thought and with the goal of educating and stimulating the enlightened middle classes.
Trilling’s novel The Middle of the Journey (1947) concerns the moral and political developments of the liberal mind in America in the 1930s and ’40s. In 2008 a second novel, discovered and edited by scholar Geraldine Murphy, was published posthumously. Titled The Journey Abandoned, it follows the attempts of a graspingly ambitious young critic to make his name writing the biography of a reclusive writer turned physicist. Trilling was married to Diana Trilling, née Rubin, also a critic and writer.