Friday, September 26, 2008

How deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom

A liberal is a person who believes that the right economic system, the right political reforms, the right undergraduate curriculum, and the right psychotherapy will do away with unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy. The argument of [Lionel Trilling's] “The Liberal Imagination” is that literature teaches that life is not so simple—for unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy happen to be literature’s particular subject matter. In Trilling’s celebrated statement: “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance . . . because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” This is why literary criticism has something to say about politics.

A key perception of “The Liberal Imagination” is that most human beings are not ideologues. Intellectual coherence is not a notable feature of their politics. People’s political opinions may be rigid; they are not necessarily rigorous. They tend to float up out of some mixture of sentiment, custom, moral aspiration, and aesthetic pleasingness. Trilling’s point was that this does not make those opinions any less potent politically. On the contrary, it’s the unexamined attitudes and assumptions—things that people take to be merely matters of manners or taste, and nothing so consequential as political positions—that need critical attention. “Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind,” as Trilling put it, “we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.”

-- Louis Menand, from "Regrets Only: Lionel Trilling and his Discontents," in The New Yorker

As a college freshman, I tried to enroll in one of Trilling's classes. He glowered at me from behind a very heavy-looking desk in his office, and insisted that the course was for upperclassmen only. If I remember correctly, a huge portrait of Sigmund Freud also glowered. Trilling died a few weeks later, and I attended his memorial service; I still have the funeral program. It's probably just as well; here's a quote from Trilling's essay, "On the Teaching of Modern Literature:”

"I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: “Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.”

Here's Menand again:

"On the Teaching of Modern Literature” is the first essay in Beyond Culture. Trilling once intended to call that book “Essays For and Against Literature.” He explained to his editor that he wanted to challenge the assumption that art and literature must be liberating. To his own surprise, he wrote in the preface, he had come to believe “that art does not always tell the truth or the best kind of truth and does not always point out the right way, that it can even generate falsehood and habituate us to it, and that, on frequent occasions, it might well be subject, in the interests of autonomy, to the scrutiny of the rational intellect.” But, as he conceded, “the rational intellect” might be regarded as a social product, too, equally in the service of the enemies of autonomy. Humanism might be a false friend. This willingness to follow out the logic of his own premises, to register doubts about a faith for which he is still celebrated by people who are offended by attempts to understand books as fully and complexly implicated in their historical times, is the finest thing about his work. I became a critic because I wanted to write sentences like “This intense conviction of the existence of the self apart from culture is, as culture well knows, its noblest and most generous achievement.”

Those were the days. I'm quite sure Trilling would have been horrified that a barbarian like me worked for Partisan Review for 18 years where, on occasion, I would run into the even more imposing Diana Trilling; she I and never spoke, and so the only real recollection I have of her is the hat she wore to one of the magazine's anniversary celebrations in New York. Yep, those were the days, or at least the end of them... And the stories I could tell - but I'm sworn to secrecy!

And speaking of that old crowd, I've added a poem to the BAP blog by my literary hero and PR ancestor, Delmore Schwartz. If you've read this far, please see David Lehman's chastening response in the comments section to this post.


Don Share said...

Jordan Davis wrote in to ask if I'd taken classes with "any classes with Koch? Gray? Kroeber? Said?"

My suitemates all took classes with Koch and Said. I was a religious studies major (!) and spent most of my days with Elaine Pagels, who dazzled and bedazzled me. David Shapiro wouldn't let me into his poetry workshop, which we both find pretty funny these days! (He's still apologizing for that, though he shouldn't! Saved me from becoming an Eng. major.) I spent some time with Wm. York Tindall, who would say things crazy like that James Joyce invented television. Gray: I went to lectures he gave, but not a class as such - Mr. Great Books! Kroeber, no. But: Arthur C. Danto who... gave me a C (the lowest grade I ever earned in college)! A really famous American History prof. whose name escapes me now. A Nobel laureate in physics who bored me to literal tears. Ernest Nagel, ditto (I didn't stay in the class long.) And a swimming instructor who said, "I'm going to leave the pool for exactly 7 minutes. How you get from one end to the other by the time I get back is your business."

David Lehman said...

Don, I worked as Lionel Trilling's research assistant in 1973-1974, and though he could glower with the best of them, he was a kind and generous soul, one of the best teachers I ever had. He died of pancreatic cancer, suffering greatly but stoically for his last six months. Perhaps he was having a bad day (and was doubtlessly dying for a smoke) when you knocked on his door on the fourth floor of Hamilton Hall. But I am quite sure he'd not have regarded you as a barbarian nor disapproved of your working for PR. Someday I ought to write about LT.

Don Share said...

David, I can't thank you enough for this. Callow undergraduate that I was (and deeply disappointed), I never considered how ill he was, and you're surely right. Thank you, too, for your kind words about what he might have thought. I ought to have realized these things many years sooner. I hope you will write about LT - and perhaps about some of the latter-day PR crowd as they were prior to their extinction.

Yours gratefully, indeed,


the unreliable narrator said...

Sharedon, if YOU'RE a barbarian....well, I don't even want to say.