Trilling in 1952
Gjon Mili/Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesTrilling in 1952

Lionel Trilling’s 1950 book The Liberal Imagination was not a celebration of liberalism. It was an indictment of liberalism’s dependence on what we might call the social imagination—a method of studying people’s social attributes in order to understand and even to save them. Trilling believed that the human mind is too complex to prosper when it is subjected to the organizing impulses of social technocracy, and he questioned the faith in beneficent regimentation that descends from the nineteenth-century social philosophers—the belief, expressed in the 1940s by a writer in the journal Science, that “if by employing the methods of science, men can come to understand and control the atom, there is a reasonable likelihood that they can in the same way learn and control human group behaviour.”

Trilling cast doubt on the expertise that promised to mold a better world, yet he remains a hero to many liberals. They get around his indictment of their social vision by arguing that The Liberal Imagination is a relic of a particular moment in history, long since passed, when Soviet Communism enchanted many on the left. Louis Menand calls The Liberal Imagination a “cold war book,” and Morris Dickstein says that “in many ways, the book is a belated obituary” for attitudes that were already defunct in 1950.

But The Liberal Imagination was always something more than an attack on the Stalinist Left. It was also a warning about overreliance on the dehumanizing techniques of the social imagination.

Trilling’s hostility to the social imagination is nowhere more evident than in the fourth essay in The Liberal Imagination, a meditation on Henry James’s 1886 novel The Princess Casamassima in which Trilling fingers a line of nineteenth-century novels “defined as a group by the character and circumstance of their heroes . . . Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, Balzac’s Père Goriot and Lost Illusions, Dickens’s Great Expectations, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education.” The hero of these novels is a character Trilling calls the “Young Man from the Provinces,” a romantic adventurer who sets out to master the big city, Paris or London or New York.

Trilling said that the young man from the provinces was a creature of his age, one that stretched “from the late years of the eighteenth century through the early years of the twentieth.” This was a period, he later wrote in Sincerity and Authenticity, when the West was undergoing the “extreme revision of traditional modes of communal organization which gave rise to the entity that now figures in men’s minds under the name society.” Trilling cited the historian Peter Laslett’s scholarship, which evoked “the minute scale of life, the small size of human groups, before the coming of industry,” as evidence of how greatly premodern communities differed from “the groups that are characteristic of modern mass society, which did not begin to come into being until the middle and the late eighteenth centuries when factories were established.” The towns in which Trilling’s young men from the provinces grow up are examples of community: they are small, and their residents know one another well. The metropolises that the young men set out to conquer are examples of society: one knows very little of most of the people one meets there, and one is bound to be indifferent to most of them. In Lost Illusions, Balzac describes the shock that Lucien de Rubempré experiences when he first encounters this indifference. In provincial Angoulême, even those who despised him “took him for a human being.” In Paris, “he did not even exist for Madame d’Espard,” a great hostess whom he seeks to impress.

“Historians of European culture are in substantial agreement,” Trilling said, that with the emergence of society, “something like a mutation in human nature took place.” The young provincial who, like Rastignac in Le Père Goriot, confronts the complexities of society for the first time must develop new ways of thinking and seeing. “Passing through one initiation after another,” Balzac says of Rastignac, “he gradually loses his greenness, and in the end he achieves some perception of how human beings are packed in strata, layer above layer, in the framework of society.” He develops, in other words, a social imagination.

Yet the young man’s end is rarely a happy one. Continually judging people in terms of their social utility—the power they possess to advance his career—and continually donning masks and playing parts, the young man becomes estranged from the human heart. Balzac typically phrases the denouement in moral terms: the young man has sold his soul. Lucien de Rubempré hangs himself in prison; Raphaël de Valentin perishes of the dark bargain he has made in the name of success. Rastignac eventually becomes a peer of France and acquires an immense fortune, but morally he is a ruin, one of those cosmopolitan debauchees “grown old in the knowledge of Parisian depravity, all clever in one or another way, equally corrupt, equally corrupting, all pledged to insatiable ambitions.”

Trilling was drawn to these young men because their fate was, in some measure, his own. He conceived of his flight from provincial obscurity in Balzacian terms; in his day, the psychological distance between Queens, where he was born in 1905, and Manhattan, where he made his reputation, was almost certainly as great as that between Paris and Angoulême in Balzac’s time. In 1921, Trilling crossed the East River and went to Columbia University, where he gained a national reputation as a critic. Yet he was as conscious as Balzac of society’s power to corrupt the rising young man. “Who that has had experience of our social reality,” Trilling asked, “will doubt its alienated condition?” Works like Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau, he said, exposed “the principle of insincerity upon which society is based” and demonstrated “the loss of personal integrity and dignity that the impersonations of social existence entail.” The result was a “systematic separation of the individual from his actual self.”

In Trilling’s case, the role he both played and despised was that of the academic literary critic. “I have one of the great reputations in the academic world,” he wrote in his journal in 1948. “This thought makes me retch.” His true vocation, he believed, was to be an artist, but society refused to accept him as one. The critics Leslie Fiedler and Robert Warshow dismissed The Middle of the Journey, the novel with which Trilling attempted to make his creative reputation in 1947, as a distinctly minor achievement. “The attack on my novel,” he wrote, “that it is gray, bloodless, intellectual, without passion, is always made with great personal feeling, with anger.—How dared I presume?” Yet Trilling felt the weight of society’s judgment, and he never succeeded in escaping the role of literary attendant lord. He found it ever harder to believe that he “could be a professor and a man! and a writer!” “Nothing has so filled me with shame and regret,” he said, “as what I have not done.”

For Trilling no less than for Balzac, society fostered a perception that both reveals and distorts the character of human beings. By showing how they are “packed in strata, layer above layer, in the framework of society,” the social imagination discloses the complexity of the worlds we inhabit. But by reducing people to type—by making them creatures of the particular strata to which they belong or of the particular roles they play—the social imagination makes it easier for us to lose sight of their idiosyncratic humanity. When you affix a social or social-scientific label to a person (“bourgeois,” “anal-retentive,” “extrovert”) or classify him according to his provenance (“working-class,” “Ivy League,” “inner-city,” “WASP”), you often have the illusion that you have plucked out the heart of his mystery. It is a dangerous conceit. As soon as you have reduced a person to a type, you have begun to forget that he is human. In The Middle of the Journey, Trilling makes Gifford Maxim, a character modeled on his Columbia schoolmate Whittaker Chambers, disparage the myopia of those who have cultivated the social vision too intensely: “Social causes, environment, education—do you think they really make a difference between one human soul and another?”

Trilling was unnerved not merely by the shallowness of the social imagination but also by the moral corruption it breeds when it is conceived as an instrument of human progress. The young man from the provinces, as he figures in Balzac’s novels, uses the social imagination, frankly and often cynically, to rise into a higher class. Balzac did not live to witness the further evolution of the social imagination, its conversion into a gospel of social hope. It was this conversion, together with its attendant moral ambiguities, that drew Trilling to The Princess Casamassima.

Hyacinth Robinson, the hero of James’s novel, is another young man from the provinces (his province, Trilling says, is a city slum). A bookbinder by trade, Hyacinth is initially a social revolutionary: he joins a secret cadre in London and accepts a commission to assassinate a prominent duke, an assignment that prefigures the campaigns to eliminate undesirable types characteristic of the more extreme social regimes of the twentieth century. Trilling credited James, with his “imagination of disaster,” with foreseeing “what we have painfully learned from our grim glossary of wars and concentration camps.”

Hyacinth’s conversion from the social imagination takes place in a little campo in Venice. His eyes are opened to a range of values and aspirations that lie outside the social imagination. James lays it on with a trowel: the polished Venetian stones; the old church; the ancient fountain to which the Venetian girls come with their copper water jars; the faded magenta divan on which Hyacinth reclines, smoking cigarettes and reading Leopardi as light streams through the chinks of the shutters.

Hyacinth experiences not death in Venice but rebirth. He finds himself nauseated by the superficiality of the social imagination, its truncated conception of human nature, the “dry statistical and scientific air” that, even before Venice, cost him an effort to breathe. He finds that he no longer cares for the “demoralizing” business of contriving “a fresh deal” for the “social pack.” The social imagination is “demoralizing” because it undermines the older traditions of moral and artistic culture that he identifies with the Venetian campo, with its rich concentration of civilized forms, and with the Princess Casamassima herself, in whose house he first glimpsed the splendors of art and culture. Hyacinth has a “revelation of the exquisite” and tastes what Trilling called “the fruits of the creative spirit of Europe.” Torn, Trilling said, “between his desire for social justice” and his fear that the pursuit of it might destroy “the civilization of Europe,” Hyacinth refuses to shoot the duke. Progressive readers found the defection, Trilling said, evidence of James’s “impotence in matters sociological.” But he himself dismissed what he called the detractors’ “vulgar and facile progressivism.”

Like Hyacinth, Trilling found an antidote to the social imagination in art. In The Princess Casamassima, he observed, the princess herself—who has taken up the cause of the poor and grown “more and more dissatisfied with the humanity of the present in her longing for the more perfect humanity of the future”—comes to believe that “art is contemptible.” Hyacinth is no less convinced that the social imagination is at odds with artistic perception, but unlike the princess, he rejects the social in favor of the artistic. By the end of the novel, he wants “no longer to bind books but to write them.”

Trilling developed the theme further in an unfinished novel, posthumously published in 2008 as The Journey Abandoned, in which he makes Harold Outram, the “socially aware” progressive, argue that art is an obstacle to progress. Outram praises the inartistic culture of Soviet Russia, where the social imagination has been carried farthest:

Sooner or later we will understand that Russia is our future and our hope. And Russia has produced not one single notable work of art. Oh, don’t jump to what you think is the defense, don’t tell me that time will produce masterpieces. . . . In nearly twenty years, out of those millions of people, not one young man has forced his way forward with his creative talent. . . . And the fact is that Russia is right. Literature—art—it was a phase of man’s development and Russia is showing the way to the new phase. And you know as well as I do that the arts cannot survive. . . . Russia has perceived before any of us that the arts, about which we are so politically sentimental, are one of the great barriers in the way of human freedom and decency.

For Trilling, progressive politics, with its faith in “science, social legislation, planning,” led to what he called “organization,” to “agencies and bureaus and technicians,” and was in its nature hostile to art and the imagination. There was “no connection,” he said, between the progressive “political ideals of our educated class and the deep places of the imagination.” There was instead a “fatal separation,” one that explained why “our liberal ideology has produced a large literature of social and political protest, but not, for several decades, a single writer who commands our real literary admiration.” Except in its more primitive forms (the ideological novel, for example), art is impatient of the type and alive to the particular in a way that progressive politics is not. “The lively sense of contingency and possibility, and of those exceptions to the rule which may be the beginning of the end of the rule—this sense,” Trilling said, “does not suit well with the impulse to organization.”

Trilling pointed to the deterioration of artistic standards in the criticism of V. L. Parrington, who classified works of art in the light of their creators’ sense of “social responsibility.” Thinkers like Parrington, Trilling said, supposed that James would have been a better novelist if his books had been “pleas for co-operatives, labor unions, better housing, and more equitable taxation.” They preferred the mediocre Dreiser to artists whose work, like James’s, did not retail the social commonplaces of the day:

By liberal critics James is traditionally put to the ultimate question: of what use, of what actual political use, are his gifts and their intention? . . . James’s style, his characters, his subjects, and even his own social origin and the manner of his personal life are adduced to show that his work cannot endure the question. To James no quarter is given by American criticism in its political and liberal aspect. But in the same degree that liberal criticism is moved by political considerations to treat James with severity, it treats Dreiser with the most sympathetic indulgence. Dreiser’s literary faults, it gives us to understand, are essentially social and political virtues. It was Parrington who established the formula for the liberal criticism of Dreiser by calling him a “peasant”: when Dreiser thinks stupidly, it is because he has the slow stubbornness of a peasant; when he writes badly, it is because he is impatient with the sterile literary gentility of the bourgeoisie. It is as if wit, and flexibility of mind, and perception, and knowledge were to be equated with aristocracy and political reaction, while dullness and stupidity must naturally suggest a virtuous democracy.

The same demoralizing hostility to excellence and individual idiosyncrasy, Trilling said, was characteristic of “radical” democracy in general: “All the instincts or necessities of radical democracy are against the superbness and arbitrariness which often mark great spirits. It is sometimes said in the interests of an ideal or abstract completeness that the choice need not be made, that [social] security can be imagined to go with richness and nobility of expression. But we have not seen it in the past and nobody really strives to imagine it in the future.” The social reform to which James’s princess is committed, Trilling argued, “implies a civilization from which the idea of life raised to its richest and noblest expression will quite vanish.”

For Trilling, the greatest virtue of The Princess Casamassima was its insistence on the moral delusion that the social imagination begets. In The Middle of the Journey, Trilling has Gifford Maxim describe the unconscious “hope of power” that drives the prophets of “society and social justice and sociology” to try to create a new social order. Trilling found the same “hope of power” in James’s Paul Muniment, the chemist and social reformer in The Princess Casamassima, and in Muniment’s fellow reformer, the princess herself. In Muniment, Trilling observed, “a genuine idealism coexists with a secret desire for personal power.” He is the “idealist who takes license from his ideals for the unrestrained exercise of power.” The princess, Trilling argued, “is the very embodiment of the modern will which masks itself in virtue, making itself appear harmless, the will that hates itself and finds its manifestations guilty and is able to exist only if it operates in the name of virtue.”

It is not simply that liberalism, where it has come under the influence of the social imagination, strives for an unattainable perfection—makes its alliances “only when it thinks it catches the scent of Utopia in parties and government, the odor of sanctity in men.” A progressive character like the princess refuses to admit the truth of her own willfulness and adopts the pious fiction that she is politically innocent: “She constitutes a striking symbol of that powerful part of modern culture that exists by means of its claim to political innocence and by its false seriousness—the political awareness that is not aware, the social consciousness which hates full consciousness, the moral earnestness which is moral luxury.”

In believing his motives pure and his politics innocent, the visionary liberal aspires to something “more than human.” He has erected a Utopia in his own heart. It was this mantle of perfected virtue—one that conceals the imagination of gross dominion—that Trilling dreaded as corrupt in itself and dangerous to others. When he attributed to George Orwell the belief that the “ultimate threat to human freedom” might well come from a “massive development of the social idealism of our democratic culture,” he was speaking as much for himself as for Orwell.

In The Liberal Imagination, Trilling consistently opposed the moral shallowness of the social point of view with an alternative sensibility that he called the “moral imagination”:

It is probable that at this time we are about to make great changes in our social system. The world is ripe for such changes and if they are not made in the direction of greater social liberality, the direction forward, they will almost of necessity be made in the direction backward, of a terrible social niggardliness. We all know which of those directions we want. But it is not enough to want it, not even enough to work for it—we must want it and work for it with intelligence. Which means that we must be aware of the dangers which lie in our most generous wishes. Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion. It is to prevent this corruption, the most ironic and tragic that man knows, that we stand in need of the moral realism which is the product of the free play of the moral imagination.

Note the term “moral realism.” Trilling’s moral imagination is an instrument of disillusion: it enables people to penetrate the myths that their egotism has contrived. Like art, it is an antidote to the superficial moral culture of the social orthodoxies. Art, indeed, is an essential adjunct of the moral imagination because it makes the moral life dramatically vivid, and so beguiles people into a scrutiny of their own shibboleths:

For our time the most effective agent of the moral imagination has been the novel of the last two hundred years. It was never, either aesthetically or morally, a perfect form and its faults and failures can be quickly enumerated. But its greatness and its practical usefulness lay in its unremitting work of involving the reader himself in the moral life, inviting him to put his own motives under examination, suggesting that reality is not as his conventional education has led him to see it.

There is a certain naivety in this belief; Trilling himself, in Sincerity and Authenticity, questioned his faith that art can stimulate self-knowledge and moral awareness. But he did not altogether reject it, and his defense of the moral authority of the novel remains an enduring part of his legacy.

In portraying the novel as the arbiter of the moral world, Trilling was carrying on the work of the Victorians—Matthew Arnold, Leslie Stephen, and George Eliot, among others—who sought a secular substitute for spiritual traditions that seemed to them to have lost not only their intrinsic plausibility but also much of their moral sanction. Yet in an age of electronic pleasures and literary degeneracy, Trilling’s faith in the moral efficacy of books may be simply too remote from the way we live now to be an adequate foundation for moral culture.

The weakness of Trilling’s remedy has its origin in his own experience. In his essay on The Princess Casamassima, Trilling observed that the young man from the provinces must reject his native tradition and find a new and more urbane one. In his own journey to the metropolis, Trilling found a substitute for forsaken provinciality in the tradition of the Victorian and Edwardian moralists. He was the foster child of Arnold, James, and Forster, to whom he was closer, in style and spirit, than he was to the liberals of his own generation. He was the heir, too, of Freud, in whom he found a rejection of human perfectibility, a belief in “the ineluctability of the pain and frustration of human existence” that confirmed his own doubts about the effectiveness of social reform. Freud’s skepticism about the possibility of devising radically better social forms is, Trilling said, “profound—is, we cannot but know, entire.” Freud, for Trilling, is a prophet who insists “upon the essential unmitigability of the human condition as determined by the nature of the mind,” and his “imagination of the human condition preserves something—much—of the stratum of hardness that runs through the Jewish and Christian traditions as they respond to the hardness of human destiny.”

Yet however great the moral light an intellectual communion with authors like Forster and Freud may give, it will probably always be, in some measure, artificial if it is not supported by a living tradition, one in which art cooperates with ritual and routine to refine moral sensibility. Morals are intimately related to mores, to manners and customs, to the habits of decency inculcated by the living traditions of particular communities. Trilling perceived the weakening of the moral sense that has taken place with the growth of the social imagination, that disintegrator of tradition; he was wrong only in supposing that books could be a sufficient hedge against its dominion.


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