Why Trilling Matters, by Adam Kirsch (Yale, 208 pp., $24)

The conventional wisdom about Lionel Trilling, Adam Kirsch writes in Why Trilling Matters, is that he was a “thwarted creator,” a writer who would rather have written novels than essays about them. Kirsch doesn’t see it that way. “On the contrary,” he argues, “Trilling’s disappointment as a novelist was the most productive experience in his life.” The stillbirth of his career as a fiction writer allowed him to devote himself to the “human drama that interested him” most, that “of individuals shaping their ideals and morals in relation to texts.”

The vehicle for the drama was the critical essay. Much of Trilling’s criticism is made up of occasional writings, written in response to a publisher’s request for an introduction to a book or an endowment’s invitation to deliver a lecture. But if Kirsch, a senior editor of the New Republic, is right, it was not chance alone that shaped Trilling’s career as a critic, but a deepening sense of métier and vocation. Unlike Saul, who “seeking asses found a kingdom,” Trilling found a kingdom in the very critical work some of his contemporaries dismissed as mulish pedantry. Saul Bellow, encountering Trilling at Gore Vidal’s house in the 1950s, playfully asked him if he was “still peddling the same old horseshit.” Trilling knew better. Three years after “publishing The Middle of the Journey, a good novel,” Kirsch writes, “Trilling brought out The Liberal Imagination, a great work of criticism. And it would be a serious mistake to think that he didn’t know it—that his regret over failing to be a novelist, voiced ironically in public and bitterly in the privacy of his diary, superseded his knowledge of what he accomplished as a critic.”

Trilling’s criticism is on the surface measured and lucid, yet some residuum of mystery remains and baffles the most accomplished exegetical finesse. Trilling’s essay on Henry James’s novel The Princess Casamassima, for instance, which Kirsch calls the summa of The Liberal Imagination, is in its suppressed discordancies not unlike one of James’s own stories, and is just as resistant to simple resolution. At the heart of the essay is Trilling’s meditation on the conflict in the mind of Hyacinth Robinson, the hero of The Princess Casamassima, who is struggling with the claims of art and civilization, on the one hand, and social reform, on the other. Trilling argues that Hyacinth, who has joined a secret revolutionary cadre and undertaken to assassinate a prominent figure in the English establishment, finds the two antagonistic causes equally compelling and equally corrupting. He embodies “two ideals at once,” Trilling writes, and unable to choose between them commits suicide. “If Hyacinth is a hero,” Kirsch writes, “it is because he feels the claims of each side of this dialectic: he believes that the fabric of civilization deserves to be ripped apart, and he believes that it must be preserved at any cost. That is why, when he is finally ordered to attack civilization head-on, by committing murder, he ends up taking his own life instead.”

The difficulty is that Hyancinth, when he resolves to kill himself, doesn’t believe that the fabric of civilization deserves to be ripped apart. When, in his last interview with the Princess Casamassima, she tells him that the “ferocious selfishnesses must come down . . . must be smashed,” he can only reply, “I wish to God I could see it as you see it.” But he can’t; he has lost his revolutionary faith. When Lenin showed Trotsky around London in 1902, he portrayed the city as a monument to the delinquent ruling classes. “This is their Westminster,” he told Trotsky. “This is their British Museum.” Hyacinth, during his last walk in the city “which he knew and loved,” is enchanted by it; he decides to look up an old girlfriend, evidently in the hope of finding a reason not to die. But the girl is with another man, and Hyacinth goes off to shoot himself. He does so, not because he is torn between ideals that are “in such a balance of authority and appeal” as to make a choice between them impossible, but because, as he tells the Princess, “I gave my promise.” He has given his word to do something he now looks upon as reprehensible, and he sees no way of preserving that archaic faith known as honor other than to fall on his sword.

Given the false premise on which Trilling’s essay is built, it ought to be a failure—but it isn’t. Kirsch finds the ultimate source of its power in its “commitment to pluralism” and its vindication of “the sanctity of diversity,” one of the “basic principles” of contemporary liberalism. The essay, however, can be read as a defense of diversity only if one accepts Trilling’s thesis that Hyacinth dies because he is unable to choose between the worthy but incompatible ideals of creative civilization and social justice. Yet not only is Trilling’s thesis at odds with the text of The Princess Casamassima, it is also false to the spirit of his own essay.

“It is one of the necessities of the successful modern story,” Trilling says, “that the author shall have somewhere entrusted his personal fantasy to the tale; but it may be taken as very nearly a rule that the more the author disguises the personal nature of his fantasy, the greater its force will be.” The insight is as applicable to Trilling’s essay on The Princess Casamassima as it is to James’s fiction. When, in the essay, Trilling calls The Princess Casamassima a “Young Man from the Provinces Novel,” he invokes a line of novels in which he had invested a portion of his own personal romance—he was himself a young man from the provinces, having fled Queens to seek his fortune in Manhattan. The note of personal fantasy is audible, too, in Trilling’s account of late nineteenth-century radicalism. James’s depiction of the revolutionary conspirators in The Princess Casamassima has been criticized as wildly inaccurate, but Trilling, displaying an easy mastery of the culture of fin-de-siècle socialism, argues that, to the contrary, the novel is a “brilliantly precise representation of a social actuality.”

Trilling’s intimate familiarity with this history—he makes penetrating comments about Sergey Nechayev, Prince Kropotkin, and Carlo Tresca—might seem odd for a professor of literature. But Trilling as a young man cherished the ideal of the revolution. His defense of Hyacinth’s break with the revolution is in fact a defense of his own repudiation of it. Hyacinth becomes little more than the grill in the confessional that allows the penitent to unburden himself without revealing his identity. When Trilling argues that Hyacinth’s decision to “fight for art” is justified because social reform will destroy the Jamesian vision of life “raised to the richest and noblest expression,” he is obliquely rationalizing his own sacrifice of the revolutionary dream in the name of artistic civilization, and expiating what Kirsch calls “a feeling of guilt for the force and suddenness with which [in his youth] he had sacrificed his true self on the altar of politics.” Every “known theory of popular revolution,” Trilling writes in what must be one of the most withering critiques of revolutionary social justice ever penned,

sacrifices art in the name of social utility, and gives up the vision of the world “raised to the richest and noblest expression.” To achieve the ideal of widespread security, popular revolutionary theory condemns the ideal of adventurous experience. It tries to avoid doing this explicitly and it even, although seldom convincingly, denies that it does it at all. But 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 interest of an ideal or abstract completeness that the choice need not be made, that 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. Hyacinth’s choice is made under the pressure of the counterchoice made by Paul [Muniment, one of the revolutionists in The Princess Casamassima] and the Princess; their ‘general rectification’ [of society] implies a civilization from which the idea of life raised to the richest and noblest expression will quite vanish.

This is a brilliant meditation on the larger meaning of Hyacinth’s “choice” (as Trilling does not scruple to call it) to disavow the social revolution. Yet Trilling has unaccountably placed the passage between the oft-quoted thesis sentences in which he seems to deny that Hyacinth has made a choice at all. If Trilling’s Hyacinth “A” has broken with the revolutionists, his Hyancinth “B” finds the revolutionary ideal and the aesthetic or civilized ideal “in such a balance of authority and appeal” that he “cannot choose between them and is therefore destroyed.”

There are various ways to explain this wrinkle in the fabric of the essay, the discrepancy between Hyacinth “A” (the chooser of art and civilization) and Hyacinth “B” (the divided soul unable to choose between art and revolution.) It may be that Trilling offered the sop of a birfucated Hyacinth to liberals who remained sentimentally attached to the revolution; it may be that he himself, if he had broken with socialism, retained a vestigial affection for the repudiated faith.

Trilling says that The Princess Casamassima may “be thought of as an intensely autobiographical book, not in the sense of being the author’s personal record but in the sense of being his personal act.” In the same way Trilling’s literary essays are personal acts—the flaws in their fabric preserve the memory of the author’s anguished shrift. Nietzsche said that every great philosophy is “the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” Trilling’s essays are similarly veiled accounts of the author’s own progress. By the end of his journey, Trilling had traveled still farther from the social pieties of his youth, and in one of his last books, Sincerity and Authenticity, he writes sympathetically of the skepticism of Freud, who doubted whether any comprehensive program of reform can make human life substantially better or happier. Freud’s “skepticism,” Trilling writes,

though muted in courtesy to our hope, is profound—is, we cannot but know, entire. . . . His imagination of the human condition preserves something—much—of the hardness that runs through the Jewish and Christian traditions as they respond to the harshness of human destiny. Like the Book of Job it propounds and accepts the mystery and the naturalness—the natural mystery, the mysterious naturalness—of suffering. At the same time it has at its heart an explanation of suffering through a doctrine of something like original sin: not for nothing had Freud in his youth chosen John Milton as his favourite poet, and although of course the idea of redemption can mean nothing to him, he yet acquiesces, and with something of Milton’s appalled elation, in the ordeal of man’s life in history.

Kirsch makes the “sanctity of diversity” one of Trilling’s touchstones; but a man who identified as closely with Freudian pessimism as he did could have felt only the most fatigued enthusiasm for the belief that diversity will make a better world.

If Why Trilling Matters has a weakness, it is that, sensitive as Kirsch is to the sweep and nuance of Trilling’s work, he is reluctant to follow the trail of consecutive “personal acts” which Trilling’s essays are to their conclusion—the end of Trilling’s journey. Kirsch cogently describes the “extravagant hostility toward conventional patterns of civilized life” found in many of the Modernist writers, and he uses Trilling’s ambiguous fascination with this literary libertinage to illuminate his complicated relations with disciple-rebels like Allen Ginsberg who, in contrast to their master, attempted to enact the Modernist saturnalia. “What is distinctive in modern literature,” Kirsch writes, “is the idea that what we call evil is actually good: that the primal is superior to the civilized, passion superior to reason.” Kirsch recognizes that Trilling never really embraced this vision of primitive ecstasy. Though “he was shaped by modern literature, with all its subversions and transgressions,” Kirsch observes, Trilling’s “own life was quite conventional and respectable.” Yet the trail goes a little farther, and in Sincerity and Authenticity Trilling argues that the marshaling of the vile, the shameful, and the unclean to shock readers out of their “inauthentic” complacency often has the effect of making them still more complacent. “Will not any art—the most certifiedly authentic, the most shaming,” Trilling writes near the end of Sincerity and Authenticity,

provide sustenance for the inauthenticity of those who consciously shape their experience by it? It was the peculiar inauthenticity which comes from basing a life on the very best cultural objects that Nietzsche had in mind when he coined the terrible phrase, ‘culture-Philistine’. What he means by this is the inversion of the bourgeois resistance to art which we usually call Philistinism; he means the use of the art and thought of high culture, of the highest culture, for purposes of moral accreditation, which in our time announces itself in the facile acceptance of the shame that art imputes and in the registration of oneself in the company of those who, because they see themselves as damned, are saved. Rousseau [in his skepticism of the virtue of art] is not mocked.

Épater le bourgeois art, Trilling suggests, becomes itself conventional, and often does little more than replace an established and possibly even wise complacency with a new and foolish one. Trilling had in mind especially the avant-garde equation of madness with a higher lucidity that became fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s, the belief that insanity is “health” and psychosis “liberation and authenticity.” Who “that has spoken, or tried to speak with a psychotic friend,” Trilling asked, “will consent to betray the masked pain of [the friend’s] bewilderment and solitude by making it the paradigm of liberation from the imprisoning falsehoods of an alienated social reality?”

The Trilling who in 1970 questioned the moral primacy of art is not easily reconciled with the Trilling who in 1950 argued that the novel “of the last two hundred years” has been “the most effective agent of the moral imagination” in our time. The desire to resolve the contradictions may itself be misguided, a betrayal of Trilling’s faith that truth is not simple, and that it is as easy to be morally lazy as to be physically so. Trilling made a complacency of being uncomplacent, yet he could occasionally indulge a drowsy commonplace, as when he uncritically assented to the dogma that “identity . . . can be generated” through an encounter with books. Kirsch elaborates: “To Trilling, literature was above all the medium in which he made himself, and his essays, with all their dignity and vulnerability, are the record of a soul being made through its confrontation with texts.”

If one takes Trilling’s belief that “identity” can be “generated” by books to mean that one’s nature may be enriched by them, or that they may help one to discover the deeper truth of one’s self, the sentiment is unobjectionable. It amounts to no more than the truism that literature can help one, in Pindar’s phrase, “become who you are.” But if one takes Trilling at his word, the idea that literature can “generate” or “create” a self perpetuates one of Romanticism’s more dubious conceits. No one can create himself: we have all been created. Romantic hubris, however, rejected limits to human creative power (even as Romantic humility acknowledged the horror of Dr. Frankenstein). The creations of the Romantic artist become, as Hegel said of Shakespeare’s characters, “free artists of themselves,” more compelling than actual human beings—our own dreary, prosaic selves. No matter: it is a tenet of the Romantic faith that art can enable us to share in this creative vitality and “generate” new and higher identities for ourselves.

Trilling was drawn to James’s dream-vision of the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre, in which the demonic possibilities of art were revealed to him—possibilities not simply of “beauty and art and supreme design” but of “fame and power” and mortal mastery. It is curious that Trilling, so conscious, Kirsch says, of “the tremendous will of the artist” and of “the moral dubiousness of that will,” should have been insensible of the dangers of the myth of artistic self-creation. It is a short step from the Keatsian notion that one can remake oneself through art to the belief that one can remake others through it, and to the coercive policy of the Platonic demiurge, the “artist of character” who stamps “on the plastic matter of human nature” his own visionary patterns.

A review that dwells on the reviewer’s differences with an author can give the wrong impression. In an age of literary despair, when electronic pleasures threaten to supersede those of the printed word, Adam Kirsch’s slender meditation on Trilling’s romance of the book is a tonic for all those who, however modestly, cherish the old literary ideal. The appeal of Why Trilling Matters is all the greater because its author seems himself to embody the thing he evokes. A career like Kirsch’s, in its bold commitment to the profession of letters, recalls those of Edmund Wilson and Trilling himself, and is so anomalous today as to seem almost miraculous. (It would be interesting to know how many temptations he must have resisted, how many vulgar prizes he must have shunned, in order to devote his gifts as faithfully as he has to his vocation.) One may differ with Kirsch in the estimation of certain aspects of Trilling’s career, but the differences amount to little compared with what one learns in reading him. Indeed, it is just because Kirsch’s writing is so persuasive and so masterly that one feels obligated to put on record one’s occasional dissents.


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