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Lionel Trilling: Literature & Liberalism

By Jared Marcel Pollen.

There are some writers who have more fans than readers. That is to say, our admiration of them––their talent, their ideas––far exceeds the joys of actually sitting down with them. There are plenty of philosophers who fit this bill: Heidegger, Kant, and dear lord––Hegel. If we were to add fiction to the list, we might include those notoriously difficult novels of Stein, Proust and late Joyce (anyone who claims they totally enjoyed every second of The Making of Americans, In Search of Lost Time, or Finnegans Wake is lying). This is not to say that one should slog through longueur because a work is deemed “important.” Reverence only goes so far. Still, books that are admired in spite of being read little retain their status because we understand that they have some significance to the culture, even if it becomes a source of friction for us.

Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination is a book that belongs to this club. I am a Trilling fan, and yes, my fandom often surpasses the pleasure I get from reading him. But Trilling was a critic, and a critic with more admirers than readers is even more peculiar than a classic novel that no one seems to have touched. Though not widely read today, when The Liberal Imagination was published in 1950 it sold over 100,000 copies, and the people who bought the collection were not academics, or scholars, as one might expect. The book was directed toward a population that was educated, knew the canon, read magazines like The New Yorker and considered literature to have some role in reporting on the culture, its politics and its values. It is a very nineteenth century idea, furnished by the Emersons and Arnolds of the literary culture, who proposed that literature bore some relationship to the development of liberal society because it offered a hand for the way life could be lived.

In the preface to TLI, Trilling describes this relationship thusly:

‘The word liberal is a word primarily of political import, but its political meaning defines itself by the quality of life it envisages, by the sentiments it desires to affirm. This will begin to explain why a writer of literary criticism involves himself with political considerations. These are not political essays, they are essays in literary criticism. But they assume the inevitable intimate, if not always obvious, connection between literature and politics.’

Today, it’s as difficult to imagine a collection of literary criticism selling 100,000 copies as it is to imagine that such an audience would believe the state of literature in any way reflects the state of Liberalism in a democratic society. More still, it’s a strain to imagine today’s literary criticism performing a role of moral arbitration between artists and the general population. Trilling belonged to that last great generation of critics who did exactly this, who believed that literature embodied the soul of a culture’s politics and its social organization––that style had an intrinsic relationship to one’s view of reality, and that people’s values were expressed by their tastes. The first essay in The Liberal Imagination, “Reality in America” attempts to describe exactly this by sketching the dueling ontologies of Theodore Dreiser, whose work characterized a quick, vulgar materialism, and Henry James, whose florid verbosity and intellectualism condescended to most Americans.

Would we say this about ourselves? Does our taste predict our politics? Is someone who watches House of Cards likely to vote any differently than someone who watches Big Bang Theory? Or someone who uses Spotify and someone who only listens to vinyl? And that these tastes in any way present incompatible realities? In a market-based monoculture, where difference of taste is mere niche or “alternative,” no one can claim that aesthetics reveal values, or that people’s politics are likely to be shaped by the art they consume. If there are political divisions to be had on matters of taste now, they have moved on to other areas of the culture and are almost all superficial: liberals drive electric cars and shop at Whole Foods and conservatives drive trucks and eat red meat.

But this is not what Trilling meant by Liberal. He rightly claimed that Liberalism was not an ideology, but an idea––not a political movement, a party or a doctrine, but rather the current of civil society which organizes itself towards some conception of happiness. Literature, as the house of the imagination, which shows us everything we are and everything we can be, was thus crucial to the project of Liberalism because literature is, “the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” This could easily double as a definition for Liberalism itself, and it provides the clearest distillation of Trilling’s own definition as it evolved throughout his work and his own life.

At the time Trilling was writing he believed that Liberalism represented the dominant trend in American society. What he meant was that Marxists, laissez-fair capitalists and progressives on the left and right all claimed ownership of the title. The challenge posed to Liberalism therefore, was not reactionary politics, or conservatism, but the competing definitions contained within the idea. The most threatening in Trilling’s time was the radical leftism that was still sympathetic to Stalin when The Liberal Imagination was published. By that time, Marxism in America and Britain had become solid state. The impact this ossification had on the imaginative faculties is best described in George Orwell’s magnificent essay “The Prevention of Literature.” Trilling loved Orwell and praised his character in his preface to the 1952 edition of Homage to Catalonia, a book that was under-reviewed and underpraised by leftist journals at the time because it was critical of the Stalinist forces in Spain during the civil war, in which Orwell fought as a volunteer (on the side of the Trotskyist POUM) and nearly died when his throat was pierced by a sniper’s bullet.

Communism, and the process of disenchantment with it, which had happened to Orwell as it had happened to Trilling’s friend Whitaker Chambers (and depending on who you ask, Trilling himself) was modestly but masterfully documented in Orwell’s report on the Spanish Civil War. Unlike other confessional narratives which documented this disentanglement from Communism, (like Chamber’s autobiography Witness) Homage to Catalonia never grazes on the slopes of self-pity, but forages with persistent rationalism and a refusal to ignore the way things actually are. It was this ability to hold idealism together with the “stubborn actuality” of things that Trilling admired so much about Orwell and Keats, and the great essays on both men are the key pieces in the 1955 collection The Opposing Self, which explores how ideals are managed against the circumstances of the times.

“Moral realism” was the term Trilling gave to the fiction of Austin, James and Forster, but it could easily be applied Orwell’s common sense view of a political life––one that required not just “the awareness of morality itself, but the contradictions, paradoxes and dangers of living a moral life.” Such a life would be impossible without the reading of history and the acute presence of irony, as well as renewing what we all know to be true: that bad ideas are sometimes the only ideas, good ideas are never perfectly good, and that good ideas are often made the enemy of the ideal. Which is why irony has no place within ideology, and cannot be admitted under any circumstances. As with communism, Liberalism or any system that imagines ideals, the system turns anaphylactic whenever it becomes bankrupt of ideas, when the imagination can no longer adapt to new circumstances and foresee new possibilities. Here’s Trilling again in the preface to TLI:

‘Communism’s record of the use of unregenerate force was perfectly clear years ago, but many of us found it impossible to admit this because Communism spoke boldly to our love of ideas and ideals.’ 

At no time was this candid acknowledgement called for than during the official alliance between socialism and fascism in the form of the Hitler-Stalin pact, a union foreseen with eerie prescience by Trotsky, and Trotsky alone. This was the “midnight of the century,” for Victor Serge, who was equally concerned with the moral bankruptcy of socialism but saw nothing sui generis in it, only failings symptomatic of a broader dissolution that would mark the post-war years:

‘Have you forgotten the other bankruptcies? What was Christianity doing in the various catastrophes of society? What became of Liberalism? What has conservatism produced, in either its enlightened or its reactionary form?… If we are indeed honestly to weigh out the bankruptcies of ideology, we shall have a long task ahead of us.’

When moral perfection becomes impossible, when ironies become unmentionable, the rearguard vocabulary––“solidarity,” “the greater good” etc, is shored up for defense. Part of the brilliance of Orwell was his ability to see through both the sclerosis of Soviet-style Communism and the left-intelligentsia in the west who were sympathetic to it with endless faithful abstractions. Eventually hoping to be transferred to a communist unit shortly after volunteering for the POUM (with whom he was never totally aligned) Orwell observed first-hand how the Stalinists in Spain actively suppressed a people’s revolution in order to secure a one-party system. By the time both Homage to Catalonia and The Liberal Imagination were published, just a few years before Stalin’s death, it was clear that communism, wherever it appeared, would never allow for the internal dissention that both Orwell and Trilling regarded as central to the development of Liberalism.

In other words, Trilling understood that the true dialectic of a culture in any moment of social change is not between the right and the left, but between the left and the other left, and is conducted by those from the theoretical tradition and the frontline activists. He understood too that social justice and action-based politics has limited capabilities, that the liberal mind cannot be forcefully renovated, that it has to evolve through a process of imagining new situations. Such was the duty of literature laid out by TLI: “to recall Liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and future possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty.”

If indeed this was literature’s responsibility, then this duty was corrupted in the 60s and 70s when French postmodern intellectuals instrumentalized literature and turned it into a tool for advancing neo-Marxist thought. It was the copulation of late-Marxism with a continental philosophy that had become increasingly involved in linguistics that gave birth to the theoretical schools that now rule the humanities: deconstructionism, post-structuralism, as well as its variants––feminism, post-colonialism and queer theory. By this time Trilling was in the twilight of his career at Columbia, and the criticism he had practiced was in retreat, with less and less of the general public interested in the idea of literature as a national art form and discussion of books became increasingly cloistered in the academy.

Under Foucault, Derrida, et al. literature was less a humanist enterprise that dramatized “variousness” and “future possibility” than a micro-universe wherein ideologies could be test driven, where worlds could be toppled by changing the POV (i.e. Hamlet from the female characters’ perspective, or Moby Dick as narrated not by Ishmael, but the crewmen [standing in for the proletariat]). If a text could be redesigned to accommodate any doctrine, then why not any institution, why not reality itself? The emphasis of this new world of literary criticism was never about the text, but about gratifying the ideas of the theorist––what Sontag in “Against Interpretation” described as “the revenge of the intellect upon art.” If it was revenge, it was because literature hadn’t done enough by way of Liberalism. Hence Barthes’ claim that language lacked “sociology,” and his identification of the capital-A “Author” as someone whose function was to “support literature as a failed commitment.” Both Barthes and Foucault penned obsequies for the author, regarding it as retrograde concept, only useful as a social construct. How could someone like a Trilling, whose outlook relied so heavily on the moral character of the “figure” holding the pen, survive?

This didn’t happen in a vacuum. The triumph of theory over literature succeeded the failures of the new left, which culminated in the événements in Paris in ’68. The new left too was born out of a disenchantment with both Soviet Communism (Stalin’s death having produced no significant reform) and frustration with curbed social democratic parties in the west. The abandonment of Stalinism would also lead many to the misguided adoption of Maoism, which would produce similar disenchantment at a much faster rate. Like the Sorbonne, Columbia too was occupied in the spring of 1968. Trilling, a lifelong dialectician even as his Marxist education began to recede, was oddly confused by the demonstrations, as he was by the new left in general. His response was glib and dismissive, though in passing he managed to identify a key trapping of juvenile activism, wherein “the gratifications of being political” outstrip the real responsibilities that come with dismantling the social order.

Even if he didn’t fully understand the “adventitious or symbolic” demonstrations, Trilling maintained a hedged support of the protesters. But when he returned to the occupied Hamilton Hall, after the police had been called to crush the effort, he found the words: “Lionel Trilling you pig” scrawled on his office door. In an account of the events narrated by his wife Diana, she recalls an incensed student phoning the house to say, “Tell your husband to move over and give us a chance.” The student reportedly considered Trilling to be representative of “the authority.” It’s hard to read this without being forcibly reminded of “the days of absence” and “de-platforming” that is common practice on campuses today.

Many of Trilling’s students regarded him in a similar light, as a member of the privileged class, someone who had been given everything and lived comfortably shielded behind a rampart of canonical literature. What they didn’t know that Trilling’s position at Columbia had been anything but comfortable––having first been refused a tenured position on the grounds that “as a Freudian, a Marxist, and a Jew” he couldn’t possibly be an authority on British Literature, and would not be happy teaching at the school. Trilling, in a rare act of defiant confidence, told the department that he was irreplaceable. Once his book on Matthew Arnold was published a few years later, to rave reviews, the college reconsidered and granted him a permanent faculty position.

We can’t know what Trilling would have made of identity politics and its takeover of the left, though he likely would have detested it as a terminal, post-class stage of Marxist thought, with its flailings and knee-jerks and love of victimhood, but one could easily transfer his thoughts on Stalinism, as reported in his letters to his Columbia colleague Eric Bentley:

‘What revolts and disgusts me . . . is the hideous involvement of ideals, feelings, social indignations, exhibitions of martyrdom, self-pity. I expect a quantum of injustice in any imperium, expect contradictions as the price of order—what brings me to the puking-point is the fine feelings.’

This is more candor than Trilling would ever allow in his criticism. Still, his prescience on the politics of identity is seeded throughout his work. As early as his essay on Orwell he talked about the absurdly “conditioned nature of life”––that habits, places, surnames, went far deeper than the abstractions of ideology (citing how Orwell’s middle-class sensibilities [decency and honesty] were uncompromised by his socialist allegiances). It was an idea he would later expand in his last major collection Sincerity & Authenticity (1971), which, like most of Trilling’s work, never settles on an easy definition of what the title words mean. Polonius’s advice to Laertes, “to thine own self be true” is offered as the purest distillation. If you accept that life is “absurdly conditioned” and that contradictions are the price of entry, sincerity and authenticity––whatever they mean––are the greatest substitutes next to the impossibility of moral perfection. This is the “Moral Realism” of fiction as applies in life, based on the same irreducible experience of the individual and its irreducible ironies.

One of these ironies is precisely that Liberalism is so conditioned. It can regress, as we see with the moral relativism of Liberals today; it can stagnate, it can become confused. Even when it’s on good behavior, Liberalism that fails to reevaluate itself is doomed to become conservatism. So, it was that many who had been opposed to Desert Storm were later in favor of the Iraq War, and those on the left who had long advocated an independent Kurdistan were later the most in favour of preserving the status quo in the middle east. From this comes the “neo-con” phenomenon. Most of the time, the label is usually applied to the process of trying to uncouple Liberalism from left-progressivism. Trilling and many of his coevals at The Partisan Review were accused of being neo-conservatives for not getting on board with the new left and the French theorists who underwrote it. Sincerity & Authenticity is anything but a turn towards conservatism, and its proposal of an unconditioned life hinted at the possibility of total social transformation as envisioned by the occupations of ’68 more than its critics cared to see.

Trilling could have hardly foreseen the way in which the notion of the conditioned life would overrun leftist politics. After all, it’s the identity politic which asserts that these conditions are absolute, that one’s reason cannot transcend their class, race, or sex; that we are locked into the groups into which we’re born, and will be forever bound by their inherent biases. It is the definition of the very intransigence it supposedly rages against. The danger this poses to literature as a Liberal enterprise is obvious enough. Far from elevating group identity over individual identity, the importation of progressivism into the realm of the imagination, which, in seeking to render literature morally perfect, would succeed only in making it perfectly boring.

It’s all too common now in classrooms and in criticism to hear laments that a book, “lacked a female perspective,” or seemed to have too much “privilege.” A few years ago, a group of students at Yale petitioned to have the canonical authors Trilling championed (Eliot, Milton, Shakespeare) struck from the curriculum on the grounds that they are “hostile” to “students of color.” Hostile? Have they read Othello? Or, for that matter, has the LGBT crowd read Twelfth Night? Are they familiar with the humoral model of sex that was widely believed in Shakespeare’s time, its fluidity and leanings toward the queer, or the prevalence of homoerotica and gender flipping and drag in so many of his plays? I suspect not. This doesn’t even qualify as moral progressivism. It’s moral idiocy.

The idea of the condition requires more subtlety. Like all Trilling terms, what he meant by “condition” is complex; it’s something he spent most of his career unpacking. In short, it is all the forces that prevent the individual from being intellectually free and truly original, what we might call the “inner condition” (one of the many phrases that can’t be used now without eye rolling). This is the native state that is always under imperial forces: ideology, society, culture, the era. The life of the mind is under constant threat by the constraints of politics and the kind of thinking that politics requires. For Trilling, this condition was not deterministic, as it is for those who practice the politics of sex and skin, but it produced the same result, which is that ideology colonizes intellectual life and smothers the individual. Trilling didn’t believe, like Locke, that the Self was a tabula rasa, upon which anything could be written. The Self was more like a palimpsest. The ink of circumstance is already imprinted on us, and some of us struggle to erase, cross out, and write overtop of it. It’s a view much closer to Rousseau’s, it sees the Liberal condition as tapered, imperfect; we belong to society willingly, but reluctantly, because it requires compromise and the deformity of our ideals.

The notion that the self is fashioned through the individual’s relationship with a text originated with renaissance humanism and the reformation. In fact, the term humanitas, as it was originally used by Cicero and those who adopted it in the sixteenth century, didn’t refer to a movement towards secularism, but to the formation of good character through the practice of reading books. It also implied a love of language. The early modern humanists were philologists, and believed classical works should be read in their original form––some, like Thomas More, to such an extent that he put people to the stake for reading the bible in their native tongue. Trilling’s view of text was post-Protestant. After the death of god in the nineteenth century, an epoch forecasted in “Dover Beach,” the project of Liberalism transformed from the individual’s communion with god through scripture to the liberation of the individual from religion, stranded out on the “darkling plain,” where “ignorant armies clash by night.” This is a sentiment Trilling would echo in talking about the “bloody intersection” where literature and politics intersect, the intersection at which he lived, even though, unlike Orwell, he never actually shed any.

It’s odd that Trilling saw in Arnold an ancestry for the kind of criticism he was engaged with, since Arnold was a cultural conservative. Indeed, writers tend to be strangely conservative creatures. It’s not true across the board, but it’s a long list. The romantics, to take a whole lot. Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky. Trilling adds Proust, Gide and Yeats. Many of the most avant-garde modernists like Eliot and Joyce were culturally backward-looking in spite of their radical styles, and some were openly hostile to liberal democracy, like Pound and Wyndham Lewis, who were outright fascists. At its most benign this conservatism is expressed as aversion to technology that is common to most writers. Tolkien despised the internal combustion engine and Faulkner refused to install an air conditioner in his home. Conversely, the number of truly great writers who were radicals in both their life and their work is very short indeed.

Writers, even when celebrated, operate at the margins of society; their role is adversarial, and challenging popular and emerging trends comes with the territory. This means that a writer can never afford to be too bien pensant. Why so many great writers should be canonized when their sensibilities ran limpidly against the spirit of their time is a phenomenon that Trilling tried to sort out in his criticism. He offers a partial answer in the preface to TLI, citing John Stuart Mill’s critique of Coleridge, who Mill believed should be read because his work demonstrated a classic Toryism that Mill considered useful for sharpening Liberal sensibilities. If this is true, then writers are not on the leading edge of Liberalism (in the progressivist sense) at all. But it would be profoundly wrong to class them as capital-C Conservatives. It might just be Liberalism in its purest form, which requires that one always question moral and intellectual foundations so that they don’t calcify. And one does this by persistently, authentically and sincerely remaining themselves.

Trilling’s work invites this kind of talk. He’s a critic who gets you thinking like he does, makes you want to write like he does, and can make you believe in an earnest usage of words like culture, virtue, the self, the inspired condition––words that we as postmodern humans can’t utter without wincing or shifting slightly in our chairs. The posture of criticism today is much more relaxed: no one really believes style and taste are reflective of politics, or that your view of reality is likely to differ if you favor James or Dreiser. Taste is now merely a matter of choice, not politics. These are generally good things, I think. They’ve unburdened both art and the criticism of a lot of heavy lifting. Authors and critics alike have to operate on more humble premises now. Again, this is probably for the better, though it’s laced with mourning.

Trilling believed as many others in his time did that literature was the laboratory of the Self, and that the critic had a moral duty to mediate the relationship books had with the culture, and that this mediation required a high style, a high intellect. Here is a sentence, taken at random from his essay on Keats:

‘The faculty of Negative Capability has yielded doctrine––for the idea of soul-making, of souls creating themselves in their confrontation of circumstance, is available to Keats’s conception only because he has remained with half-knowledge, with the double knowledge of the self and of the world’s evil.’

This is an average bit, Trilling at not nearly his loftiest. Yet, imagine reading a book review like this in the Guardian or The New Yorker today. Since these words were written, literature’s influence in popular discourse has retreated sharply, and critics like Trilling are now read either in classrooms or by a few committed enthusiasts like yours truly. In that sense, Trilling survives (like many of the writers he admired) more as a figure than as someone who is regularly consulted. He remains a landmark of how people used to think––the very phenomenon his criticism tried to document.

Still, should we flinch at words like virtue, or the Self? Is it arrogant to believe that art can shape one’s values, if only partially? Even students in English departments shrug at the idea, and consider it high-minded and self-important. There was certainly nothing in this critic’s experience in school that suggests the young literati believe it. The culture has come a long way since Arnold, who maintained that the purpose of culture was to “make reason and the will of God prevail,” and to “make an intelligent being yet more intelligent.” Trilling took Arnold seriously, but many didn’t. Arnold’s posture was old-world, aristocratic. Now, the criticism of the 40s and 50s appears just as old to us as Arnold did to those in Trilling’s time.

Perhaps the condition of our own time is whatever currently makes us believe this view of literature is no longer possible, or no longer true. Does this mean the culture at large is lacking in moral seriousness, or humanism? It’s possible. We could probably do well with a little more of both. A constant of Trilling’s work though is precisely this––that we are forever under the imperial forces of culture, which have the potential to consume us down to our marrow, and that we are helplessly conditioned by them in the process. At the moment, it’s clear The Liberal Imagination’s concept of Liberalism is lagging behind in the race for self-definition, with market-minded individualism way out front and group identity quickly gaining ground in old leftist quarters. Both are cages with their own pre-conditions for the individual. If today’s writers and critics have any duty at all to the politics of literature, it might be to explore how we struggle to understand ourselves against this very thing.


Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada. He studied politics and literature at the University of Windsor and received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in NY. His work has appeared in The Millions, Salo Press and Potluck Magazine, among others. He is also a frequent contributor to Political Animal magazine. He is the author of a forthcoming collection of stories, The Unified Field of Loneliness, to be published this summer by Crowsnest Books. He currently lives in Prague.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 22nd, 2018.