Lionel Trilling and the critical imagination

Why Trilling Matters: it is a curiously defensive title for a book about a man who was a star in the much-acclaimed circle of “New York intellectuals,” who delivered the first of the Jefferson Lectures bestowed by the government for “distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities,” and whose major collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, has gone through half-a-dozen editions since it was first published in 1950 (most recently in 2008), totalling 70,000 copies in hard cover and more than 100,000 in paperback.1 Yet that defensive tone, unfortunately, is warranted. In spite of the availability of his work, Lionel Trilling today is almost unknown in academia, resurrected occasionally in an article or book, more often to be belittled or criticized than celebrated.

Adam Kirsch, seeking to restore Trilling to his rightful place in the literary and intellectual world, tells us that as an English major in the mid-1990s, he never read Trilling or even heard him discussed in class. It was only later that he came to the critic on his own and read him for “pleasure.” He then discovered that Trilling does indeed matter—and matters all the more because literature itself, he regretfully observes, seems to matter so little. In 1991, Dana Gioia, later the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, wrote an essay “Can Poetry Matter?” complaining that poetry no longer mattered, that, unlike fiction­, it had become the specialized calling of a small and isolated group. Five years later, the novelist Jonathan Franzen made the same complaint about fiction, deploring the neglect of novels in favor of movies and the web. In 2004, a survey by the nea found that the reading of any kind of literature is in dramatic decline, especially, and most ominously, among the young.

Trilling matters, then, Kirsch insists, because literature matters—and literature as Trilling understood it. His novel, The Middle of the Journey, has been criticized for creating characters who are merely the spokesmen for ideas. The same charge has been levelled against his literary criticism, which is said to treat novels and poems as vehicles for ideas about society and politics rather than as aesthetic responses to personal experience. Kirsch counters this objection by elevating Trilling’s literary criticism to the “primary,” “autonomous” status of literature itself, reflecting the same aesthetic sensibility that the novelist or poet brings to experience—and reflecting, too, the ideas about society and politics that are implicit in the novels and poems themselves.

Kirsch is treading a fine line. He does not want to reduce Trilling to the role of social or, worse, political commentator. Yet he fully acknowledges the social and political import, even intent, of Trilling’s literary criticism: “More than any twentieth-century American intellectual, Trilling stood for the principle that society and politics cannot be fully understood without the literary imagination.” And the literary imagination, for Trilling, was preeminently a “moral imagination.” Moral imagination—not the moralistic dicta or pronouncements evoked in present-day debates about same-sex marriage, abortion, and the like. The true moral imagination transcends such dogmatic moralizing because it is imbued with “moral realism,” a realism that is “not the awareness of morality itself but of the contradictions, paradoxes, and dangers of living the moral life.” ...


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