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Trilling In Our Time

ISSUE:  Summer 1978

Lionel Trilling: Negative Capability and the Wisdom of Avoidance. By Robert Boyers. Missouri. $5.50 paper.

In recent years, the authority and influence of Lionel Trilling have fallen off sharply. When Roger Sale reviewed Sincerity and Authenticity, for example, he observed that reading Trilling “in bulk” bears “certain affinities with eating a meal consisting entirely of Thousand Island Dressing,” and commented on the notable—even laughable—irrelevance of Trilling’s work for readers of the present day (Hudson Review, XXVI), In Sale’s opinion, whatever Trilling’s talents at reciting the tale of “High Culture,” his essays of the fifties and sixties now appear flaccid and repetitive; his social and political concerns are no longer able to command our attention; and his critical voice—once thought to be so masterful— is woefully out of touch with today’s critical and cultural interests.

Sale’s intemperate manner and tone have not been widely admired, and even readers who complain of Trilling’s attachment to the Big View may wince at his conclusion: “If Trilling’s moment of highest fame and respect has passed, it is not likely to return, because he just does not write well enough, care enough for words, to outlive the world he received and in which he flourished.” But despite Sale’s clearly polemical aims, his critique should be welcomed, if only for its refusal to lapse into the master’s own stately cadences. Few would quarrel with the moral and stylistic norms that Trilling regularly commends—moderation, balance, and the “tone of the center” (Beyond Culture, p.179); but such an Arnoldian ambience is not the best one for a serious appraisal of his work. Unfortunately, Robert Boyers, in his Lionel Trilling: Negative Capability and the Wisdom of Avoidance, succumbs to this temptation to imitate his subject’s style; and this fault gravely weakens his attempt to renew Trilling’s value for modern criticism and culture.

Boyers argues that Trilling’s primary interest is in “ideas” and “the process of thought.” “The object of this study,” he writes, “is to work through the most important of those ideas in a way that will be generally helpful” (p.3), He frames the central “ideas” as “questions” that govern the direction of his analysis:

What is the point at which the idea of negative capability needs to be joined to the idea of will in order for either of them to yield what Trilling thinks it should? How much did Trilling’s explicit reliance on the idea of tragedy mask an unwillingness to acknowledge fully the presence in his thought of other ideas that more truly address his concerns? Why should an idea of political reality in Trilling be so helpful in getting at certain aspects of cultural life and so inadequate to deal with others? (p.4)

These “questions” seem to me to reflect a curiously oblique engagment with Trilling’s writings, perhaps because they bypass the themes—for example, the place of the liberal imagination and the teaching of modern literature—to which Trilling is most directly and frequently committed. Even more curious is Boyers’s decision to limit his treatment of these questions to three texts: the short stories, “Of This Time, Of That Place,” and “The Other Margaret,” and the essay on The Princess Casamassima included in The Liberal Imagination. Too much space is devoted to the stories, and their claims on our attention are seriously overvalued. The choice of the Casamassima essay, on the other hand, is a good one, and some interesting relations are traced between Trilling and James. But Boyers does not move beyond the confines of this single essay to discuss, for instance, the companion-piece on The Bostonians (in The Opposing Self) or the essay on James and Hawthorne (in Beyond Culture), or address cogently and concisely the strengths and weaknesses of the critical mind at work here. Boyers admires the “tone of the center,” and he feels no small amount of affection for its exemplary status in Trilling’s texts, praising him on his first page for having “done more” than any critic of the past 50 years “to make of his calling an honorable and distinctive mode of literary expression,” and stating on his final page that Trilling’s work provides “one of the consistent pleasures of literary experience,” But this admiration seems to have led Boyers to ask poor questions and to make some dubious decisions about which texts to emphasize; the “aggressive engagment” (p.74) he hopes to bring to his review of Trilling is rarely demonstrated.

The shortcomings of Boyers’s study are best measured by the fine perceptions he sometimes registers, but which, because they lie outside his chosen tone and texts, he does not pursue. He points out, for instance, that Trilling’s “success” depended in large part on knowing “what he was meant to handle” (p.5). Another, possibly more damaging way of putting this might be to say that Trilling’s themes are few and remain constant from his books on Matthew Arnold (1939) and E. M. Forster (1943) to Mind in the Modern World(1972): the modern writer’s alienation from other artists and the contemporary culture; the modern self’s antagonistic stance towards society; the contempt shown by writers and their readers for the values of the family and social group; and finally, the complexity and pain of living the “moral life.” Much to the irritation of Sale and others, these themes reappear in essay after essay with little advance in sophistication and insight; and if Boyers intends to press his case for Trilling’s staying power and relevance, then he will have to consider whether the books and essays possess a range of themes and variations to challenge us consistently.

Boyers also points out Trilling’s determination “to establish a view of things that would serve his purpose as a writer and artist in the entrenchment of attitudes he took to be good for all of us” (p.7). But how comforting is it to know that Trilling’s paternal care is always being exercised for our “good”? How much condescension towards his audience resides in that “tone of the center”? Perhaps Boyers should inquire more carefully into Trilling’s attitude towards his readers; and he might also have profitably examined the many occasions when Trilling’s “view of things” leads him to impose his authority on texts, remaking them in his own image. In The Opposing Self, for example, he claims that Milton welcomed Adam’s and Eve’s fall and expulsion from Eden, since this opens up “the human drama” of a “strenuous world of freedom” (p.46)—an assertion that fails (or refuses) to recognize the “strenuous” moral discipline which Adam and Eve freely exhibit at every moment they obey God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit. It is not so much that Trilling “misreads” Milton here, but rather that he advocates the old critical line on the poet (formulated by E. M. W. Tillyard and others) because it records an appealing distinction about the complex moral values of the modern world.

Elsewhere in his book, Boyers states that Freud is “surely Trilling’s intellectual hero” (p.14). Yet he nowhere engages the influence of Freud on Trilling’s work, nor examines the merits of his critic’s several essays on psychoanalysis. For all his stress on Freud’s achievement, Trilling’s own devotion to psychoanalysis is highly ambivalent, and he scrupulously avoids deploying its methods with full rigor even where the material might seem to warrant it. Despite, for instance, twice alluding to Freud in the famous essay on Keats’s letters, he does not ask whether Freudian ways of thinking might help to account for Keats’s “pervasive” and “extreme” “ingestive imagery” or his relation to his mother (The Opposing Self,pp.17, 19 ff.). As for the individual essays on Freud, they are period pieces which once argued an important case for the relevance of psychoanalysis to literary studies, but which offer little insight and sophistication today.

Twice in his study (pp. 26, 50), Boyers cites Leo Bersani’s provocative book on character and desire in literature, A Future for Astyanax (Boston, 1976). Yet he refers to Bersani without noticing the major challenge that his work offers to one of Trilling’s repeated concerns—the authority of the morally centered self. Bersani might agree with the statement in Beyond Culture that “in its essence literature is concerned with the self” (p.118); but while Trilling’s work privileges the centered or integrated self, A Future for Astyanax instead calls for the deconstruction of the center and the substitution of radically dispersed, de-centered selves. In the past decade, structuralist and other “continental” theories of literature have become increasingly important in the writings of American critics; and it is this new style, articulated in different ways by Barthes, Derrida, and others, that Bersani’s book so admirably exemplifies. When one considers these recent trends in the study of criticism, Boyers’s insistence on Trilling’s “negative capability,” “feeling,” “sensibility,” “taste,” and “disinterested contemplation” (all these terms occur on pp.44—45) seems set in a distant past. He might not be heartened by these trends, but if he intends to demonstrate Trilling’s present significance, he will have to take account of them and argue for his own critic’s superior merits.

Boyers is well attuned to the ambiguities of Trilling’s political views, noting, for instance, “the large margin of sheer sentiment” that he often “allowed himself” (p.55). But here again Boyers neglects to follow through on his initial perceptions, and instead presents an awkward defense of the advantages of Trilling’s political stance. On one page, he maintains that Trilling does not speak for an “ideological conservatism” (p.63) only to remark on the next one that such a position makes clear “that there are problems in the world, that it is useful to be aware of them, and that very few are susceptible of social or political solutions.” Maybe this is (as Boyers claims) “politically liberal and meliorative” rather than “conservative”—such terms always leave room for slippage. But the point of view recommended here—whatever terms are chosen tc label it—comes dangerously close to complete detachment and inaction in political life, and it should not be too promptly endorsed.

Trilling admired George Orwell for “his virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do” (The Opposing Self, p.156). When Trilling writes badly, it is often because he is trying too hard to reveal his own affinities with writers like Orwell. Similarly, Boyers’s poorest work in his book occurs when he adheres too closely to his subject’s own moral line and middle tones. Like most of Trilling’s writings, Boyers’s study is admirable in its lucidity and poise, but too frequently it fails to arrive at some precise terms and evaluations. Though he alludes at one point to Sale as that “mean and envious fellow” (p.2) and hopes to counter this disrespect for Trilling’s “unified sensibility,” Boyers neither discriminates the good from the bad in Trilling’s work, nor deals with the contemporary context in which this “sensibility” may rediscover its place.


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