The Magazine

The Liberal Paradox

Why Lionel Trilling's 1950 classic remains essential reading in 2009.

Aug 31, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 46 • By JAMES SEATON
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The Liberal Imagination

by Lionel Trilling

Introduction by Louis Menand

NYRB Classics, 320 pp., $15.95

This reissue by New York Review Books is welcome news for anybody who cares about literary criticism--and literature. Lionel Trilling, more persuasively than any critic of the last century, articulated to the educated public why and how literature is related to life and, obliquely, to politics.

In his preface, Trilling memorably asserted the importance of literature as "the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty." Literature thus serves as a necessary corrective to the simplifications of any and all political doctrines--one of the reasons why Plato banned the poets from his ideal republic.

Trilling, however, focused on the relationship between literature and liberalism, both because he was himself a political liberal and because, in 1949, it was easy to believe that "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition" in the United States. He found a "characteristic paradox" about liberalism; its goal "of a general enlargement and freedom and rational direction of human life" seems unambiguously admirable, and yet in practice it leads to "a denial of the emotions and the imagination."

Trilling did not take issue with what he identifies as the characteristic liberal attitudes: "a ready if mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning, and international cooperation, perhaps especially where Russia is in question," even asserting that "these beliefs do great credit to those who hold them." Yet these beliefs are mysteriously connected to other attitudes that do no great credit to anybody.

Finding "no connection . . . between our liberal educated class and the best of the literary mind of our time," Trilling argued that it was liberalism, not "the literary mind," that needed to change. Liberals proudly favor "social legislation" supposed to help the poor, yet Trilling observes that liberalism seems incapable of acknowledging the full humanity of poor people: "We who are liberal and progressive know that the poor are our equals in every sense except that of being equal to us."

That feeling pity for others often involves and even feeds a feeling of unearned superiority in oneself is a moral complication likely to be ignored by politicians more interested in amassing votes than in questioning the motives of voters. Writers anxious to speak for the poor but without access to "the deep places of the imagination" are no help, either; Trilling observes that "the literature of our liberal democracy pets and dandles its underprivileged characters" but nevertheless--or therefore--fails "to make them more than the pitied objects of our facile sociological minds."

In contrast, a great writer like Henry James, speaking for no one but himself, succeeds in The Princess Casamassima in representing "the poor as if they had dignity and intelligence in the same degree as people of the reading class." Trilling finds the special distinction of James's fiction in what he calls its "moral realism," a quality that has little to do with political attitudes and much with imaginative depth. Trilling refers to it as James's "particular gift of human understanding," a gift that allows him in The Princess Casamassima to imagine individuals like the radical leader Paul Muniment, in whom "a genuine idealism coexists with a secret desire for personal power."

Surveying the literary scene at mid-20th century, Trilling makes an observation that seems equally true today:

We have the books that point out the bad conditions, that praise us for taking progressive attitudes. We have no books that raise questions in our minds not only about conditions but about ourselves, that lead us to refine our motives and ask what might lie behind our good impulses.

To those who answer that what lies behind is unimportant as long as the impulses are good, Trilling answers that it is imperative that we become "aware of the dangers which lie in our most generous wishes," since "the moral passions are even more willful and imperious and impatient than the self-seeking passions." But if even "genuine idealism" is no guarantee of moral soundness, how can we learn to distinguish between what only makes us feel good about ourselves and what is truly good?

Trilling's answer is the cultivation of "the moral imagination" through the study of literature, and particularly the novel: "For our time the most effective agent of the moral imagination has been the novel of the last two hundred years." In placing such reliance on the "moral imagination," Trilling pays tribute to Edmund Burke, who famously insisted in Reflections on the Revolution in France that the radicals' "new conquering empire of light and reason" would end in tyranny and barbarism unless supplemented by "a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies."

Burke's prescient warning was ignored by fellow Whigs like Charles James Fox and Americans like Thomas Jefferson, who expected a new world of "liberty, equality, fraternity" but instead got the Reign of Terror and Napoleon.

For Trilling, the most striking instance of the failure of the liberal imagination was its refusal to imagine that any movement whose professed goal was the end of all injustice and inequality could possibly be guilty of serious moral crimes rather than mere errors or mistakes. Communists, whatever their excesses, at least had noble ideals, unlike Nazis, fascists, or for that matter, supporters of the British Empire or American capitalism.

Today, communism seems to have lost most of its power to fire the imagination, but one does not have to look hard to find movements whose moral absolutism leaves their adherents no room for the kind of "moral realism" Trilling found in James's novels. Meanwhile, a significant current in contemporary liberalism, as in Trilling's day, finds it difficult to imagine that any opponent of the United States could possibly be guilty of more than excusable errors, since it is American military and economic power that is the source of all real evil in the world.

It is not unreasonable to assume that some approximation of that last sentiment is endorsed by many (though by no means all) readers, contributors, and editors at the New York Review of Books, so the New York Review deserves special commendation for making The Liberal Imagination available in a new edition.

Yet this new edition has a complicating factor: A reader must choose whether to read the essays in the spirit encouraged by Trilling's own preface, or as instructed by Louis Menand's new introduction. Trilling hoped that his criticism would succeed "not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time."

Louis Menand assures his readers that no such reexamination is necessary. According to Menand, Trilling believed in the obsolete notion that "there are more less politically hygienic works of literature, and the function of criticism is to identify them and to explain why they tend to have good or bad political consequences." This idea is outdated because (again according to Menand) "since the 1960s . . . cultural taste has largely been liberated from politics" so that nowadays "educated people tend to be culturally promiscuous and permissive." Trilling's ideas about the "moral imagination" and "moral realism," unmentioned in Menand's introduction, have become retrograde and may be safely ignored.

What one should take away--the "more difficult lesson of the way Trilling treats literature in The Liberal Imagination"--is the awareness "that there is no stable point outside a culture from which to critique it." Although Menand calls this the "more difficult lesson," it turns out that it is not so difficult after all. It is "something that is easy to see once you look at culture in the way anthropologists do." So it is this "anthropological perspective" that is the real insight to be gleaned from Trilling's work. It is "the most valuable piece of his intellectual legacy" despite, or rather because, it makes one skeptical of "the critical program for which he became celebrated."

Menand claims to be praising Trilling, but if the truly valuable lesson to be learned from The Liberal Imagination is the "anthropological perspective," one wonders why one would go to a literary critic rather than to the anthropologists themselves. But why bother even with them? Menand's "more difficult lesson" is a mere corollary of the general proposition that "truth is relative," a notion that almost all students absorb even before they get to college, as Allan Bloom observed with some disapproval in 1987.

Lionel Trilling believed that the "moral imagination" as expressed in literature could, indeed, provide a basis for criticizing and questioning political and social movements, including those that seem so unambiguously righteous as to be beyond criticism. Louis Menand is confident that today "educated people tend to be culturally promiscuous and permissive," so that concepts like the "moral imagination," "moral realism," and even "literature" seem outdated.

If Louis Menand is right, The Liberal Imagination goes against the grain in the 21st century even more than when it was first published in 1949--and is even more necessary.

James Seaton is professor of English at Michigan State.