The Magazine

The Trilling Imagination

From the February 14 / February 21, 2005 issue: On the centenary of Lionel Trilling.

Feb 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 21 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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A RECENT CASUAL, DISMISSIVE reference to Lionel Trilling recalled to me the man who was the most eminent intellectual figure of his time--certainly in New York intellectual circles, but also beyond that, in the country as a whole.

So, at any rate, he appeared to me many years ago. And so he appeared to his contemporaries, who thought it entirely fitting he should have received (a few years before his death) the first of the Thomas Jefferson Awards bestowed by the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is typical of the man that the lecture he delivered on the occasion, "Mind in the Modern World," was exhortatory rather than celebratory, cautioning us about tendencies in our culture that diminished the force and legitimacy of the mind, tendencies that were to become obvious to others only many years later. Here in 2005--on the centenary of his birth in 1905--it is interesting to reflect upon the quality of Lionel Trilling's mind, a quality rare in his time and rarer, I suspect, in ours.

I was a budding Trotskyite in college when I came across Trilling's 1940 essay on T.S. Eliot in Partisan Review. I had read only a few of Eliot's poems; "Prufrock" was a particular favorite among my friends at the time, much quoted and affectionately parodied. (In a Yiddish parody Saul Bellow liked to recite, In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo became Talking of Marx and Lenin. I forget how it rhymed.) But I had never read Eliot's essays or the journal he edited, the Criterion, which had ceased publication before the outbreak of World War II. I was, however, a faithful reader of Partisan Review, which was, in effect, the intellectual and cultural organ of Trotskyites (or crypto-Trotskyites, or ex-Trotskyites, or more broadly, the anti-Stalinist Left). Many years later I remembered little about Trilling's essay except its memorable title, "Elements That Are Wanted," and the enormous excitement it generated in me and my friends. Rereading it recently, I experienced once again that sense of excitement.

Trilling opened by quoting an essay by John Stuart Mill on Coleridge, written a century earlier. That essay had angered Mill's radical friends, Trilling said, because it told them they could learn more from a "religious and conservative philosopher" like Coleridge, who saw "further into the complexities of the human feelings and intellect," than from the "short and easy" political discourses of their own mentor, Jeremy Bentham.

IN THIS SPIRIT, Trilling introduced his own radical friends, the readers of Partisan Review, to T.S. Eliot, another "religious and conservative" thinker. Trilling did not, he hastened to say, mean to recommend Eliot's "religious politics" to their "allegiance"--only to their "attention." He reminded them of their own precarious situation a year after the outbreak of war in Europe: "Here we are, a very small group and quite obscure; our possibility of action is suspended by events; perhaps we have never been more than vocal and perhaps soon we can hope to be no more than thoughtful; our relations with the future are dark and dubious." Of only one thing about the future could we be certain: our "pledge to the critical intellect."

That pledge recalled to Trilling not only Mill's invocation of Coleridge but also Eliot's "long if recalcitrant discipleship" to Matthew Arnold. (Trilling did not have to remind his readers of his own, less-recalcitrant discipleship to Arnold; his book on Arnold, a revision of his doctoral dissertation, had been published the previous year.) Trilling quoted Arnold on the function of criticism: "It must be apt to study and praise elements that for the fullness of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong to a power which in the practical sphere may be maleficent."

THE AUDACITY of this essay on T.S. Eliot is hard to recapture now. Trilling suggested that there were, in the philosophy of his own circle, elements that were wanted. More, that these elements were wanted "for the fullness of spiritual perfection." And, finally, most provocatively, that these elements were found in a thinker whose ideas could well be maleficent in the practical sphere. Yet it was precisely in the practical sphere--not as a poet but as a political thinker--that Trilling commended Eliot to readers of Partisan Review.