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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Although the journal had broken with the Communist party three years earlier, Partisan Review was still committed to a radical politics and to an only-somewhat reformist Marxist philosophy (of the kind espoused by, say, Sidney Hook). But Partisan Review was also committed to a modernist literary vanguard--Eliot, Joyce, Yeats, Pound, Proust, and all the rest--who all too often had conservative, if not reactionary, views on political and social affairs. The editors were entirely candid about the disjunction between literature and politics; indeed, it was the Communists' insistence upon a party line in literature as in politics that contributed to the break from the party. And this disjunction made for a tension in the journal that was a constant challenge to the ideological pieties of its readers.

What Trilling was now proposing, however, went well beyond the reassertion of that disjunction between literature and politics. Where others found Eliot interesting in spite of his politics, Trilling found him interesting because of his politics: a politics not only conservative but religious, and not only religious but identifiably Christian. And this, to readers who were, as Trilling said in his usual understated manner, "probably hostile to religion" (and many of whom, he might have added, like himself, were Jewish). Where John Stuart Mill had cited Coleridge's On the Constitution of Church and State as a corrective to Benthamism, Lionel Trilling recommended Eliot's The Idea of a Christian Society as a corrective to Marxism. The Left had simplistically assumed that Eliot "escaped" from "The Waste Land" into the embrace of Anglo-Catholicism.

But even if this were true, it would not be "the worst that could be told of a man in our time." Surely, Trilling observed, Marxist intellectuals, who had witnessed the flourishing and the decay of Marxism, should appreciate the intellectual honorableness of Eliot's conversion. They need not follow Eliot's path to theology, but they could emulate him in questioning their own faith.

Marxism was not the only thing that Trilling (by way of Eliot) called into question. He challenged liberalism as well. Totalitarianism, Eliot had said, was inherently "pagan," for it recognized no authority or principle but that of the state. And liberalism, far from providing an alternative to paganism, actually contained within itself the seeds of paganism, in its materialism and relativism. Only Christianity, Eliot argued--the "Idea" of Christianity, not its pietistic or revivalist expressions--could resist totalitarianism, because only Christianity offered a view of man and society that promoted the ideal of "moral perfection" and "the good life." "I am inclined," Trilling quoted Eliot, "to approach public affairs from the point of view of the moralist."

Trilling hastened to qualify his endorsement of Eliot in "Elements That Are Wanted"; he did not believe morality was absolute or a "religious politics" desirable. But Eliot's vision of morality and politics was superior to the vision of liberals and radicals, who had contempt for the past and worshiped the future. Liberals, in the name of progress, put off the realization of the good life to some indefinite future; radicals put off the good life in the expectation of a revolution that would usher in not only a new society but also a new man, a man who would be "wholly changed by socialism."

Marxism was especially dangerous, Trilling found, because it combined "a kind of disgust with humanity as it is and a perfect faith in humanity as it is to be." Eliot's philosophy, on the other hand, whatever its defects and dangers, had the virtue of teaching men to value "the humanity of the present equally with that of the future," thus serving as a restraint upon the tragic ambition to transcend reality. It was in this sense, Trilling concluded, that Eliot bore out the wisdom of Arnold's dictum. Eliot's religious politics, while maleficent in the practical sphere, contained elements wanting in liberalism--"elements which a rational and naturalistic philosophy, to be adequate, must encompass."