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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

I DO NOT KNOW how Trilling's radical friends reacted to this essay, but I do remember the effect it had on some radicals of my own, younger generation. For us, it was a revelation, the beginning of a disaffection not only with our anti-Stalinist radicalism but, ultimately, with liberalism itself. Trilling has been accused (the point is almost always made in criticism) of being, not himself a neoconservative, to be sure, but a progenitor of neoconservatism. There is much truth in this. Although he never said or wrote anything notable about the "practical sphere" of real politics (he was not a "public intellectual" in our present sense, commenting on whatever made the headlines), he did provide a mode of thought, a moral and cultural sensibility, that was inherently subversive of liberalism and thus an invitation to neoconservatism.

THE VOLUME OF ESSAYS he published ten years later, The Liberal Imagination, is often cited as evidence of Trilling's conservative (or neoconservative) disposition. Oddly enough, when I looked, some years ago, for "Elements That Are Wanted" in that volume, I could not find it, although the preface clearly alluded to it. (Nor was it included in The Partisan Reader, a collection of essays from Partisan Review published in 1946.) When I remarked upon this omission to Diana Trilling, she could not account for it, and the essay, under the title "T.S. Eliot's Politics," reached book form only in 1980 in Speaking of Literature and Society, the final volume of her edition of Trilling's Collected Works.

One much-quoted passage in the preface to The Liberal Imagination suggests Trilling deliberately dissociated himself from conservatism: "For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation." What is not generally quoted are the qualifications that followed, which almost belie the assertion. If there are no conservative ideas, there are nonetheless conservative "impulses," which are "certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know."

For that matter, liberalism itself is more a "tendency" than a set of ideas. Goethe had said there are no "liberal ideas," only "liberal sentiments." But sentiments, Trilling observed, naturally and imperceptibly become ideas, and those ideas find their way into the practical world. "Tout commence en mystique," he quoted Charles Péguy, "et finit en politique"--everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics. Thus liberalism is no more a party of ideas than conservatism; indeed, without the corrective of conservatism, liberal ideas become "stale, habitual, and inert." But the best corrective to liberalism is literature, because this is "the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty."

These words and variants upon them--"contingency," "complication," "ambiguity," "ambivalence"--appear as a refrain throughout all of Trilling's work; they are his unmistakable signature. In one writer after another--in Eliot, Wordsworth, Keats, Austen, Dickens, James, Hawthorne, Tolstoy, Joyce, Flaubert, Babel--Trilling found "elements that are wanted" in the liberal imagination: elements that testify to the essential humanity of man and defy political machination or social engineering.

The last book he saw into print before his death in 1975, Sincerity and Authenticity, seemed a departure in tone and substance from his earlier work, for in it, philosophers--Rousseau, Diderot, Hegel, Nietzsche, Burke, Sartre, Marx, Freud--played a starring role, mingling with his usual cast of literary figures. This juxtaposition of philosophy and literature is exhilarating and sometimes startling. Trilling sums up his discussion of Rousseau, for example, with the line: "Oratory and the novel: which is to say, Robespierre and Jane Austen."

He justified that odd coupling: "This, I fancy, is the first time the two personages have ever been brought together in a single sentence, separated from each other by nothing more than the conjunction that links them." But they were not, he insisted, "factitiously conjoined: They are consanguineous, each is in lineal descent from Rousseau, cousins-german through their commitment to the 'honest soul' and its appropriate sincerity." ("Honest soul" refers back to yet another figure in this linkage, Hegel.)

The final chapter of Sincerity and Authenticity returned to the subject that had long occupied its author, personally as well as intellectually. Trilling, his wife, and his son had been in psychoanalysis for many years, and he had given much thought to it, as theory and as therapy. Now, in the context of authenticity, Freudianism presented a special challenge. Where most psychoanalysts regarded the therapeutic practice as an effort to identify and overcome the inauthentic nature of man, to make conscious what was unconscious, Trilling insisted the unconscious had its own authenticity--the "Authentic Unconscious," as the title of his chapter put it. And where others were troubled by Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents because it seemed to take a bleak view of human beings and their potentialities, Trilling saw it as evidence, once again, of "the essential immitigability of the human condition, . . . its hardness, intractability, and irrationality."

THE INITIAL--and enduring--inspiration for much of Trilling's work was perhaps Freud, even more than Eliot, Arnold, or his other literary heroes. In the first of his essays on Freud, published shortly before "Elements That Are Wanted," Trilling described the peculiar synthesis of romantic anti-rationalism and positivistic rationalism that gave Freudianism the distinctive characteristics of "classic tragic realism." Another piece, written two years later, dealt with Karen Horney's revisionist mode of psychoanalysis. Horney, Trilling explained, was popular in liberal circles because she posited "a progressive psyche, a kind of New Deal agency which truly intends to do good but cannot always cope with certain reactionary forces." Freud's view of the psyche was less "flattering," Trilling admitted, but more in accord with "the savage difficulties of life."

An even more provocative version of this theme, "Freud: Within and Beyond Culture," was delivered as a lecture in 1955 and reprinted ten years later in Beyond Culture. Here Trilling posed the issue as biology versus culture: biology representing the "given," the immutability of man's nature; culture, the forces of society ("civilization," as Freud put it) that strove to alter and overcome biology. Again Trilling challenged the dominant liberal, progressive orthodoxy--and his audience for that lecture was the New York Psychoanalytic Society, which epitomized such orthodoxy. Unlike most of his listeners, who regarded any idea of a "given" as "reactionary," Trilling insisted that the givenness of our biological condition was, in fact, "liberating"--liberating man from a culture that would otherwise be absolute and omnipotent. "Somewhere in the child, somewhere in the adult, there is a hard, irreducible, stubborn core of biological urgency, and biological necessity, and biological reason that culture cannot reach and that reserves the right, which sooner or later it will exercise, to judge the culture and resist and revise it."

TRILLING WAS RESPONDING to the problem George Orwell had posed so dramatically in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Reviewing that book when it appeared in 1949, Trilling made clear that Orwell was not, as liberals liked to think, merely attacking Soviet communism. "He is saying, indeed, something no less comprehensive than this: that Russia, with its idealistic social revolution now developed into a police state, is but the image of the impending future and that the ultimate threat to human freedom may well come from a similar and even more massive development of the social idealism of our democratic culture." A few years later, reviewing another book by Orwell, Trilling repeated this theme: "Social idealism" is not the only thing that can be perverted into tyranny; so can any idea "unconditioned" by reality. "The essential point of Nineteen Eighty-Four is just this, the danger of the ultimate and absolute power which the mind can develop when it frees itself from conditions, from the bondage of things and history."

Trilling could not have anticipated the ultimate perversion of this tendency half-a-century later: the mutation of social engineering into genetic engineering. Today the imperious "mind" is even more bent upon that "ultimate and absolute power," as it attempts to free itself from the bondage of all conditions, things, and history--indeed from the bondage of biology itself. One can imagine a volume of essays by Trilling entitled Beyond Biology.

IN "ELEMENTS THAT ARE WANTING," Trilling quoted Eliot as writing from "the point of view of the moralist." He might well have made that statement of himself, understanding "moralist" in the largest sense of that term. He did not reflect much upon the kinds of moral questions, or "moral values," that occupy us today: marriage, family, sex, abortion. What interested him was the relation of morality to reality--the abiding sense of morality that defines humanity, and at the same time the imperatives of a reality that necessarily, and properly, circumscribes morality. He called this "moral realism." Even before the appearance of Orwell's novel, Trilling wrote about "the dangers of the moral life itself," of a "moral righteousness" that preens itself upon being "progressive."

Some paradox of our natures leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion. It is to prevent this corruption, the most ironic and tragic that man knows, that we stand in need of the moral realism which is the product of the free play of the moral imagination.

"Moral realism" is Trilling's legacy for us today--for conservatives as well as liberals. Conservatives are well disposed to such realism, being naturally suspicious of a moral righteousness that has been often misconceived and misdirected. And their suspicions are confirmed by the disciplines upon which they have habitually drawn: philosophy, economics, political theory, and, most recently, the social sciences, which are so valuable in disputing much of the conventional (that is to say, liberal) wisdom about social problems and public policies.

The element that is still wanting, however, is the sense of variety, complexity, and difficulty--which comes, Trilling reminds us, primarily from the "experience of literature," and which at its best informs the political imagination as well as the moral imagination.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author of many volumes of intellectual history and analysis, including, most recently, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments.