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?