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The Tigers of Wrath

Half a century ago, if you were a middle-class American curious about the life of the mind, Lionel Trilling stood at your service. When, in 1959, he co-founded the Mid-Century Book Society along with Jacques Barzun, W.H. Auden, and Sol Stein, this swarthy professor of English literature at Columbia University, author of The Liberal Imagination and longtime Partisan Review powerhouse, became cicerone to the country’s culturally ambitious middle class. The poster mounted by leaders of the 1968 Columbia student protests with a huge photograph of Trilling printed above the words “WANTED DEAD OR ALVE. FOR CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY” only confirmed his position as establishment figurehead of the American intellect.

If you’d like a good sense of how much that intellect has changed since Trilling’s day, just consider what today’s intellectually curious middle-class American is likely to turn to. As popular a choice as anything, and certainly far more than any book club, are “TED talks” – the massively popular series of celebrity lectures presented to the Silicon Valley elite at invitation-only $6,000-a-seat Monterey galas and then rebroadcast on the Internet, capped at eighteen minutes and intended to promote “ideas worth spreading.”

Trilling died in 1975. TED talks were founded (with an initial focus on Technology, Entertainment, and Design) in 1984. The decade safely separating the two saves us from having to contemplate the chimerical possibility of a TED talk by Trilling. Other great minds of the past might have fit right in alongside TED heavyweights Al Gore, Malcolm Gladwell, and Bono: in eighteen enlightening minutes Plato could have explained his allegory of the cave. Descartes, Diderot and Darwin would also have given mean TED talks. But it may be impossible to imagine a thinker less suited to the form than Trilling.

According to the conference’s website, each TED talk should impart the sense of a “shared discovery of an exciting secret.” It is easy to understand why this quality has made the talks so popular: like whispered secrets, they are quick, have an air of slightly dangerous urgency about them, and leave their listeners feeling satisfyingly in the know. Their substance is academic and their style is motivational speech. A quick glance at TED’s homepage reveals talks on “Everyday leadership,” how to “Crowdsource your health,” “The moral dangers of non-lethal weapons” and, appropriately enough, “The secret structure of great talks.” The common message broadcast by all TED talks is that the truth is out there, and waiting to be seized. In eighteen minutes, anthropologist Helen Fisher will explain exactly “Why we love + cheat.”

Far from ever having claimed to have discovered the truth, the most Trilling could boast is to have worried very hard about it.

If we remember any one thing he wrote, it is his definition of the critic’s task, outlined in the 1949 preface to The Liberal Imagination: “The job of criticism would seem to be, then, to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty.” This shadowy epistemology bore the obvious mark of World War II, a calamity of ideologies overconfident in themselves. But Trilling retained it through the rest of his life. In 1972, three years before he died, the National Council of the Humanities invited Trilling to inaugurate its series of annual Jefferson Lectures. The talk he gave, “Mind in the Modern World,” is something of an anti-TED talk. “Mind does not move toward its ideal purposes over a royal straight road,” he says near the end of this twenty-three page lecture, “but finds its way through the thicket of its own confusions and contradictions.” For Trilling, complexity and difficulty were not intellectual obstacles, but intellectual virtues.

Which makes Adam Kirsch’s new book Why Trilling Matters a somewhat ironic work. According to Yale University Press, each volume in its “Why X Matters” series “will present a concise argument for the continuing relevance of an important person or idea,” placing these books squarely within the contemporary cult of concision along with the “A Very Short Introduction” series, Twitter, and TED talks. It is hard to decide whether the medium is simply inappropriate, or whether a concise argument for the relevance of a critic obsessed by complexity and difficulty is exactly the kind of paradox Trilling would have delighted in.

The question hardly matters, though, because the book turns out not to be concise at all. Belying its series’ stated purpose, it rambles through loosely connected chapters on Trilling’s uneasy relationships with such things as Judaism, Modernism, and Allen Ginsberg, each really an essay unto itself. An especially polemic chapter attempts, with a little too much conviction, to unseat the common notion that Trilling was haunted by his failure to become a successful novelist. Current admirers of Trilling will find these chapters interesting, but it is hard to imagine the same interest from anyone who still needs convincing that he matters. The only chapters really dedicated to these uninitiated are the first and last, and they are also the book’s best. Adopting a Freudian vocabulary Trilling would have appreciated, Kirsch opens the book with the idea that, in American literary culture today, “Trilling is being assigned the role of literature’s superego. As a student of Freud, Trilling himself would have known what must follow: for if the superego is the savage enforcer of unattainable cultural ideals, then the ego’s health and happiness require that the superego be humbled.” The conceit is useful for explaining both the recent rise of interest in Trilling, and the snide takedowns that have accompanied this surge. “Trilling is, apparently, still close enough, still authoritative enough, to need to be reckoned with, which sometimes means rejected and mocked.”

Kirsch’s strategy for rescuing Trilling from the critical scrum is to whisk him out of the sphere of criticism altogether: his basic argument is that Trilling matters most if we stop thinking of him as a critic, and start thinking of him just as a writer:

He does not bring news of important new writers or teach us how to read difficult new works, the way Edmund Wilson does. Nor does he offer a polemical revaluation of literary history, the way F. R. Leavis does. Nor, finally, does he try to push contemporary literature in the direction of its own ambitions, the way poetcritics like T. S. Eliot and Allen Tate were doing so influentially in his lifetime.

If Trilling’s essays are not exactly literary criticism, it is because they are something more primary and more autonomous: they belong to literature itself. Like poems, they dramatize the writer’s inner experience; like novels, they offer a subjective account of the writer’s social and psychological environment. And like all literary works, Trilling’s essays are ends in themselves — they are autotelic, to use a word that Eliot coined to describe what criticism could never be. This helps to explain why there has never been a Trilling school of criticism. He does not offer the reader findings or formulas, which might be assembled into a theory; he offers what literature alone offers, an experience.

Specifically, for Kirsch, Trilling offers the experience of self-definition through art – an experience valuable in a time when “culture does not greatly affect us, for good or bad. As with any other commodity in our consumer society, we can take it or leave it according to taste.” Trilling is worth reading for his contrary “demonstration of what it means to create one’s self through and against the books one reads. At a time when the possibility of reading in this existentially engaged way seems to be in doubt … no critic could be more inspiring, or more necessary.”

The problem with Kirsch’s resuscitation technique is that it leaves Trilling with only one working lung. Reading Trilling, like reading any good stylist, is certainly an “experience,” but if “experience” alone is all we were after, there are novelists we could read instead. As a man who made his life in criticism, Trilling must stand or fall on the interest of his opinions, a fact especially true since one of the most important of these was that even in works of “primary” literature, the opinion expressed is what matters most. As he writes in “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,”

Since my own interests lead me to see literary situations as cultural situations, and cultural situations as great elaborate fights about moral issues, and moral issues as having something to do with gratuitously chosen images of personal being, and images of personal being as having something to do with literary style, I felt free to begin with what for me was a first concern, the animus of the author, the objects of his will, the things he wants or wants to have happen.

Late in his book, Kirsch tells the story of how this attitude of Trilling’s was attacked by Susan Sontag, who denigrated the “reportage and moral judgment” concept of literature in favor of her own “erotics of art,” according to which the object of the aesthetic is not to mean, but to be — to offer an entirely original experience. The fact that Kirsch’s argument for why Trilling matters depends upon an almost Sontagian appreciation of the “inspiring” “experience” of reading him makes this book doubly ironic. To ignore Trilling’s “moral judgment” and to appreciate him instead because he provides the “experience” of midcentury America’s vital literary culture is simultaneously to admit his obsolescence. It’s obvious to everyone that our world is a very different one from Trilling’s. In his inattention to Trilling’s actual arguments, Kirsch overlooks a far more unsettling point: this is the world Trilling wanted.

Though his specific opponents changed over the course of his life, from the pious fellow-travelers of the thirties to the reprobate revolutionaries of the sixties, the real target of Trilling’s criticism remained remarkably consistent: reckless confidence in the freedom of the human mind. “Our modern piety is preoccupied by the ideal of the autonomous self,” he wrote, and “Nothing is better established in our literary life than the knowledge that the tigers of wrath are to be preferred to the horses of instruction, a striking remark which is indeed sometimes very true, although not always.”

The bulk of his writing was devoted to pointing out when it was not so. The literary quality he admired most, or at least admitted to admiring, was not fevered inspiration but a loving devotion to the world as it is. He admired William Dean Howells for precisely the reason most readers find him tedious: because “although he did include among the existential matters that the novelists might treat such grim, ultimate things as a lingering hopeless illness, it is but one item among such others as the family budget, nagging wives, daughters who want to marry fools, and the difficulties of deciding whom to invite to dinner.” He valued Wordsworth for his “quietude,” and Keats for his “geniality.” If today Trilling is literature’s superego, in his life he was something more like its designated driver, a sober voice chastising its inspired howls.

Though Kirsch is probably right that it would be impossible to formulate a “Trilling” school of criticism, Louis Menand probably came as close as possible when, in a 2008 New Yorker article, he described Trilling as “an apostle of acquiescence.” The doctrine was developed in reaction against the Faustian spirit of his ideological youth, when every boy at City College believed the human condition could be reshaped through sheer will. After the disillusionment of the Moscow Trials and World War II, he preached the intractable persistence of reality – the “stubborn core of actuality that is not to be overcome.” As Menand writes, “he seemed convinced that every social and personal pathology, from revolutionary violence to narcissism, comes from the refusal to accept that life is conditioned—by the capacities we inherit, by the circumstances we are born into, by the people whose desires conflict with ours, by death.” To his contemporaries drunk on Blake he recommended Hawthorne, who “leaves us face to face with the ultimately unmodifiable world, of which our undifferentiated human nature is a part… He admits, even insists, that the world is there, that we are dependent on it.”

Which is exactly what TED talks insist. When we listen to Patricia Kuhl on “The linguistic genius of babies” or Oliver Sacks on “What hallucination reveals about our minds,” what we are really hearing is that the mind’s highest calling is not to define itself but to discover itself, and all the physical circumstances that do the work of definition for it. The conference’s very slogan, “Ideas worth spreading,” is evidence of how far we have come since Trilling’s day, when it would have been something like “Ideas worth arguing.” The notion of argument has no place in TED talks, which are all presented in a similarly benevolent tone of proudly geeky enthusiasm. All bridling to share their secrets, TED speakers are united by their faith in one common, objective reality to be explored — the world that is there, and on which we depend.

It was a faith Trilling’s period denied him, but especially toward the end of his life, his desire for such a faith became the animating principle of his work. The best example of this is his Jefferson Lecture, which, while as different from a TED talk as it could be, seems, “through the thicket of its own confusions and contradictions,” to be slouching toward Monterey. On the question of science’s relationship to art, Trilling invokes Wordsworth, who

predicted that the day would come when the discoveries of scientists would be ‘as proper objects of the Poet’s art as are any which can be employed.’ There was, however, one condition which he said must prevail before this happy state of affairs could come about – that the substance of science should become familiar to those who are not scientists. No one will suppose today that this familiarity has been achieved. Physical science in our day lies beyond the intellectual grasp of most men. The newspapers inform us in a loose, general way of its great dramatic events. We have our opinions of its practical consequences, but its operative conceptions are alien to the mass of educated persons. They generate no cosmic speculations, they do not engage emotions or challenge imagination. Our poets are indifferent to them.

Probably nowhere does Trilling sound as obsolete. The TED talk is only one of our thousands of current ventures for making science familiar those who are not scientists, and nothing engages our emotions and imaginations now like the march of scientific knowledge. After the “end of history,” ideology is obsolete; our great enthusiasm now is not to imagine the world as it could be, but to understand the world as it is. In politics, the theorists are out, and the wonks are in. Barack Obama famously styles himself as the most objective of presidents, indifferent to political philosophy and devoted above all to “facts and to science.” Economically, our political parties differ not on what the fundamental principles of our economy should be, but only on what policies to adopt for its maximal stimulation. In business, this is the age of “Big Data,” and the MBA is at risk of eclipse by the PhD in Statistics. Not even our poets, anymore, are indifferent. The brightest light of our recent literature, David Foster Wallace, was less a composer of fictions than an amphetaminically-charged recording angel, documenting in staggering detail the technical, bureaucratic, linguistic and pathological circumstances that now condition us.

Today we acquiesce with positive joy to the fact that “life is conditioned,” with more fervor than Trilling could ever have hoped for. And in no circumstances do we delight more now than the biological: the central intellectual project of our time is, as one TED talk has it, to “Know thyself, with a brain scanner.” Somewhere, scientists are working to discover the gene that programs for the joy of discovering what region of the brain lights up when we discover a new gene. In this, too, we reflect Trilling, for whom biology suggested the hope of a haven beyond all vicissitudes of ideology. For him, the chief exponent of this hope was Sigmund Freud, and in a 1955 lecture before the New York Psychoanalytical Society he made his clearest augury of the world to come. His era scorned biology, Trilling reasons, because “if we think of a man as being conditioned not so much by biology as by culture, we can the more easily envisage a beneficent manipulation of his condition.” If culture was really a tool of ideology, then the best defense against it would be some “hard, irreducible, stubborn core of biological urgency, and biological necessity, and biological reason, that culture cannot reach”:

Freud may be right or he may be wrong in the place he gives to biology in human fate, but I think we must stop to consider whether this emphasis on biology, correct or incorrect, is not so far from being a reactionary idea that it is actually a liberating idea. It proposes to us that culture is not all-powerful. It suggests that there is a residue of human quality beyond the reach of cultural control, and that this residue of human quality, elemental as it may be, serves to bring culture itself under criticism and keeps it from being absolute. This consideration is, I believe, of great importance to us at this moment in our history.

If Kirsch is right to say that today “culture does not greatly affect us, for good or bad,” it needs also to be said that Trilling did as much as anyone to get us here.

As a cultural critic, Trilling’s very obsolescence is what proves that he still matters. For we cannot forget that, above all else, he was a dialectician; his “at this moment in our history” is not merely decorative, but critically significant. At the opposite end of the dialectic, at our moment of ideological atrophy, and of genetic and pharmaceutical research, we might propose a reversal of Trilling’s formulation: “If we think of a man as being conditioned not so much by culture as by biology, we can the more easily envisage a beneficent manipulation of his condition.” Empiricism, and especially biological empiricism, is the only ideology we have left.

If anyone aspired to be the Trilling of today, the profoundest thing to do would not be to write for little magazines, or curate book clubs, or cultivate an elevated genteel style in a quest to restore the prestige of literature. It would be to work to recall empiricism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility — which would mean, at this point in history, rediscovering the tigers of wrath, and reasserting the mind’s desire for freedom.

In light of this, Trilling’s best bid for present relevance may be his 1948 Partisan Review essay on the Kinsey Report, which includes a little parable on the scientific age prefigured by that trumpet-call of empiricism:

Indeed there is something repulsive in the idea of men being studied for their own good. The paradigm of what repels us is to be found in the common situation of the child who is understood by its parents, hemmed in, anticipated and lovingly circumscribed, thoroughly taped, finding it easier and easier to conform internally and in the future to the parents’ own interpretation of the external acts of the past, and so, yielding to understanding as never to coercion, does not develop the mystery and wildness of spirit which it is still our grace to believe is the mark of full humanness. The act of understanding becomes an act of control.

Nicholas Nardini is a building superintendent in Cambridge, MA, where he is also pursuing a PhD in English Literature at Harvard University.