Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lionel Trilling: Liberal Hero or Proto Neocon?

Michael Knox Beran has a great article on Lionel Trilling:
Lionel Trilling’s 1950 book The Liberal Imagination was not a celebration of liberalism. It was an indictment of liberalism’s dependence on what we might call the social imagination—a method of studying people’s social attributes in order to understand and even to save them. Trilling believed that the human mind is too complex to prosper when it is subjected to the organizing impulses of social technocracy, and he questioned the faith in beneficent regimentation that descends from the nineteenth-century social philosophers—the belief, expressed in the 1940s by a writer in the journal Science, that “if by employing the methods of science, men can come to understand and control the atom, there is a reasonable likelihood that they can in the same way learn and control human group behaviour.”

Trilling delves deeply into that vale of tears that the French Revolution imposed on French literature with its new idea of mankind and the stringencies that one's background and "class" imposed on one's outlook and prospects for success. I am now in a course of reading as much of Balzac and Flaubert as possible, with stops in Stendhal's The Red and the Black and the great panorama of nineteenth century Paris which continues to enchant us to this day.
But Trilling has more relevance today than ever, as his misgivings about the social imagination and the social engineering that inevitably ensues are coming front and center to the American stage.
For Trilling no less than for Balzac, society fostered a perception that both reveals and distorts the character of human beings. By showing how they are “packed in strata, layer above layer, in the framework of society,” the social imagination discloses the complexity of the worlds we inhabit. But by reducing people to type—by making them creatures of the particular strata to which they belong or of the particular roles they play—the social imagination makes it easier for us to lose sight of their idiosyncratic humanity. When you affix a social or social-scientific label to a person (“bourgeois,” “anal-retentive,” “extrovert”) or classify him according to his provenance (“working-class,” “Ivy League,” “inner-city,” “WASP”), you often have the illusion that you have plucked out the heart of his mystery. It is a dangerous conceit. As soon as you have reduced a person to a type, you have begun to forget that he is human. In The Middle of the Journey, Trilling makes Gifford Maxim, a character modeled on his Columbia schoolmate Whittaker Chambers, disparage the myopia of those who have cultivated the social vision too intensely: “Social causes, environment, education—do you think they really make a difference between one human soul and another?”

Chambers great tale of defection from the youthful idealism of Stalinism in Witness should be required reading today, of a soul in distress when he realizes that the objectification of social categories carries the crushing ballast of reductionism, that reduces people to their common denominator. Only not the denominator of children of God, but of useful idiots and fellow travellers on the Journey to the End of the Night.

The social imagination in the mid-twentieth century was perhaps best pilloried by Celine in his down-to-earth ragings reminiscent of a Balzac on methamphetimines. Celine and Chambers are two bookends of the progressive insanity reduced to proglodyte ravings. Still, what has Trilling have to say to us in the 21st century? Here is Knox Beran's summary:
In portraying the novel as the arbiter of the moral world, Trilling was carrying on the work of the Victorians—Matthew Arnold, Leslie Stephen, and George Eliot, among others—who sought a secular substitute for spiritual traditions that seemed to them to have lost not only their intrinsic plausibility but also much of their moral sanction. Yet in an age of electronic pleasures and literary degeneracy, Trilling’s faith in the moral efficacy of books may be simply too remote from the way we live now to be an adequate foundation for moral culture.

The weakness of Trilling’s remedy has its origin in his own experience. In his essay on The Princess Casamassima, Trilling observed that the young man from the provinces must reject his native tradition and find a new and more urbane one. In his own journey to the metropolis, Trilling found a substitute for forsaken provinciality in the tradition of the Victorian and Edwardian moralists. He was the foster child of Arnold, James, and Forster, to whom he was closer, in style and spirit, than he was to the liberals of his own generation. He was the heir, too, of Freud, in whom he found a rejection of human perfectibility, a belief in “the ineluctability of the pain and frustration of human existence” that confirmed his own doubts about the effectiveness of social reform. Freud’s skepticism about the possibility of devising radically better social forms is, Trilling said, “profound—is, we cannot but know, entire.” Freud, for Trilling, is a prophet who insists “upon the essential unmitigability of the human condition as determined by the nature of the mind,” and his “imagination of the human condition preserves something—much—of the stratum of hardness that runs through the Jewish and Christian traditions as they respond to the hardness of human destiny.”

I find Jung much more open to human perfectiblilty than the deeply pessimistic Freud----Jung's Psychological Types and expermiments with the small group and other group therapies are beyond the rigidities and constrictions of the "liberal" social imagination's strait-jacket mindset of class and inevitable clashes. Knox Beran's final thoughts:
Yet however great the moral light an intellectual communion with authors like Forster and Freud may give, it will probably always be, in some measure, artificial if it is not supported by a living tradition, one in which art cooperates with ritual and routine to refine moral sensibility. Morals are intimately related to mores, to manners and customs, to the habits of decency inculcated by the living traditions of particular communities. Trilling perceived the weakening of the moral sense that has taken place with the growth of the social imagination, that disintegrator of tradition; he was wrong only in supposing that books could be a sufficient hedge against its dominion.

Louis Menand has a short piece on Trilling in the New Yorker.

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