Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination

The Liberal ImaginationLionel Trilling was one of the 20th century’s most influential critics, in a time when criticism was not relegated to academic purgatory but enjoyed widespread esteem. Before we bemoan the age of Internet and social media, cultish consumerism and the fetishization of youth – all, no doubt, bad things for reading and readers – we would do well to examine how criticism itself has changed in response to these cultural shifts, to determine what role it has perhaps played in its own demise. Reversing the popular trend that sees the critic apply a political philosophy to literature (at best, taking for granted the public’s appreciation for literature, and at worst dismissing this appreciation as unnecessary, even suspect), Trilling evaluated politics by the standards of literature, and found even his own liberalism hopelessly wanting. As he put it:

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. To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance, not merely because so much of modern literature has explicitly directed itself upon politics, but more importantly because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.

It is this variousness and complexity that Trilling wishes to inject into politics, which too often he regards as dangerous in its tendency towards simplicity and abstraction. His famous warning, issued during the Cold War, remains chillingly apt today: “Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.”

The Liberal Imagination, despite its political pretensions, is first and foremost a love letter to literature; you would seek in vain for more than a handful of contemporary critics with a similarly palpable appreciation for the written word and the potential inherent in it. The breadth of learning, the variety of writers and works referenced, leaves the reader awestruck. Twain, Kipling, Freud, Wordsworth, Henry James, Tacitus, Fitzgerald – all receive full treatment, but it is the connections Trilling can make, the complex relations he can uncover, that set him above the merely literate and place him in a rare group of readers.

Having just finished Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict Of Visions, I could not help but recognize in Trilling the so-called “constrained vision” that acknowledges the existence of an innate human nature and, following from this, conceives only of trade-offs rather than solutions. Here, for example, is Trilling perfectly encapsulating the constrained philosophy: “…civilization has a price, and a high one. Civilizations differ from one another as much in what they give up as in what they acquire; but all civilizations are alike in that they renounce something for something else. We do right to protest this in any given case that comes under our notice and we do right to get as much as possible for as little as possible; but we can never get everything for nothing.” Trilling is prompted to this remark by an aside about the aristocratic nature of art, as recognized by Henry James, whom he quotes, from his autobiography: “The glory [of being in the presence of great art] meant ever so many things at once, not beauty and art and supreme design, but history and fame and power, the world in fine raised to the richest and noblest expression.”

The idea that art is inherently aristocratic, that it not only suggests but embodies the highest glories of mankind, makes some people – particularly liberals – extremely uncomfortable. For as long as there has existed an egalitarian mentality, there has been a corresponding call for egalitarian art. And yet, Trilling argues, citing William Hazlitt, John Stuart Mill and William Butler Yeats, there is a fundamental incompatibility between the low state of the common man and the heights offered by great art. Here is Trilling expanding on this point in a discussion of Henry James’ character Hyacinth in The Princess Casamassima (it will not matter if, like me, you’re unfamiliar with the work; Trilling nonetheless manages to make it accessible):

When James came to compose Hyacinth’s momentous letter from Venice, the implications of the analogue of art with power had developed and become clearer and more objective. Hyacinth has had his experience of the glories of Europe, and when he writes to the Princess his view of human misery is matched by a view of the world “raised to the richest and noblest expression.” He understands no less clearly than before “the despotisms, the cruelties, the exclusions, the monopolies and rapacities of the past.” But now he recognizes that “the fabric of civilization as we know it” is inextricably bound up with this injustice; the monuments of art and learning and taste have been reared upon coercive power. Yet never before has he had the full vision of what the human spirit can accomplish to make the world “less impracticable and life more tolerable.” He finds that he is ready to fight for art – and what art suggests of glorious life – against the low and even hostile estimate which his revolutionary friends have made of it, and this involves of course some reconciliation with established  coercive power. [Italics my own]

The sentiment is not unique to James. The history of art is, in fact, inextricably bound up with the history of “coercive power,” from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome to the Medici. Flannery O’Connor offered a partial explanation – “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it” – but the simplest, to me, remains the ineluctable fact that reading and writing and philosophical contemplation are luxuries most of the world can ill afford.

Trilling makes a further argument that only such people who have seen and understood these heights, who have confronted the incompatibility of art and democracy, can even attempt to represent the poor and unfortunate with dignity and dimension. Trilling writes, “Few of our novelists are able to write about the poor so as to make them something more than the pitied objects of our facile sociological minds.” In the present age, I would extend “the poor” to include minorities and even women, who are often treated as casualties of an unjust social order rather than as independent agents capable of the full spectrum of human good and evil. From this perspective, when Trilling writes,

That James should create poor people so proud and intelligent as to make it impossible for anyone, even the reader who has paid for the privilege, to condescend to them, so proud and intelligent indeed that it is not wholly easy for them to be “good,” is, one ventures to guess, an unexpressed, a never-to-be-expressed reason for finding him “impotent in matters sociological.” We who are liberal and progressive know that the poor are our equals in every sense except that of being equal to us

he is not only paying James high praise but viciously mocking those of us (high-minded liberals) who allow our political opinions to overwhelm our artistic judgments, praising on the basis of philosophical agreement rather than artistic merit. I have attended enough college “poetry” readings to know firsthand how easily even the most facile poems damning racism, sexism or homophobia illicit roaring applause.

Of course, as is always the case, those who would most benefit by reading Trilling are least likely to discover him or risk being challenged in their comforting convictions, but that does not diminish Trilling’s importance one iota. He embodies the best and most necessary qualities of good criticism, and I find his example – a love of reading and a belief in the powers of literature, combined with a desire to proselytize for that power in the political sphere – immensely inspiring.