The Liberal Imagination. Lionel Trilling.

Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination. New York Review, 1950. NF; 7/18.

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.
Lionel Trilling, Partisan Review

Trilling, one of the most important literary critics in the US in his time, was 45 in 1950 when he published these essays. Studying English lit about fifteen years later I felt Trilling’s influence along with that of Northrop Frye in the imagination- and creativity-focused attitudes of my 1960s teachers. Then another decade along I discovered that the moral focus of academic humanities had changed radically, that liberal exploration of aesthetics was replaced by a politically active (and politically correct) left and an equally dismissive hard right. In reading Trilling for the first time and Frye for the second I guess I’m trying to understand what happened in the 1970s to so change the arts side of academia, which it seems to me reflected a similar widening disagreement in Western culture. How did taking art seriously get lost in a political agenda?

It’s not easy to imagine yourself back even into past years you actually lived through, but try to picture the culture of Trilling’s mid-20th century marinating in the Cold War, psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud, relative regulation of sex, a focus on social class and status as if it were something new and worrisome, and a literary canon composed pretty much of the work of white males. Trilling was a trenchant but troubled observer who underwent psychoanalysis, and who is admired by essayist Louis Menand in his recent-edition introduction for being critical of his own thought and views. A 1950s version of an open mind.

I found Trilling’s diction hard to follow at times, many sentences containing for me ambiguous references that forced me to analyze them word-by-word just to figure out what he was saying. Two of the essays (Reality in America and Art and Fortune) were difficult enough in that way that I think I missed their sense completely. He says at one point of Goethe that the German’s absurdity is forgivable “only in the light of our present opinion of his assured genius”. So be it I suppose for Dr. Trilling’s sentences…

Never mind, there is a lot to think about between the covers of this collection of essays. I’ve pulled out a few of the things that caught my attention:

Although Trilling never defines liberal or liberalism, he talks a lot about liberal democracy and doesn’t have a lot of time for political conservatism which he says generates “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Not a bad description of Donald Trump’s tweets.

Trilling spends a chapter and more on Henry James. “(James) together with the imagination of disaster… had what the imagination of disaster often destroys and in our time is daily destroying, the imagination of love.”

There is a chapter on the recently-published (in 1950) Kinsey Report on sexuality. Trilling isn’t impressed with the claims this report, and its kind of nonfiction, make of being scientific. He points out how scientific ideas seem to drift in and out of vogue, and he stakes out harm that he feels adopting science as a ruling zeitgeist can cause. A child, he says, raised according to rules set down by science “does not develop the mystery and wildness of spirit which it is still our grace to believe is the mark of full humanness.” The Kinsey authors, “who are enthusiastically committed to their method and their principles, make the mistake of believing that, being scientists, they do not deal in assumptions, preferences, and conclusions.” I liked it when he criticized the Kinsey tendency to make the physiologic event of sex the source of the emotional one, instead of the other way around. Well-expressed scepticism of science from 70 years ago before it became generally understood that the most important sex organ is the mind.

Trilling was a great fan of F Scott Fitzgerald. “Like Milton’s Sampson (Fitzgerald) had the consciousness of having misused the power with which he had been endowed… when it came to blame, it seems, he preferred to blame himself.“ Arguing that Fitzgerald should be in the company of the greatest novelists up to the time of his essay, Trilling discusses Fitzgerald’s handling of the American dream. Gatsby, seen as a son of God by the narrator Nick Carraway, must be about his father’s business: “the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty”. There’s a self-negating irony in this that complicates the definition of beauty. Fitzgerald, who Trilling celebrates as a gentle and tender character and author, suggested that the “test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposite ideas in the mind at this same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Vulgar and meretricious, but vast and beautiful.

There is in one of the essays a long discussion of whether the novel is finished as an art form which may have lost its ability to surprise us. No conclusion is reached, but retrospectively it looks pretty clear that there was no such problem.

Trilling discusses the relationship between creative literature and ideas. An idea arises when we put two emotions “into juxtaposition” he says, one of his comments that I found hard to get my head around. But I had no trouble understanding the idea that to call ourselves “people of the idea” is to flatter ourselves. “We are rather people of ideology, which is a very different thing”, having to do with emotional safety and things the meaning of which we don’t really understand. This looks right to me. I sense here the meaning of the quote I started this review with. In my understanding of this, Trilling is saying what I have been worrying about for a long time: when we remove “imagination and mind” from politics, we end up politicizing imagination and mind, and so – as it has now for several decades – open academic exploration of great works of the imagination stalls. Ideology’s emotional safety replaces exploring and trying to understand exactly what happens when we are moved by something wonderful that someone made.

We have replaced the critical question Does this created thing make an emotional difference that changes me? (with all the subjective risk that implies) with Does it safely fit with my preferred left, or right, ideology?  Sometimes, as Fitzgerald suggested a first-rate intelligence could cope with, Trilling tells us that when “society offers an opposition… that a man who so wholly perceives (both sides) as to embody them in his very being cannot choose between them (he) is therefore destroyed. This is known as tragedy.” That’s the risk we take when we confront art, and life, knowing that opposing armed ideologies are watching us, and we have the courage not to filter our experiences to remove anything really new that potentially threatens painful growth. What happened to our first-rate intelligence that is capable of holding two opposite ideas in the mind at this same time, still retaining the ability to function?

It’s an aesthetic vision of creativity we see rolling out in these essays written about the time I was born. “In the novel no less than in the poem, the voice of the author is the decisive factor.” “The mind as Freud sees it, is … exactly a poetry-making organ.” That philosophy informed us well before we got tied up by a kind of politics Trilling predicted, accurately I’d say, we weren’t going to like.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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