Why Trilling Matters

How Lionel Trilling made himself through literature.

Why Trilling Matters
Adam Kirsch
Yale University Press, 192pp, £20

Do you turn to literary criticism to find out who you are or might be? To many readers now, this question may seem wilful, perhaps perverse; to others, it probably risks seeming blankly irrelevant. "Literary criticism" has come to be thought of widely either as an elaborately sterile academic practice or else as a presumptuous (and possibly precious) attempt by a few self-appointed arbiters of taste to tell other people what they ought to like.

Naturally, this is not the whole story, even now. Reflective readers still find, in the essays and introductions and reviews written by the best contemporary critics, helpful prompts to reading more alertly and understanding one's responses more fully. Yet it is doubtful whether any literary critic commands the level of general cultural authority that Lionel Trilling exercised in the US in the three decades between the end of the Second World War and his death in 1975. That his best-known book, The Liberal Imagination, published in 1950, sold 70,000 copies in hardback (and subsequently 100,000-plus in paperback) may already suggest a lost world, especially when we remember that it belonged to a genre that most mainstream publishers and booksellers now regard as virtually unsaleable - a miscellaneous collection of essays in literary criticism.

In his day job, Trilling was a professor of English at Columbia, but his earliest ambition (like many English professors) had been to become, simply, "a writer", and his constant practice (unlike many English professors) was to write in periodicals aimed at the public beyond the walls. As a result, his writing is learned without seeming self-importantly academic, and there is a conversable, ruminative quality to his essays that draws readers in and makes them collaborators in the particular inquiry at hand.

This engagement of and with the reader gives Trilling's best essays a charm and a persuasiveness that time has not made stale. One of the central insights of Adam Kirsch's thoughtful and unusual little book is that Trilling was more concerned than most critics have been with what certain sorts of literature do for their readers. His best critical energies were called out not by dwelling on the ambiguities of small details in the verbal texture of a poem, nor by highlighting the techniques through which novelists discharged their narratorial duties, but rather by "treating literature as the medium of experience".

Reading, as Trilling understands that activity when it is true to its highest purposes, is bound to be strenuous: it is in the meeting and overcoming of various kinds of resistance - the resistance generated by not immediately graspable form as much as by difficult, uncongenial, or plain unfamiliar ideas - that readers encounter and go beyond the boundaries of their present mind and sensibility and start to shape themselves anew. This may not involve deciding, in any straightforward sense, questions of right and wrong, but it can be a kind of ethical self-education. Or as Kirsch puts it, more emphatically: "Moral thinking, for Trilling, is finally thinking about the kind of character one wants to have."

This may sound a bit daunting, even ponderous, yet the experience, in our turn, of reading a Trilling essay is more like a late-night conversation with an older friend than it is like either a lecture or a sermon. We can still be left feeling inadequate in the face of such sustained gravity - that he was fond of the maxim about "the moral obligation to be intelligent" reminds us not to lapse into any postprandial slackness - but this is offset by surprising moments of self-revelation or self-identification in his criticism, such as his not wholly predictable admiration for Keats, less on account of his poetry than for the ethical example of a life and a character that managed to be so open to experience yet not scattered by it.

And surely we warm to someone who, impeccably liberal and resolutely intellectual, could write:

When the liberal intellectual thinks
of himself, he thinks chiefly of his
own good will and prefers not to know
that the good will generates its own problems, that the love of humanity
has its vices and the love of truth its own insensibilities.

Clearly this is the voice of a writer who, while learning from Nietzsche and Freud as well as from Mann and Proust, has managed to keep his balance. Trilling's own vulnerability to the frightening, disruptive power of the greatest modernist literature coexisted with that air of all-comprehending serenity that is the hallmark of his prose, and with an almost staid respectability in his life.

It is, as Kirsch sees, the never wholly resolvable tension between Trilling's responsiveness to the darker or more purely Dionysiac elements of life and his constantly renewed effort to achieve an intellectual as well as emotional equilibrium that prevents his ethical earnestness from degenerating into the sententiousness of a modern Polonius.

The struggle between id and ego (to use the metaphors provided by one of the writers whom Trilling most admired) must never be allowed to lapse into comfortable victory for either side. For all the much-remarked-on Augustan polish of Trilling's prose, ease is not what his criticism offers us.

That Kirsch, an American poet and critic only in his mid-thirties, should identify and appreciate so many of Trilling's strengths is no small achievement. He spends perhaps a little long making a space for himself by skirmishing with other critics; he slightly labours the question of Trilling's Jewishness; and at moments he can seem to equate the judgements that matter with literary and intellectual opinion in contemporary Manhattan (then again, so did Trilling, occasionally). Nonetheless, he manages to convey in the concluding sections of the book, in a few spare, elegant pages, more about why Trilling matters than many admirers have succeeded in doing at several times this length.

Trilling does not dazzle; there are no Empsonian or Ricksian fireworks in his writing. Nor does he hector us: there is none of the Leavisian or Eagletonian certainty about the one right answer. Rather, he shares with us his experience of finding certain books indispensable in reflecting on the mysteries and glories of being alive.

Or, as Kirsch nicely puts it: "To Trilling, literature was above all the medium in which he made himself, and his essays, with all their dignity and vulnerability, are the record of a soul being made through its confrontation with texts. For this reason, Trilling may matter most of all as a representative of the virtue he admired in George Orwell: 'the virtue of not being a genius'."

Stefan Collini is a professor in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge.

His next book, "What Are Universities For? A Contemporary Manifesto in Defence of Our Universities", will be published in February by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood