Key Theories of Lionel Trilling

1322853064551.cachedA writer of significance in the history of American letters, even at the height of his fame Lionel Trilling (1905–1975) was considered ‘a critic without portfolio’. What this means for the contemporary reader, used to critical categories, theories and factional groups, is that a historical understanding of Trilling’s role is as necessary as an intellectual one.

Trilling’s first book, his dissertation on Matthew Arnold, expresses both his interest in British culture and that of the wider cultural and critical picture in America. Arnold wrote at what he perceived to be a time of crisis, and Trilling transposed his thoughts on nineteenthcentury Britain into an American context. There are four important principal themes in Trilling’s study of Arnold: (1) Arnold’s relating literature to wider social concerns; (2) Arnold’s ‘disinterestedness’, or, preference for critical observation and thinking rather than immediate action; (3) Arnold’s synthesis of reason and faith as expressed via culture; and (4) Arnold’s historical/dialectical method. These themes also map the schema that Trilling would apply in his own readings of literature and culture: rarely a close-reader of specific texts, Trilling transformed reading into a process of ethical and political reflection.

Trilling followed Matthew Arnold with E.M. Forster (1943), a study of the British author whose reputation soared throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, especially in relation to his novels Howards End and A Passage to India. Trilling’s study of Forster is balanced, yet critical, and while he argues that T.S. Eliot offers a more powerful theory of reading, he concludes that Forster’s approach is essentially more human because of his overriding faith in the moral realism of art. The importance of such an observation is found in the occasional aside in Trilling’s book, such as the throwaway remark that Forster’s ‘impressionist’ criticism, which follows the law of ‘personality’ rather than an ‘architectonic’ is preferable after ‘the long dull battle over Marxist criticism’. Trilling worked through many of his ethical, existential and political positions in his novel of ideas, The Middle of the Journey (1947), which was well received; however, it was his collection of essays that were initially published between 1940 and 1949 – called The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (1950) – that essentially made his name. Key essays in the volume include ‘Freud and Literature’, ‘The Princess Casamassima’, ‘Manners, Morals, and the Novel’, and ‘The Meaning of a Literary Idea’, among others. The Liberal Imagination is a post-war reaction to what Trilling perceived as the stultifying lack of creative and intellectual will in the Cold War period; he countered this lack with another force: that of art. Manifested most clearly for Trilling in the novel form, art expresses two modes of ‘will’: the positive (mainly found in the nineteenth century novel) and the negative (mainly occurring in modernist form, or, in overly political systems of thought and expression). However, rather than expressing a main thesis, The Liberal Imagination can be thought of as a testing ground for the dominant intellectual force in America at the time of its writing: that of liberalism. Ever since, critics have been divided over the results of this extended test, and even the meaning of the word ‘liberalism’ in the first place. The collection as a whole may make more sense for contemporary readers when they position Trilling as someone born into an immigrant family, profoundly aware of his Jewish yet Anglophile (on his mother’s side) background, and endowed with a liberal education and upbringing, yet tending towards conservatism in thought and action as a reaction against extreme left-wing thought in America and Europe. This was an academic who would powerfully and publicly favour Freud over Marx during the early years of the Cold War, facilitating shifts in attitude and methodology in the humanities.

In his essay ‘Freud and Literature’, Trilling explores the connection between Freud and the ‘Romanticist’ tradition, arguing that ‘psychoanalysis is one of the culminations of the Romanticist literature of the nineteenth century’. After tracing the aesthetic and philosophical roots of Freud’s thinking, as well as the progressively superior literary critical applications of his thought by Freud and others, Trilling concludes that Freud’s psychoanalytical system presents the poetic as constitutive of mind. In other words, literature is no longer secondary, but primary in a formative sense, being a method of thought that is also, as with psychoanalysis, ‘a science of tropes’. In sketching out some key aspects from Freud, such as the importance of the ‘repetition compulsion’, Trilling was prophetically mapping much future humanities research. Trilling returned to Freud throughout his career, with many important contributions such as his Freud Anniversary Lecture presented at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and Society called Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture (1955); in this essay Trilling argues among many other things, that literature is fundamentally subversive, since its function is to make us aware not only of human particularity, but also ethical authority when combating cultural and societal stultification. Trilling addresses these concerns in another key essay, ‘On the Teaching of Modern Literature’ (1961) where he suggests that after all of the technical analyses of literature are performed, there is still the question of ‘bearing personal testimony’, which means the exposure of the self in judging a work true or false. Of course, what Trilling is doing is opposing a Freudian ‘moral’ approach to that of the Marxist approach which Trilling now fundamentally opposed. This opposition is also useful in clarifying the role of cultural criticism that Trilling practiced: as contemporary literary theory turns in some respects full circle back to the ethical demand, rather than analytical close-reading or speculative flights of fancy of high theory, Trilling’s championing of an ethical stance, one predicated upon human freedom that is often at odds with the state or society in general, gains new relevance.






Source: FIFTY KEY LITERARY THEORISTS by Richard J. Lane, Routledge Publication.

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3 replies

  1. Excellent stuff, Nasrullah – keep up the good work.


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