Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Trilling's "Art and Fortune"

In the interview with Mark Halliday, Bidart spoke of his love during his undergraduate years for Trilling's The Liberal Imagination. He quotes from "Art and Fortune" a sentence that concludes a passage about "the beautiful circuit of thought and desire" (James' phrase):
The novel has had a long dream of virtue in which the will, while never abating its strength and activity, learns to refuse to exercise itself upon the unworthy objects with which the social world tempts it, and either conceives its own right objects or becomes content with its own sense of its potential force--which is why so many novels give us, before their end, some representation, often crude enough, of the will unbroken but in stasis.

Bidart comments on this passage:
This image of the will "unbroken but in stasis"--after having "exhausted all that part of itself which naturally turns to the inferior objects offered by the social world"--and which has therefore "learned to refuse" ... This image has haunted me: it seems to me a profound pattern, one of the central, significant actions that many works have, in different ways with different implications, felt as necessary.

The will "unbroken but in stasis" is an alluring image for me too. But some questions arise in my mind about Trilling's statement, that perhaps would have been easily answered by reading the entire essay. "Learning to refuse," in such close quarters to words like "virtue" and "tempts," sounds like a species of puritanism. It is cousin to denial of the world and the flesh. It is telling that the "unworthy objects" are offered by the "social world" from which the will turns away to contemplate its own personal autonomy. The turn is not merely from "unworthy objects" to "right objects," it is also a rejection of the social world in favor of the individual domain.

This rejection is reinforced by the will becoming "content with its own sense of its potential force." Though worded as another possibility besides the will conceiving its own right objects, the will's sense of its own force seems to be Trilling's grand prize. This interpretation is supported by the concluding phrase "the will unbroken and in stasis." A will that conceives its own right objects will not be in stasis. To conceive, however meant, is an action, an action that presumably leads to other actions, such as the exercise of affection towards those objects. The will is in stasis, however, when it "becomes content with its own sense of its potential force." Contentment and potentiality are the vocabulary of stasis.

So, according to Trilling, the novel's long dream of virtue is, ultimately, about the will becoming content with its own sense of its potential force. Why does that alluring idea also terrify me? Because it leaves too much up to me. To sense the will's own force is also to sense its sheer arbitrariness. Why do I love one person and not another? The right answer may be Trilling's: it's a matter of the will, our wilfulness. The will's force is directed at the external world. It has force inasmuch as the will has its will over the external world, has an autonomy apart from the dictates of the external world. Its force is most visible when I love, not what is reasonably or commonly agreed as most deserving of love, but whatever I will to love. The will preserves its autonomy when it chooses to love what reason dictates, but it brandishes (gloriously, to Trilling, terrifyingly, to me) that same autonomy when it does not love what reason dictates; in other words, the will is most itself when it follows its own dictates.

What about the will conceiving its own right objects? "Conceive" is a very interesting choice of word here. I take it to mean in this context "to form its own ideas about." It is the opposite of "to receive received ideas about." To conceive emphasizes the activity of the will, as well as the individuality of that activity, and of the activity's result, own ideas. But how does the will know its ideas about its objects are right? What is "right" in this situation? "Right" according to some standard apart from the will? I don't think that is what Trilling means. "Right" here means right for the will, for the person. But "right objects" are also contrasted with "unworthy objects," so some kind of valuation is implied. So "right" means not only right for the person, but also "person" conceived as the worthiest form of herself. So drug addiction is not "right" for the person even if the person's will conceives of drugs as its own right object. On the other hand, intellectual growth is not right for the person until her will conceives of such growth as right for itself.

Addiction and growth are less debatable (non-)goods. Love is trickier. I've only read about half of Love in the Time of Cholera. Florentino Ariza falls in love with Fermina Daza after catching sight of her sewing when he delivers a telegram to her father. He does all the crazy things lovers do: writes love messages, reads love poems to the sea, plays his violin below her window at night, and proposes marriage to her again fifty-one years, nine months and four days after he first declared his love for her, having reserved his heart for her all that time. Against the dictates of reason, commonsense and experience, Florentino's will conceives of Fermina as the right object for it, in Trilling's terms. How are we to judge this? Foolish? Self-deceiving? Virtuous? Heroic? A Waste of a Life? Behind any answer lies our idea of what makes a good life.

Could one fall in love on such a slim excuse of an occasion? Let's enlarge that occasion beyond a mere glimpse, let's say, a five minute conversation in a bar followed by mutual jerk-off in a bath house. But you can't possibily know the other person in that time. Now that's a laughable objection. It assumes that falling in love is based on knowledge rather than ignorance. We fall in love with someone at the beginning of knowledge. My hypothetical situation is only different in degree from more conventional scenarios, but not in kind. But the occasion was all about lust, not about love. Can we make such a hard and fast distinction between lust and love? Can one not shade imperceptibly into the other? Do many loves not begin with physical attraction, and grow to be something more? Such "love" is merely the passion of a moment; it does not last. That objection confuses the nature of a thing with its duration. Fire is still fire though it may die on a bed of ashes in a matter of minutes. And just like fire, for love to last, it needs to be fed.

It is wrong to dismiss the possibility or the reality of love prompted by such an occasion, a glimpse through a window, a hand round a beautiful cock. To be dismissive is not to give any allowance to the power of the will to "conceive its own right objects" and not to give any consideration to the mystery and the holiness of the heart's affections.

No comments: