Friday, October 10, 2008

Louis Menand on Lionel Trilling

In The New Yorker Sep 29, 2008, Louis Menand wrote a long article about Trilling as a literary critic, public intellectual and fiction writer. One section, of interest to me, depicts Trilling's attitude towards being Jewish.

"It is never possible for a Jew of my generation to 'escape' his Jewish origin," Trilling explained, in a symposium on Jewish writers in 1944. Still, he said:

I cannot discover anything in my professional intellectual life which I can specifically trace back to my Jewish birth and rearing. I do not think of myself as a "Jewish writer." I do not have in mind to serve by my writing any Jewish purpose. I should resent it if a critic of my work were to discover in it either faults or virtues which he called Jewish.

Around the same time, Trilling was asked to address Jewish students at Columbia. There is no innate quality of Jewishness, he told them. The culture of an American Jew is not Jewish; it's American. Jewishness exists only because of "the belief of non-Jews that Jews constitute a racial entity and a certain kind of action on the part of non-Jews based on this belief." Without this prejudice against the Jews, "the idea of Jewishness would largely disappear."

Sartre was criticized for making the same argument, a few years later, in "Anti-Semite and Jew," but there are always non-Jews who have ideas about "the Jews," and so there are, on Trilling's theory, always good reasons for Jews to feel Jewish.

I agree that there is "no innate quality" of Jewishness or other forms of identity, and that identity could be constituted by one's opponents, or one's other. But the missing element in this view is that one can form, or formulate, one's own identit(ies) too. Sure, one has to make do with what one has--through inheritance and circumstance--but one can collect some materials over the course of a lifetime.


In another section, Menand speaks of Trilling's cast of mind as dialectical, as illustrated in these quotations:

To suppose that we can think like men of another time is as much of an illusion as to suppose that we can think in a wholly different way.

The poet, it is true, is an effect of environment, but we must remember that he is no less a cause.

Perhaps only science could effectively undertake that task of freeing sexuality from science itself.

This intense conviction of the existence of the self apart from culture is, as culture well knows, its noblest and most generous achievement.

Menand writes, "Trilling saw everything under a double aspect: a trend and a backlash, a pathway to enlightenment and a dead-end of self-deception. He was a humanist who believed that works of literature can speak to us across time. . . . But he believed it with weakening conviction; he could see all the arguments for considering humanism a vain promise.

Trilling saw books, including the Great ones, as social products "all the way down." Menand summarizes:

They do not come from some place outside the system, and they do not represent an independent alternative to the way things are. They are among the things that are, even when they belong to what Trilling called "the adversary culture"--even when they reject conventional ways of thinking and behaving. The adversarial is part of the system; it helps to hold the other parts in place. Responsible liberal people feel better adjusted for having an appreciation of art and ideas that are contemptuous of the values of responsible liberal people. It helps the world seem round.

I think this is an important corrective to the easy idea that Great Books trascend time, that their message is universal. However, this explanation lacks a theory of change, of innovation. If even subversion is always conservative, then how does a culture change over time? This version of the dialectic appears very like statism.


Sam J. Miller said...

i think Trilling's comments on Jewishness come from a very assimilationist perspective - he wants to believe that Jewishness is a garment that he can take off, and that if it weren't for those pesky anti-semites he would be just like everyone else. Conversely, it also comes from an inability to see the strengths and specialness of "difference."

As a Jew and as a queer, i think this is a really dangerous limiting perspective, one that yields the floor to oppression and disowns the difference that makes us strong and special. fuck that "we're just like you," shit. We're not like you. YOU'RE not even like you.

Jee Leong Koh said...

I share your reservations about pure assimilationism, although I am not sure (having read only Menand's take on it) if Trilling would see his position in that light. In dealing with oppression, I think there is a time for asserting difference, but there is also a time for asserting similarity. To valorise difference is, to me, as problematic as to valorise sameness.