I’m beginning a new project that explores the relationship of religious book publishing to mid-century (i.e., the 20th) liberalism in the United States. What better way to begin, I thought, than to read Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950)? There he makes the controversial claim that liberalism was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” prevalent in the United States at the time that he was writing. That much I expected to find in the book; what I got was so much more — an education, really, and a glimmer of one of the paths-not-taken of U.S. cultural studies.
One of Trilling’s themes is untimeliness, and indeed the term aptly describes his own work. He perceptively anticipated many theoretical developments whose “discovery” most would attribute to English and French intellectuals working decades later. Take his definition of culture, for instance: “Culture is not a flow, nor even a confluence; the form of its existence is struggle, or at least debate–it is nothing if not a dialectic” (p. 9). Sounds a lot like E. P. Thompson to me. Or consider this passage, which almost could have come from Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge:
Yet another thing that we have not understood with sufficient complication is the nature of ideas in their relation to their development and in relation to their transmission. Too often we conceive of an idea as being like the baton that is handed from runner to runner in a relay race. But an idea as a transmissible thing is rather like the sentence that in the parlor game is whispered about in a circle (p. 191).
Trilling also argues that literature produces ideas, or philosophy, an argument that brings him within shouting distance of Deleuze. There’s more: he was anti-relativist, believed in the activity of audiences, and understood well the relationship of knowledge production and social control.
But it’s not enough simply to locate Trilling as an unacknowledged forebear of some of our more contemporary theoreticians. It’s also crucial to understand his intellectual style. Trilling could say more in a single, pointed sentence than most highly skilled writers can say in an entire essay, maybe even a volume. What’s more, he did so with the barest minimum of theoretical terminology or jargon.
So, for example, while it’s clear that he drew near to what, two decades later, would become the Foucauldian understanding of discourse, never did he long to coin a phrase to describe self-propagating communication. Trilling insisted that we engage not with catchy theoretical words that one could either “use” or “reject” depending on one’s allegiances. Instead, he demanded that we engage with the full substance of his arguments and reasoning.
Is his having done so a cause of the present abandonment of his work? Did Trilling expect too much of us, his readers and interlocutors?
A partisan of liberalism Trilling may have been, but in all affairs of the heart, mind, and politics he seems not to have been an ideologue. This is reflected, for example, in his discussion of literary criticism, where he deftly navigates the Scylla of historicism (or conditionalism) and the Charybdis of New Criticism. Ultimately he upholds the value of both, but in a masterfully dialectical way in which the one exposes the weaknesses in the other, ultimately opening up both to repair.
Trilling worked at a time when academics, for better or for worse, still were able to write “without apology or self-consciousness” (p. 253). There is evident in his work a deference to tradition and a sense of accountability to what others may hold dear, culturally or politically. Yet there remains a boldness to his work, even a brashness, that would seem almost unimaginable in academic discourse today.
In Trilling’s worst moments, as in his discussion of homosexuality and the Kinsey Report, the change of tone is a welcome one. But in Trilling’s best moments, which are far more numerous, one can register not only the tenderness with which he approached those with whom he disagreed, but also the lack of graciousness endemic to our own critical conversations today.