Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Reading Trilling

“The situation,” wrote Lionel Trilling in his book Sincerity & Authenticity, “in which a
person systematically misrepresents himself in order to practice upon the good faith of another does not readily command our interest, scarcely our credence. The deception we best understand and most willingly give our attention to is that which a person works upon himself.” (Italics mine.)

I first jotted this quote in my journal a few summers ago while reading Sincerity & Authenticity for the first time during my earliest stage of work on my new novel. I’d originally come to Trilling seven or eight years before, after finding him invoked numerous times in the iridescent essays of Cynthia Ozick. This month, as I occasionally do, I’ve been revisiting Trilling’s work. In part this reading is research. In greater part, my revisiting of Trilling is purely inspirational. How could passages like the following, for example, fail to inspire a serious writer?
“A primary function of art and thought is to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture in the environmental sense and to permit him to stand beyond it in an autonomy of perception and judgment.” (Preface to Beyond Culture)

“Literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” (Preface to The Liberal Imagination)

“Whenever we put two emotions into juxtaposition we have what we can properly call an idea. …The force of such an idea depends upon the force of the two emotions which are brought to confront each other, and also, of course, upon the way the confrontation is contrived. Then it can be said that the very form of a literary work, considered apart from its content, so far as that is possible, is in itself an idea.” (“The Meaning of a Literary Idea”)

“All literature tends to be concerned with the question of reality — I mean quite simply the old opposition between reality and appearance, between what really is and what merely seems.” (“Manners, Morals, and the Novel”)
Trilling’s observations bring me to reflect on the nature of the insincerity and inauthenticity we find all around us today. Aren’t these qualities, thanks to the almost total invasion of media into personal life, thrust upon us all with a new force? Due to something in the construct of our new media formats — their portability and total ubiquity, but also the sensibility behind their function and design — we do not first choose to be inauthentic but find ourselves, within these systems and environments, and amid these tools, being so almost reflexively (Facebook profiles, self-promotional webpages, blog posts, tweets, etc.).

Alongside Trilling’s texts from The Liberal Imagination and the selected essays in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent edited by Leon Wieseltier, this month I read for the first time Adam Kirsch’s book Why Trilling Matters, in which Kirsch shows so eloquently how Trilling embodies a total faith in literature, a faith that looks more and more passé. 

“The best way to describe Trilling’s uniqueness as a critic,” Kirsch writes, “is to say that he was always less concerned with writers than with readers, less interested in the way novels work than in the way we put them to work in our lives.” 

And later: “This way of thinking about artistic vocation, not as a withdrawal from the common life but as a tool for confronting that life, is fundamental to the way Trilling reads literature. … 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. … [Trilling] speaks directly to our current loss of faith in literature—which is, as he understood, fundamentally a loss of faith in a certain ideal of selfhood.” 

For Trilling, Kirsch says, “the demotion of literature is part of a larger demotion of the self. … And the attenuation of the self will inevitably have consequences that go beyond the literary.”