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Michael Knox Beran
Lionel Trilling and the Social Imagination « Back to Story

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"In believing his motives pure and his politics innocent, the visionary liberal aspires to something “more than human.” He has erected a Utopia in his own heart. It was this mantle of perfected virtue—one that conceals the imagination of gross dominion—that Trilling dreaded as corrupt in itself and dangerous to others. When he attributed to George Orwell the belief that the “ultimate threat to human freedom” might well come from a “massive development of the social idealism of our democratic culture,” he was speaking as much for himself as for Orwell." God, I really need to read Trilling.
Trilling had the moral defect of his generation and of his heroes: he did not understand the necessity of religion. Read some Cardinal Newman, and the point is clear.
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Being a world war II baby I was startled to learn of the new (two or three years ago) sexual behavior on campus: the hook up. No romance, no mystery, no longing just sex among friends or casual acquaintances. I was reminded of this behavior reading this article. Could the hook up be just an outer boundary of the phenomenon of individual behavior guided not by the individuals morality but by the morality of the social imagination? Who needs love when getting off is just a hook up away?
I think the treatement of Trilling's treatment of the fictional journey in some novels from naif to urban(e) participant and of the connections between Trilling's treatment of that journey to it in his own life is well presented.

I think too the presentation of Trilling's treatment of the "social imagination" as an aspect of that journey in contrast with the artistic imagination is good too. The intellectual weakness of that opposition is the fault of weaknesses in Trilling's own overarching thinking, his personal politics aside.

Related to that inadequacy the essayist is good to take down the inadequacy of Trilling's idea of art/the novel as the saving repository of our moral betterment and to take down Trilling's inflated claims for art generally.

But the essayist goes too far in ultimately politicizing his analysis and finally breaks down completely in trying to sweep Trilling into his own conservative ideological net.
A good essay.

Trilling's remark about making our fellow men objects of interest, then of pity, and finally of coercion is in a file I keep of great quotations. Most of the quotations have to do with preserving liberty in the face of coercive government and life-sapping bureaucracy.
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I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks
Nicholas Frankovich April 08, 2011 at 6:16 PM
Leo Wong and D. D. Todd,

Re Trilling's self-identification as a man of the left, the right, what have you: You're right that to the end of his life he remained somewhere left of center. What makes his work compelling (and made it all the more compelling back when there were virtually no venues for the articulation of conservative ideas) was his willingness to be seen in public with conservative ideas or, as he would have it, conservatives "sentiments" or "impulses." He was defying the intellectual snobbery of his time and place.

What we now call neoconservatism had barely been born and was being nurtured by his former student Norman Podhoretz, among others, when Trilling died in 1975. Trilling never signed up with the neoconservatives but did, in Gertrude Himmelfarb's eloquent assessment of his influence (Weekly Standard, Feb 14-21, 2005), "provide a mode of thought, a moral and cultural sensibility, that was inherently subversive of liberalism and thus an invitation to neoconservatism."
Great piece. Great theme, i.e. what Joseph Conrad called "the sinister impulses that lurk in...noble intentions."
ïîãðóæåíèå øïóíòà April 03, 2011 at 9:11 PM
Thanks for summing it up so well. I think I’ll be returning here often. Best Regards.
Need to keep testing my blog. Not working as I want it to yet. Thx for the theme. Maybe this will get mine to look better.
Trilling had the moral defect of his generation and of his heroes: he did not understand the necessity of religion. Read some Cardinal Newman, and the point is clear. Newman saw clearly that efforts at substituting philanthropy for religion were bound to fail, because they are too simple, too easy.
Patrick D. Hazard March 20, 2011 at 12:57 AM
Alas (83)Parrington was my first taste of lit crit in 1949! I knew Trilling flinched at the rejection of his novel (I'm finally moved to read it!), but I never knew how deeply it paralyzed him.The distance between Queens and Upper Manhattan was not nearly as distant as Columbia sociologist Herb Gans (b.1927) who spanned his birth in Cologne and fled to America in 1941--to became a sociologist much more humanistic than lit crit Trilling was sociological, and who had to scrounge for mentors in late Victorian England. Gans metabolized Blake,Whitman and Melville more than this faux elegant Whiner.There are worse things than being a flop as a novelist, e.g. poisoning the term "Liberal" because his more perceptive contemporaries rejected his second rate fiction. Patrick D.Hazard, Weimar,Germany.
By his own statement, Trilling remained a liberal, and in Barzun's words, "developed his own Third Position, a position on the Left as a critic of the Left. Out of it came all the premises and conclusions in politics, art, morals, and psychology that made him from the outset unclassifiable." As for a neo-conservative's opinion, he was one of Norman Podhoretz's "Ex-Friends." But of course, "it's much more complicated, it's very complicated."
Most of this is rubbish. I have for over 60 years been a great admirer of Trilling and have most of his writings in my library. I am also an ardent social democrat. Trilling was an implacable enemy of the Leninist/Stalinist ideological tendency, and rightly so. No social democrat whom I know (and I know many around the world) is even remotely similar to the would-be "engineers of the human soul" Trilling rightly rejects. Trilling himself had broadly social democratic views and certainly supported trade unionism, government funded old age pensions, a public medical system and so on and on. He was a man of the democratic, anti-communist left, and was always happy to avow it. The "liberals" he attacks were the fellow traveling, "no enemies on the left" crowd. This effort to recruit him into the neo-con camp is absurd, although it is entirely understandable why a conservative would seek to conceal behind a veneer of civilization the brutal, naked, ugliness of present day conservative ideology.
Outstanding analysis by Beran of Trilling, whom I disliked before because of his iconic status, but now admire as a proto-neocon, if I could be so bold. I have read Balzac & am now reading L'education sentimentale en francais and will have to now read The Liberal Imagination to get a depth of field that a friend of Whittaker Chambers must have. Also, gotta read Casamassima & get back into that Jamesian complexity.
Great article! It explains a lot for me about what I've seen in society.

What struck me about the description of Harold Outram is how much he sounded like what I've read about Plato. If I remember correctly, he wanted to ban art in ancient Greece, thinking it unhealthy for his conception of society, in his "Republic." It's also my understanding that he was of a similar mind as progressives, as characterized by Thomas Sowell's "unconstrained vision," in "A Conflict of Visions."
...and the conservative insitution where he taught nearly pevented his getting tencure because he as a marxist, a freudian and a Jew...
Great novels don't do much good when people stop reading them. Not Trilling's fault. But yours is a very good article.