LITERATURE IS A RESPECTABLE INSANITY

Readers of Scarriet know the truth by now of the insidious New Critics.

But there is another, equally pervasive tradition of American modernity, which could be called the Nietzsche School, or the Dionysian School, which spawned the Beats and other sub-categories.

First it must be understood that all literary activity is conservative.   Literature, like all writing, keeps a record, and thus is documentary, legal, historic, and civilizing.

Modern literature may have subversive claims aplenty, but as Lionel Trilling laments in his essay, “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” students in the academy (modernism’s church) resist subversive influences with either incomprehension or A papers:

One response I have already described—readiness of the students to engage in the process that we might call the socialization of the anti-social, or the aculturation of the anti-cultural, or the legitimization of the subversive.  When the term-essays come in, it is plain to me that almost none of the students have been taken aback by what they have read: they have wholly contained the attack.

I say “lament,” because Trilling is disappointed that “the socializaton of the anti-social” has been “contained” by his literature students.   Trilling is like the ranger who can’t fool the clever Yogi Bear.  And worst of all, for ProfessorTrilling, are those students which he calls the “Old People:”

The chief exceptions are the few who simply do not comprehend, although they may be awed by, the categories of our discourse.  In their papers, like poor hunted creatures in a Kafka story, they take refuge first in misunderstood large phrases, then in bad grammar, then in general incoherence.  After my pedagogical exasperation has run its course, I find that I am sometimes moved to give them a queer respect, as if they had stood up and said what in fact they don’t have the wit to stand up and say: “Why do you harry us?  Leave us alone.  We are not Modern Man.  We are the Old People.  Ours is the Old Faith.  We serve the little Old Gods, the gods of the copybook maxims, the small, dark somewhat powerful deities of lawyers, doctors, engineers, accountants.  With them is neither sensibility nor angst.  With them is no disgust—it is they, indeed, who make ready the ways for ‘the good and the beautiful’ about which low-minded doubts have been raised in this course, that ‘good and beautiful’ which we do not possess and don’t want to possess but which we know justifies our lives.  Leave us alone and let us worship our gods in the way they approve, in peace and unawareness.”  Crass, but—to use that interesting modern word which we have learned from the curators of museums—authentic.  The rest, the minds that give me the A papers and the B papers and the C+ papers, move through the terrors and mysteries of modern literature like so many Parsifals, asking no questions at the behest of wonder and fear.  Or like so many seminarists who have been systematically instructed in the constitution of Hell and the ways to damnation.  Or like so many readers, entertained by moral horror stories.  I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: “Interesting, am I not?  And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom.  Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.

If this sounds like babbling, if all this talk of the “Abyss” sounds hyperbolic, one should remember that Trilling was writing this in the 60s, and to be fair, here is the theme as the Columbia professor states it at the outset of his essay:

I  propose to consider here a particular theme of modern literature which appears so frequently and with so much authority that it may be said to constitute one of the shaping and controlling ideas of our epoch.  I can identify it by calling it the disenchantment of our culture with culture itself—it seems to to me that the characteristic element of modern literature, or at least of the most highly developed modern literature, is the bitter line of hostility to civilization which runs through it.

Trilling wants to shake his students to the very core with the dionysian fury of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy Trilling was an Arnoldian, and took very seriously Matthew Arnold’s idea that “literature is a criticism of life.”

Trilling was the opposite of the text-centered New Critics, who felt literature was properly a criticism of literature.

Trilling referenced the New Critics’ influence:

Nowadays the teaching of literature inclines to a considerable technicality, but when the teacher of literature has said all that can be said about formal matters, about verse-patterns, metrics, prose conventions, irony, tension,, etc., he must confront the necessity of bearing personal testimony.

Trilling is explicit in this essay on the content of this “personal testimony:”

How does one say that [D.H.] Lawrence is right in his great rage against the modern emotions, against the modern sense of life and ways of being, unless one speaks from the intimacies of one’s own feelings, and one’s own sense of life, and one’s own wished-for way of being?  How, except with the implication of personal judgment, does one say to students that Gide is perfectly accurate in his representation of the awful boredom and slow corruption of respectable life?  Then probably one rushes in to say that this doesn’t of itself justify homosexuality and the desertion of one’s dying wife, certainly not.  But then again, having paid one’s devoirs to morality, how does one rescue from morality Gide’s essential point about the supreme rights of the individual person, and without making it merely historical, academic?

It is no surprise that Allen Ginsberg was Trilling’s student at Columbia.  Ginsberg’s whole animus already existed in the platitudes of Trilling.

Here, then, is the ferocious, Nietzschean, anti-New Critical vein in modern literature.   Is it suprising that we see an affirmation of the anti-tradition, of the anti-social, of the anti-hero, of the anti-Christ, expressed by a critic considered to be a conservative, like Lionel Trilling?

No, it is not.  For literature is where all radical notions go to die.

All literature is finally quietist.  

Especially literature which is self-consciously avant-garde.

12 Comments

  1. Nooooooooch said,

    September 6, 2010 at 10:05 am

    Trilling wanted to show the abyss,
    To make his students tremble and quake;
    But the beliefs he wanted to challenge
    Were no longer there—
    No foundations left to shake.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    September 6, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    Nooch, good point.

    Here’s Allan Bloom writing about the American university of the 60s, after Cornell professors were held hostage by activists in April, 1969. Trilling’s essay, featured above, was published in the mid-60s.

    “Of course anyone who is a professional contemplative holding down a prestigious and well-paying job, and who also believes there is nothing to contemplate, find himself in a difficult position with respect to himself and to the community. The imperative to promote equality, stamp our racism, sexism and elitism (the peculiar crimes of our democratic society), as well as war, is overriding for a man who can define no other interest worthy of defending. The fact that in [1930s] Germany the politics were of the Right and in the United States of the Left should not mislead us. In both places the universities gave way under the pressures of mass movements, and did so in large measure because they thought those movements possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide. Commitment was understood to be profounder than science, passion than reason, history than nature, the young than the old. In fact, as I have argued, the thought was really the same. The New Left in America was a Nietzsceanized-Heideggerized Left. The unthinking hatred of “bourgeois society” was exactly the same in both places. A distinguished professor of political science proved this when he read to his radical students some speeches about what was to be done. They were enthusiastic until he informed them that the speeches were by Mussolini. Heidegger himself, late in life, made overtures to the New Left. The most sinister formula in his Rectoral Address of 1933 was, with only the slightest of alterations, the slogan of American professors who collaborated with the student movements of the sixties: ‘The time for decision is past. The decision has already been made by the youngest part of the German nation.'” —Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind pp 314-5

    Trilling gets no mention in Bloom’s bestseller from the ‘1980s culture wars’ which added fuel to the flames of that mental civil war during the Reagan years which still dodder on today, but which has been largely eclipsed by the new university dynamic of Letters which does not focus on politics and history (Allan Bloom seems almost quaint today) so much as the student himself. The creative writing mantra of ‘write what you know’ has eclipsed the doctrinaire lessons of the Allan Blooms.

    • notevensuperficial said,

      September 6, 2010 at 3:56 pm

      Leftist critique of political economy = “fascism”?

      To see political and intellectual degradation in equating the privileges that define and reproduce accumulation with citizen emancipation – this perspective causes genocide??

      Al’s book was shtoopit, Tom.

      • thomasbrady said,

        September 7, 2010 at 1:09 pm

        Supe,

        I was thinking the same thing as I was typing that excerpt: how does Al Bloom seriously equate extermination camps with war protests? Even if there is some intellectual validity somewhere on some level re: German universities and “hatred of the bourgeois,” the obvious differences are so paramount that you are just arguing against yourself, shooting yourself in the foot, rhetorically.

        Tom

  3. The Noochness said,

    September 8, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    I think what Bloom’s saying,
    And his argument has heft,
    If you go too far right
    Then you end up far left.

    And I think Bloom is saying,
    Sure as day turns to night,
    If you go too far left
    Then you end up far right.

    • notevensuperficial said,

      September 13, 2010 at 10:33 pm

      The lazy ‘far-left-equals-far-right’ meme – why would anyone in the ’80s have called Stalin or Mao “left”?? – is still far too generous to Bloom’s shoddy book.

      Heidegger himself, late in life, made overtures to the New Left.

      Blech.

      • thomasbrady said,

        September 14, 2010 at 1:30 am

        Bloom, like most ‘best-selling’ intellectuals, was obsessed with the idea of progress, of the vast gulf between ‘ancient’ and ‘modern,’ and modernity ushered in the great left v. right dichotomy; notevensuperficial could not say whether Plato or Aristotle is Left or Right—only so-called modernity adheres to the strict outline of Left v. Right, and to argue from either side is simply to demonize the other; the truth of the matter is that a thug is a thug; it was so in ancient times and the same is true today.

        Perhaps it isn’t that Bloom believes far left is far right; he believes that due to modernity, left and right are both crucial to modern thought and both are so true to our age that they cannot be mixed; it isn’t possible to mitigate nazism by introducing leftism to it; nor would adding rightism to 60’s leftism help; left and right are both roads in their own right, and to travel down either one is dangerous; Left/Right is simply one of the sad features of modernity.

        Bloom’s error lies in his passionate belief that there is such a thing as progress, such a thing as modernity in the first place. “Ancient” and “modern,” “Left” and “Right” are mere words.

  4. Wfkammann said,

    September 12, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    I remember an interaction with Otto Kristeller during a war protest at Columbia U. Circa 1970. He said the Nazis had closed the universities too and he had attended a meeting where a letter was sent protesting the war and he had approved of it. I said that wasn’t enough; now I wonder. He said getting to his office and continuing his work was more important than the 60’s OR the Nazis. I guess if you’re in the Ivory Tower it seems like the most important thing. He turned around and left me thinking.

    • Noochness said,

      September 13, 2010 at 11:38 am

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Oskar_Kristeller

      Called sometimes Paul Otto
      And sometimes Paul Oskar,
      Or so on me Google
      This notion doth foster.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 13, 2010 at 1:56 pm

      Interesting, Bill. Otto studied with some 20th century titans. Sounds like a dying breed, the sort of selfless professor the 20th century tried to kill (in a number of ways) during Modernism’s ascent…
      Tom

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