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.