In the American Grain | The Nation


In the American Grain

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Overall, the collection's editorial choices are sound. Left out, for instance, is the text of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1970, which are dull and verbose. Among the pieces selected, the ones I find most thought-provoking are those in which Trilling tackles pedagogical issues. In other words, the material that allows us to see how Trilling the academic combined duties with Trilling the public intellectual. In "The Leavis-Snow Controversy," published in Commentary in 1962, he explores the always timely schism that separates the sciences and the humanities, one that, in many ways, inhabited Trilling's heart ever since he embarked on his study of Matthew Arnold's legacy. Today one might say that the schism has been aggravated by the stage entrance of a third actor, technology. How are these three major areas of knowledge to be combined in the classroom and beyond? Trilling discusses the clash, played out in England, between F.R. Leavis and C.P. Snow. Its implication for the curriculum, from Trilling's essay, is tangential. But at the heart of it he is really debating the continuing challenge that art faces in the scientific age.

About the Author

Ilan Stavans
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest book is On...

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This reminds me of a conversation I had last year in London with Eva Hoffman, author of Exit Into History, in which she told me that, if ever invited to have dinner with half a dozen luminaries of her choice from the end of the twentieth century, she doubted any she would select would be writers. Her rationale: The fields that truly matter nowadays, the ones that are revolutionary, are biology, genetics, astronomy. How many of our literati have the magnetic standing of a Cervantes or a Dostoyevsky? she asked. Almost forty years earlier, Trilling understood the challenge: Art has become something of a casualty in the quest for progress; science leads the way as eye-opener in an age of reconfiguration of human society. He defends literature, but he knows it is an uphill battle because the grounds of its importance are subjective.

Trilling's view of the prickly marriage between academia and intellectual life is best defined in "On the Teaching of Modern Literature," reprinted in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent but published originally in Partisan Review in 1961. It addresses the time, not too distant from us, when Columbia students complained that the English department taught only the work of dead writers. His colleagues had, in Trilling's words, an eccentric, obscurantist and reactionary approach to literature. The next generation wanted change, and it fell on Trilling to teach the course on the modern--Yeats and Eliot, Joyce and Proust, Kafka and Lawrence, Mann and Gide. In the essay he discusses the anxiety that overwhelmed him at first. Could he summarize the impact of the modern at a time when their contribution to letters wasn't yet fully digested? He sidetracks one too many times as he delves into James Frazer's The Golden Bough and Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals, among other books. But in the end Trilling makes a point worth listening to, one in which he compares the teacher with the critic. The two disciplines "are one and the same," he says. Yet "there are some points at which the functions of the two do not coincide, or can be made to coincide only with great difficulty."

Of criticism, Arnold has told us that "it must be apt to study and praise elements that for fullness of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong to a power which in the practical sphere may be maleficent." But teaching, or at least undergraduate teaching, is not given the same license--cannot be given it because the teacher's audience, which stands before his very eyes, as the critic's audience does not, asks questions about "the practical sphere." Since teaching is an interactive activity, one cannot but consider the social situation of the students to place the course material in a context. Trilling believes that modernity is about "surrendering oneself to experience without regard" to "conventional morality," and that the teacher who offers a course on modern literature must place that "unrealized" thought in the mind of his or her students. That is, it is absurd to use the classroom to isolate literature--its message--from its surroundings. To live up to the task of introducing it to a younger audience, one has to embrace it wholeheartedly, to make its pulse one's own, to live by its mission.

Trilling's argument is about commitment, about teaching literature with the heart. Therein, I'm persuaded, is the use of Trilling for us today: in part, to stop the dissociation of the academic and the public intellectual from the rest of society. We forget that the humanities, and literature especially, are about emotion, about love and hatred, about life and death. In the classroom now these themes seem tame, even innocent. What is missing is the sense that, to live up to the standards of literatures ancient and present, we ought to be ready to incorporate something of them into our lives, accept their messages as life-or-death issues. Our graduate schools are too often factories turning out "experts" who want to know every possible thing about a topic so minute it vanishes before us like a shadow at noon. Frequently the controversies between professors in the humanities are loud, but what is at stake is of little consequence. We are the ones, of course, who have made it so insignificant. In the time of the Internet, the challenge of public intellectuals is far more complex, yet also less daunting: It is faster and easier to democratize information. But readers, serious and popular, have a shorter attention span and are not eager to follow intellectual debates. For how long will academics be reactive, not active, in regards to the binding paste of society? Can the campus cease to be a fortress of isolation? The moral obligation is not, as the title of Wieseltier's selections suggests, to be intelligent, but to bring passion to intelligence so as to make it consequential, as Lionel Trilling did in life.

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