Lionel Trilling’s mental gestures

Lionel Trilling, one of the finest brains behind Columbia University’s Great Books program, is, unfortunately, probably best known in right-of-center circles for having dismissed conservatism for its “irritable mental gestures.” Of course, Trilling’s defense of the great books in the name of liberalism would probably, in this day in age, render him classically-minded enough to be dubbed a conservative. At best, he is politically ambiguous—similar to thoughtful anti-totalitarians like Hannah Arendt and George Orwell. As Ian Corbin wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2011:

Trilling’s own liberalism was complicated, and he wouldn’t fit neatly on the contemporary left or right. His thinking was, as he acknowledged, perpetually in the middle, and many of his writings attempt to mediate some deep tension or another: between liberation and self-control, between creativity and criticism, between contemplation and action.

I have only read snippets of Trilling for a few English courses and I’m making my way through The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent this summer. But so far I have found Trilling deeply thoughtful while also more accessible and grounded in reality than a lot of 20th century criticism. In essays like “Huckleberry,” and “Why We Read Jane Austen,” Trilling, ironically, sounds quite similar to the Russell Kirk-styled humanism he quibbled with in the 1960’s. That is, he’s serious about morality, authenticity, tradition and the Western canon. On the complex morality of Mark Twain, Trilling writes:

The river [of Huck Finn] is only divine; it is not ethical and good. But its nature seems to foster the goodness of those who love it and try to fit themselves to its ways. And we must observe that we cannot make—that Mark Twain does not make—an absolute opposition between the river and human society.

This is a Trilling who is worth reading precisely because of his bold humanistic honesty—an honesty that does not shy away from moral and political ambiguities. In his reading, there is a poetic blur between the divine and the human, but that blurring negates neither this world nor the next. Trilling may not be as easily categorized as conservative as Russell Kirk and T.S. Eliot, but I believe his (classical) liberal commitment is of the kind that many conservatives who care about the great books also share. In fact, a difficult with precise categories is the beautiful thing about liberal education. Trilling’s liberalism is mostly literary, even as it bleeds into 20th century politics.

On Jane Austen’s use of irony Trilling observes:

It perceives the world through an awareness of its contradictions, paradoxes, and anomalies. It is by no means detached. It is partisan with generosity of spirit—it is on the side of “life,” of “affirmation.”

Furthermore, Trilling writes,

when we respond to Jane Austen with pleasure, we are likely to do so in part because we recognize in her work an analogue with the malice of the experienced universe, with the irony of circumstance, which is always disclosing more than we bargained for.

I would argue that something quite similar can be said of Trilling’s literary criticism: He is faithful to our human reality to a point that he also embraces anomaly and irony—sometimes at the expense of virtue and sometimes to virtue’s benefit. In this light, Trilling’s quip about conservatives’ “irritable mental gesture” sounds like one such agreeably ironic anomaly. At least that’s how I’ll interpret the remark.