Friday, October 14, 2011

A Few Thoughts On Louis Menand's Introduction To The Liberal Imagination

1. Pay attention to the assumptions and unsystematic thoughts of most people, their attitudes and assumptions, their customs and manners. They require and repay critical attention. Okay. I guess that's what sociologists and social psychologists do. What's so profound about Trilling thinking so?

2. All liberals of whatever stripe from Hayekian to progressives have in common a belief in human perfectibility and in a kind of straight line to human happiness. Against that Trilling educates us in the truth that life is rife with evil, unfairness, tragic conflict, yadda yadda yadda and that these are the stuff of literature. The first part of this is a moronic characterization, ie Trilling's not Menand's, and the second is a yawn inducing bromide.

3. The function of criticism is to identify "hygienic" works of literature and unhealthy ones and explain why they lead to good or bad political consequences. "Dreiser and James: with that juxtaposition we are immediately at the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meets...The liberal judgment of Dreiser and James goes back to politics goes back to the cultural assumptions that makes politics." Menand says, "it makes it seem as though a lot is at stake in getting books right. It assigns literary criticism a mission."

I don't think there is anything I agree with here. I don't understand tracing political consequences as having anything to do with literary criticism. I don't think judging, say, Dreiser or James need have anything to do with politics or where literature and politics meet. How do they meet? James said, give the artist his idea, grant him that and then assess him. Trilling seems to be saying either the opposite or something distinctly different. James was right, Trilling wrong in this. Finally, Trilling was overwrought in thinking that critics are manning a kind of barricades in keeping culture and society in tact by their evaluations.

4. Trilling says there is no stable point outside a culture from which to critique it. Culture needs the adversarial and subversive and these are built into a culture, of its nature, and therefore created by it. Culture cannot survive with them. So Trilling came to look at culture the way anthropologists do. If I understand this, I don’t see what so looking at culture has to do with literary criticism. Plus in looking at culture anthropologically isn't Trilling exactly looking at it from a stable point outside it?

5. Finally, Menand notes Trilling fretted over the pernicious uses literature might be put to, say--Trilling’s example--Laurentian sexual radicalism. It seems to me Trilling needn’t have worried. Literature doesn’t operate like that particularly in liberal societies.

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