Sunday, October 16, 2011

Note to a Friend on Trilling, James, Freud and Dwight MacDonald

...I got ahead of myself. I finished Trilling's essay on The Princess Casamassima before really getting into the novel, which I will read. The essay is superb; but my problem is me having it read it in that vacuum. There would be no gainsaying the fineness of the essay by dissenting from Trilling's interpretation of course; and even without having read the novel, I have sort of instinctive doubts about Hyacinth Robinson's suicide being an act of heroic sacrifice, as Trilling puts it, transcending the nature of civilized life by his consciousness. I must of course read the book.

One question for you: at the end of his essay Trilling uses the phrase a lot "moral realism." It's not clear to me what he means by it. The best I can make out is that it means James has a compassionate understanding and feeling for his characters and presents them in the fullness of their own complexities. On that understanding, the phrase does not refer to doing a certain kind of good works or standing for such and such set of values; rather James's authorial integrity is the "moral" part of his realism, the way as, Trilling puts it, borrowing from Marianne Moore, James gets the "toad of fact" into the garden of the imagination.

I have started reading Trilling's essay Freud and Literature and in that one the genteel professor has gotten off to a bad start to my mind--I'm only a few pages in--by putting Freud's alleged "systematic account of the human mind"--now so discredited--on a pedestal with literature for understanding man. This kind of thing is embarrassing to read and how inapt is the comparison, even with Freud's "science" not having been discredited.

Literature, after all, as Trilling centrally argues, is of variousness, complexity and irresolution, the "secret" source of which is man's nature. Freud is intellectually totalitarian, neurotically (I understand the seeming mild irony in using the word) reductive, generating complication from an irreducible (reified) model of how the mind works, his literary disciples then conflating that complication with literature's complexity. Literature predominately speaks to no such irreducible "secret" causes.

The true comparison is not Freudian thought to literature but rather to post modernism, which, in its application to literature, presupposes hidden totalitarian human mechanisms as the fount of all human behaviour as reflected in texts, textual surface on analysis betraying tensions and fissures leading inexorably back to first causes—hence the need to deconstruct. This is so at odds with Trilling's literary criticism as a humane project.

Finally, I ordered, got and started reading Dwight MacDonald's essays in Against The Grain, also edited by Louis Menand. Of course MacDonald has powerful insights but he sounds quaint to my 2011 sense of things, his categories so unnecessarily rigid...

No comments:

Post a Comment