Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Trilling's Sandbags

Belatedly (this comes courtesy of someone who once audited one of my classes and who now regularly sends me appealing little envelopes packed full of clippings that have caught her attention as falling within my purview - also in this particular clutch, for instance, and offered in relation to the satire class I'm currently teaching, was information about a screening of the film Darling! - a biography of Pieter-Dirk Uys - and a couple other bits of that sort, with relevant observations and questions jotted down in the margins!), Stefan Collini on Lionel Trilling in the Nation.

Collini produces an appealing and clever pair of opening paragraphs:
There is, for many of us, something vaguely oppressive about the thought of having to reread Lionel Trilling now. His elegant periods, always in danger of sliding into sonorousness; his confident, familiar invocation of the great names of modern European thought and literature; his cultivated superiority to all that might be tainted by provincialism or pragmatism, which, he concedes with the stoical air of the dutiful mourner at a funeral, amounts to most of American life; and above all, that elusive but pervasive note that runs through his prose--the note of a mind taking stock of its resources and finding that they are, despite their fragility, adequate to its tasks. We can't help feeling that we should be improved by reading Trilling, and this feeling itself is inevitably oppressive.

The previous paragraph, as will have been evident to those familiar with Trilling's writing, deliberately blends characterization with homage and pastiche. His liberal use of the first-person plural to suggest a community of the like-minded was a much criticized mannerism, as was his unembarrassed recourse to cultural name-dropping as a substitute for argument. Then there was the too ready suggestion of rereading, signaling his great storehouse of literary experience. And finally, there was the characteristic structure of a Trilling sentence, with the clauses queuing up to make their restraining or amplifying comment on their predecessors. The blending of homage and pastiche in my tribute may be expressive of the ambivalence Trilling excites. We, I might imitatively say, admire him; we may even sense that we need him; yet it remains true that we have ever so slightly to brace ourselves for a prolonged spell in his company. Reading him keeps us up to the mark, but we can't help but be aware that the mark is set rather higher than we are used to.

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