Lionel Trilling As Philosopher Of Culture

In Freud and The Crisis of our Culture, Lionel Trilling writes:

The idea of culture, in the modern sense of the word, is a relatively new idea. It represents a way of thinking about our life in society which developed concomitantly with certain ways of conceiving the self. Indeed, our modern idea of culture may be thought of as a new sort of self-hood bestowed upon the whole of society….Society in this new selfhood, is thought of as having a certain organic unity, an autonomous character and personality which it expresses in everything it does; it is conceived to have a style, which is manifest not only in its unconscious, intentional activities, in its architecture, its philosophy, and so on, but also in its unconscious activities, in its unexpressed assumptions–the unconscious of society may be said to have been imagined before the unconscious of the individual….Generally speaking, the word “culture” is used in an honorific sense. When we look at a people in the degree of abstraction which the idea of culture implies, we cannot but be touched and impressed by what we see, we cannot help being awed by something mysterious at work, some creative power which seems to transcend any particular act or habit or quality that may not be observed. To make a coherent life, to confront the terrors of the inner and outer world, to establish the ritual and art, the pieties and duties which make possible the life of the group and the individual–these are culture and to contemplate these efforts of culture is inevitably moving.

Trilling here offers two understandings of ‘culture’: first, in a manner similar to Nietzsche’s, he suggests it is a kind of society-wide style, a characteristic and distinctive and particular way of being which permeates its visible and invisible, tangible and intangible components; we should expect this to be only comprehensible in a synoptic fashion, one not analyzable necessarily into its constituent components. Second, Trilling suggests ‘culture’ is even more abstract, a kind of plurality of thing and feeling and sensibility that organizes the individual and society alike into a coherent whole. (This union can, of course, be the subject of vigorous critique as well c.f. Freud in Civilization and its Discontents.) This plural understanding of Trilling’s is a notable one: many activities that we would consider acts of self-knowledge and construction are found here, thus suggesting culture is a personal matter too, that the selves of many contribute to the societal selfhood spoken of earlier. Here in culture too, we find the most primeval strivings to master the fears and uncertainties of our minds and the world; religion and poetry and philosophy are rightly described as cultural strivings. Ultimately, culture is affective; we do not remain unmoved by it, it exerts an emotional hold on us, thus binding ever more tightly that indissoluble bond of rationality and feeling that makes us all into unique ‘products’ of our ‘home’ cultures. When culture is ‘done’ with us, it provides us with habit and manner and a persona; it grants us identity.

Anticipating Another Encounter With Books And Students

This coming fall semester promises to be a cracker: I have the usual heavy teaching load of three classes (including two four-credit classes whose lectures will be one hundred minutes long, thus making for a very exhausting Monday-Wednesday sequence of teaching running from 9:05 AM to 3:30 PM, with an hour break between the second and third class meetings); and I will be trying to make some headway on a pair of manuscripts, both due next year in May and August respectively (one project examines the Bollywood war movie and the Indian popular imagination, another conducts a philosophical examination of the Indian film director Shyam Benegal’s work.)

The three classes I will be teaching this semester are: Social Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and Landmarks in the History of Philosophy. The following are their reading lists: the first two classes below feature my favored kind of reading assignments–pick a few select texts and read them from cover to cover; this is a slightly risky move, given that my students–and  I–might find out, together, that the text is ‘not working.’ For whatever reason; some works do not bear up well under closer inspection in a classroom, some material turns out to be tougher to teach and discuss than imagined, and so on. When it works though, a detailed and sustained examination of a philosophical work pregnant with meaning can work wonders, allowing my students and I to trace the various strands of complex arguments at leisure, drawing out their many interpretations and understandings as we do so.

Social Philosophy: 

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press; 2nd ed., 1998,

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Routledge Classics,

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989,

Landmarks in the History of Philosophy:

William James, Pragmatism, Dover, 1995

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Dover, 1996,

Thomas Szaz, The Myth of Mental Illness, Harper Perennial

Philosophy of Law: 

‘The Case of the Speluncean Explorers’ by Lon Fuller (to introduce my students–briefly and vividly, hopefully–to theories of natural law, positivism, and some tenets of the interpretation of legal texts.)

HLA Hart, ‘On Primary and Secondary Rules’

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The Path of the Law’

David Caudill and Jay Gold, Radical Philosophy of Law

Besides these three classes, I will also be conducting an independent study with an undergraduate student on the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism; this promises to be especially fascinating. The following is the list of books my student and I will work through over the course of the semester:

Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities

Nietzsche and Zen: Self Overcoming Without a Self 

Nietzsche and BuddhismProlegomenon to a Comparative Study

Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

Every semester, as always, brings on that same trembling anticipation: books and students and all the promises those encounters hold–the revelations, the surprises, the discoveries, the missteps. What a great way to spend one’s waking hours; I will have ample opportunities to count my blessings in the weeks that lie ahead.

Irène Nèmirovsky On The Failure To Recognize Failure

In The Fires of Autumn (Vintage International, New York, 2015, p. 186) Irène Nèmirovsky writes:

Mankind can only easily get used to happiness and success. When it comes to failure, human nature puts up insurmountable barriers of hope. The sense of despair has to remove those barriers one by one, and only then does penetrate to the heart of man who gradually recognizes the enemy, calls it by name, and is horrified.

Indeed; so easy is it to get used to happiness and success that that pair of supposedly elusive and desirable entities can rapidly lose their allure once they are in our possession. We may even tire of them, find them oppressive, and seek relief in some kind of novelty, some kind of deviation. (Freud quotes Goethe in Civilization and its Discontents as noting that ““nothing is so hard to bear as a train of happy days.”) As for despair, we are, after all, the creatures who can “bear almost any how” so long as we have “a why to live.” As Nèmirovsky notes, such a “why,” a hope, is sought by us almost instinctively; we seek to make sense of, ascribe meaning to, our misfortunes; we seek to make them explainable and comprehensible; we are reluctant to admit that the end of the road has been reached, that the rope has run out. Such maneuvers can indeed make our potential despair bearable; for instance, we may assign some reason, some cause, some purpose, to seeming disasters, and thus decorate our misfortune to make its appearance more palatable. Its true dimensions may remain hidden to us; we are, as existentialist philosophy realizes, meaning-creating and meaning-assigning creatures; true despair only becomes possible when we realize the absurdity of our situation in this world. Such endless evasion is not to be scorned; it enables tremendously creative and productive moves on our part. Poetry and religion and philosophy issue forth. The oft-told tales of returns from the brink of the abyss–of whatever kind, mental or physical–reassure us that sustenance provided by hope is not illusory, that it ‘works.’

Sometimes hope falters, unable to withstand the assaults of despair; the walls crumble, and our last ramparts are overrun. We are horrified by what awaits us, by the true dimensions of the pickle we find ourselves in. What then? Nèmirovsky leaves out our responses to this state of horror; but here too, we do not and cannot dwell too long. This recognition of the actual dimensions of our failure, our misfortune, is all too soon, I suspect, the spur for further discovery of hope. Even in this pitch-black chamber, we start to recognize forms and shapes by which we can begin to navigate and make our way about. Our missteps and our fumbles suggest to us that we are deluded, but we ignore these signals. This is not our resting place; we move on. Optimism begins where we have allowed pessimism its rightful place, allowed it its time in the sun.

Nèmirovsky is not describing a terminus, I think, but rather, the valley, in a series of troughs and peaks.


Making the Abstract Concrete

A few weeks ago, I posted the following quip as my Facebook status:

You don’t really get _Civilization and its Discontents_ till you bring up a child.

And then, a week or so later:

Apropos of my recent comment that you don’t really get _Civilization and its Discontents_ till you raise a child: I don’t think you really get Quine’s inscrutability of reference thesis till you start to shepherd a child through the early language acquisition phase.

There is a more general point to be made here, of course: that seemingly abstract academic theories spring sharply into focus when they are viewed through the lens of personal, emotionally tinged experiences. And child-rearing is perfectly designed provide visceral contact with their truths.

Consider then, my first example above. The child’s first contacts with the civilization that is its host come via it parents, those responsible for not just feeding, bathing, clothing, and otherwise protecting it, but also, all too soon, for inculcating it into the ways of the world. It has to be warned–in an appropriately modified tone of voice–not to bite and scratch,  or harm itself; it has to be restrained–again, sometimes for its own safety, sometimes for that of others; it has to be corrected in countless ways from proceeding along its own path, and guided into trajectories more amenable to those deemed more appropriate for its development. And so as I noted:

Sometimes I’m saddened terribly; something wild and primeval is being constantly tamed, molded, channeled, impressed on. Too essentialist, I know, and not existential enough, but still….

This channeling, this impressing, continues as the child comes into contact  with others besides parents, of course, but it is the parent who has most proximal contact with the changes wrought in the child, and is thus most likely to be affected in turn by them.  The changes in one’s child can produce some melancholy as we realize the coming to be be, and passing away, of different identities; while we happily welcome the growing child into the community of language speakers and concept-wielders, we might regret too, just for a bit, the absence of the babyish bundle, all coo and gurgle, that was once ours to hold tight and close.

And then again, as a friend of mine noted in response to the last quote above:

Yeah, but I’m glad they stop smearing their feces on the wall.


Edward Mendelson on Anthony Hecht and the Palliations of Poetry

In writing on Anthony Hecht‘s poetry in  (‘Seeing is Not Believing‘, The New York Review of Books, 20 June 2013), Edward Mendelson remarks:

In a familiar paradox of art, Hecht’s poems got their structure and strength from his irrational judgments and defensive vulnerability. But Hecht did something deeper and more complex than finding compensations in the perfections of art for the faults of life. What is uniquely unsettling about his poetry is his insistence that its aristocratic poise is helpless against the inner terror that gave rise to it. As he suggests in ‘A Birthday Poem,’ he finds in art ‘a clarity that never was,’ a clarity outside of time that offers only an illusion of escape from the tangled misery of actual and specific moments, naming as an example ‘that mid-afternoon of our disgrace.’

These statements need some untangling.

First, I think Mendelson means to say that it is ‘a familiar irony of art.’ There is no contradiction here.

Second, it is not entirely clear what Mendelson has in mind when he talks about ‘finding compensations in the perfections of art’. Does he mean the compensations are found in the acts and processes of creation, or in the contemplation of the finished work of art? (It is also not clear what Mendelson means by the ‘perfections of art’ but I’ll let that slide for a moment.) To use the taxonomy of palliative measures that provide relief from life’s miseries that was suggested by Freud in Civilization and its Discontents, the former might be considered a deflection, the latter a substitutive satisfaction. The former is a re-channeling of our desires into domains where their satisfaction is more tractable, more easily attained. Freud included in this category scientific activity and other methods of professional achievement (the world of business and finance, for instance). By their grounding in the everyday and their engagement with other forms of human activity this method of escape from the trials and tribulations of life retains the most connection with reality. The latter is a form of compensation for lack of pleasure elsewhere. Freud included in this activity all forms of illusion or fantasy: religious fervor, day-dreaming, the enjoyment of artistic products such as music, sculpture and painting.

It should be clear why the former is a deflection; even in the act of creation, the artist may be confronted with the familiar frustrations of life and unblinking presence of the reality principle–the blank page or canvas, the long torturous path from conception to final product–but expressed in a form that he has the means and resources to combat. In the latter, we are merely consumers of art–we may not be artists ourselves–giving ourselves over to the enjoyment of the work before us.

Mendelson, of course, is suggesting that Hecht’s poetry makes the claim that these palliations do not work, that their relief is illusory. But this should not be ‘uniquely unsettling’; such a notion is present in the very idea of a palliative measure itself: it does not cure, it merely provides temporary relief.