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.

George Steiner On The ‘Unvoiced Soliloquy’ And Collaborative Creativity

In Grammars of Creation (Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 84-85), in making note of the ‘anxiety of influence,’ and the valorization of solitary creativity, George Steiner writes:

I want to point to the elected presences which makers construe within themselves or within their works, to the “fellow-travellers,” teachers, critics, dialectical partners, to those other voices within their own which can give to even the most complexly solitary and innovative of creative acts a shared, collective fabric. Elsewhere,¹ I have tried to draw attention to what remains a terra incognita in linguistics, in poetics, in epistemology….It is that of inward speech, of the discourse we conduct incessantly with ourselves. This unvoiced soliloquy in fact contains the bulk of speech-acts; it far exceeds in volume language used for outward communication. It also, I suspect, is under formative or inhibiting pressures of historical-social circumstance, of the state of public vocabularies and grammars, though it may add to them elements of a private argot. It could well be that, in Western cultures until recently, soliloquy has been the unheard eloquence, vituperation, poetry of countless women. Our true familiars are the “selves” or fantom-auditors and respondents to whom we address the lexical-grammatical-semantic currents of silent speech. Our consciousness, even when our inward audition and notice are fitful, is a monologue of the many whose creative powers, whose capacity to generate terror or solace, illusion or inhibition, are as yet scarcely analysed.

In a post here on ‘Imagined Interlocutors‘ I had made note of the incessant conversations I have with myself–with real and imagined figures; inner conversation allows for argumentation with those absent, temporarily or permanently. I could not do without these conversations. Indeed, I often frame material I will write later, here or elsewhere, by means of a ‘conversation in the head’–mostly while walking. Talking to myself is thus an integral part of my ‘thinking’ and writing; even here, at this most elementary level, creativity and creation are not solitary endeavors but active collaborations–perhaps unsurprising for a being whose consciousness is not a unitary entity. Consider that a creative work is formed over time; its creator, an always-in-flux entity changes too. It is a commonplace for authors and poets and artists to find out that a piece long in the making is simply not viable anymore; they have changed, their work must in response. The harshest critics of our works always lurk within us. Fail muster with them, and you cannot proceed.

Steiner’s suggestion that soliloquy is often the voice of the otherwise silenced is provocative. Sometimes talking to oneself is the only recourse when conversation with a larger world is denied. The woman confined to the private sphere, the prisoner in solitary confinement, the survivor in the wilderness; in all of these circumstances, we find that we cannot stop talking–whether directed inwards, or at walls, or at animals and trees and ocean waves. It’s the best way we know of keeping sane, even if at the risk of being judged insane by others.

Note#1: Steiner cites his On Difficulty here.

‘Westworld’ And The American West As Locale For Self-Reconfiguration

It is perhaps unsurprising that Westworld is Westworld; if American mythology is to be staged anywhere, the West is a natural locale. In the original Westworld, the West meant a zone in which certain kinds of adventures were facilitated: gun battles mostly, but also sex with perfect strangers who cared little for who you were and only wanted your money. In the new Westworld, an implicit motif of the first becomes more explicit: Westworld is where you go to find yourself–whoever and whatever that may be. In this new Westworld, the landscape, only background scenery in the old, now becomes more prominent; we are reminded again and again of its beauty, wildness, and implacable hostility and indifference. If you want to make a show about self-discovery, reconfiguration, journeys into and across space and time, the American West–for many historical and cultural reasons–is a good call. The physical spaces are vast, mapping neatly on to the immense unexplored spaces of the mind; the beauty is enthralling, sparking vision after vision in us of possibility, and also, as Rilke reminded us, bringing us closer to terror: those cliffs, those bluffs, those steep walls, that burning sun, the rattlesnakes, the dangers of other humans. The deployment of the American West also taps into a deeper mythology that self-discovery takes place away from other humans–in the wild. If we are to traverse our mind, then Westworld–like many other recountings of human experience before it–suggests we need tremendous physical spaces too. We could not do this in a crowded city. Those endless horizons and canopies of the sheltering sky are necessary for the suggestion of infinite possibility.

And then, there is the violence. The American West’s land is soaked in blood, in memories of a people decimated, of massacres, starvation, and rape. If you want to stage a modern day genocide–and the continuing thirty-five year old slaughter of ‘hosts’ is most definitely a genocide, even if an eternally recurring one–then, again, the West is the correct locale. It is significant that in this version of the American West, there are very few Native Americans; there are some ‘greasers‘–cannon fodder, obviously–but very few ‘redskins.’ The makers of the show seem to have wisely decided that it was best to mostly write Native Americans out of the show rather than risk getting their depiction and usage wrong, which they almost certainly would have. (The one episode in which Native Americans make an appearance, they are the stuff of nightmare, much as they must have been for the ‘pioneers,’ their imaginations inflamed by stories of how they had to keep their women safe from the depredations of the savages on the prairies.) This American West is one which has already been cleansed of the Native American; an alternative rendering of Westworld, one whose dark satire would have cut too close to the bone, would be one in which park visitors would get to shoot all the whoopin’ n’ hollerin’ Injuns they wanted.

MedievalWorld, SamuraiWorld would also allow for the exploration of themes pertaining to the possible sentience of robots, but their locales might not, at least for American audiences, suggest the possibilities of our own reconfiguration quite so well.

Laurence Olivier on the Indispensability of Personas

In his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (Penguin, 1982), Laurence Olivier writes of an unforgettable mentor, and reveals a great deal about acting:

[Miss Fogerty] gave me one unforgettable, very special word of advice, which has been imprinted forever in my memory. I can’t think of when, if ever, I had heard or known such a penetrating foray into the hazardous area of an actor’s psychological weakness. During my recitation I had noticed her shading her eyes top and bottom in order to peer at me with greater intensity. She now leant towards me and said, “You have weakness…here,” and placed the tip of her little finger on my forehead against the base of my remarkably low hairline, and slid it down to rest in the deep hollow of my brow line and the top of my nose. There was obviously some shyness behind my gaze. This was a thing I comprehended so completely  that it shadowed my first few years as an actor. I am not imputing to Elsie Fogerty the responsibility for a psychological block–it was simply not like that, I knew it was true, there was a weakness there. It lasted until I discovered the protective shelter of nose putty and enjoyed a pleasurable sense of relief and relaxation when some character part called for a sculptural addition to my face, affording me the shelter of an alien character and enabling me to avoid anything so embarrassing as self-representation. [pp. 37-38]

You wouldn’t consider actors to be shy folks. But many of them are. One way to overcome that shyness, of course, as many acting coaches tell their wards, is to simply get ‘into character.’ After all, once you are busy being someone else, you are too busy to be shy or embarrassed, emotional and psychological states that belong to your older self; you are now someone else, you inhabit another persona, and this one certainly is too busy doing whatever it is that your character requires. You have a new persona.

But sometimes actors, the shy ones like Olivier, or even those that are not, have to be reminded they inhabit another persona. The easiest way to do this is the oldest: the mask (from which the word ‘persona’ is derived); it enables the easy slipping into, the taking on, of another personality, another self. The disguise it afforded was all the cover required to transcend one’s awkwardness in an old skin; it was a putting on that enabled a shedding off. But as Olivier points out, you don’t even need anything as elaborate as a mask; even simple nose putty will do. The essentials are then in place; a physical barrier is placed between ‘in here’ and ‘out there’; and now, comforted by this separation, this distancing, the previously discomfited can get on with the business of being someone else.

Representing ourselves is always a tough business; we are not quite sure what to bring forth, what to suppress, what will meet with approval, what with dismay. The mask, the persona can provide some much-needed cover and calm for this state of psychic confusion and bewilderment.