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.

Freud As Writing Stylist And Pedagogy Instructor

In Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Master and Victims in Modernist Culture¹(Oxford University Press, New York, 1978), Peter Gay writes:

All of Freud’s biographers devote an obligatory page to the efficiency and beauty of his prose–not without reason. Freud’s stylistic achievement is all the more remarkable considering the spectrum of his publications…Freud’s case published case histories–a genre that normally repels grace or wit–are classics in the literature of detection. Freud was a born writer who never neglected the essentials of his craft….his earliest surviving letters demonstrate that his energy, wit, and lucidity were not painfully acquired but were part of his character….He disciplined his ear by reading French and English all his life…He read continuously and intensely…Freud could derive instruction even from the laborious syntax and rebarbative vocabulary of academic writers; he learned what to avoid. But his real teachers were stylists who were enemies of obscurity and strangers to jargon….he highly valued, and rapidly absorbed, the qualities that distinguished other favorite authors: vigor, precision, clarity. [pp. 50-51]

Gay, of course, read Freud in the original German, so he knows better than I of what he speaks, but even I, who have only ever read Freud in translation,² via the usual Standard Edition route, have not been left unaffected by Freud’s limpid writing style. The Good Doctor is a pleasure to read; I unhesitatingly assigned large tracts of primary texts to students in my Freud and Psychoanalysis class a few years ago, telling them that while the material was ‘dense,’ it was clear and would reward close attention. The case histories–of, for instance, Dora, or the Rat Man–I recommended as short stories of a kind; they are literary in every way, and draw us all too quickly into their artfully constructed worlds. His later ‘cultural-literary-anthropological’ speculative essays are masterworks of erudition expressed with grace and style; they can be profitably read by any intelligent person.

My mention of teaching Freud brings me to Freud’s special qualities of exposition. (His Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis is a widely acknowledged masterpiece of the genre and still provides the best entry point to psychoanalytic theory.) Gay makes note of his talents in this domain and thus provides direction for not just writers but teachers in the classroom too:

He kept [‘the mode of discussion’] intact by employing devices that have been, the envy of professional writers: informality, surprise, variations in pace, adroit admissions of incomplete knowledge, patient handling of knowledge, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors. [p.55]

Indeed. When I look back at any successful classroom teaching–or academic conference presentation–these devices have always played a crucial role. They forestall boredom and stultification; they invite interactive inquiry; they provoke creative responses. We should all be so lucky to have our writing and reading and conversation informed and infected by ‘surprise,’ ‘variations in pace,’ and an ‘inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors.’ The world springs into sharper focus and becomes anew; what more could we want from our learning and teaching?

Lastly, Gay is a masterful writer himself.

Note #1: For some bizarre reason, the title of Gay’s book is missing an Oxford comma.

Note: #2: Here are a series of posts on the wonders of translations.


Kundera On Virtuous and ‘Timid’ Centers

In Immortality, (HarperCollins, New York, 1992, pp. 75) Milan Kundera writes:

Goethe: the great center. Not the center in the sense of a timid point that carefully avoids extremes, no, a firm center that holds both extremes in a remarkable balance…

There is something Nietzschean about the kind of center that Kundera has in mind.

The classical, geometric center of the circle ‘avoids extremes’ by maintaining a safe, antiseptic, boringly equal distance from every point on the circumference. (And there are an infinite number of these ‘extremes’, so this feat takes some doing, a wonderful and exhaustive precision of sorts.) This kind of center, when manifest in our psychological and intellectual dispositions, can lead to a rather banal sort of moderation, an insipid, ‘timid’, overly cautious, scared-to-try-the-deep-end character. This kind of personality will have no ‘style‘; it will all too easily blend into the background. It will experience little terror and so, perhaps, little beauty. (‘For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure’?) This character has little virtue to speak of; it has found its path by avoidance, not experience.

The second kind of center though, one best imagined as one that holds, in addition to the ‘remarkable balance’ alluded to above, a tension in its connections to its extremes. This is the tension of the bowstring drawn tight, just right: any more, and it snaps; any more, and the arrow does not reach the target. The tension restrains the extremes; it holds them in check; the center represents, as it were, the sum total of the interacting forces acting on the center through its relationship with the points on the periphery. It is the tension in these relationships that holds the center in place, and grants it its gravitas.  This center is not the slave of the extremes, as the previously ‘timid’ center was, which shrank from contact. Rather, it holds its ground, confident it can avoid the collapse, the fall, the descent into the abyss. It walks to the edge of the cliff but no further; it does not retreat, unwilling to experience the vertigo that is an inevitable accompaniment to the beauty of the view that can only be glimpsed from the rim.

Note #1: The full excerpt from Immortality reads:

Now, perhaps, when the end of the century provides us with the proper perspective, we can allow ourselves to say: Goethe is a figure placed precisely in the center of European history. Goethe: the great center. Not the center in the sense of a timid point that carefully avoids extremes, no, a firm center that holds both extremes in a remarkable balance which Europe will never know again.

Note #2: It is perhaps not a coincidence that Kundera invokes these contrasting notions of the center in the context of speaking about Goethe, who after all, did write ‘Nature and Art‘, which ends with:

Whoever wants what’s best seeks combination:
A master first reveals himself in limits,
And law alone can truly set us free.

Here again, we glimpse the notion of a virtuous balancing of freedom by constraint.

Writing And The Hundred Book Summer

Shortly after I have returned my student’s writing assignments to them, I start setting up appointments with those students who want to talk about their grades. In these consultations, as I go over the importance of returning to the reading assignments, preparing an early draft, meeting the writing tutor, revising often, having a friend read drafts, and so on, I sometimes also tell them a little story about how reading more can make you into a better writer.

A couple of years ago, my Brooklyn College colleague Robert Viscusi told me how he had transformed himself from an ‘average’ student into a ‘good’ one, one with some talent for writing. After his freshman year of college, he found himself in the privileged position of having a great deal of time on his hands that summer. I do not remember if summer employment was disdained, not felt necessary or merely part-time, but be that as it may, he had time to read.

And so he read that summer. Prodigiously. At the rate of a book a day. He read novels, short stories, history, the lot. He read and read, clocking in at, I think, a hundred books. Prior to that summer, he had been a B-student. After that summer, he never got less than an A. And he found too, a facility and a talent for writing that had not made itself manifest before.

I tell my students that I don’t expect them to read a book a day. Given the constraints on their time and energy, and their often radically different stations in life, this would be unrealistic. But I do ask them to pay attention to the transformation in a student’s scholarly abilities by this devotion to reading. And more to the point, to the change in writing abilities.

Those who read more write better. They encounter writing in its many different forms; they develop and acquire a taste; they are exposed to examples, good and bad, of the art and craft of writing; they internalize, subconsciously, implicitly and explicitly, crucial elements of style; they see writers explain, persuade, argue, tell stories, complain, mock, ridicule; they notice verbal trickery and subtlety; they witness the deployment of rhetoric; and most ambitiously, they might imagine they would like to get a piece of the action and do it better than those whom they read. Or at least emulate them.

I find grading papers extraordinarily hard and still struggle with providing adequate feedback to my students on their papers. (My comments on papers are brief and synoptic; I do not micro-markup.) It is easier for me to remind students of methodology–‘in most instances you can delete the first paragraph you wrote in your first draft; most likely, it’s just throat clearing’–than it is to tell them what is wrong with a particular piece of writing.

But I can always fall back on a reliable instruction: if you want to write better, start reading more. Way more than you do now. That’s good advice for me too.



Military Brats And Shoe Shines

A good shoe shine isn’t easy to pull off. You have to do a preliminary cleaning of the shoe first: a removal of the dust and grime that has accumulated on the shoe’s precious leather exterior, perhaps with a cloth or with a spare brush. Then, you apply the polish itself with another small brush with dense, closely packed bristles. Not the one you just used for dusting; that will still have some dirt on it which will stick to the greasy polish and will be transferred back to the shoe. (If you’ve been careful in your storage of the polish, that is, you’ve kept the can carefully closed, the polish will not have dried up and become useless.) This initial application done, the actual shine can begin. A larger brush with broader, softer bristles should be used. The last touch–one only used by those who desire the kind of gleam in their shoes that you could check your reflection in–is to use a soft cotton rag to deliver one final buffing. (Incidentally, while some shoe shine kits come with such rags, I’ve found old undershirts work best.)

As this description of the shoe shine process should indicate, I have some familiarity with it. And I continue to take pride in stepping out for the day wearing a well-polished pair of boots. Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve worn Doc Martens, Blundstones and Dickies boots; I think I’m justified in explaining their long lives–several years for each pair–on my feet as being partly due to not just their sturdy manufacture, but also my diligent care of their exteriors.

This attitude of mine is, in large part, due to the fact that I am a military brat, the offspring of an air force pilot, someone who took acute care to make sure his precious flying boots looked ready for action every time he stepped into an aircraft cockpit. This attention to appearance, this external manifestation of an inner discipline, he sought to convey to his sons, teaching them that to look sloppy and slovenly in manner and dress was to be sloppy and slovenly in other aspects of our lives too (and perhaps in our minds too). A school uniform was not one if its wearer sported dusty and dirty shoes. My father taught us how to spit and shine, how to make sure we stepped out in style, taking pride in  pair of well-shined shoes. This was not preening or strutting; this was simple self-esteem made manifest.

Over the years, I let many of my father’s lessons about dress and decorum fade away. I grew my hair long, I got tattoos, I wore jeans and shirts with holes in them; I disdained ties and never learned to knot one; I own only one suit, purchased twenty-fours ago, which I trot out for weddings; I walked around in shorts and sandals; I was often sloppy and unkempt.

But somehow, I never reconciled myself to wearing dusty, beat-up shoes that looked like they hadn’t been shined in months.

Cultural Associations Do Not Add Up

In reviewing Jonathan Lethem‘s Dissident Gardens (“Leftists in Jeopardy“, New York Review of Books, April 2014), Michael Greenberg writes:

Lethem’s impulse to display his knowingness, his “vernacular” expertise, as he calls it, his belief that “were’ surrounded by signs [and] our imperative is to ignore none of them engenders a narrative noise that drowns out the novel’s subtler chords. His characters become the sum total  of their cultural associations,  creatures of the zeitgeist, a form of determinism, that as determinism does, leaves little or no room for spontaneity and nuance. We know them by their era, their affiliations, the music they listen to, and the products they boycott, or acquire.

Greenberg may be right that such ‘narrative noise…drowns out the novel’s subtler chords.’ But I do not know if the fundamental anxiety he expresses, that the characters subjected to such treatment become entirely relational–the “sum total of their cultural associations…with no room for spontaneity or nuance”–is all that worrisome or even perspicuous.

These associations and affiliations are expressions of taste, evidence of choices. These choices may display the very ‘spontaneity’ and ‘nuance’ whose absence Greenberg is bemoaning. We might know these characters by ‘their era, their affiliations, the music they listen to, and the products they boycott, or acquire’ but that does not mean the particular and peculiar way these are assembled by each individual may not be a ‘style’, a distinct signature, all its own.Greenberg seems to imagine such characters are entirely passive, merely bearing the impress of their cultures. But that would only be so if there is an assumption of, ironically enough, a certain ‘determinism’ on his part. These collections of ‘cultural associations,’ often very distinct from each other, present a different breeding ground for the various influences they subsequently encounter. Those interactions will often result in a quite unique character.

As but a trivial example, the temporal sequencing of these cultural adoptions may significantly affect the particular ‘sum total’; cultural choices and tastes do not follow some commutative law of addition. The teenager who discovers Slayer first, and then Black Sabbath later is very different from the one who listens to Black Sabbath first and finds Slayer later. The former finds his beloved thrashers have their provenance in classic heavy metal; the latter finds his beloved masters continue to live on in the homage paid them by contemporaries. The former may be tempted into an exploration of an older school of music; the latter may seek to find other bands’ expressions of a signature style. Their resultant journeys are likely to be very different. Or, if you prefer a more exalted example, those who read military histories of the Second World War first, and then later read those written by Herodotus, are likely to have a quite different reading experience from those who bring Herodotus to their reading of the Second World War histories.

Conformity is a genuine worry, but not quite in the way that Greenberg worries about it. The notion of a ‘sum total…of cultural associations’, in particular, strikes me as incoherent.

My Father’s Aviator Sunglasses

As a young boy I loved and admired many things about my father. Foremost among them was the fact that he was an Air Force pilot, a decorated one, one who had fought in two wars, capable of feats of valor and skill that boggled my juvenile mind. He seemed impossibly charismatic. How could he not, when he could pull off tricks like telling me one bright morning as he headed for work, ‘Watch the sky to the right of the house at 5PM; I’ll be in the second jet that comes over’, and then sure enough, showing up, as promised, at the right time, in the right place, in a screaming jet. (The Hawker Hunter appeared first like a wraith on the horizon, silent and lithe, over a grove of eucalyptus trees, and then suddenly, impossibly quick, it was flying past our house as I heard its Rolls-Royce engine ear-shatteringly announce its awesome presence.)

And an important part of the package, his mystique, his aura, were his sunglasses. Movie and rock stars may come and go, chiseled six-pack-packing models might continue to intimidate me,  but the iconic handsome, strong man will always remain, for me, my father in a pair of sweat-soaked flying overalls, his crewcut visible, wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses. That combination, so well-known, and so well-enshrined in the imagery associated with aviation, was one ever-present in my childhood, and it ensured an orientation of my aesthetic compass in a particular direction.

My father wore Ray-Bans, naturally. I still do not know how he procured them. But he must have spent a fair amount of his modest salary on his beloved pair, and he guarded them, like he guarded his long-playing record collection, with an intensity and attention to detail that was awe-inspiring. The constant cleaning with a soft cloth, the careful handling and placing back in their case, the refusal to let my brother and I ‘just try them on.’ (God forbid we ever disobeyed and sneaked in an illicit wearing session; I think we were meant to understand that they, like the wings he had pinned to his uniform, had to be earned.) They protected him from the three S’s he said, sun, sand and smoke; they protected the pilot’s most important aids; they deserved all the care and affection he showered on them.

As a teenager, I could scarcely wait to emulate my father’s look. I would only grow my hair out long, down past my shoulders, once I had finished my first graduate degree and started work. Till then, off and on, I experimented with getting the crewcut and sunglasses combination right. (This desperation was particularly manifest in my undergraduate days.) Somehow, it never worked. The haircut went awry; the glasses weren’t the right shape; I was too thin; I was too overweight. At some point, I gave up trying to wear aviator sunglasses. I switched to more conventional models, sporty types, Euro-trash styles, and then finally, sadly, to a pair of prescription sunglasses that do double duty now for mild myopia correction and shading my eyes from, yes, the three S’s. (I still try to sport military crew-cuts though I cannot find a barber who does them just right.)

The biggest problem, of course, with these attempts at paternal emulation, was that I wasn’t a pilot and I wasn’t my father. No matter how much I strutted and preened, I knew I was only a pale imitation of a man who could actually fly through the skies, all the while sitting on a top of a controlled explosion, a man who had felt the thunderous kick of a high-performance jet engine propel him down a runway and off into the air. That’s the missing piece, the one I was never able to place in the puzzle to acquire that look I sought when I peered into the nearest mirror.