Sunday, February 06, 2005

Himmelfarb on Trilling, Eliot and the origins of "neoconservatism"

Gertrude Himmelfarb remembers the effect that Lionel Trillings 1940 essay, "Elements That Are Wanted," on T.S. Eliot in the Partisan Review, had on her and her fellow young "neo-Trotskyites."
I had never read Eliot's essays or the journal he edited . . . I was, however, a faithful reader of Partisan Review, which was, in effect, the intellectual and cultural organ of Trotskyites . . . Many years later I remembered little about Trilling's essay except its memorable title, "Elements That Are Wanted," and the enormous excitement it generated in me and my friends. . . it was a revelation, the beginning of a disaffection not only with our anti-Stalinist radicalism but, ultimately, with liberalism itself. Trilling has been accused (the point is almost always made in criticism) of being, not himself a neoconservative, to be sure, but a progenitor of neoconservatism. There is much truth in this. Although he never said or wrote anything notable about the "practical sphere" of real politics (he was not a "public intellectual" in our present sense, commenting on whatever made the headlines), he did provide a mode of thought, a moral and cultural sensibility, that was inherently subversive of liberalism and thus an invitation to neoconservatism."
What struck Himmelfarb was that
Trilling . . . did not believe morality was absolute or a 'religious politics' desirable. But Eliot's vision of morality and politics was superior to the vision of liberals and radicals, who had contempt for the past and worshiped the future. Liberals, in the name of progress, put off the realization of the good life to some indefinite future; radicals put off the good life in the expectation of a revolution that would usher in not only a new society but also a new man, a man who would be 'wholly changed by socialism.' Marxism was especially dangerous, Trilling found, because it combined "a kind of disgust with humanity as it is and a perfect faith in humanity as it is to be." Eliot's philosophy, on the other hand, whatever its defects and dangers, had the virtue of teaching men to value "the humanity of the present equally with that of the future," thus serving as a restraint upon the tragic ambition to transcend reality. It was in this sense, Trilling concluded, that Eliot bore out the wisdom of Arnold's dictum. Eliot's religious politics, while maleficent in the practical sphere, contained elements wanting in liberalism--"elements which a rational and naturalistic philosophy, to be adequate, must encompass."
Further, Himmelfarb reminds us, particularly historians, that literature can help us understand the past.
Trilling . . . did not reflect much upon the kinds of moral questions, or "moral values," that occupy us today: marriage, family, sex, abortion. What interested him was the relation of morality to reality--the abiding sense of morality that defines humanity, and at the same time the imperatives of a reality that necessarily, and properly, circumscribes morality. He called this "moral realism." . . . Trilling wrote about "the dangers of the moral life itself," of a "moral righteousness" that preens itself upon being "progressive."

. . ."Moral realism" is Trilling's legacy for us today--for conservatives as well as liberals. Conservatives are well disposed to such realism, being naturally suspicious of a moral righteousness that has been often misconceived and misdirected. And their suspicions are confirmed by the disciplines upon which they have habitually drawn: philosophy, economics, political theory, and, most recently, the social sciences, which are so valuable in disputing much of the conventional (that is to say, liberal) wisdom about social problems and public policies.

The element that is still wanting, however, is the sense of variety, complexity, and difficulty--which comes, Trilling reminds us, primarily from the "experience of literature," and which at its best informs the political imagination as well as the moral imagination.

No comments: