Friday, May 20, 2022

Aren't we killing them already as fast as we can?

Haman: "You have been deceived by a zhid posing as a crackpot saint. He has infected your family with his obscenity and, worse, is using from the Czarevich his blood to bake it in matzohs for filthy Jew rituals. For this affront, I recommend you slaughter all the Jews in your kingdom."

The Czar, not unreceptive to the sugestion: "Aren't we killing them already as fast as we can?" For there had been much butchering of late.

Steve Stern's excellent novella The North of God is a comedy, in the sense that Byron's "and if I laugh at any mortal thing, tis that I shall not weep" is a statement about comedy. This is a great book, and Stern is probably the 21st century's heir to Isaac Bashevis Singer, to throw out a comparison. The North of God is a tragedy in which Rabbi Velvl Spfarb tells the fantastical tale of Hershel Khevreman's fall and subsequent enlightenment, his story a desperate sort of gift to the young mother and her child against whom Velvl is pinned, crammed into a cattle car on a train that takes them and thousands of other Jews to a Nazi extermination camp. Velvl knows he is not Sherehezade, knows that the tale he tells won't save anyone's life, but he also knows that some kind of escape is possible and necessary at the moment, and he provides that brief escape. 

Hershel had conceived, since coming to Stary Sacz, a fondness for creature comforts. He liked clean linen, warm rooms, and bakery goods. In fact, his affection for featherbeds might rival on occasion his passion for the conundrums of the Law. But such pleasures marked the limits of Hershel's indulgence. The wayward thoughts and temptations the rebbe described as the reverse side of the scholarly virtues seldom disturbed him. To resolve some thorny legal problem--the culpability, say, of a family into whose home a mouse brings unleavened crumbs on Passover; or how much farther to rend a garment upon the death of a near relation than of a friend--this was meat and drink to Hershel; of the commentaries of the oral Torah, he could say along with the psalmist: "How sweet are Thy words unto my palate!" Nothing in the larders of the households on whose charity he depended had ever beckoned him more.

But all that was changed in an hour by a lady who stepped out of a mirror--which was of course impossible. It was a phenomenon that defied the rational categories, a thing that would never have been credited in the pandects of Maimonides or the Vilna Gaon. [...] Hershel Khevreman, who had no patience with magic, discounted all irrational expressions of faith. He discounted them so fervently that he sometimes wondered if faith itself were not irrational. Wasn't God, when you thought of it, a somewhat absurd proposition? This was a line of reasoning Hershel rarely followed any further, always returning to a conscientious exegeses of texts. Study, that was his ruling impulse, overruled though it had been tonight.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

breathing the haunted air in Lionel Trilling's noir America

 ...the old margin no longer exists; the facade is down; society's resistance to the discovery of depravity has ceased; now everyone knows that Thackeray was wrong, Swift right. The world and the soul have split open of themselves and are all agape for our revolted inspection.

The activity of mind fails before the imcommunicability of man's suffering.

Human life as an aesthetic object can perhaps no longer command our best attention; the day seems to have gone when the artist who dealt in representation could catch our interest almost by the mere listing of the ordinary details of human existence; and the most extreme and complex of human dilemmas now surely seem to many to have lost their power to engage us.

These excerpts are from Lionel Trilling's 1948 lecture "Art and Fortune," one of the essays collected in Trilling's The Liberal Imagination. Trilling was worried, deeply worried, seventy-plus years ago, about the role of the novel in America, the role of the novel as public discourse and as art, and how fiction intersects (or should intersect) with reality to influence politics. Trilling is building on Zola's ideas in The Experimental Novel, the novel as social science and engine of progress. Trilling is worried because he is pessimistic.

The illusions of art are made to serve the purpose of a closer and truer relation with reality.

The world is a complex and unexpected and terrible place which is not always to be understood by the mind as we use it in our everyday tasks.

Literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.

Literature, Trilling says, is important. The arts--especially poetry and novels--are crucial to the project of liberal America, a necessary way to see the real world. The Liberal Imagination is much concerned with reality, "reality," realism, and "realism." Trilling stakes out a position where "the world" is more than its measurable qualities, and that love and suffering must be taken into account alongside profit and border security. We learn about love and suffering (as well as about profit and border security) from art, not from hard fact and metrics, and life itself is much more about love and suffering than it is about profit and border security, for most people on a day-to-day basis. 

I should note that Trilling never, in The Liberal Imagination, defines liberal. Nor does he define "conservative," though he opines that, in 1948-49, there is no conservative intellectual movement in America. The conservative intellectual movement in America disagreed, of course. But loosely Trilling means, by liberal, a worldview in which humanity is essentially good, and whose behavior and material conditions can be improved through education and legislation; by conservative he means something like a worldview where humanity is essentially bad--sinful, if you like--and cannot be improved so the best course of action is to control people, to restrict choice and agency in order to reduce the arena of possible evil. Taken to its extreme, conservative becomes fascism or some other totalitarianism. Trilling would've thought of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as models of extreme conservatism. One of the duties of the arts--especially poetry and novels--is to protect America from becoming a Nazi Germany or a Soviet Russia.

But Trilling, as I say, is pessimistic about this project because the novels he sees as promoting liberal values are, by and large, bad novels. The great novels, according to Trilling, were written by people with conservative leanings, people who did not see humanity as innately good and improvable, people without the sort of hope for the world that Trilling held important.

novels, almost in the degree that they celebrate the human, falsify and abstract it; in the very business of expressing adoration of the rounded and soft forms of living bodies they expose the disgust which they really feel.


It might be said that our present definition of a serious book is one which holds before us some image of society to consider and condemn.

Trilling admits that the problem with American liberals is that, just like every other American, they are caught up in politics rather than actual reasoning:

Nowadays everyone is involved in ideas--or, to be more accurate, in ideology. [...] and he has what almost always goes with an impulse to ideology, a good deal of animus and anger. [...] ideological organization has cut across class organization, generating loyalties and animosities which are perhaps even more intense than those of class. [...] ideation increasingly becomes a basis of prestige. [...] Its promise of comedy and tragedy is enormous; its assurance of relevance is perfect. Dostoevski adequately demonstrated this for us.

Ideology is not ideas; ideology is not acquired by thought but by breathing the haunted air. The life in ideology, from which none of us can wholly escape, is a strange submerged life of habit and semihabit in which to ideas we attach strong passions but no very clear awareness of the concrete reality of their consequences. To live the life of ideology with its special form of unconsciousness is to expose oneself to the risk of becoming an agent of what Kant called "the Radical Evil," which is "man's inclination to corrupt the imperatives of morality so that they may become a screen for the expression of self-love."

Trilling accuses everyone here, of every political and intellectual stripe. Novels are full of ideologies rather than ideas, with portraits of how people should be rather than by how they are, and nobody is really looking at life as it is truly lived. The liberal novel, Trilling says, does not ring true and is a bad novel. He wants liberal novels to ring true the way the great novels, written by the world's pessimists, ring true. It's a conundrum for Trilling, and one that has not been solved in the past seventy-odd years. Preachy novels ain't no good, it's well understood. Certainly the ideological novels of the conservative writers (Ayn Rand, for example) are as awful as the ideological novels of the liberal writers, and even though the ideological novelists from both (or all, if you like) sides get the most press and have the largest Twitter followings, their books, as Shaw said of Wagner, "stink in the ear." These last two sentences are very loose paraphrases of Trilling. Very loose.

Trilling is agitating in The Liberal Imagination for a better kind of liberal novel, one that is not ideological and still has the power to lead its readers into the light, broaden one's empathic skills, illustrate man's inhumanity to man while not giving the idea that inhumanity is where it all ends. The trouble is, Trilling has no way to get there. He has no useful advice aside from some nonsense about "masculine prose" and "the spirit of religion," something Trilling himself can't really describe because he has no more than an inkling that perhaps a moral compass is required in order to lead men to the light. The other problem Trilling has, one he doesn't dare look at too directly, is that he is excited by the pessimism to be found in much American literature. Witness, for example, his gushing over Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.

Lolita was published after The Liberal Imagination, so I am now stepping away from Trilling's essays except for this passage from "Art and Fortune" which I think describes much of what Nabokov does in his novels:

the novel makes some of its best moral discoveries or presentations of fact when it is concerned with form, when it manipulates its material merely in accordance with some notion of order or beauty, although it must be stipulated that this is likely to occur only when what is manipulated resists enough, the novel being the form whose aesthetic must pay an unusually large and simple respect to its chosen material.

Nabokov was, I think it can be argued, influenced by the spirits of Expressionism and film noir. He was quite fond of several Expressionist films and speaks highly of a number of American noir films he watched in the 1940s while writing Lolita. That novel, and Kubrick's film version (for which Nabokov write the screenplay), are certainly Expressionist and noir works. An exemplary passage from the novel: 

"...the avenue under the window of my insomnia, to the west of my wake—a staid, eminently residential, dignified alley of huge trees—degenerated into the despicable haunts of gigantic trucks roaring through the wet and windy night.”

Lolita, to me, has always shared the pessimistic attitude of noir, that the world is filled with depraved predators victimizing the weak, whose only options are to become depraved themselves or to die at the hands of the predator. Nabokov, somewhere, says that at some future date, enlightened critics will realize that underneath the acerbic formalist artist, he will finally be recognized as an old-fashioned moralist. Noir is full of very old-fashioned--even Old Testament--moralism. Lolita is a prison confession, after all, a pretty common trope in noir.

I'm not going to deconstruct Lolita as a piece of noir; I will just claim Lolita as a highly successful novel that sits comfortably within that genre. Trilling, as I say, quite liked the book. On the internet you can find the episode of "Up Close" from 1955 or whenever in which Trilling and Nabokov sit on a sofa, smoking, Trilling exclaiming that he was very excited reading Lolita, and Nabokov gleefully talking about his imaginary America and the "laboratory of the mind" or something like that. Trilling thought that Lolita was a great American novel. It was not, however, a liberal American novel. It did not point the way forward to an enlightened society.

The problem then, Trilling implies, is that great novels are written by people who describe what they think they see in life ("moral fiction" as John Gardner put it) rather than what they feel is politically incumbent upon them to write. Their art is informed by their lived experience and not their ideology; the bad, ideological novels have not lasted (see Trilling's comments on Kipling, for example). There is no way, Trilling doesn't seem to realize, for a liberal American to write a "liberal" didactic novel that anyone would want to read except to reinforce their own already-formed ideological thinking. (There are a lot of these sorts of novels being published right now, representing a wide variety of American ideologies.) In the end, the problem is that of ideology being privileged over art, as ideology masks and ignores reality, replacing it with warped "reality":

...moral indignation, which has been said to be the favorite emotion of the middle class, may be in itself an exquisite pleasure.


...with us it is always a little too late for mind, yet never too late for honest stupidity; always a little too late for understanding, never too late for righteous, bewildered wrath; always too late for thought, never too late for naive moralizing.
Trilling, at least in The Liberal Imagination, had no solution to this problem.