Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Freud Defeats Dewey
Sean McCann is Professor of English at Wesleyan University and a regular contributor to the Valve. He is the author of Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism. His new book project is entitled The Anti-Liberal Imagination: American Literature and Presidential Government.
I agree with John. And I doubt that we’re the only readers who won’t be terribly sorry that the journey was abandoned. It sounds harsh. But so far as I’m concerned, Trilling’s abilities as a novelist were inversely proportional to his gifts as a critic. No dishonor there. You can’t be brilliant at everything. The great majority of us don’t manage to be brilliant at anything.
The problem with this unfinished novel, as John and Miriam suggest, is that it so wants to be brilliant. Trilling was surely aware of this. (The authorial notes that editor Geraldine Murphy includes as “Trilling’s commentary” end with the directive: “the first thing to discover is whether we are properly equipped with characters.” Short answer: not exactly.) The literary refinement and intellectual seriousness that made Trilling a great critic made him a so-so novelist. Why? A big part of the reason, as John explains, is that The Journey Abandoned is relentlessly theoretical and, as Murphy points out in her excellent introduction, heavily thematized. Every character stands for a position. Every event is freighted with portent. And none of it seems particularly distinctive or, to my mind, plausible. Yes, this is ironic (to use an adjective Trilling cherished only slightly less than did Alanis Morrisette). A critic who invokes the power of art to resist the deathly embrace of ideology writes a story that seems created by blueprint.
But, if you’ve read The Middle of the Journey, you’re already aware of that problem. This unfinished work reveals, I think, another reason why Trilling was a far better critic than he was a novelist. He was a snob. Painfully. Excruciatingly. Pathologically. The ideological core of The Journey Abandoned isn’t so much terror at the Stalinist advance of the liberal imagination. It’s squeamish distaste at the rising tide of vulgarity. “Vulgar,” as it happens, may be the only word Trilling uses with more abandon than he does “ironic.” (“Commonplace” and “provincial” are almost equally devastating diagnoses.) Indeed, unless I misread the direction Trilling’s opening chapters appear to telegraph, the seduction of vulgarity was planned as the novel’s central crux. Young hero Vincent Hammell is offered the chance to write the biography of the great man Jorris Buxton. But while that opportunity gives him a noble quest, it will also present him with temptations personified by the various ogres and trolls (teachers, administrators, patrons, women) he meets along the way. The big question? “How much his intellectual passion was interwoven with his vulgar will to be successful” (56)?
There’s something quite interesting about the power of this theme for Trilling, I think. Among other things, it helps to clarify the novel’s truly astounding sexism, which--as Murphy very helpfully explains--is far from incidental to the novel. (Murphy points out, the key delineation of the regal Joris Buxton, suitably offered by one of his female admirers: “My God! The one thing about Mr. Buxton is that he’s a man.” His antagonist, on the other hand, is simply a “nasty, possessive bitch,” presumably bent on bringing the great man low. Her power makes Vincent Hammell think of “something concealed under her dress, like the battery of a hearing-aid or a religious medal, or an amulet.” Nice touch there, combining the battery and the amulet. Patriarch Joris Buxton is a great artist and a great scientist, the hero as unifier of the two cultures. His enemy, the bitch Claudine Post, unites the power of technology and superstition on a lower, more contemptible wavelength. The Virgin and the Dynamo in one yucky brew.)
Unfortunately, none of that makes for a very compelling story or very convincing characters. Just as an aside, you can get a sense of Trilling’s limitations as a novelist by comparing him to his contemporary Mary McCarthy—on whom, as Murphy points out, the character Garda Thorne appears to be partially modeled. McCarthy shares pretty much all Trilling’s aesthetic and political prejudices, as well as his yearning for distinction and his justified anxiety about minority status. But in the contemporaneous The Company She Keeps, McCarthy gives Meg Sargent not only a power of discrimination unmatched in its withering discernment by anything in Trilling’s fiction. She also shows that Meg is both courageous and callow; pitilessly clear-seeing, and at the same time shallow, vain, and desperate for superiority. Meg’s wound and her bow really are inseparable. Trilling’s heroes have only bows.
(Then, too, there’s the fact that, when Trilling invokes sexual passion, we read a story about virginal tourists plashing about in sacramental wine. McCarthy, on the other hand, favors a pick-up scene on a Pullman car that culminates in Meg’s memory of profanity, drunkenness, and spanking. She plunges into the vulgarity and embarrassment he keeps at a carefully symbolic distance.)
But I’ve gotten distracted with all this griping. If, by any chance, you’re still with me, let me mention what I find the truly interesting part of Trilling’s desire to dramatize the struggle between “intellectual passion” and “vulgar will.” I think Stephen is absolutely right to see this as primarily a problem in the sociology of culture and to suggest that the manuscript was virtually written for the lens of Pierre Bourdieu. The story is all about the desperate, paradoxical, and necessarily self-deceptive quest for literary distinction. One of the few scenes that struck me as vivid and penetrating comes, for example, in the encounter when Vincent Hammell meets his destined patron Harold Outram, the chief executive of an institution analogous to the Ford Foundation. Vincent is stunned when he discovers that, rather than appreciating the coy wit to which he has aspired, the administrator has read his essay “The Sociology of the Written Word” as a straightforward, academic account of the literary marketplace. “A wave of misery swept over Vincent. Yes, all the irony and all the magic had gone from his poor little essay.”
There really is a whole sociology of culture implicit in that wonderful moment, when Vincent is heartbroken to be read as a plodding meritocratic striver rather than as the brilliant man of letters he wants to be. In effect, Outram has turned Vincent into a version of his own female pupils, toward whose professional yearning the young man feels only pity and contempt. Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.
Of course, the problem of distinction is a central theme of modernist fiction. What Trilling brings to the table, however, is the emphasis he places on an emerging, new institutional context for the agon. Foundations, schools, universities—these are the most telling settings in the manuscript, and the context for its most impassioned encounters. (By comparison, the novel’s visions of a Midwestern city and of a New England village are platonic ideas.) Lurking in The Journey Abandoned, I think, is the prophetic realization that the university was about to become the dominant institution of postwar literary culture. And alongside that realization lies a still more illuminating perception: the presiding demand of that world would not be, as Trilling feared, the adminstrator’s quest for rationalization and efficiency, but what Vincent longs for—irony and magic. I.e. authenticity.
You think I’m overreading. But, in fact, early on the novel announces almost explicitly a battle between Dewey (in a dimwitted arts administrator who wants his school’s emphasis on the social practice of art to overcome the needless division of “mind” and “soma”) and Freud—who allows passion and intellect to function as antagonists whose sturm und drang raise the intellectual to heroic stature. And repeatedly, the story returns to the drama. In one remarkable scene, Vincent battles with Outram for his self-possession and comes to the realization that Outram doesn’t really believe his own theories. “The ideas of this man whose intelligence was so beautifully stamped on his face were so foolish and shallow that it was almost as if Outram were saying aloud, desperately, ‘Pay no attention to my ideas—look only at the impulse behind them.”
Almost explicitly, then, a Freudian attention to the impulses that drive avowed beliefs provides the means (a more durable irony and magic) of freeing oneself from their vulgar grip. Strikingly, Vincent finds that it also gives him his first genuine realization of the school in which he has taught and of the political powers that rule his world. (He feels for the first time “all the manifestations of existence that an institution makes” and marvels as “the veil of anonymity fell away from government.”) Freud, not Dewey or Marx, is the key to making it in the institutional world of the future.
To put all this a different way, what The Journey Abandoned suggests to my mind are two key insights about the dawning world of mass higher education: that university training instills a powerful need to distinguish professional accomplishment from the vulgar pursuit of advantage; and that one crucial means of making the distinction would be to view one’s training as a privileged means of access to the deep, pre-rational sources of passion and power.
Trilling comes close to saying that almost directly in a passage near to the end of the text, but the novel ends with the theme unresolved. I suspect he realized he could work out its implications better, more safely and with more authority, in the critical works to come.
"Nice touch there, combining the battery and the amulet. Patriarch Joris Buxton is a great artist and a great scientist, the hero as unifier of the two cultures. His enemy, the bitch Claudine Post, unites the power of technology and superstition on a lower, more contemptible wavelength.”
Another poster here—I forgot who it was; I’m starting to suffer from unfinished journey trail fatigue—mentioned the battery / amulet under the dress passage. But I hadn’t really picked up on just how astounding it really was. Doesn’t this start to call Trilling’s criticism into question? Unless there’s some great irony that I’m missing, I feel that anyone who could write that must have had something fundamentally wrong with their artistic worldview. This goes beyond historicized sexism into some kind of failure of eros—an inability to see certain things that I would think are important about art.
“Vincent is stunned when he discovers that, rather than appreciating the coy wit to which he has aspired, the administrator has read his essay “The Sociology of the Written Word” as a straightforward, academic account of the literary marketplace.”
And this was another surprise to me. Vincent has apparently written a snarky blog post. The differences between the two cultures here are immense. No scientist would want their work to be read as other than what it appeared to be. In science, brilliance involves clarity. Perhaps that’s one reason why Trilling, from the posts I’ve read here, treats his physicist as rather a cypher.
Speaking of blog posts, Sean, you should post here more often again. The climate is much improved, and it’s too bad that when you do write something, you’re posting as “Guest Author”.
The “guest author” thing is a bit confusing. Because of the number of guest writers for this event, I asked Valve regulars like Sean and Joseph and Miriam to send me their contributions for me to put up.