Wednesday, September 10, 2008
The Sexual Resolution: Lionel Trilling’s Indispensable Failure
Joseph Kugelmass is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. He is an assistant editor for the Valve and also blogs at his own website, the Kugelmass Episodes.
The novel Lionel Trilling began during the 1940s, and ultimately neither finished nor published, is so replete with basic problems that it is initially difficult to see beyond them. The novel is flatly written, and the dialogue is banal. Numerous scenes develop awkwardly, such as one where the protagonist’s farewell conversation with his father rapidly and inexplicably devolves into a clumsily dramatized fight over Spinoza’s theodicy and then over the son’s indifference to his father’s feelings of sacrifice and failure. The novel gets bogged down presenting scenes from Vincent’s boyhood and frustrated provincial life, and then ends unfinished just when Trilling appears to be getting to his “real” subject matter, a scandal based on one chapter from the life of minor Romantic poet Walter Savage Landor.
Nonetheless, the fact that Trilling’s enormous stature as a critic and American scholar has enabled publication of The Journey Abandoned should be cause for celebration. The novel is not unique to Trilling, and therein lies its greatness. There must be dozens, if not hundreds, of unfinished novels from Trilling’s own time and since that resemble this book but will never see the light of publication. The attitudes and ideas contained within the novel explain why it could never be finished, why what we do have is so utterly misshapen and flawed, and why it is such a sobering and fascinating failure. I do not mean thus to devalue Geraldine Murphy’s engaging introduction, where she represents the novel as a (mostly unwitting) attempt to rescue Henry James from effeminacy and homosexuality and to fuse him with his brother William, the man of science and action. She is quite right about the Jamesian context. Trilling’s revisionist version of James is his individual solution to a general problem, namely acting boldly and in good conscience without reference to the whole length and breadth of American society, including those poor and motley individuals who constitute “the masses.” In order to avoid referring to staggeringly complex and unjust social systems, Trilling ends up planning an unwritable tragic epic about heroic, virile men and their sexual possibilities, histories, and scandals.
The Journey Abandoned tries to be a novel about “selling out” one’s talent in obedience to the inexorable demands of institutional power. Harold Outram is the novel’s major symbol of this Faustian bargain: in exchange for a national reputation as a writer for the glossies and head of the charitable Peck Foundation, Outram surrenders the brilliance of his early critical essays and the promise of his first novel. His trajectory is quite interesting. After he publishes the novel, Outram becomes “the pet of a hundred committees, clubs, leagues and guilds [...] He wrote very little and that was of an ‘agitational’ nature” (18). After this kidnapping by the causes of the Left, Outram suffers a nervous breakdown, and when he finally recovers it is only in order to become a champion of mediocrity.
In short, the virile Outram (just consider his absurd last name) is castrated by the Left, and then, like Lord Chatterley paralyzed in his wheelchair, turns to money and power as substitutes for his lost manhood. This is, of course, conflating brilliance with sexual potency, something Trilling does throughout the novel, especially when it comes to Jorris Buxton, the genius and Renaissance man who sleeps with everybody he can and leaves the rest giggly with excitement. But what is it about the Left that is ultimately so paralyzing? Trilling would have us believe that it is the nature of Leftist organizations, with their time-consuming idle chatter, their demand for conformity and lip service, and their generally antagonistic and ill-tempered tone. Perhaps, however, it is equally paralyzing to arrive, in the course of one’s early career as an intellectual, at the unpleasant realization that one’s professed values are so incompatible with one’s ambitions and lifestyle that one or the other must succumb.
Consider, for example, Trilling’s profound anxiety of influence with respect to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson. Both authors are mentioned directly. Trilling’s commentary cites Fitzgerald’s famous dissolution as a Hollywood hack, and Anderson inspires Outram’s description of the novel as an “enormous egg.” There is a little of Nick Carraway in Vincent Hammell, and more than a little of George Willard. Yet Trilling addresses none of the social issues that his literary heroes were willing to tackle, or rather he addresses them from the opposite standpoint. There is no “valley of ashes” in The Journey Abandoned; instead, at the height of the terrifying storm, the housekeepers have the discretion to remain just inside the sheltering doorway, without venturing to join the company of their employers. In Anderson’s story “Hands,” the first story in Winesburg, he details the oppressive effects of homophobic panic. The Journey Abandoned, by contrast, is frankly homophobic, so much so that a “hint of the late Greek” in Outram has to be immediately “contradicted by the solidity of the skull” (45), whatever that means. Anderson is also keenly attentive to the desperate position of American women, writing about such social facts as clandestine abortions, while the best Trilling can do is to mourn the loss of “an intensity of womanhood such as [Vincent] had never seen” (147), one composed of “gentleness” and “submissiveness.”
Where Trilling tries to survey the American landscape, in Chapter 20, his lens records nothing but empty buildings, as though a neutron bomb had killed off every person except for the “rather sad Jew” (128) and his brother-in-law who own all the businesses in town. Naturally, this dehumanizing paucity of vision makes it impossible for Trilling to write like Anderson (or Balzac or Stendhal or Flaubert), but it also links up with his peculiarly aureatic way of describing the few individuals who do haunt his pages. The characters in The Journey Abandoned do not merely inhabit a place. They are that place. Outram is the man in the club’s dining room. In his absence, he can be perfectly well signified by a golden bottle of expensive Scotch. Teddy Kramer is the harried, unhappy business of the small-time university, its intellectual sterility and cold comforts reflected in Kramer’s “little Jewish face” (28) and the “bright and cheerless classrooms [created] by means of steel partitions on concrete floors.” The City College is, like Kramer, “sturdy and sullen [...] defeated and isolated, but proud” (26). Both when Vincent Hammell is first meeting Jorris Buxton and at the dinner party that follows, Buxton’s presence surrounds and brings into harmony everyone present, such that he can neutralize the irritating servility of his assistant and effortlessly resolve a quarrel among friends.
The apparent forcefulness of these characters is thus misleading. They are ambiances, not persons. They have been so completely permeated by the force of capital that they themselves have become consumer items of varying attractiveness: they are doomed to be abstracted into Greek heroes, or goddesses, or Arthurian enchantresses, and to always sound the same note. Nothing has any reality in The Journey Abandoned except money, power and the disguises of each, especially sex and “genius.” In his preface Lionel Trilling calls Harold Outram “X,” an empty signifier, the nothingness at the heart of unexamined wealth. (This is of course a placeholder for a missing name, yet Trilling retains the “X” even while he refers to Buxton as “Landor/Lear” and Hammell as “the young man.”) Trilling sees through Outram and shows us his despair, but he fails to realize that Buxton, whose brilliance has no content whatsoever, is also an “X,” the mere illusion of meaning and spirit.
This pervasive, terrifying nonbeing itself might have been Trilling’s subject, as it would later become a subject for John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Trilling’s prose is completely unlike Henry James, and resembles nothing so much as an unrealized and overlong effort along the lines of “The Swimmer” or “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Trilling comes close in his two scenes of sudden, inarticulate terror, which Vincent observes first in Garda Thorne and then later in Buxton. But to really explore this terror would mean abandoning the epic plot in favor of the antiheroic and perhaps the comic. In search of the masculine and the heroic, Trilling discovers that the only real events in these people’s lives are sexual ones—who had an affair with whom, who might have one with whom—but he approaches this with none of Carver’s irony.
The list goes like this. Garda had a May-December romance with Buxton, which she wants Hammell to present favorably and discretely; there is also the distinct possibility that Hammell and Garda will become lovers. Garda’s short story, which is about two girls soaking their legs and thighs in a priest’s tub of wine, not only provides a moment of illumination in Vincent’s otherwise disastrous creative writing class but is also non-fiction: “Of the two girls in the story who had taken off their shoes and stocking and lifted their skirts to step into the tub of wine, Garda Thorne herself was surely one” (88). The novel lingers approvingly on the self-effacing and sensual nature of Mrs. Buxton (Jorris’s mother) and Mrs. Outram, since that makes them occasions for the rousing and exercise of masculinity. Above all, Jorris Buxton must have his greatness underlined with sex. Marry Cathcart appears to have a crush on Buxton: “The girl had eyes only for Buxton, and Buxton was very glad to see her” (107). Even the housemaids feel the heat:
Then [Buxton] thought of something and trudged to where the housemaids were sitting in the doorway. They looked surprised and they blushed, and then, as he spoke to them, they giggled and rose uncertainly and, as he turned away, they sat down again, looking suddenly very charming in the flustered animation that had struck their faces. (120)
As a result, Trilling’s novel of action gets entangled in absurdity: the moment where Buxton will “act on his own great scale” (xlix) involves Buxton trying to rescue a sexually alluring girl-child from her procuress. It is bound to become such a pathetic proceeding that Trilling simply cannot continue. As Mark Shechner observes in his earlier post,
Let me just suggest that the novel had no place to go after this scene because Trilling had stumbled upon sensitive territory that only a Nabokov could open up for America a decade later. The novel screeches to a halt with Trilling staring into the abyss of pedophilia and refusing to take another step.
This is very true, and it is tempting to wish that Jorris Buxton could have become a creation on par with Humbert Humbert. But rather than leaving us thinking of Nabokov or Carver, chroniclers of American stagnation, I want to return to Trilling’s theme of heroism. At the end of Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp joins the German army, presumably to die an anonymous death in the trenches of the First World War. It is a sad and ignoble ending, but Mann retains some sympathy for Castorp’s decision, insofar as it means Hans recognizing his responsibility to a world larger than himself. It may not be heroic to live and die for a questionable cause, but it can never to be heroic to have no cause at all, or at least nothing beyond the agons of one’s own sexual partialities and social circles. The Magic Mountain is an antipode for Trilling (even though he rips it off in several places), firstly because it is a “novel of ideas,” and secondly because it is set when the storm clouds of war are gathering on the horizon. The Journey Abandoned, by contrast, is set “when the intense consciousness of the Depression had faded and when the war had not yet become a perfect certainty [...] The novel will have [...] no specific political content” (lii). Perhaps it would have cheered Trilling to learn that for the very wealthiest members of society, with countless forms of security besides stocks and bonds, there was, even in 1932, no need to acquire a particularly intense consciousness of the Depression at all. Such as they were free, as only the gods are free, to remain heroes and to prove it all night.
This is an excellent post, Joseph. I particularly like the idea of the novel being valuable as stand-in for all of the other unfinished novels of the time.
Eh, now I have to say something else to avoid sounding burble-y. Hmm… All right, not to be Johnny-One-Note after the long exchanges about this in our Adam Bede reading, but really there’s only one word for a character who is a brilliant writer and a brilliant scientist and who is gallant but gets all the women (and girls) hot and then does something about it etc. etc., and that’s a Gary Stu. Right? Isn’t Buxton Trilling’s fantasy-figure? And as with all Mary Sues / Gary Stus, it’s not a particularly interesting or new fantasy. In particular, his contentless charismatic brilliance seems like an early example of the typical fanfic “aura of smooth”.
One last nitpick: given the huge number of typos in my comments, I shouldn’t, but given that yours are written carefully, do you really want “to present favorably and discretely”?
"Outram” is not an uncommon surname.
Regarding Gary Stu—exactly. One way of putting the matter might be that Trilling planned a series of terrible embarrassments for his smooth hero, and then aborted the mission when he realized that his hero would be, as a result, embarrassed.
I meant “with discretion,” e.g. not using her name.
Sure, but when all you have is a Hammell, every problem starts to look like a nail.