Signs & signatures
Critic as moral visionary
Darshan Singh Maini

AS a rule, critics are seldom taken into account when the theme is the work of a great novelist, poet or essayist. They are considered secondary to the proceedings. However, now and then, a critic becomes a lawgiver, and a creative writer in his own right. Critics like Coleridge and Matthew Arnold who were also great poets belong to this category. And itís against the background of their work that we may consider Lionel Trillingís remarkable books. Undoubtedly, he was one of the 20th centuryís greatest critics. To have known him personally during my visit to Harvard University (1969-70) as a Fulbright Professor when he too was a Visiting Professor for a year was now a cherished memory. We always met at the Tuesday faculty lunch, and a friendly relationship got established. Itís against the background of this personal note that I wish to consider Trillingís remarkable work. He was primarily expected to give weekly lectures to a packed hall, and I had the privilege to be present there.

Lionel Trilling, then, represents more than any other critic since Matthew Arnold the culture of cultural criticism, and its dialectic. It may, then, be helpful to remember here that Trillingís idea of culture itself stipulates a straining and a striving, an engagement of the labouring imagination with complexities and ambiguities, in short, a condition of dialectic.

The word Ďcultureí, as we know, comes from Latin cultura "a cultivating", though it has acquired a plethora of meanings, and a whole sum of resonances in its passage through the ages. Broadly speaking, when a walk of a peopleís culture, we mean that complex of inherited values, vision, beliefs and ideas that create and sustain a community of shared interests and social action.

Though Trilling realises the misery of "the liberal imagination", he still believes in its regenerating power. As a cultural critic, then, Arnold remains a pioneer in the sense that he looks for those enduring elements in poets and playwrights that make up what he calls culture. Thatís why his favourite authors include, among others, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats and Burns, for in all these writers, there is a strenuous engagement of the spirit in the service of the senses. The imagination in such cases draws its nutriment from the sap and pith and salt of life. Between Arnold and Trilling falls the shadow of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, and thatís why before we turn to Trilling as perhaps the finest practitioners of cultural criticism in our times, it may be pertinent to have a passing brush with the Marxian concept of culture. For Trilling happens to have reconciled considerably the Christian, liberal humanist and Marxian positions where they touch the essential core of culture.

For a proper assessment of Trilling as a cultural critic, we need to turn to the philosophical assumptions informing some of his major essays in such volumes as The Liberal Imagination, Beyond Culture, The Opposing Self and Sincerity and Authenticity, though the two critical studies, Matthew Arnold and E.M. Forster, as also his semi-autobiographical novel, The Middle of Journey, are fairly helpful in establishing the contours of his involved thought.

If one follows Trillingís thought through his successive volumes of criticism, and sees how the energies of "the liberal imagination" and the dialectic of "the opposing self" gave him his theme and his song, one is not surprised to find his quest finally turning in the direction of the authenticity of the self as a distinctive mark of the modern world. In his Norton Lectures at Harvard, published later as Sincerity and Authenticity Trilling traces the history of the concept in Western literature, and affirms how the principle or value of sincerity yielded place to the principle of authenticity as cultural conflicts forced the writer, to face problematics of Hegalís "honest, social and disintegrated consciousness" as exemplified in Diderotís Rameauís Nephew.

Thus Trilling remains perhaps the most powerful voice in the western literary and critical tradition since Arnold in his insistence on the need to recognise the value of a work of art in terms of its relationship to culture in its multiple senses. At the outset, he had desired "to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility". And he never faltered till the end in his pursuit of the spirit of liberalism.