Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Goethe and "The Liberal Imagination"

The "liberal imagination" refers of course to the book of that name by Lionel Trilling, which I have looked at again since reading a TLS review (2/3/12) of Why Trilling Matters by Adam Kirsch. In an essay in The Liberal Imagination entitled "Manners, Morals, and the Novel," Trilling says something that captures what 18th-century scholars know to be the case:

"Some of the charm of the past consists of the quiet -- the great distracting buzz of implication has stopped and we are left only with what has been fully phrased and precisely stated. And part of the melancholy of the past comes from our knowledge that the huge, unrecorded hum of implication was once there and left no trace."

The "buzz of implication" (I think it may have been E.M. Forster who coined this term), never "precisely stated," always surrounds us in the present: "in the tone of greetings and the tone of quarrels, in slang and humor and popular songs, in the way children play, in the gesture the waiter makes when he puts down the plate, in the nature of the very food we prefer."

We scholars of the 18th century are always trying to suss out this "buzz of implication," and it is what writers of historical novels attempt in their re-creations. I would hazard the guess that the popularity of certain contemporary writers is based on their ability to evoke just this buzz of implication. I think, for instance, of Jonathan Franzen's novels.

Even though I had read several essays in Trilling's The Liberal Imagination many years ago, it had never quite registered with me that Trilling was "critiquing" the assumptions underlying the liberalism of the 1940s and 1950s. This was an era (as I now read it in Trilling's preface) when liberalism was "the sole intellectual tradition." Liberalism, in Trilling's view, encompassed a wide swath of opinion. In an essay on Trilling in The New Yorker in 2008, Louis Menand wrote that, for Trilling, a liberal was "a person who believes that the right economic system, the right political reforms, the right undergraduate curriculum, and the right psychotherapy will do away with unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy." Since there was, according to Trilling, no conservative intellectual opposition, liberals had no counterforce that would force them to examine their weaknesses and complacencies. Thus, The Liberal Imagination aimed to put "under some degree of pressure" the assumption that the world could be made right as imagined by liberals.

In this connection, I was struck by something else in the review of Why Trilling Matters. The reviewer (Allan Massie) mentions Trilling's essay on Freud and literature. Though Trilling admired Freud's work, there was also much in it to "disquiet" him, in particular with what Trilling called its "affinity with the anti-rationalist element of the Romanticist tradition." Freud was of course a thoroughgoing rationalist, and psychoanalysis attempted to reconcile neurotics to reality, but Freud also held that psychic well-being was impossible in modern society, because of the renunciation required by "civilization." Much modern literature, however, as Trilling recognized, "seemed to approve of aggression rather than acceptance, and of the superiority of the individual will to conventional morality."

This put me in mind of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, on which I recently posted. I mentioned there Arnold Hauser's description of that novel as "the first important criticism of romanticism as a way of life," in particular the "absolute sterility of the romantic turning away from reality." Goethe may have founded the Bildungsroman tradition, but many of the writers who followed in this tradition feature characters who do not make peace with reality. Goethe's "hero," in contrast, as Hauser writes, learns "that one can only do the world justice if one is spiritually bound up with it, and that one can only reform it from inside." Thus, Goethe's critique of "the liberal imagination" avant la lettre.

Picture credits: Libcom; Columbia College; The Liberty Fund


Anonymous said...

This morning I read David Bolotin on Thucydides in the Strauss/Cropsey "History of Political Philosophy" and gained a deeper understanding of just where the conservative "neocons" are coming from: Reality with a capital R! (I'm thinking here mainly of foreign policy.) ..... My many nieces and nephews, who did not have the benefit of a good liberal arts education are many of them suffering from the ongoing hangover of romanticism. They seem lost, completely taken in by the shallowest, most superficial aspects of our decadent American popular culture. The excesses of materialism and the welfare state are rightly criticized by the more thoughtful neocons from Irving Kristol (who spoke at one of our commencements in the 70s) on down. These days I listen to Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol as though they were oracles. But I'm also passionately interested in where, historically, the Kristols and Krauthammers are coming from. To think that a TV pundit (Kristol) read, nay, studied Strauss, who in turn mastered the entire tradition of political theory. The 18th century clearly was one of the "waves of modernity" that Strauss writes about (thinking mainly of Rousseau, one of the icons of "feeling" and the "romantic".) This blog has increased my interest in Goethe's reaction to romanticism, his sober influence. I have to confess a passion, at the moment, for the line extending from Jacobi, whom Strauss did his dissertation on, all the way to Husserl and Heidegger, both of whom are included in the 1987 edition of the monumental Strauss/Cropsey "History of Political Philosophy." Perhaps there will be yet another edition someday, one that will include the European and South American phenomenon, Zizek, who has actually had some surprisingly positive things to say, of late, about the sober "neocon" approach to, say, the long war in Afghanistan.

Goethe Girl said...

I did not know that Strauss did his dissertation on Jacobi. Thanks for that information.