The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Liberal Imagination

In the process of researching the new project, I've been reading many of the important works of the late 1940s-early 1950s dealing with the intersection of art and politics, especially in the context of the "totalitarian threat." Last week the text in question was Lionel Trilling's THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION (1950). I was also drawn to read this by an interesting post on Amardeep Singh's blog, where he looks at Trilling's essay on "little magazines" and how blogs, today, might fulfill the same role that PARTISAN REVIEW or POLITICS did back in that era.

I'm not convinced by the equivalence, however--although this might be because blogs are still a little immature. In suggesting this, Singh writes that

"In short, there should be a place where people write, freely assuming their audience knows way more than the average reader of USA Today. Serious writers and thinkers should feel free to take advantage of such an intellectually enlivened -- if rarefied -- space to work out complex ideas. And if that means a few thousand readers a day rather than a few million, then so be it. The circulation of your magazine (or today, your hitcount) is not everything; if it is, you're probably not doing your best thinking."

True. He also leaves out an important similarity, brought home to me recently when watching the documentary ARGUING THE WORLD (about the New York Intellectuals): the sense of constant discussion in real time that underlay what actually got printed. The offices of DISSENT, COMMENTARY, PARTISAN REVIEW, whatever, must have been stimulating places to be. They also had to have been vicious and sexist at times--in the documentary Todd Gitlin complains about how aggressive people like Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell and Irving Howe could be when in a debate, and Diana Trilling remarked that the NY Ints. tended not to listen to the women (like Mary McCarthy and herself) who attended those parties and frequented those editorial offices.

What I don't see, though, is what we might call "quality control," or the filter between brain and keyboard. Blogs are autocracies; magazines, although they can be controlled to the point of ideological purity by a powerful editor (Marty Peretz at the NEW REPUBLIC, Buckley at the NATIONAL REVIEW), do incorporate in their makeup a give-and-take that occurs before anything hits print. Blogs, not so much. Although not half-baked, I think that even the best blogs are often characterized by... partially-baked posts and ideas and even copy.

Trilling's book is amazing for how vividly it brings to life a different era in literary studies--one in which literature was such a part of daily discourse (and of course that word isn't used) that it was used to make political arguments. Trilling's fondness for Henry James, against the demands of leftist critics who preferred "realist" writing, even inferior writing, like Dreiser or Farrell, got him characterized as a conservative although he really would be considered a liberal today. (As I pointed out in my post on THE VITAL CENTER, what these gentlemen call "liberal" as opposed to conservative would be "moonbat leftist" today.) Responding to Singh's post, John Oliver Perry notes that Trilling respects "complexity," which he calls "the refusal to tear down one's enemy." I like that--it makes sense, and fits well with what Schlesinger also argues about the place of liberalism--this time meant in the cultural, broadly inclusive sense--in politics.


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