Trilling’s cherished privacy was strangely social. Privacy gives the self time and reason to write, while the writing is for the culture just as it is enabled by the culture. As Trilling argued in an April 1969 letter,
“Writing well—I don’t mean writing ‘creatively’—has to begin with an ideal of the self: it means wanting to be a certain kind of person, the kind of person who sounds a certain way, who has a certain relation to language. If that desire isn’t instilled by the general culture—if, that is, the general culture doesn’t value that kind of person—no amount of pedagogy will make a student write well.”
Trilling’s cherished privacy was more civic than social. For him, the relation to language stemmed from the ideal of the self, which is instilled by the general culture. The ideal of the self begins in private and in privacy. It develops—or should develop—in dialogue with art. Along the way, self becomes citizen with the responsibility of political choice. The citizen’s polity is grounded in these choices, but it is the general culture that dictates the ideal of the self. Politics is downstream from culture, though culture is also downstream from politics. Politics and culture are either healthy together or they are unhealthy together. In the case of health, the public sphere and the private self are in balance.
IN THE case of ill health, the public sphere and the private self are out of balance. This diagnosis applies all too readily to our political moment. An innovation of social media has been to erase the distinction between the public sphere and the private self. Privacy is cultivated—curated—for the purposes of public display, making it something other than privacy. The devices of social media, the portable phone especially, impose the burlesque of the public sphere on the private self. The public sphere or news from it are everywhere and at all times accessible. The public sphere colonizes privacy, and the self is immersed in politics less as potential citizen with rights and duties than as a beleaguered or bemused observer, a witness to the omnipotence of events that are both obstreperously public and oddly, often uncomfortably private.
Trilling’s letters come to us in 2018 without nostalgia. Now and then he glanced respectfully back at the Victorians. He liked their energy and many of their moral priorities, but he never proposed a return to their values and surely did not believe such a return was possible regardless of who proposed it. In his seventy years, he was a witness to countless political and cultural wrong turns. His rarely happy letters identify no golden age—not the low, dishonest 1930s, not the strained 1950s and certainly not the riotous 1960s and 1970s. Enthusiast of Freud that he was, Trilling approached the dilemmas of the self as psychological and therefore as eternal. They burdened Freud’s Vienna and Trilling’s New York. The Victorians failed to solve them. The moderns would fail to solve them. The dilemmas would recur and recur. That was the point of his perfectly titled book, The Opposing Self.
Trilling’s letters come to us as a specimen—an artefact perhaps—of the literary self in a liberal polity. They remind us of the alertness literature can give its devotees, the skill of scrutiny (not least of self-scrutiny) and of the magisterial powers and beneficence of privacy, of the novel’s patient, meticulous slowness and of literature’s innate hostility to dogma. They remind us that good literature’s resistance to conservatism and liberalism and radicalism, its provocations to the absolutes of political pride and fury, is the very stuff of tolerance and pluralism. From today’s vantage point, Trilling’s letters are triumphant. Through literature he learned to live with—not to escape, not to want to escape—the dilemmas of self, culture and politics. Thus he showed himself, his imagination, his students and his readers a way forward. His twenty-first century readers will also find themselves in his debt.
Michael C. Kimmage is a professor and department chair of history at Catholic University of America. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The Decline of the West: An American Story, on transatlantic relations and U.S.-Russian relations from the 1890s to the present.