Lionel Trilling and Sigmund Freud

Wealth Bondage squares the circle on matters of authority and authenticity and in the third paragraph mentions Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity. The book is the height of Trilling’s concern with Freud, something that Leon Wieseltier mostly elided in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent, the ostensibly definitive Trilling collection he edited. From Wieseltier’s selections, Trilling seems to think Freud a fellow critic; in Sincerity and Authenticity, he is a prophet. Speaking of Freud’s pessimism about resolving the dissonance of the psyche, he says:

Why did Freud bring his intellectual life to its climax with this dark doctrine? What was his motive in pressing upon us the ineluctability of the pain and frustration of human existence?

Freud, in insisting upon the essential immitigability of the human condition as determined by the nature of the mind, had the intention of sustaining the authenticity of human existence that formerly had been ratified by God. It was his purpose to keep all things from becoming ‘weightless’.

Like the Book of Job, it propounds and accepts the mystery and the naturalness of suffering…It is this authenticating imperative, irrational and beyond the reach of reason, that Freud wishes to preserve.

This is pretty odd stuff, but I do think it squares with Trilling’s worship of Matthew Arnold, and all the way back to Aristotle before him. Arnold exalted an elitist culture, and Trilling appears to pursue the same end through the route of psychodynamics: the rational and measured examination of the irrational structure of the mind, before which we stand in awe. Not coincidentally, literature comes out as the ideal way to do so. And after all, “So patrician an ethical posture cannot fail to outrage the egalitarian hedonism which is the educated middle class’s characteristic mode of moral judgment.” (Or, uncharitably speaking, “I have saved my job.”)

I’m not unsympathetic to the end result, but Trilling’s rescue of the Good and the Literary requires a peculiar God, one that holds out an endless problem to solve while offering little except the reward of further understanding. Thus, one who only holds an appeal for the most refined of intellects.

What does it offer for the rest of us? A return to an inherently “authentic” way of life, where we pay heed to the war in our heads by acknowledging it as our shared burden. Trilling’s position is that cultural alienation is indubitably bad and that only through a shared effort in the tradition of the pragmatists and mythmakers like Lewis Mumford is there hope. He would no doubt lack patience for Colin Wilson’s worship of the figure of the outsider if he deigned to mention Wilson at all. He seems to dismiss all forms of extreme and private individualism from Kierkegaard onwards.

The book, which was composed in 1970, concludes with an attack on the then-trendy but fading fast R. D. Laing and Norman O. Brown (and by way of them Thomas Szasz and Stanislaw Grof), and what Trilling views as their shared goal to escape through madness the tyranny of an inner self that demands to be mirrored in one’s actions, holding out as a reward the badge of “sincerity.” But Trilling’s route forward, through the apotheosis of the psychic struggle, differs mostly in number rather than approach: Trilling wants us to all go together. It’s hard to see how Trilling’s approach to Freud differs that much from the ancient bicameral brain described by Julian Jaynes, whose right half plays the role of a god to the “conscious” left half. Both paint our conscious minds as accepting the rulership of uncontrollable (but quite fascinating) internal forces. Ironically, Jaynes painted schizophrenia as the modern manifestation of a reversion to the proclaimed bicameral condition, which implies that the gospel of Freud may eventually lead down a very nasty road indeed.

The Jaynes/Trilling comparison is not precise, but the extremity of it should at least indicate a problem with Trilling, who at the end of the day is holding out a promise of meaning-in-struggle that is usually the domain of philosophers and demagogues. But I find it nearly unfathomable that Trilling reaches a reaffirmation of authenticity and breaks down the inner/outer self dissonance not by giving people more control but by taking it away.

[Postscript. A question I never got around to: what differs in Trilling's American take on a Hegelian/Heideggerian do-as-we-say societal project? I've assumed he privileges literature, and that his affection for it over philosophy is self-perpetuating, but where does it originate?]

(The whole argument from which I quoted above is on pages 156-159, and is worth reading. I can’t excerpt it satisfactorily here.)

One Comment

  1. Maurice duQuesnay
    27 April 2008

    Does the surprise and elevation (Arnold’s)of which Trilling speaks in the preface to The Opposing Self
    constitute a recognition of authenticity as partially valid, and the infamous Nephew (of Sincerity and Authenticity) having experienced it in both his ridicule of others and himself come to understand that he must return to the discipline of society or culture by creating his own musical composition which orders the many voices (his use of musical instruments) of his anarchic authenticity? Otherwise he suffers a protean identity and cannot survive.Your point about Wieseltier is well taken. It is refreshing to see someone think about this text of Trilling rather than dwell upon the things he did, that he should not have done, and the things that he did not do, that he should have done.

Leave a Reply