'He is barometrically interesting." This was Irving Howe's judgment of a professor of literature whose prominence we were mischievously discussing. We were praising the guilelessness of barometers. They come right out and say it. The same candor about the weather is gained when a writer unexpectedly expresses himself in a way that requires no interpretation, and thereby exposes the Geist in the Zeit. It is always satisfying to see the errors of one's time clearly stated. I am grateful to The New Yorker for this satisfaction. I refer not to its deaf and blind publication, in the week that the economy was collapsing and the nation was panicking, of a piece about the millions that Leona Helmsley bequeathed to her dog. We are known by what we find important. But in the same issue there appeared a mincing and hostile essay by Louis Menand about Lionel Trilling, an expanded and worsened version of an introduction that he produced for a recent re-issue of The Liberal Imagination. The critic who, also in The New Yorker, compared Jay McInerney to Heinrich von Kleist now pronounces Trilling's work to be "small but subtle and distinctive." I should confess an interest here. Trilling was my teacher. My feelings about him are filial. His legend means nothing to me. But Menand is the latest in a long line of English professors in revolt against the legend. He has summoned the courage to suggest that Trilling was a man with anxieties and ambitions. He has some shallow things to say about the tangle of Trilling's Jewishness. And he contends that Trilling explored the political implications of culture because he held that "people have some sort of moral obligation to match up their taste in art and literature with their political opinions," which is wildly wrong. The synchronization of the realms, which was one of the crimes of Stalinism, was what Trilling deplored.
But what really rattles Menand is Trilling's magnitude. In his conception of the intellectual life, Trilling was big. Menand is the professor of littleness. He is a man in flight from the seriousness of his own vocation. In his telling, Trilling exemplified the era of "heroic criticism," whereas "it feels a little funny just typing the words today." I don't know, I just typed them and it felt fine. But Menand, you see, "went to graduate school after the nineteen-sixties, when the age of heroic criticism was over, and thank God." He has more to tell us about himself: "I became a critic because I wanted to write sentences like 'This intense conviction of the existence of the self apart from culture is, as culture well knows, its noblest and most generous achievement.'" Also: "I didn't care about the canon, and I didn't care much about Communism, either." I am not sure why he expects to be admired for his mental blitheness, but he is certainly not the only liberal for whom the Communists are as pertinent to us as the Donatists and the Cathars. "I just liked the way Trilling could turn a thought," he weirdly brags. But then he discovered that "there was a lot of righteousness, not to mention self-righteousness, back in the days of Partisan Review." Unlike in these post-heroic days, I suppose. And to what do we owe our exemption from grandeur, our release from gravity? Menand explains this--he knows, above all, how things work--in a passage that should move the parents of his students to demand the return of their tuition: "Most people don't use the language of approval and disapproval in their responses to art; they use the language of entertainment. They enjoy some things and don't enjoy other things. It just doesn't matter to them whether someone prefers Dreiser or James. This seemed to me to give literary criticism a lot less moral work to do." The less moral work, the better.
There is a term for the indifference and the perfunctoriness that Menand is espousing. It is philistinism. But this is a peculiar variety of philistinism, an airy and calculated mixture of Eustace Tilley and Richard Rorty. The language of entertainment: this is not be mistaken for any sort of aesthetic commitment. Aestheticism, in its desperation or in its delight, is more strenuous--Hamilton Hall strikes again!--than Menand's indolent ratification of popular taste. It is not pleasure that Menand is recommending, it is fun. (In an entry in her journals in 1963, which will be published later this year, Susan Sontag noted: "'Fun'--the American substitute for pleasure.") Is there any less toilsome engagement with culture, any less thoughtful and less lasting, any less salutary for this society, than the engagement with entertainment? Menand mocks Trilling's solemn pronouncement that "with that juxtaposition [of Dreiser and James] we are immediately at the bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet," inanely observing that "no actual blood has ever been spilled in disputes" about literature. He is a poor student of totalitarianism. But he will not allow that anything of consequence is at issue in the study of literature. He will not pick up the weight. Menand's objection to Trilling's "pretty dramatic" analysis of the choice between Dreiser and James is that "it makes it seem as though a lot is at stake in getting books right." The contribution to criticism of the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University is, :).
The complacence about mass opinion and the acquiescence in the authority of "most people," the relaxed whatever-ism, the preference for the shrug over the frown, comes from Rorty, to whom Menand once attributed "genius." Rorty, who gleefully and without recourse to argument exchanged objectivity for solidarity and reason for ethnocentrism, claimed that the true and the beautiful are whatever most people believe are the true and the beautiful. Or as Menand remarks, "there is no stable point outside a culture from which to critique it. " No foundation for independence or dissidence, there; but then all that is over, and thank God. His experience in the faculty lounge has taught Menand that "all push becomes pull someday." All that is left for an intellectual to do is to understand the scene and to make it. There are no causes, there are only careers. But I swear I see pain and confusion and dread almost everywhere. Locally and globally, these are sordid times. Sweet, earnest, smart David Foster Wallace, who was his generation's model of the consecration to seriousness, just hanged himself. And we should chill? "It makes it seem as though a lot is at stake in getting books right": nobody will ever become a critic because they want to write sentences like that.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article originally ran in the October 22, 2008, issue of the magazine.