Dec

8

LectureHop: Trilling Fucking Matters, Guys

Written by

Lionel Trilling, CC '25

Last night there were lots of plastic chairs in Lerner 505, and microphones, a table, a camera, and, of course, “light refreshments.” That can only mean one thing—a lecture!  Moderated by Samuel Schube, CC ’12, Senior Editor of The Current, the talk featured Adam Kirsch, TNR bro and author of Why Trilling Matters, and Mark Lilla, beloved Columbia professor. Steele Sternberg showed up.

Last night’s discussion provided an interesting look at a man whom, frankly, probably very few people outside of academia know anything about. For those of us who don’t know (myself among them until I decided to read up on Trilling to prepare), Lionel Trilling was the preeminent literary scholar and critic in the United States during the 1940’s and ’50’s, the first tenured Jewish professor in Columbia’s English department, and a major player in developing the Core Curriculum (standardized LitHum final?!? Thanks a lot Trilling!). Professor Mark Lilla and Adam Kirsch, moderated by the ever classy and thoughtful Sam Schube, weighed in on Kirsch’s new book, Why Trilling Matters, which explains how Trilling used the medium of literature to critique liberalism from within and speculated about Trilling’s legacy today.

Professor Kirsch’s book is part of the “Why X Matters” series and, as he puts it, makes the case that Trilling represents how one can do two things with literature. Trilling demonstrates how to use literature to “create the self,” a fancy-intellectual way of saying that reading makes you who you are by introducing you to different values and philosophy, which allows you to knowingly choose a way of being in the world. Both Professors Kirsch and Lilla discussed how Trilling embodied this use of literature personally, serving as a model of how a life spent reading and studying literature can contribute actively to the political scene of the day.

Professor Lilla directed the discussion towards Trilling’s politics when he asked Professor Kirsch to explain how Trilling used the technique of dramatizing personal sensibilities to affect the political sensibilities of the nation at large. While Professor Kirsch did not go into detail on how Trilling used the process of looking at literature to make a political statement, he did discuss Trilling’s contribution to politics through such a method. Elegantly summed up, Trilling believed that both literature and political theories should be valued based on the same criteria: not for being simple but complex and intricate. This belief, argues Kirch, led Trilling to develop a politically left standpoint that was still moderate enough to critique the left even during its most liberal moments (read: Trilling liked social welfare programs but thought hippies were simplistic and stupid).

Near the end of the discussion, Schube asked whether Trilling’s lessons about the value of complexity in politics and literature still holds in a day when it seems no one has any interest in complexity. Lilla and Kirsch disagreed with one another on how bad the nation’s case of anti-intellectualism really is. Kirsch said that while Trilling’s time may have been more interested in literary complexity, contemporary society has other ways of parsing the same subtle issues (and Sam suggested everyone’s favorite show, The Wire, as a substitute). Even if Trilling’s time seemed more intellectual, it is important to remember that the public intellectual community has always been relatively small, no matter the time period considered. Lilla disagreed, citing notable contemporary, anti-intellectual public figures like Herman Cain. During the “good old days,” he argued, two literary critics could sit down and talk about Lolita on primetime television to paint a more pessimistic picture of the world we live in, which could never happen today.

Overall, the evening was a wonderful introduction to a man who understood the value of complexity and serves as a model for how the elite ought to contribute to the political sphere.

Trilling via columbia.edu

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11 Comments

  1. ...

    Sam Schube is not classy

    ... also, who cares?

  2. Anonymous  

    These comments are shocking. Schube is one of the nicest and most intelligent students I've met at Columbia. Shame on trollers for posting nasty, anonymous comments.

    • Truth  

      Yeah these comments are kind of embarrassing and just proves what it seems the professor Lilla was getting at in this discussion-that our society is just a bunch of simplistic vocational tool-bags who only care about money and are intimidated/frightened/offended by anyone (i.e., Mr. Schube) who wants to think deeply about anything.

      • Lilla student from the NYU era

        Indeed. Funny though that Lilla these days points to Herman Cain et. al. these days rather than all the know-nothings who regard themselves as elite and educated.

  3. Lilla student from the NYU era

    Indeed. Funny though that Lilla these days points to Herman Cain et. al. these days rather than all the know-nothings who regard themselves as elite and educated.

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