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Feet Don't Fail Me Now

We Must March My Darlings By Diana Trilling '21 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; $10; 315 pages

By Gay Seidman

DIANA TRILLING'S essays seem to invite personal, ad hominem attacks. It was tempting, for example, to open this review with a catty comment along the lines of, "Not surprisingly, the first credential Diana Trilling lists on the dust jacket of her new collection of 14 essays is that she is Lionel Trilling's widow. Not surprisingly, because--if these essays are a representative sample of her work--it is probably her only real claim to intellectual merit." That, however, would be catty.

But Trilling's essays invite such remarks. In this collection she offers her views on a variety of social events and movements over the last ten years; almost without exception her opinions are so unsubstantiated (except by more opinion) and presented so belligerently that the disagreeing reader is forced to spluttering defensiveness, to personal attack and outraged invective.

It would be different, perhaps, if Trilling pulled the reader along, meeting arguments, persuading one to see the logic behind her position. But because her positions rest so completely on assumptions and faith, Trilling can only deal with disagreement as the church once dealt with heretics; quarrels over her conclusions rapidly degenerate to the level of medieval clerics hurling epithets. The argument is reduced to long and involved footnotes, in which Trilling uses personal attacks to discredit her opponent.

The best example of this kind of attack is Trilling's response to the furor created last spring when her original publisher refused to go ahead with the book unless Trilling removed some remarks about Lillian Hellman in an essay defending American liberals' role in the anticommunist movement of the '50s. (A classic liberal, Trilling considers communism a terrible danger. In a 1967 essay included in this volume, she says the war in Vietnam is a serious error, not because it represents American aggression, but because it is not the best way to stop the Red Menace.) Trilling refused to comply with the publisher. She justifies her argument that Hellman's Scoundrel Time will mislead younger readers into thinking liberal support of the House Unamerican Activities Committee was an inexcusable aberration (rather than a legitimate response to the Communist threat) with a long series of attacks on Hellman's own conduct during the '50s. In a long and turgid footnote, Trilling implies over and over that Hellman was a communist, and that HUAC was therefore completely justified in its witchhunt. The logic is shaky, at best.

Most of the essays in We Must March are less controversial than this latest round in the two women's battle, which clearly has been running since they "came of political age in the thirties," as Trilling puts it. Most of them are also less interesting. When she is not dealing in personalities and vindictive attacks, Trilling does little more than repeatedly reaffirm her faith in the status quo. A few minor changes would render the system perfect, she implies, and none of those changes include disrupting society. That assumption underlies her argument that the Columbia students who took over a building in 1968 were profoundly misguided; the same assumption underlies her argument that freer sexual mores do not provide the emotional support of a good old-fashioned marriage. Each time, her quarrel with "youth"--Trilling is rather free with generalizations--comes down to her fear that it threatens her structure, that its radical demands will destroy the institutions she values so highly.

Such fear is not surprising, coming as it does from a liberal who sees no need for radical change; nor, if they were reasonably and insightfully argued, would her conclusions be completely unacceptable. But Trilling offers very few insights into anything. She merely describes a phenomenon, and then concentrates on her own reaction. She is not, for example, concerned with why people followed Timothy Leary; she is much too involved in the anxiety she felt as she left Leary's lecture. Nor does she really make any effort to understand what lay beneath the Columbia students' alienation; she is much more concerned with describing her own reaction as a faculty wife.

Trilling's failure to go beneath the surface level of the phenomena she describes seems to come in large part from her conviction that the function of the social commentator is primarily as a moral guide. The critic, she argues, should insure that we do not lose sight of "the continuing dynamics of culture," that we will remember that "codes for the guidance of our moral lives are constantly being proposed for us by the culture even where the social standards which are being invoked seem most precisely to prohibit recourse to moral criteria." What she is saying, through her murky prose, is that in her critical role she seeks primarily to offer some moral guidance, even if her criteria seem totally at odds with everyday reality. Which explains, of course, her willingness to make moral judgments about anything in her essays without really explaining how she reaches her conclusions; she feels fully justified in offering unsubstantiated opinion.

The superficiality of Trilling's essays may also be the result of her insistance that cultural phenomena are separable from political and economic trends. Her major complaint against what she refers to as "the murderous Soviet regime," for instance, is that it stultifies culture. She finds the Columbia students much worse than the society that engendered their alienation because they threaten an institution of culture; she ignores the war that their society was involved in at the time. By looking at cultural phenomena in a vacuum, she can ignore the outside events that shaped them--the flaws in her institutions and social structure. Trilling was a literary critic (two essays in this volume are intelligent book reviews), and she, apparently, does not realize that literary and social criticism differ in both subject and method.

Oddly enough, in her essays about a 1971 visit to Radcliffe--from which she graduated 50 years before--Trilling abandons her view of culture as discrete from the rest of society. Here, her main point is that despite the anti-establishment stance of many middle-class students, they are unlikely to initiate any real social change because they are unaware of the existence of less privileged groups. Their apparent rejection of their economic system, Trilling argues, was possible only because they had a network of middle class adults on whom they could rely. They could tell Trilling about baking bread and breaking down social inhibitions, but they planned on serving their bread on Spode china. Trilling at first is unable to find a satisfactory esplanation for their alienation; she can say only that these proponents of the counterculture "whistled in the dark, indeed in the blackest emotional midnight, like all the adherents of the counterculture I had ever talked with." Finally, she attributes what she perceives to be the students' isolation to the breakdown of social forms regulating their interactions.

I recall the nursery school edict of the early fifties when these students had been at the start of their educations: 'It is not formal manners that we are interested in, but internal feelings.' How wrong could they be? By what road straighter and faster than that of external forms does internal feeling travel to another person?

Typically, Trilling turns again to an external explanation of the students' behavior and makes a moral judgment, rather than making a deeper effort to understand a younger generation's anger at its society. She cannot question the institutions of her society, nor can she see that it is those very institutions that have instilled in these Radcliffe students their ignorance of the underprivileged.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Trilling's collection is that most of it seems so dated. It is as hard to get excited now over a description of Norman Mailer's bout with Jill Johnson over the nature of the female orgasm--once a hot political question--as it is to get involved in the fight between the Trillings and Hellman. At the time of the events Trillings describes, her superficial sort of moralizing might have been acceptable, an on-the-spot kind of description. Analysis could wait till later. But now it is later and by merely recycling her moralizing, Trilling fails to illumine anything.

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