[lit-ideas] Re: Moral Imagination

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 8 Oct 2011 09:51:25 -0700



I?d be interested in why you don?t ?agree with any of this,? and what
precisely you mean by ?this.?  [As I wrote the preceding I could imagine you
finding hostility in it, but I don?t intend any.  I am a bit tired from all
the photography & not up to an old fashioned argument.  So imagine me calm
and mild throughout all that follows.]


I read the entire article John refers to.   It is at
ination-7178  After reading it I ordered Kirsch?s book Why Trilling Matters.
The author of the review, Gertrude Himmelfarb writes that she never
encountered Trilling when she was an English major in the mid-1990s.  I on
the other hand did encounter him as an English major in the mid-1950s.  I
couldn?t bring anything to mind that I would call an influence, but after
reading the article I suspected that I had been influenced because Trilling
seemed to me little more than common sense; which probably implies a
stronger influence than I would have readily conceded.  


I suspect that some of your disagreement regarding Trilling has to do with
the definition of ?Liberal.?  I am a Liberal in the Trilling sense.  Many
modern Liberals might better be called Leftists, because they aren?t.   And
Trilling fits the definition, I believe of ?Classical Liberalism.?  


I suspect you are thinking of politics and Trilling wasn?t mostly about
that.  But Himmelfarb lapses into politics as well, drawing a connection
between Trilling and Irving Kristol.  Somewhat in that theme I?ve continued
a bit more in Hitchens? Hitch 22.  He got to events surrounding 9/11 by page
244, writing ?As time had elapsed, I had gradually been made aware that
there was a deep division between Noam and myself.  Highly critical as we
both were of American foreign policy, the difference came down to this.
Regarding almost everything since Columbus as having been one continuous
succession of genocides and land-thefts, he did not really believe that the
United States of America was a good idea to begin with.  Whereas I had
slowly come to appreciate that it most certainly was, and was beginning to
feel less and less shy about saying so.?  I have been critical of much of
what Hitchens did and said in the early part of his book, but not here.
Chomsky of course is not. 


Similarly, Paul Berman on page 206 of Terror and Liberalism, on page 206
writes, ?. . . the totalitarian movements flourished also because the
climate of modern life allowed them to flourish.  To arrive at a situation
in which Nazis have conquered Europe, you not only need to have the Nazis
themselves, you need to have all the other right-wing movements that look on
Nazis in a friendly light, and you need to have left-wing opponents like the
anti-war French Socialists, who cannot see that Nazis are Nazis.  To end up
with Stalin tyrannizing half of Europe, you not only need the cagey Soviet
leaders and the Soviet tanks, you need the naïve trade union leaders and the
ignorant workers, who believe what they are told.  You need the foolish
fellow travelers who never intend to be Stalinists themselves but who
convince themselves that liberal societies are halfway fascist, anyway, and
that communism is a forward step, for all its imperfections.  The
totalitarian movements arise because of failures in liberal civilization,
and if they go on flourishing, it is because of still more failures ? one
liberal failure after another.


?Right now [Berman?s book was copyrighted in 2003] we are beset with
terrorists from the Muslim totalitarian movements, who have already killed
an astounding number of people, mostly in the Muslim countries, but not just
there.  What have we needed for these terrorists to prosper?  We have needed
immense failures of political courage and imagination within the Muslim
world.  We have needed an almost willful lack of curiosity about those
failures by people in other parts of the world ? the lack of curiosity that
allowed us to suppose that totalitarianism had been defeated, even when
totalitarianism was reaching a new zenith.  We have needed handsome doses of
wishful thinking ? the kind of simpleminded faith in a rational world that,
in its inability to comprehend reality, sparked the totalitarian movements
in the first place.  We have needed a political left that, in its
anti-imperialist fervors, has lost the ability to stand up to fascism ? and
has sometimes gone a little further down the slippery slope.  We have needed
a cynical application of ?realist? or Nixonian doctrines over the decades ?
the doctrines that governed the Gulf War of 1991, the doctrines that even
now lead to friendly ties with the most reactionary of feudal systems.  We
have needed an inability to cling to our own liberal democratic principles,
an inability even to articulate those principles.  We have needed a
provincial ignorance about intellectual currents in other parts of the
world.  We have needed foolish resentments in Europe, and foolish arrogance
in America.  We have needed so many things!  But there has been no lack ?
every needed thing has been here in abundance.?


Do Hitchens and Berman have Liberal Imaginations?  I think so.  Do they
always seem Liberal to me.  No, they don?t, but that is in the nature of our
Liberal Democracy.  There is no expectation that every individual and every
corporation will behave with this imagination at all times.  If we tried to
guarantee such a thing we would have to leave Classic Liberalism and embrace
some sort of Totalitarianism and not come anywhere near what we sought to


There is an anti-totalitarian thread in the South.  The Civil War for many
there was more a matter of State?s rights than Slavery.  The founding
fathers sought to guarantee the smallest government (government being in a
sense totalitarian) in order to provide citizens with the greatest freedom.
Most things in our Liberal Democracies seem a mess, but in a moral sense
Liberal Democracy is ?white? and totalitarian governments and movements who
hate Liberal Democracy are ?black? ? it seems to me.  Is that a moral
judgment?  I don?t know.






From: lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx [mailto:lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx]
On Behalf Of Mike Geary
Sent: Saturday, October 08, 2011 1:45 AM
To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: Moral Imagination


I don't think I agree with any of this.  That has to be a first -- as a
Southerner I try to accomodate.


But John is a Southerner, too.  Ah, witness the perils of living in other


Mike Geary

as moral as any man given a maybe

On Sat, Oct 8, 2011 at 12:40 AM, John McCreery <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>

Was taking a break. Arts & Letters Daily took me to a Gertrude Himmelfarb
review of a new book about Lionel Trilling. I read the following and thought
instantly of John Wager and his observation that if choices are black and
white there is no moral judgment to be made. 


Trilling matters, then, Kirsch insists, because literature matters?and
literature as Trilling understood it. His novel, The Middle of the Journey,
has been criticized for creating characters who are merely the spokesmen for
ideas. The same charge has been levelled against his literary criticism,
which is said to treat novels and poems as vehicles for ideas about society
and politics rather than as aesthetic responses to personal experience.
Kirsch counters this objection by elevating Trilling?s literary criticism to
the ?primary,? ?autonomous? status of literature itself, reflecting the same
aesthetic sensibility that the novelist or poet brings to experience?and
reflecting, too, the ideas about society and politics that are implicit in
the novels and poems themselves.
Kirsch is treading a fine line. He does not want to reduce Trilling to the
role of social or, worse, political commentator. Yet he fully acknowledges
the social and political import, even intent, of Trilling?s literary
criticism: ?More than any twentieth-century American intellectual, Trilling
stood for the principle that society and politics cannot be fully understood
without the literary imagination.? And the literary imagination, for
Trilling, was preeminently a ?moral imagination.? Moral imagination?not the
moralistic dicta or pronouncements evoked in present-day debates about
same-sex marriage, abortion, and the like. The true moral imagination
transcends such dogmatic moralizing because it is imbued with ?moral
realism,? a realism that is ?not the awareness of morality itself but of the
contradictions, paradoxes, and dangers of living the moral life.?
It is this combination of ?moral realism? and ?moral imagination? that was
the basis of Trilling?s critique of the ?liberal imagination.? That phrase
first appeared in the title of the introductory chapter of his book on  E.
M. Forster, ?Forster and the Liberal Imagination?:


For all his long commitment to the doctrines of liberalism Forster is at war
with the liberal imagination. Surely if liberalism has a single desperate
weakness, it is an inadequacy of imagination: liberalism is always being
surprised. Surprised, because the ?liberal mind? has an unrealistic and
simplistic view of morality itself. It thinks that ?good is good and bad is
bad. . . . Before the idea of good-and-evil its imagination fails.? It
cannot accept this ?improbable paradox,? a paradox that such ?great
conservative minds? as Johnson, Burke, and Arnold well understood.




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