Lionel Trilling and the Social Imagination

Beran, Michael Knox. “Lionel Trilling and the Social Imagination.” City Journal, Winter 2011.


Trilling’s hostility to the social imagination is nowhere more evident than in the fourth essay in The Liberal Imagination, a meditation on Henry James’s 1886 novel The Princess Casamassima in which Trilling fingers a line of nineteenth-century novels “defined as a group by the character and circumstance of their heroes . . . Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, Balzac’s Père Goriot and Lost Illusions, Dickens’s Great Expectations, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education.” The hero of these novels is a character Trilling calls the “Young Man from the Provinces,” a romantic adventurer who sets out to master the big city, Paris or London or New York.

Trilling said that the young man from the provinces was a creature of his age, one that stretched “from the late years of the eighteenth century through the early years of the twentieth.” This was a period, he later wrote in Sincerity and Authenticity, when the West was undergoing the “extreme revision of traditional modes of communal organization which gave rise to the entity that now figures in men’s minds under the name society.” Trilling cited the historian Peter Laslett’s scholarship, which evoked “the minute scale of life, the small size of human groups, before the coming of industry,” as evidence of how greatly premodern communities differed from “the groups that are characteristic of modern mass society, which did not begin to come into being until the middle and the late eighteenth centuries when factories were established.” The towns in which Trilling’s young men from the provinces grow up are examples of community: they are small, and their residents know one another well. The metropolises that the young men set out to conquer are examples of society: one knows very little of most of the people one meets there, and one is bound to be indifferent to most of them. In Lost Illusions, Balzac describes the shock that Lucien de Rubempré experiences when he first encounters this indifference. In provincial Angoulême, even those who despised him “took him for a human being.” In Paris, “he did not even exist for Madame d’Espard,” a great hostess whom he seeks to impress.

“Historians of European culture are in substantial agreement,” Trilling said, that with the emergence of society, “something like a mutation in human nature took place.” The young provincial who, like Rastignac in Le Père Goriot, confronts the complexities of society for the first time must develop new ways of thinking and seeing. “Passing through one initiation after another,” Balzac says of Rastignac, “he gradually loses his greenness, and in the end he achieves some perception of how human beings are packed in strata, layer above layer, in the framework of society.” He develops, in other words, a social imagination.

Yet the young man’s end is rarely a happy one. Continually judging people in terms of their social utility—the power they possess to advance his career—and continually donning masks and playing parts, the young man becomes estranged from the human heart. Balzac typically phrases the denouement in moral terms: the young man has sold his soul. Lucien de Rubempré hangs himself in prison; Raphaël de Valentin perishes of the dark bargain he has made in the name of success. Rastignac eventually becomes a peer of France and acquires an immense fortune, but morally he is a ruin, one of those cosmopolitan debauchees “grown old in the knowledge of Parisian depravity, all clever in one or another way, equally corrupt, equally corrupting, all pledged to insatiable ambitions.”

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