21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 12


Shirley Robin Letwin on the birth and death of the individual

If we wish to be authentic,' must we rebel against all social authority? Professor Trilling's answer is, No, and he supports his answer with a rich account* of how we have come to take for granted "that the prescriptions of society pervert human existence and destroy its authenticity." The terms in which Trilling couches his argument ought to make him persuasive among the heathen. Those already converted should welcome his direct attack on insidious enemies of civilisation. But they may wish that he had made his case in another manner.

The story begins, as Trilling sees it, with "something like a mutation in human nature." The mutation was connected with urbanisation and social mobility, perhaps also with the advent of the looking glass. As a result, "men became individuals." Once the ' individual ' arrived, people began to reflect on an entity called 'society,' not for the purpose of understanding it but in order to change it. To establish their disinterestedness, critics laid claim to a new virtue — sincerity, and Rousseau's Confessions, disclosing the worst about himself, set the pattern for such exhibitions of sincerity. ' Society ' too was required to be Sincere, by making the conduct of social life correspond to the principles declared to govern it. Moreover the quality of a society was thought to depend on whether it fostered or corrupted an identity between the public and private selves of its members.

The fact that social mobility was seen to be possible but was not easily available brought a new recognition of the benefits of dissimulation. The theatre therefore flourished and novels along with the stage became peopled with villains — Iago, Tartuffe, Blifil, la cousine Bette, Uriah Heep — illustrating how those who attempt to leave their given place in society lose or surrender their sense of identification between their private and public selves and so become insincere. The villain of eighteenthand nineteenthcentury plays and novels is Trilling says, "characteristically a person who seeks to rise above the station to which he, was born. He is not what he is . . . because by his intention he denies and violates his social identity and because he can achieve his unnatural purpose only by covert acts, by guile . . . he is a hypocrite, which is to say, one who plays a part. It is to the point that Iago's resentment of his class situation and his wish to better it are so conspicuous in his character."

Although Professor Trilling assures us that " historians of European culture are in substantial agreement" about this socalled mutation, there is striking evidence to the contrary. Montaigne's essays are in a sense a new departure, but Cicero's letters were hardly written by a man unable to "imagine himself in more than one role." Rousseau has an even more revealing predecessor in St Augustine. No philosopher has been more sensitive to how abstract ideas are cdloured by the unique personality of the man who gives utterance to them than Plato. Where in modern literature can we find so profound an appreciation of what Trilling calls the 'inner space ' of a man than in Sophocles' Oedipus, torn between his subjective sense of innocence and his recognition that he is objectively guilty? Iago's social ambition is one of a pack of reasons that he gives for his villainy and no more convincing than the rest as an explanation of the demon that possesses him — the love of manipulating people for the pleasure of doing so.

But Professor Trilling's characterisation of the vogue for authenticity may be considered independently of his excursions into history. The first writer to make authenticity an ideal according to Trilling, was Rousseau. He has taught us that " society " destroys authenticity by making "our sentiment of being" dependent upon the opinions of others. But his "natural man" seems "merely not inauthentic." For a model •of authenticity, we must look to the hero of Wordsworth's poem, Michael, who is "hard, dense, weighty, perdurable," in whom there is no "within and without" because " he and his grief are one." His distinctive strength can be accounted for only by "a more strenuous moral experience than 'sincerity' . . . a less acceptant and genial view of the social circumstances of life."

Trilling is at his best when he goes on to show how this new perception about moral experience became distorted until it turned into an exaltation of madness. As the drive toward authenticity affirmed "the unconditioned nature of the self," he tells us, individualism too was renounced. The self became identified with what Nietzsche called the Dionysian spirit that destroyed all "limits and distinctions" and sought "ecstasy and the extinction of the individuated self." What used to be considered "the fabric of culture" was dispatched into the realm of "mere fantasy or ritual or downright falsification," and disorder, violence, and unreason were singled out for praise. The "moral certitude" of Jane Austen became redundant.

" Lriberation " in the arts has been just as destructive. Professor Trilling makes a perceptive and telling criticism of writers who denounce conventional art for being pedagogic and for trying to seduce the audience by pleasing it. Nathalie Sarraute, he points out, it at least as pedagogic as the host of writers she condemns, indeed she can be "relentlessly censorious." Both in her novels and her criticism "she is concerned to teach her readers how they are not to be if they really wish to be." And in doing so she illustrates what Nietzsche meant by "the terrible phrase, 'culture-Philistine,' " which describes the "use of art and thought of high culture . . . for purposes of moral accredition."

For all the shouting of ' authentic artists about their indifference to pleasing the audience, Trilling says, no artists ever had a more uncritical audlence. It has been seduced not by pleasure but by intellectual cant. The sad truth is, Trilling concludes, that the "concerted effort of a culture . . . to achieve authenticity generates its own conventions, its generalities, its commonplaces, its maxims, what Sartre . . . calls 'the gabble.' To the gabble, Sartre has himself by now made his contribution. As has Mme Sarraute, as did Gide; as did Lawrence. . . ."

Most recently, the cult of authenticity has apotheosised madness. Freud has been replaced by the British psychiatrist, R. D. Laing, Trilling believes, because Laing promises liberation from the " duress " of all moral authority. He and his disciples tells us that madness is health and Propagate " the appalling belief that human existence is made authentic by the Possession of a power, or the persuasion of its possession, which is not to be qualified or restricted by the co-ordinate existence of any fellow man." Every man can be God without danger of crucifixion. But those who assure us that madness is health have no intention of going mad. In giving their assent to the apotheosis of madness without seriousness, they demonstrate their own inauthenticity. Nor are they capable of being authentic, Trilling argues, because they cannot accept the necessity of suffering.

That is why they have rejected Freud. Civilisation and Its Discontents stands "like a lion in the path of all hopes of achieving happiness through the radical revision of social life . . . it undertakes to lead us beyond the idea with which we are familiar and comfortable — that society is the direct and 'sufficient ' cause of most frustrations." The brutal truth told by Freud is that the human mind "has so contrived its own nature that it directs against itself an unremitting and largely gratuitous harshness." And this irrational suffering is essential to civilisation which develops only as "external coercion gradually becomes internalised." The Character of this development is "given Of biology, definitive of man's nature, and its consequences are not to be reversed."

In this fashion, Trilling believes, Freud has rescued the possibility of genuine authenticity which the loss of religion destroyed. Freud has given us a reason beyond doubt or qualification for the hardness, intractability, and irrationality" of life. He tells us in a manner suitable to a scientific age that human life is a " fabric of contradictions," that it is ultirnately "recalcitrant to preference, to will, to reason," and cannot be "lightly manipulated." We are thus saved from the fate that Nietzsche dreaded — "the weightlessness of all things" resulting from the death of God.

That human life cannot be 'lightly maniPulated ' certainly needs restating in this day of utopias. But by grounding this truth on Freudian doctrine Trilling accepts an assumption that bedevils those against Whom he is arguing. They believe that a conclusion is rational only if it is demonstrably and necessarily true. Faced by a dearth of such truths, they have surrener.ed themselves to irrationality. Professor Trilling attempts to avoid their fate not by !renouncing their basic misconception, but 135, discovering a new ground for certainty. He tells us that we no longer share the Victorians' needs to discover "in the order of the universe" some "validation of such personal coherence and purposiveness as we claim for ourselves." Yet what he finds in Freud satisfies this need by calling on biological necessity, a common temptation for atheists. By suggesting a biological substitute for God, Trilling fails to rescue an understanding of men as rational creatures.

Professor Trilling does not accomplish his worthy mission because he never questions the dichotomy between 'society' and the ' self ' that has given rise to all the nonsense about authenticity, and other matters. As he rightly points out, Rousseau started this line of thinking by distinguishing between 'natural man' and 'social man' and thus setting the individual against 'society.' This dichotomy remains the basis of Freud's effort to find a justification for an addiction to suffering, such as Rousseau's, outside the realm of ideas. That suffering is "the authenticating imperative" of human life may be the most reasonable conclusion in line with such a premise. But we would do better to question the premise than to insist on the conclusion.

Another quite different and less dramatic understanding of human life permeates the English literature from which Trilling draws many illustrations. It is an understanding, as old as Western civilisation, that sees the distinctiveness of human beings in a capacity to imagine alternatives and to make choices. On this view there is no 'natural ' man who is not social and no ' I ' at war with ' society ' but only persons trying to reconcile constantly revised wants and constraints.

The finer intricacies of this understanding as it affects the moral conduct of ordinary men is what interests the English novelists that Trilling cites. Certainly they are concerned with sincerity, but only a reader schooled to dwell on references to social class would see in this a preoccupation with 'social mobility.' Blifil, in Torn Jones, is a dissembler, but Tom, rather than Blifil, is out to make his fortune. Professor Trilling's own interesting comments on Jane Austen do not support his general thesis, which requires her to be displaying moral certitude. They are more in keeping with the view that she is exploring the subtle ways in which moral beliefs and dispositions are manifested, connected, enforced, confused, betrayed, modified. Emma's plans for Harriet ignore distinctions of class, but their place in the novel is to show that although Emma supposes herself to be inspired by benevolence, she is really, as Knightley tells her, amusing herself by playing with other people's lives. Trollope is at least as insistent as Jane Austen on the value of sincerity. Yet he shows us characters — Mary Thorne, Mme Max Goesler, Frank Traeger — who are distinguished for sincerity while moving up sharply in social status.

Neither Jane Austen nor Trollope thinks of human life as a struggle between individuals and 'society.' Their characters are shaping their lives out of wants that they could neither have conceived of nor satisfied apart from social life. The constraints they feel in satsifying these wants are neither imposed by nor independent of their life with other people. What interests Austen and Trollope is how differently people can make themselves in the same social context.

They are preoccupied with sincerity because they see in dissimulation the best weapon available to an ordinary man for compelling others to do what he wants. They believe that anyone who regularly deceives others is denying them respect and using them as instruments. The possibility of such exploitation by lying was known even to the ancients, as the wiles of Odysseus show, and remains plausible still because it is inseparable from rationality, whatever the social arrangements. One can only envy Professor Trilling's good fortune when he tells us that because social advancement is easy now, it is incredible that anyone might "systematically misrepresent himself in order to practise upon the good faith of another."

If Victorian novelists and their predecessors admired sincerity, they knew that civilisation is an artefact before Oscar Wilde, whom Trilling commends for his praise of 'masks,' For they understood men not as creatures divided between nature and falsehood, nor as kernels of purity hidden beneath social husks, but as makers of images. Neither did they assume that everything could or should be made explicit. Gibbon and Swift used irony to make their points sharper and more subtle by indirectness even though they did not believe that the universe was a scene of confusion, which Trilling takes to be the source of irony. And no one supposed that culture,' or what used to be called tradition, imposes a burden because its intricacies cannot be laid bare.

The grievous problems that torment the apostles of authenticity vanish if one understands the character of contingent existence and sees rationality as an infinitely rich source of alternatives. Then there is nothing startling about the contradictions and ambiguities in human behaviour and thought. But at the same time it remains possible to recognise that men can bring order into their lives. The discipline required for being civilised can be seen to be necessary without recourse to the " authenticating imperative" of suffering. This does not mean that we can avoid pain. The picture is something like this: Living involves accommodating to other people because without them a human life is inconceivable. Learning to live with others is not a process of repression or a struggle for authenticity but an activity of composing a harmonious arrangement out of disparate materials. Recognising the circumstances within which one has to live one's life is not a matter of conforming to or rebelling against social pressures, or playing a role or wearing a mask, but of exercising prudence. This is the capacity to make good practical judgments, knowing that they cannot be either certainly right or wrong. Not only may our choices be wrong or go wrong or seem undesirable from the outset. Death may come at any moment. One cannot then expect to get through life without discomfort and unhappiness. But the need to endure pain must not be made an occasion for embracing suffering. What matters is that the disappointments, conflicts, misery to which our imagination makes us prey can, thanks to the same power, be transcended — leaving us with a more strenuous, and inspiring, imperative than suffering.

Professor Trilling's book provokes disagreement. This is, however, a testimony to the interest of the questions he raises and the breadth and seriousness with which he makes his argument.