The Flora Levy Lecture in the Humanities, 15 October 1996: Dedicatory Remarks On Diana Trilling

It is both a very considerable pleasure, and a very distinct privilege, to celebrate the achievements of Diana Trilling, to whom this evening’s Flora Levy Lecture is dedicated. It is also an opportunity to acknowledge publicly my strong sense of indebtedness. I have neither seen nor spoken with Mrs. Trilling for nearly twenty years; but a long while ago she took an interest in the efforts of an anxious young graduate student—like Yeats’s old man, I too “had pretty plumage once.” She treated me with a seriousness I had not yet earned, gave me the encouragement I needed, and urged me to get on with my work. I was and remain most grateful.

I think it especially appropriate that we offer this tribute on the occasion of a lecture by Eugen Weber. Though Mrs. Trilling has had little to say about France, of which Professor Weber writes with such great authority, she shares his alertness to manners and to the nuances of social experience; she recognizes, as he does, the power of ideas; and she has spent a part of her life—as he has—in plotting the coordinates of modern political thought. Mrs. Trilling is not an historian, but she has an acute historical sense. She brings to her understanding of contemporary experience both a richly circumstantial imagination—her awareness, that is to say, of what Lionel Trilling called “the conditioned”—and the historian’s power of detached judgment. Her own transactions with literature are finely responsive to the historicity of art—not only to the “factual substructure,” as she calls it, on which the architecture of imagination rests, but to the text’s encoding or registration of historical event and significance. The atrophy and attenuation of historical knowledge among the Radcliffe students of the 1970s was for her a source of astonishment and dismay.

To think at all of history in connection with Diana Trilling is to think, inevitably and unhappily, of the history that she has lived. “A low dishonest decade,” wrote Auden of the thirties; and Mrs. Trilling, now in her tenth, has had to make her way through more than one such period. This defines, I believe, yet another point of contact with tonight’s lecture; for Professor Weber will be speaking about the vicissitudes of honor, and the single most important thing to note about Diana Trilling is that she has found an honorable path through the cunning passages and contrived corridors of our low, dishonest century.

This is a large moral achievement, the more so when we consider the difficulties she has known: not only the usual impediments to the professional aspirations of women, but the lingering anti-semitism of the inter-war decades; the debilitating illnesses of her young womanhood and the long regimen of analysis; her husband’s recurring depression; the virtual blindness of her later years. All of this she has faced with fortitude and described without self-pity, in the memoir of her marriage to Lionel Trilling published in 1993: a poised and magnanimous account of what Phyllis Rose has called “parallel lives”; a record, moreover, of what I think it right to characterize as true intellectual heroism.

If The Beginning of the Journey is, as I believe it to be, Diana Trilling’s finest book; if it brings a new warmth of language to her customary powers of perception and judgment, those powers have nevertheless been in evidence from the beginning of her career. So too has been the essential character of her project. Her first volume, Claremont Essays, drew its title, she noted, “from the small street in New York City on which I live” (and on which she lives today). Its intention, she continued, was to suggest

a particular point of view” … [that] is perhaps best described as ‘social.’ Even in those essays which deal with individuals … where the emphasis is most personal, even psychological, I think there is always a discernible reference to the entity we call society, within which we live our individual lives. … Far from believing that the self is best comprehended or realized apart from society, I am of the older opinion that it is society which provides the self with its best possibilities of ascendency, even of transcendence.

I take this to mean, first, that long before the emergence of our currently fashionable forms of epistemological skepticism, Mrs. Trilling understood that one is always situated someplace, that one knows and experiences the world from that place and denies this at some peril. Mrs. Trilling, too, has always had a robust belief in actuality, which she assumes to be a social actuality, and which she might be willing to describe, with Henry James, as “the things we cannot possibly not know.”

We should not wonder, in any case, at her deep allegiance to Lawrence, who understood the great paradox, that the thing he most prized—the intense life of the individual—can be realized and brought to fulfillment only in and through relationship with others; nor should we have difficulty tracing the common purpose that works its way through Mrs. Trilling’s reports on trials and reflections on marriage; through miscellaneous reviews and a treatise on the murder of a Scarsdale physician; through essays on Margaret Mead and Marilyn Monroe, on women’s liberation, women’s education, and women’s bodies.

One would like to linger over some of the pleasures of that work: the trenchant judgments, for example, of Eudora Welty and Edmund Wilson in the reviews of the nineteen-forties; the remarkable meditation on Herman Tarnower and Jay Gatsby; the title essay of We Must March My Darlings, with its account of contemporary undergraduates, who “rush after one another into emptiness.” We cannot linger tonight, but we can offer thanks and we are right to do so.

Diana Trilling has been an austere and a scrupulous and a demanding presence in our culture, which must sometimes, surely, have been a burden. Writing of the limitations of her hero Lawrence, she has this to say:

One of the things we all of us unconsciously seek in art … is the knowledge of ready love and forgiveness, the promise of the kind of understanding that is shared in laughter. But if, himself too tortured by life to be in the business of dispensing benevolences, Lawrence gives us no such reassurance, he surely does give us what is often indicated instead of palliatives but almost never made available to us in art—a possible procedure for a fierce surgery upon our ailing world and selves.

Diana Trilling’s work seldom invites laughter, and she has no more to do than does Lawrence with the dispensation of “benevolences”; yet like D.H. Lawrence, she has often written of love; and her generosity of judgment suggests an impulse something like forgiveness. She has prescribed no radical surgery; but in bringing us reports of our ailing world and selves, she has given us the gift of understanding for which we honor her tonight.

Tom Samet

Hood College