Friday, November 4, 2011

If I Only Had a Heart...a Brain...Courage!

Pardon this discursive Friday rumination.  It's prompted by this review by Ian Marcus Corbin of a new biography of the mid-twentieth century American critic Lionel Trilling and a Halloween memory from childhood.


Bear with me.

The review, which is quite good, serves to remind us of both who Trilling was and, more importantly, why he was important.
Ironically, the strongest argument for why Trilling matters might well be the fact that neither Mr. Kirsch [the author of the book Corbin's reviewing], nor any other critic working right now, seems willing and able to do what Trilling did. The inherent weaknesses that Trilling saw in our liberal democratic order have not gone away. We have not outgrown the need for moral realism—for reminders that we are finite, and that every social arrangement involves real ambiguities and losses. A society that found all of this regrettable, but not surprising or unacceptable, would be a wiser one, able to face its problems with greater maturity and responsibility.  
Great thinkers often emerge at moments of great upheaval, when a society is threatened by catastrophe or enticed by promises of salvation. Trilling and his cohort were tempted by the glittering mirage of a worker's paradise. Their temptation was squashed after they saw the gray-drab barbarism of real-world communism. The era lent a martial urgency to the perennial task of thinking well about the world.
It occurred to me that Trilling's story is the familiar one of countless it seems twentieth-century European and American intellectuals.  Men and women who in their relative youth heard the siren song of socialism only to awaken at long last from the reverie, the nightmare actually, and see finally the evil that was staring them in the face all along for what it was.

I was reminded of the old quote, usually attributed to Churchill, that, “If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”

I, along with many, many others in this country never heard the siren song of socialism.  Were we heartless?

Anyway, I do remember one Halloween when I was eight or nine years old.  For some reason, my younger brother and the oldest of my younger sisters were moved to pour all our candy into a common bowl from which we were to feast, "each according to his need." 

Do I have to tell you what happened?  Or the lesson we learned?

Will anyone ever write our biography?

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