By CHLOË HAWKEY.
I SET OUT to write this month’s column about our recent presidential election, about the sudden galvanizing effect it is having on young people. Despite my efforts to avoid overtly political writing here, it seemed practically impossible and morally irresponsible to write about anything else: Donald Trump’s election strikes many of us as a genuinely dangerous situation, one in which silence and normalization could be disastrous. It has taken over American cultural life: every conceivable media source is overflowing with warnings, advice, bits of paranoia, and calls for action. Trump’s victory on 8 November is the source of glances of solidarity between strangers in coffee shops and of heated and conspiratorial discussions between friends late at night.
So instead, in these unnerving and utterly unforeseen days since the election, I want to consider what Lionel Trilling, the mid-century American critic, called “politics of a quite ultimate kind.” To him, that phrase implied a rejection of on-the-ground political action in favor of political thought that deals with the biggest, most fundamental aspects of how we spend our time on earth—questions of morality and ethics, goodness and evil.
Now, this is obviously not the time for all thoughtful Americans to abandon political action in favor of reading Henry James. But it is important that each of us who intend to participate in this struggle against Trump be attentive to exactly why we’re doing what we are; it is important, in our fight against a man who has been labeled both a fascist and an autocrat, that we not mindlessly follow the marching orders from above. If going to protests becomes a fashion statement rather than a moral and intellectual assertion of one’s beliefs, we have as good as endorsed the anti-intellectualism that elected Trump.
More than half a century ago, Trilling condemned the Communist Party of the United States on similar grounds. He rejected the inflexibility and immediacy of their political action: rallies, protests, marches required one to declare an absolute stance; chants and petitions could not be modified to account for individual belief or nuance. These sorts of political activities sanctioned action without thought—and that, for Trilling, was criminal, equivalent to voluntarily abandoning your responsibility to others.
Trilling believed that “politics of a quite ultimate kind” was an antidote to intellectual inertia, that fatal illness of the brain. He found his ideal type of politics at the intersection of traditional political activism and difficult and serious literature, at what he called the “dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.”
Literature, after all, was the bastion of questions without easy answers, of ideas without slick ideology, of details, qualifications, and shades of meaning. Trilling hoped, through both his teaching at Columbia University and his writing in public journals, to infuse political thought with literary subtlety. If literature, a fundamentally individual and intellectual activity, could be engaged as a source of political drive, we would find ourselves able to articulate our own reasons for our political actions. We would become aware of the nuance and complexity of the human condition and thus would be able to direct our words and actions with similar finesse.
LISTS OF BOOKS to read in the post-Trump era are already circling the internet; there are at least two editions of the Trump Syllabus (about, not by, The Donald) just a Google search away. To be sure, the histories of racism, xenophobia, and fascism that populate these lists are good and useful. But if we wish to embrace Trilling’s sort of ultimate politics, we need serious literature as well as protest novels and textbooks. He believed that truly good fiction, complicated and nuanced, could present readers with a view of the world more honest than what could be found in other genres. Thus he wrote in defense of Nathaniel Hawthorne:
Hawthorne was dealing beautifully with realities, with substantial things. The man who could raise those brilliant and serious doubts about the nature and possibility of moral perfection, the man who could keep himself aloof from the ‘Yankee reality’ and who could dissent from the orthodoxy of dissent and tell us so much about the nature of moral zeal, is of course dealing exactly with reality.
In urging his readers toward reality, Trilling was not at all encouraging them to be limited by material conditions; instead, he urged readers and writers alike to seek the reality of the human condition and to pursue the larger themes of human existence—the struggle against industrial alienation, the search for meaning in modern society, the longing for connection with other people.
IN SERIOUS WRITING, easy answers dissolve; the difficulty that Trilling was so fond of citing in modern literature teaches the reader that there can be no simple, permanent solution to anything. We must always “dissent from the orthodoxy of dissent.” Through the complexity of her characters, the writer “gives us the models or the examples by which, half-unconsciously, we make our own moral selves.”
When I last took a break from reading newspapers and panicked magazine articles, I read Upstream by Mary Oliver. It is a beautiful portrait of a woman making sense of her place in nature; it is poetic and subtle and astute. Though utterly unrelated to electoral politics, it fostered just the kind of thought that Trilling urged—Oliver did indeed give me examples by which to make my own moral self. And in her book, I found this: “In creative work…those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but to help it go forward.”
Let us read, let us think, let us feel—let us move forward.
Associate editor Chloë Hawkey studied American History and Latin at Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a whitewater river guide on the Rogue river in the summer months. Her previous ‘American notes’ are here.