Trilling, Lionel

Assigned: Trilling, Lionel. “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (1149-66). Also read the editors’ introduction (1144-49).

“On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (1961/1965)

1. On 1149-51 (“I propose to consider here…”), what pair of seemingly contradictory characteristics of modern literature does Trilling identify at the outset of his essay? He goes on to confess that it is almost impossible to deny that “the real subject of all study is the modern world” and that such study should provide immediate practical benefits; it should be relevant (1150). All the same, he goes on to question this pedagogical thesis. What “despair” (1150) leads him to question it, and why does such despair lead some instructors to think it might be better to make students study past literatures rather than present ones?

2. On 1151-52 (“This line of argument I have called…”), why, according to Trilling, did Columbia College in New York City give in to student demands for a course in modern or contemporary literature, and how did faculty members justify this decision to themselves? What attitude did they adopt towards the students when it came time actually to offer such a course?

3. On 1152-53 (“Eventually the course fell to me…”), when Trilling was assigned to teach the brand-new course in modern literature, what does he say caused him considerable “uneasiness” (1152) about the assignment? How does he describe his anxiety in the face of teaching a kind of literature that makes “shockingly personal” (1152 bottom) demands upon those who read it?

4. On 1153-55 (“And then, leaving aside the personal…”), aside from the personal dimension causing him uneasiness, what broader consideration does Trilling go on to discuss? What is it that good critics do with older texts that is so laudable, and yet why, in his view, do the very same honorable efforts turn counterproductive when it comes to modern literature? How does the necessarily “academic” way professors talk about modern texts (see 1154) have a negative, even chilling, effect on students who are trying to come to terms with such literature in their own right?

5. On 1155-56 (“Very likely it was with the thought…”), how did Trilling go about teaching his first survey in modern literature? How did he avoid his own personal engagement with the texts he taught? Why didn’t this work? What decisions did he soon arrive at regarding how to begin his course—what did he need to do for his own peace of mind, and what did the students need to know to benefit from this course in modern literature?

6. On 1156-58 (“Perhaps no book has had so decisive…”), according to Trilling, why was Sir James Frazer’s mythological study The Golden Bough, which was first published in 1890 and later augmented, the perfect book with which to open the Columbia course on modern literature? How was Frazer able at once to embody Matthew Arnold’s antiquated sense of modernity and yet be Lionel Trilling’s starting point for understanding modern literature—what did Frazer reveal to modern people in spite of his scientific and rational orientation?

7. On 1158-59 (“This one element of Frazer’s masterpiece…”), why did Trilling choose to place Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1872 volume The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (Leitch 740-52) after Frazer’s mythological text? In what sense was Nietzsche’s brilliant study of Greek tragedy as inextricably Apollonian and Dionysian quite revealing, and perhaps even foundational, with regard to the modern era’s rejection of the purely rational ideal?

8. On 1159-60 (“Whether or not Joseph Conrad…”), how does Trilling’s choice of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness further his aims by serving as an appropriate preliminary text for his course in modern literature? What approach towards civilization itself does Conrad’s book take? How does the protagonist, Kurtz, indicate to Lionel Trilling, as to the narrator Marlow, what it means to be “a hero of the spirit” (1160), and in a way that speaks to the author’s compelling ambivalence about modernity?

9. On 1160-61 (“This idea is proposed again…”), why did Trilling follow up Conrad with Thomas Mann’s 1912 novel Death in Venice? What is it about the protagonist Aschenbach’s erotic realizations that makes the book an appropriate choice? More particularly, what does Trilling admire about the way Thomas Mann avoids treating Aschenbach’s downfall as “tragic”? According to Trilling, how might we explain modern critics’ insistent claim that “the tragic mode is not available even to the greatest and noblest of our writers” (1160 bottom)?

10. On 1161-62 (“Thoughts like these suggested…”), how does Trilling explain his inclusion next of Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1887 book The Genealogy of Morals and Sigmund Freud’s 1929-30 study Civilization and Its Discontents? What qualities and understanding of the driving forces in civilization’s development mark Nietzsche’s book for inclusion, and what does Freud’s late masterpiece add to Nietzsche’s insights? What necessary question about civilization does Freud’s work pose to modern people?

11. On 1162-63 (“With Freud’s essay I brought to a…”), with what books does Trilling follow up the first semester’s “prolegomenal” (1163) texts? What qualities of the modern era does he suggest they reveal and explore? In responding consider, among other things, Trilling’s remarks about the emergence of the anti-hero—how is this kind of character peculiarly appropriate in modern times?

12. On 1163-64 (“From time to time I have raised…”), when the term papers come in for Trilling’s course, what inferences does he draw about its value to his students? What does he make of the fact that the students are so willing to read challenging material and are not at all disturbed by it? Consider Trilling’s celebrated remark that he asked his students to peer into the Abyss, and the Abyss, instead of terrifying them, only said, “Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am…” (1164). What are we to make of such a response? The Abyss’s answer has sometimes been taken as a joke at the students’ expense (underscoring their alleged incapacity to take the measure of such deep stuff), but is that necessarily the right way to interpret it? Offer your own reading of Trilling’s quip.

13. On 1164-66 (“What form would I want their…”), how does Trilling differentiate between the task of a literary critic and the responsibilities of a teacher who must offer a course to a sizeable group of undergraduates? What kind of demands do earnest, mostly middle-class or working-class students—precisely because they do take literature seriously as a vehicle for important ideas and truth—place upon modern literature that wealthier, upper-class students would not? How does Trilling respond to this challenge? What are his closing thoughts about the “striking actuality” (1165) of the task with which he has been entrusted?

14. General question: In “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” Lionel Trilling, like most modern academics, implies that there is a noticeable split between academic criticism and the profession of teaching. As a college student, how do you conceive of that split? What would be the ideal relationship between the research professors do and the teaching they do? To ask this question in a broader way, how much of a connection between “the academy” and society outside college should there be? What risks might there be if the connection is very close? What risks might there be if there is little or no connection at all?

15. General question: Lionel Trilling’s “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” bears a certain resemblance to Victorian culture critic and poet Matthew Arnold’s essay, “On the Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (Leitch 684-703). To what extent is Trilling’s exploration of his dilemma as a university professor similar to Arnold’s prescription for the way critics ought to view their relationship to the public,  public affairs and indeed modernity? How is Trilling’s way of dealing with those relationships different from Arnold’s?

16. General question: On 1163 (“From time to time I have raised…”) of “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” Lionel Trilling asks himself whether he has gone too far in assigning so many preliminary (“prolegomenal”) works to indicate “the nature of modern literature.” He was given the task of offering a course in modern literature, and he began by assigning more than a semester’s worth of introductory texts in literature and philosophy—all of it difficult and even, in some cases, daunting material. What do you think of Trilling’s approach? Do you consider all this context necessary and salutary as an indicator of the complexity of modern literature and life, or do you think it would be better to assign one or two preliminary texts and then spend the rest of the semester on the study of modern literature itself? Explain.

17. General question: In “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” Lionel Trilling describes his students as young people who “are not of patrician origin” and who do not, therefore, come from “a culture in which other interesting and valuable things compete with and resist ideas” (1165). What is he thereby suggesting about the way upper-class people relate to the world of ideas, or “the life of the mind,” as we sometimes call it? What other “interesting and valuable things” tend to get in the way of a privileged young person’s taking ideas as the most important thing in life? Trilling is not saying wealthy kids shouldn’t go to college, but what is he perhaps suggesting about the particular uses of higher education for the “higher” class of people?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake