The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society3.92 · Rating details · 305 Ratings · 21 Reviews
The Liberal Imagination is one of the most admired and influential works of criticism of the last century, a work that is not only a masterpiece of literary criticism but an important statement about politics and society. Published in 1950, one of the chillier moments of the Cold War, Trilling's essays examine the promise—and limits—of liberalism, challenging the complacenThe Liberal Imagination is one of the most admired and influential works of criticism of the last century, a work that is not only a masterpiece of literary criticism but an important statement about politics and society. Published in 1950, one of the chillier moments of the Cold War, Trilling's essays examine the promise—and limits—of liberalism, challenging the complacency of a naïve liberal belief in rationality, progress, and the panaceas of economics and other social sciences, and asserting in their stead the irreducible complexity of human motivation and the tragic inevitability of tragedy. Only the imagination, Trilling argues, can give us access and insight into these realms and only the imagination can ground a reflective and considered, rather than programmatic and dogmatic, liberalism.
Writing with acute intelligence about classics like Huckleberry Finn and the novels of Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but also on such varied matters as the Kinsey Report and money in the American imagination, Trilling presents a model of the critic as both part of and apart from his society, a defender of the reflective life that, in our ever more rationalized world, seems ever more necessary—and ever more remote....more
Hardcover, 284 pages
Published April 1st 1979 by Harcourt (first published 1950)
Reviews135 tion" and its influence on the theories of Heidegger, Gadamer, and Iser are carefully presented, with frequent bows to the man Wellek considers his master. Despite their predictable philosophical tendency, these essays are not to be shrugged off as well-known attitudes of a long established literary figure. The author's reservations toward some present critical practice prompt him to touch upon the seasoned sources of seemingly novel and fashionable views. In doing so, Wellek confronts current theoretical issues, from idealist, intuitive spiritualism (Croce) to the idea of continuity or discontinuity between author-text-reader (Valéry), Marxist socio-critical reflection theory (Lukács), and the phenomenological "concretization" and reception ofthe text (Ingarden). Ifhis attitude toward Croce is detached, toward Lukács contentious and toward Ingarden indulgent , Valéry, in my opinion, allowed Wellek to perform at his best. In providing a patchwork ofValér/s thought with the help ofquotations — fragments, archeological pieces, we could say — rather man a synthesis or a history of his ideas, Wellek preferred a quantitative treatment over a qualitative reading. Surpassing himself, he adopted a more modern — Foucaultian? — or we could also say a "post-Wellekian" approach to literary history. The strategic discourse of this compact volume is thus informative on four critics, whose work is representative ofearly-century European thought, but it is more interesting and useful as an introduction to the intellectual make-up of a fifth, the author himself, René Wellek. United States Naval AcademyEva L. Corredor The Literary Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, by Laurence Lerner; xi & 204 pp. Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes & Noble, 1982, $26.50. In this heterogeneous collection, Laurence Lerner, drawing on a wide range of both English and French literary artifacts, deals with numerous problems raised by critical discourse. The relationship between psychoanalysis and the creative process, the impact of social change on this process, the problematics of money, progress, and satire as they relate to the literary institution are some of the far-reaching issues addressed here in both theoretical and practical terms. Discussing the quarrel between pluralistic versus monistic approaches to literature, Lerner confesses his "agnosticism" on the matter: he argues for a broad, tolerant acceptance of all three monisms (tradition, individual, and society); structuralism and Marxism should not be viewed as mutually exclusive undertakings. The essay on the money issue constitutes a deft analysis of a somewhat neglected yet highly significant topic. The nonfunctional role of money in Shakespeare is contrasted with the realistic monetary perspective found in Eliot's Middlemarch. Volpone highlights the fetishism ofcommodities according to the Marxist theories of alienation and reification as they apply to a capitalist economy. The author's anti-Marxist bias is, however, evident throughout this discussion; the absence of any reference to recent Marxist critics on this issue (e.g., L. Althusser, M. Schneider, etc.) is also disturbing. 136Philosophy and Literature The unevenness of Lernens efforts is perhaps best illustrated in his chapter on The Misanthrope. Apparently missing the rich comic irony of the play, Lerner considers the satiric dimension its central feature. Not only does he fail to grasp the significance of Alceste's procès, or the dramatic importance of Arsinoé's machinations, but he quite erroneously asserts that Molière's dialogue "is not in itself very witty" (p. 33). Rather than addressing the ultimate meaning of Alceste's retreat, he deals with such irrelevancies as whether or not the protagonist "sleeps" with Celimene (p. 32). More insightful are his remarks on the problem of social change in nineteenth-century European realism. Lernens critical perspective on Balzac, for example, is clearly "antiintentionalist ," since Balzac's reactionary politics do not in fact preclude his positive portrayal of a dynamic middle class engineering the economic revolution of his time. Although the plots and narrative of this "frightened reactionary" are stereotypic, his value as a novelist resides in his being an exemplary social historian. Stendhal's progressive views are, on the contrary, quite compatible with those expressed in his novels, though it is overstating the case to label Stendhal a "proto-Marxist" (p. 106). In discussing Lukács's theory of realism, Lerner eschews the tendency to give priority to Lukács's philosophical framework...