“[T]he world is a complex and unexpected and terrible place which is not always to be understood by the mind as we use it in our everyday tasks. It is one of the tendencies of liberalism to simplify, and this tendency is natural in view of the effort which liberalism makes to organize the elements of life in a rational way. And when we approach liberalism in a critical spirit, we shall fail in critical completeness if we do not take into account the value and necessity of its organizational impulse. But at the same time we must understand that organization means delegations and agencies, and bureaus, and technicians, and that the ideas that can survive delegation, that can be passed on to agencies and bureaus and technicians, incline to be ideas of certain kind and of certain simplicity: they give up something of their largeness and modulation and complexity in order to survive. The lively sense of contingency and possibility, and of those exceptions to the rule which may be the beginning of the end of the rule – this sense does not suit well with the impulse to organization. So that when we come to look at liberalism in a critical spirit, we have to expect that there will be a discrepancy between what I have called the primal imagination of liberalism and its present particular manifestations.” The key term throughout Trilling's 1950 collection of essays is not liberalism or reality but "complexity." The book could be read as a refined statement of F. Scott Fitzgerald's claim that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time." The greatest evil the book identifies is the simplification, reduction, or ignorance of the complexities of reality. Trilling describes himself as a liberal (see my blog on his novel below for more on how he has since been labeled a neo-conservative) and means to criticize, and therefore strengthen, liberalism from within. For Trilling, liberalism tends not to question its motives, wants to ignore institutional necessities, and consistently deviates from its original good intentions. For ideological and practical reasons, liberalism wanders away from complexity.
It would be hard to deny Trilling's account of liberalism's unwillingness to question its own motives and consequences and its lack of intellectual rigor. Such criticisms were made by many on the left throughout the last few presidential elections, and they were also seen in the New Left's disagreements with the optimism of the counterculture in the 1960s. The time definitely has come for the reevaluation of a number of mid-century works such as this one. Yet Trilling's repetitive promotion of the complexity of reality is never far from sliding into political realism. Paolo Virno's "Multitude" (discussed in a blog below) works through the same question of how to create a politics that can address more of the complexity of reality (for Virno, this is phrased as the potentiality of human praxis) without providing grounds for the State (and in our times, omnipresent security). It is important to repetitively keep adding the adjective "complex" to reality when describing Trilling's ideas. Reality for Trilling is dialectical and perhaps ultimately not fully knowable, and he is contemptuous of the fact that “In the American metaphysic, reality is always material reality, hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant. And that mind is alone felt to be trustworthy which most resembles this reality by most nearly reproducing the sensations it affords." For a sympathetic reader (let us imagine Virno reading Trilling), this dialectic of reality would leave open a reading of the book emphasizing the potentialities and contingencies lurking within that complexity of reality. We could push Trilling's arguments away from epistemology and towards constructivism.
Since this is literary criticism, it is no surprise that Trilling grants literature the essential role of presenting that complexity, and rejects that literature which fails to do so. He bluntly states that those writers liberals most admire (Proust, Joyce, Kafka, etc.) showed few concerns with liberalism, and that liberalism has a perpetual embarrassment about that literature closest to its own ideas. He notes how American literature has traditionally been praised or faulted based on its closeness to reality. In one essay, he nicely splits American literature between Dreiser and Henry James. Trilling's division could easily be mapped on to any number of recent debates about politics and literature. Liberalism praises Dreiser's representation of social reality, while attempting to ignore the substantial weaknesses in his writing abilities and ideas, eventually being forced to grudgingly accept Dresier's religious turn later in his career. That same liberalism criticizes James for his superficial departure from social realities in his isolation in the drawing rooms of the upper class, while being forced to admit he is "The Master." Trilling, however, claims Dreiser's realism requires the reduction of reality to a monotone, what would now be called politically correct, flatness, and is guilty of the "exquisite pleasures" of “moral indignation, which has been said to be the favorite emotion of the middle class." Despite the immediate subject matter of his novels, James more fully captures the complexity of reality in a way that Trilling deeply appreciates. This argument is made more subtle in a later essay where Trilling admits to having a limited admiration for John Dos Passos. Although Dos Passos is more committed than any other American writer to representing the complexities of American reality (why else is his "U.S.A" over a thousand pages?), Trilling finds that Dos Passos reduces and simplifies that reality too much; that is to say, Dos Passos's socialist sympathies (which Trilling was fleeing from), filtered out complexity and therefore made reality appear too easily graspable.
As with the works of the New Critics, whose anti-historicism receives a sound thrashing in the essay here titled "The Sense of the Past," this book contains more than enough for contemporary critics to simply reject it. But Trilling would merely point out that these critics are diminishing their own sense of history as well as letting their moral indignation obscure the complexities of their own positions as well as those of his own book.