The concept of the alienated intellectual plays a central role in the analysis of the subversive character of modern literature in the literary critic Lionel Trilling’s 1955 book, The Opposing Self. Trilling noted that by the end of the eighteenth century, the moral imagination of the West (at least among those at the top, who wrote and read books) was “intense and adverse.” The prophets of Israel had hardly been complacent—but something different was at work in modernity. “The modern self is characterized by certain powers of indignant perception,” Trilling observed, and this indignation became a general attitude. Trilling gives the example of prisons, images of which proliferate in nineteenth-century literature. The “prison” is not just a dim stone building with barred windows. In modern literature, “social restrictions and economic disabilities” are pictured as prisons. In Dickens’s Little Dorrit, the title character is born in a prison. In later novels, characters are depicted as trapped in prisons “in the family life, in the professions, in the image of respectability, in the ideas of faith and duty.” Delight, imagination, and fullness of life require escape from these prisons, which is to say escape from what Trilling calls “the general culture.”
We are heirs to the sensibility that gives a prime role to indignation at society’s inevitable failures and conceives of human flourishing as requiring a “jail break” from social convention. Thus, a person who thinks himself cultivated and critically aware—part of the enlightened crowd—has a sense of personal identity “conceived in opposition to the general culture.” The striking commercial success of On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s account of the countercultural “beat” lifestyle, revealed the large audience of university-educated people who were very much part of 1950s “conventionality,” yet who resonated with the oppositional ethos of Kerouac’s misfits.
Trilling expanded his analysis of the alienated intellectual in his 1965 book, Beyond Culture. As the 1960s unfolded, he saw that the animus he had earlier identified was becoming politicized. Any literary historian, he observed, will take for granted “the adversary intention, the actually subversive intention, that characterizes modern writing.” Its “clear purpose” is to give the reader “a ground and vantage point from which to judge and condemn, and perhaps revise, the culture that produced him.”
Trilling made these observations at a time when novels played an important role in forming upper-middle-class sensibilities. He understood that the influence of novels extended far beyond alienated intellectuals. The vast market for literature of “adversary intention” revealed that works of social criticism and literature of alienation and liberation gratified the appetites of those who thrilled to their oppositional stance. Trilling called this growing consensus “the adversary culture.”
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