“What I want to make plain,” wrote Lionel Trilling in a 1947 letter to a friend, “is my deep distaste for liberal culture.” Coming from a purported liberal and the soon-to-be author of The Liberal Imagination, Trilling recognized such a sentiment was “difficult to explain.” He found himself to be “in accord with most of the liberal ideas of freedom, tolerance, etc.,” and yet
"the tone in which these ideals are uttered depress[es] me endlessly. I find it wholly debased, downright sniveling, usually quite insincere. It sells everything out in human life in order to gain a few things it can understand as good. It isn’t merely that I believe that our liberal culture doesn’t produce great art and lacks imagination—it is that I think it produces horrible art and has a hideous imagination."
One could read this passage as demonstrating Trilling’s openness to the criticisms of liberalism, and therefore as exemplifying what the well-known contemporary liberal critic Adam Gopnik calls, in his latest book A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (2019), liberalism’s “tolerance for difference.” But that would be to miss, from the perspective of much of what we call liberal cultural criticism today, what is most striking about it. Trilling was not just open to critics of liberalism; he was one. He did not merely tolerate the distaste others expressed for liberalism’s “sniveling” imagination; he felt it himself.
On the basis of reputation alone, it would be possible to think of Gopnik as a figure who is laboring in Trilling’s drift. The author of several books on modern art and culture, Gopnik has been a polymathic fixture in the New Yorker since 1986, when he introduced himself with an essay about the similarities between his two passions: fifteenth-century Italian painting and the Montreal Expos. For Gopnik, as for Trilling, if we want to understand liberalism as a political “program” we have first to understand it as “a temperament.” And for Gopnik, as for Trilling, it is best to look for the inner nature of that temperament not in Hobbes or Locke but in Montaigne, whose “undulating and diverse being” Trilling cited as an ideal for the liberal critic. Montaigne, Gopnik writes, “saw, in the late Renaissance, that we are double in ourselves,” that “we condemn the thing we believe and embrace the thing we condemn.”
But while Gopnik voices appreciation for this doubleness, his writing bears little trace of it. In A Thousand Small Sanities, he does not condemn the thing he believes; he embraces it. And that thing is liberalism. On the first page he tells us liberalism has been “proven true by history,” and the remainder of the book is devoted to harassing us into accepting this proof, with fusillades of superlatives when necessary. (Later in the introduction, Gopnik calls liberalism “one of the great moral adventures in human history”; a sentence after that, in what I assume will come as a surprise to people of faith, he calls it “the most singular spiritual episode in all of human history.”) This is not to say Gopnik is insensible to the perceived shortcomings of liberalism. He would not be a good liberal, he acknowledges, unless he tried, as “eloquently” as he could, to grapple with the arguments against liberal ideas. Close to half of Small Sanities is taken up with his competent reproductions of the traditional lines of anti-liberal attack. But while Gopnik’s liberal commitment to openness may enjoin him to give the criticisms of liberalism a fair hearing, what never seems to occur to him is what Trilling felt viscerally: that the criticisms of liberalism could be true.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor