Goddess of Reason: Hard on Others, Harder on Herself

by Phyllis Rose

THE BEGINNING OF THE JOURNEY: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling

by Diana Trilling. Harcourt Brace, $24.95.
A FRIEND who reached the age of enthusiasm around 1960, like me, came to New York from the Midwest intoxicated by literature and, just to feel close to them, looked up Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin in the New York phone book. They were there! These gods were listed in the phone book! My friend felt awed and privileged to be in the same city. It was still the golden age of the New York Jewish intellectual. Deconstructionism had not yet arrived to unsettle forever our sense that art has something to tell us about life. The name Derrida had not sounded in the land. Novels were serious matters, and equally serious was criticism, which acted as a clearinghouse for values in literature, endorsing some, rejecting others. The religion of literature spread out from New York, inspiring, uplifting, disturbing, complicating, and Lionel Trilling was, if not its god, one of its high priests.
The widow of the critic of our innocence, Diana Trilling, a notable critic herself, has written a combination autobiography, biography, and memoir of her marriage. It’s impressive in its clarity, stunning in its candor, heroic in its composition (she is eighty-eight and virtually blind), and startling in its picture of this earlier generation of reigning intellectuals. Ending in 1950 but focused largely on the thirties, Trilling’s account gives new resonance to the term “the Great Depression”—because the intellectuals she describes do not sit around discussing great ideas in some Upper West Side version of Boccaccio’s house party, amused, amusing, and washing down good food with good wine. They scrabble for a living, bend beneath family responsibilities, get sick, get fired, don’t produce, hide their weaknesses, obsess about them, move from shrink to shrink, think the worst of one another, and have their idealism abused. Take that, Mary McCarthy!
Both born in 1905, Diana Rubin and Lionel Trilling, children of immigrant Jewish families in New York, were introduced to each other soon after college by Polly and Clifton Fadiman, who were inspired by the sound of their names, Lionel and Diana, Li and Di. It’s a sign of the fresh emphasis Trilling brings to her story that she gives names their due. Where did Lionel get that incredible name? His mother, who was born in England, came up with the anglicization of his Hebrew name, Lev (Leo, Leon), and marred his childhood thereby. He longed to be Jack or Mike; the “unmanly mellifluousness” of his name set him apart from the roughand-tumble life of the streets. Later the Trillings suffered accusations that Lionel, in changing his name, had turned his back on his Jewishness. But neither he nor his father had changed the family name, which as far back as anyone could trace in Russian Poland was Trilling.
They met and largely courted in a speakeasy. They drank bullfrogs and brandy Alexanders through long nights of conversation. “We drank too much but we and our friends . . . are not to be confused with characters in a novel by Hemingway. No Jew I know has ever drunk with the abandon and virtuosity of the people in Hemingway.” Hemingway and his characters run through the memoir as a leitmotif of libidinal expressiveness, creativity nourished by bohemian abandon the likes of which moderate, responsible, superego-driven Jewish intellectuals—especially Lionel—had to renounce.
If Hemingway was to some extent Lionel’s anti-self, Mary McCarthy may be Diana’s. McCarthy’s is the name Trilling invokes to counterpoint the innocence and timidity of her own sex life. The flamboyant, adventuresome McCarthy, only seven years younger, boasted of having had sex with a different man daily in her early years in New York, whereas Diana went to bed with Lionel only six months in advance of their wedding and considered that “going to bed with a man before marriage was the most courageous act of my life.” As she acknowledges repeatedly, Trilling’s sense of woman’s lot was comfortably pre-feminist.
IN the early years of their marriage Lionel taught at Hunter and then at Columbia while publishing his first work in a Jewish publication, the Menorah Journal. Diana, who had been an art-history major at Radcliffe, did nothing but take care of the house—and did not do even that for long: she fell seriously ill as a newlywed, and for some weeks Lionel had to take on all the housework. She had the thyroid disorder Graves’ disease, which is often treated fairly quickly these days with the help of radioactive iodine, but which in Diana’s case required protracted surgery. When she got over her physical illness, she began developing other problems, panic attacks, which made her wholly dependent on Lionel. She is astonishingly frank about their cause: she wanted Lionel to be more commanding than he was, more like her father. She reduced herself to jelly in despair—or was it in support?—of his strength.
Lionel himself, as one would never suspect from his essays and reputation for public geniality, was given to severe recurrent depressions. He was continually in treatment, but kept this hidden from his colleagues and friends. He passed his afternoons in movie theaters, telling his wife he had gone to the library. His writing became blocked, a problem that got even worse late in life. Then he could take a day to change one colon to a semicolon. He took almost a year to write his essay on Keats, which reads as though it floated to birth on a river of honey. He raged against Diana. Five or six times a year he indulged in “annihilating verbal assaults” on her: she was the worst person he’d ever met; she had ruined his life. She eventually learned to deflect these outbursts by leaving the room.
Trilling’s assessment of their early years is harsh.
For more than a decade Lionel and I squandered life not in pleasure but in fearfulness. We were afraid to be fully grown up and to be in command of ourselves and others, even children. Ours was a successful marriage on the score of this shared impediment as well as on the score of more attractive features. It was one of those unconscious conspiracies between a man and a woman which make a successful marriage so remarkable an accident.
But they were harsh years. In 1932, as an instructor at Columbia, Lionel made $2,400, of which he felt compelled to give half to his father, whose business had failed. In 1936 Columbia fired him, on the grounds that as a Jew, a Freudian, and a Marxist, he could not be happy there. He fought back, regaining his post, and some time later President Nicholas Murray Butler announced at a white-tie dinner at which the women wore white gloves (the industrious Diana called both Vogue and Bonwit’s to ascertain proper dress) that Columbia recognized merit, not race. Lionel was the first Jew to be tenured in the English department.
Their friends were competitive, arrogant, frequently unpleasant, and often given to depression. Trilling recalls a man who moved from one friend’s house to another “ieaving his gift of gloom, like a cat depositing a half-eaten bird at the feet of its master.” They were witty, but they were not, she insists, fun-loving. Nor did they place a high value on happiness. Americans were desperate and hopeless, and the Trillings and their friends believed they should try to do something about that. Whereas intellectuals in the twenties had defined themselves by their aloofness from public affairs, intellectuals from the thirties on felt they had to be committed, engaged.
Diana’s first job was a volunteer position with a Communist-front organization, the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners. Her disillusionment with the Party was swift. She was asked to send out a letter over her own signature soliciting funds for food for the families of the Scottsboro boys. When, in addition to lots of contributions, she received an accounting by the State of Florida of all the food it had supplied to the defendants’ families through its relief office and an accusation of mail fraud, she felt she had been misused. She came to feel that the Party exploited American idealism, turning it to the Party’s end, and she became definingly anti-Communist, even after Senator Joseph McCarthy made anti-communism as politically incorrect as indentured servitude.
She was deceived by heirs of Marx and Freud, because during this period she was continually in treatment with one analyst after another, and the treatment turned out to have been incompetent. After ten years of what she thought was analysis, her second analyst was hit by a car. (Her first had decided he needed more training and suspended his practice.) She went to a former head of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute for referral, and after some discussion he informed her that she was as innocent of analysis as on the day she was born. She —and apparently her early doctors—had thought that just talking about oneself was analysis. The distinguished man referred her to an analyst equally problematic—one who was morphine-addicted, frequently canceled sessions or disappeared, shopped by phone during Diana’s sessions, and assured her that this unconventional treatment was what Diana’s “rigidity” required. Only after that doctor died did Diana find genuine help, from Dr. Marianne Kris.
TRILLING displays a cool clarity about her childhood and links childhood to adulthood in this memoir with the skill of an A+ analysand. When as a child she expressed a desire to act, her father told her he would build her a stage “in the toilet.” This mockery, she is convinced, instilled in her a fear of self-exposure which inhibited her creativity forever. In addition, she was brought up to defer to her brother because he was male and to her sister because she had a curved spine. Consequently, as an adult Diana was less competitive than she wanted to be and embarrassed about her own successes. When she started to write for The Nation, she wrote short, unsigned notices and also had the opportunity to do signed long reviews. She had no difficulty with the longer form but a lot of difficulty signing her name to the pieces.
If we can say that I was born with ten units of personal power, I never used more than five. What would have happened to my marriage if I had used all ten, I obviously cannot know. But I surmise that the marriage would not have endured as it did.
She is keenly attuned to inhibitions of creativity, including her own and especially her husband’s. “Writers are what they write, also what they fail to write,” she observes. What Lionel wanted to write and failed to write were novels. He wrote one novel, The Middle of the Journey, which supplies Trilling with the title of her book, and several short stories, including the oft-anthologized “Of This Time, Of That Place.” But fundamentally he wished he’d been a novelist, not a critic at all, and blamed his qualities of moderation and restraint. When he read Lillian Ross’s famous New Yorker profile of Hemingway, with its account of the writer striding through the Metropolitan Museum swigging from a flask of whiskey, he said to his wife in a bitter voice, “And you expect me to be a novelist!”
If associating creativity with theatrical self-indulgence strikes you as surprisingly naive, Trilling agrees, yet she seems in her own way to do the same—associating creativity not with liquor but with sex: “I could have wished him to have a thousand mistresses were this to have released him from the constraints upon him as a writer of fiction.” And if you find that remark suggestive of a controlling temperament, a temperament in itself not conducive to bringing out the best in a mate, Trilling is right there ahead of you blaming herself. “I was surely not the right wife for someone with Lionel’s conscience, or perhaps I mean his stern self-prohibitions. I was myself too much burdened by superego and by the need to keep a firm rein on instinct.” Robert Lowell’s epithet for her, “a housekeeping goddess of reason,” was, she notes, a courtly insult.
I’ve always admired Trilling as a critic, but she certainly was hard on people —often moralistic, always judgmental. In this book, endearingly but also sadly, she turns that tendency to blame on herself. She makes me want to invoke the maxim of therapists of a later and looser age: “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Her life was objectively difficult. She had her first and only child at forty-three. Money was always a problem. She never had her own study; she worked at a living-room desk until her husband died. He died in 1975, and she has suffered the loneliness that tends to be the lot of women at the end of life. (“Everyone knows that any man who wants a wife can have one, younger than himself if that is what he looks for. No man, whatever his age, need be alone.”) People begrudged her recognition, for whatever reason. Lionel thought it was that she presented herself as married. She herself thought that more than one writer per family strained people’s powers of generosity.
The primitive Freudian model of superego battling id doesn’t serve her well, doesn’t do justice to the buoyancy of her own engagement in life. She seems resigned to seeing herself as a person hampered by fear and self-discipline. I see too much energy, too good a marriage, too impressive a body of work, a son, friends, a life lived richly to the end. Not least, to write this book was a triumph and a masterstroke. By telling the story of their marriage with such power and candor Trilling ensures that her name will move into the past with her husband’s, passing from mere celebrity into fame, linked forever: Li and Di.