Daily Office: Thursday


¶ Matins:  I was worried about voting machine chicanery — I hope that it’s clear by now that Republican Party operatives will stop at nothing, short of outright putsch — but I’m dismayed to see that the states with the most foreclosures — and thereby address-less, disqualified voters — are either solidly Democratic or important swing states.

¶ Lauds: Louis Menand writes about Lionel Trilling, The New Yorker. As current cultural history, it doesn’t get any better.

¶ Tierce: As regular readers know, I was never a partisan of either Democratic Party contender for the nomination. I could see the appeal of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and both were clearly cut of presidential timber. Right now, though, I’m wishing that the lady had gotten the job, and the lead Times editorial this morning will tell you why. Hillary is more of a leader than anyone anywhere currently on the scene.

¶ Sext: We can only hope that Ronald Fryer will turn up something interesting in his “rigorous” study of theories of education.


§ Matins. Which is harder? Acknowledging that this is not the doing of a conspiracy (because how can it be, after all?) or acknowledging that this is not the doing of a conspiracy (because how can it not be, after all?).

§ Lauds. Menand is as subtle as Trilling, and his piece requires a steady mind:

Trilling was a writer of many drafts, and his prose shows the trouble he took with it. It reads as though it had been written by a man who worried that an imperfectly balanced sentence could create an opening, however small, through which totalitarian impulses might creep. But balancing a thought was the essence of Trilling’s genius. His characteristic sentences turn on themselves. They can sometimes seem self-negating:

To suppose that we can think like men of another time is as much of an illusion as to suppose that we can think in a wholly different way.

The poet, it is true, is an effect of environment, but we must remember that he is no less a cause.

Perhaps only science could effectively undertake the task of freeing sexuality from science itself.

This intense conviction of the existence of the self apart from culture is, as culture well knows, its noblest and most generous achievement.

The cast of the mind that produced these sentences is not paradoxical. It’s dialectical. Trilling saw everything under a double aspect: as a condition and a consequence, a trend and a backlash, a pathway to enlightenment and a dead end of self-deception. He was a humanist who believed that works of literature can speak to us across time. That was what he had been taught as an undergraduate, in a pioneering Great Books course created by an English professor named John Erskine; it is still the educational philosophy of Columbia College. But he believed it with weakening conviction; he could see all the arguments for considering humanism a vain promise. In 1970, negotiating to write a book on Thomas Mann for the Modern Masters series, he told the editor, Frank Kermode, “What I have ultimately in mind is a statement about humanism, poor dear. Must its postures seem so beside the point? Is it right that I should now be made nothing but uncomfortable by E. M. Forster?”

Trilling’s anxieties were not merely theoretical. They arose from his experiences in the classroom, where he witnessed something that should not have been mysterious to a Marxist, which is that books mean different things in different periods.

At the end, Menand writes of himself, “I think that literature is a report on experience. I just don’t think that it’s a privileged report on experience.” I not only don’t agree with this, but I feel fairly confident about making a case that literature is privileged, if not for the reasons that used to make it special. Literature used to be privileged because of its subject matter: it spoke of Important Things. I would argue that it is privileged now because of the demands that it makes of readers. As in the regimen of healthy diet or exercise.

§ Tierce. Not that Hillary is a “born leader.” She has always had something of the Pompadour problem: she’s tremendously gifted, but she was not trained in the manlier arts at an early age. As for Americans, they did not, until the day before yesterday, wish to be led by anybody. They wanted only to be flattered.  

§ Sext. We’ve all heard older people demur, “What would I do with a computer?” only to find that they can’t live without one. It’s odd that this phenomenon strikes us as odd, because it’s exactly the approach that almost all children take to education. How we forget!

What education really needs is a killer app.