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Spontaneous Aphorisms

From "Sincerity and Authenticity" on July 4th, Lionel Trilling's Birthday

Lionel Trilling 2Here is the magnificent final paragraph of "The Authentic Unconscious," the final chapter of Lionel Trilling's Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), his last book, which originated as the Norton Lectures he delivered at Harvard University in 1970.

<<< Yet the doctrine that madness is health, and that madness is liberation, receives a happy welcome from a consequential part of the educated public. And when we have given due weight to the likelihood that those who respond positively to the doctrine don’t have it in mind to go mad, let alone insane—it is characteristic of the intellectual life of our culture that, in radical psychology as in radical politics, it fosters a form of assent which does not involve actual credence—we must yet take it to be significant of our circumstances that many among us find it gratifying to entertain the thought that alienation is to be overcome only by the completeness of alienation, and that alienation completed is not a deprivation or deficiency but a potency. Perhaps exactly because the thought is assented to so facilely, so without what used to be called seriousness, it might seem that no expression of disaffection from the social existence was ever so desperate as this eagerness to say that authenticity of personal being is achieved through an ultimate isolateness and through the power that this is presumed to bring—the falsities of an alienated social reality rejected in favor of an upward psychopathic mobility to the point of divinity, each one of us a Christ but with none of the inconveniences of interceding, of being a sacrifice, of reasoning with rabbis, of making sermons, of having disciples, of going to weddings and to funerals, of beginning something and at a certain point remarking that it is finished. >>>

Notice the last phrase and how eloquently it concludes the allegorical identification of "each one of us" as "a Christ." Written to counter the idea that madness is a necessary component of genius, the graf concludes with a summary statement followed by a dash, not a typical Trilling ploy. What follows the dash reiterates the main point with a twist achieved by the strategic use of "psychopathic" to alter the common meaning of "upward mobility" -- as if a term usually associated with matters of money and social class could well apply to the case of madness as an ideal. And then follows the remarkable metaphor, with its understanding of what divinity entails, its definition of what it means to be "a Christ." In the Gospel According to St. John, Christ's last words on the cross are  "It is finished." These are the book's last words.-- DL


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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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