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Trilling’s “The Meaning of a Literary Idea”; or, the Essay as Argument: Why The Research Paper Should be Abolished

The more we fragment the further we get from the emergent whole, a picture that is satisfying for its very wholeness – in a way that an examination of any one pixel or isolated group of pixels can not be satisfying. A study of a part of something can never be as interesting as a study of the whole to which the part belongs. Yet the Humanities has fragmented into so many divergent and divested parts that an emergent, whole picture is now easy to miss. And this is true not just in the continuing bifurcations of disciplines, but in the splitting apart of self-contained disciplines. Consider, for example, the English department. English was once the repository for the study of literature, by which was meant a unified study of composition, language, and literature. Perhaps one concentrated in language and linguistics as opposed to literature. Still, the proper study of the English major was literature. (A recent article in The Oregonian reported that in most of the last 20 years the Portland Public School district has ignored its ESL responsibilities to disastrous results. This should come as no surprise, since we have meantime mangled teaching English as a 1st language.)

The English department is now the place students go to learn to write research papers, and even this part is at risk, as various specialty disciplines have already begun to teach their own. The “art for art’s sake” attitude is in part responsible, for it denies the literary work its ideas, while “art for art’s sake” is an ideology, not an idea. In “The Meaning of a Literary Idea,” Trilling explains: “Whether we deal with syllogisms or poems, we deal with dialectic – with, that is, a developing series of statements.” In other words, what we have come to call “creative literature,” is no different in form than what we must now call “non-creative literature,” though of course there is no such thing: there is only one literature, all of it creative, and while literature may consist of various genres, such as fiction and non-fiction, poetry and drama, the impulse to further split non-fiction into creative or non-creative fiction can only have its source in funding disputes arising from the splitting of the discipline – for it can’t possibly have anything to do with reading, writing, or critical thinking. This is true because, as Trilling says, “The most elementary thing to observe is that literature is of its nature involved with ideas because it deals with man in society, which is to say that it deals with formulations, valuations, and decisions, some of them implicit, others explicit.”

Ideas are organic; ideology is manufactured. Ideas are malleable; ideology is rigid: “Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or the ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding.” And so in ideology, Trilling explains, we lose sight of this wholeness: “…an intimate relationship between literature and ideas, for in our culture ideas tend to deteriorate into ideology.” If Trilling could say that “poetry is a heuristic medium…a communication of knowledge,” then why do we feel compelled to divorce essays (personal or any other kind or name the latest textbook has invented) from research papers? The very idea of the research paper is essay turned ideology. We must either abolish the research paper or watch literature continue its slow demise toward extinction, an extinction of ideas.

Where Winston Churchill meets Roddy Doyle; or, the Library is not a Zoo

“Fancy living in one of these streets – never seeing anything beautiful – never eating anything savoury – never saying anything clever!” The quote could easily have come from any one of Roddy Doyle’s many crude characters, hewn from a pub-lyrical pint in a Barrytown road: “Wha’ part o’ Dublin? Barrytown. Wha’ class are yis? Workin’ class. Are yis proud of it? Yeah, yis are…Your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from,” Jimmy Rabbitte says, who will manage The Commitments to his vision of a Dublin band playing soul music.

But it can’t be a Roddy Doyle character said it, the bit about “never saying anything clever!” For Roddy Doyle characters rarely say anything that’s not clever. Clever’s what comes from never seeing anything beautiful and never eating anything savoury. But what’s savoury? For that, we might to go Roddy Doyle’s The Van: “He got the scoop in under the chips and got a grand big load into the bag, filled it right up. Good, big chips they were, and a lovely colour, most of them; one or two of them were a bit white and shiny looking.” A bit of tea to go with the fish, perhaps, from Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper: “He tried the tea. It was brutal.” But if it was a Roddy Doyle character said it, he would have said it passin’ through a Churchill neighborhood.

Brutal too is the knowledge that our opening quote does not come from a Roddy Doyle character, but from Winston Churchill, quoted, according to Adam Gopnik, in “Finest Hours,” in the August 30 New Yorker, by Edward Marsh, Churchill’s secretary, as Churchill visits a working class neighborhood in Manchester. Gopnik pulls the quote out to evidence that those closest to and in a position to assist the great in their finest and not so finest hours are in the best position to snap shots peculiarly revealing. Gopnik may have had other reasons for isolating the quote. For one thing, it’s possible Churchill’s enculturated attitude displayed in the quote explains his ability to use those living in those streets as cannon fodder in his war.

There certainly is something to be said for living in beautiful, savory, and clever conditions, as Jonah Lehrer explains in his Frontal Cortex blog: “In the late 1990s…the University of Illinois began interviewing female residents in…a massive housing project on the South Side of Chicago. Kuo and her colleagues compared women randomly assigned to various apartments. Some had a view of nothing but concrete sprawl, the blacktop of parking lots and basketball courts. Others looked out on grassy courtyards filled with trees and flowerbeds. Kuo then measured the two groups on a variety of tasks, from basic tests of attention to surveys that looked at how the women were handling major life challenges. She found that living in an apartment with a view of greenery led to significant improvements in every category.”

But literature does not come from the beautiful, the savory, and the clever, but from the brutal, the sardonic, and the cleft. Art does not come from patios filled with plants, but from greasy asphalt alleys glistening in flickering neon. This is why we must be careful of the library. The library is like a zoo, its books like wild animals, snakes, and deadly insects, but the library is not a zoo, for in a zoo there are cages that separate and protect us from the lions and tigers and bears. In a library, the stacks are open, and readers reach out and pet the books at their own risk.

And after leaving the library, assuming you make it out alive, and you’re hungry and there’s a food cart about, be sure they’re stuffing their wraps with real food and not nappies.