Lionel Trilling
Beyond Culture

Mark Twain certainly had no high opinion of the manners of American legislators, but he was appalled by what he observed in the Viennese Parliament, the show of personal violence, the personal invective of the rudest and most obscene sort. 'As to the make-up of the House itself,' he said, 'it is this: the deputies come from all the walks of life and from all the grades of society. There are princes, counts, barons, priests, mechanics, laborers, lawyers, physicians, professors, merchants, bankers, shopkeepers. They are religious men, they are earnest, sincere, devoted, and they hate the Jews.' This hatred of the Jews was the one point of unity in a Parliament which was torn asunder by the fiercest nationalistic and cultural jealousies. And the weakness of Parliament meant the strength of the monarchical government, which ruled by police methods; censorship was in force, and only inefficiency kept it from being something graver than a nuisance.

Of course no one who knows the circumstances of Freud's life will conclude that he lived under actual oppression in Vienna. Still, it was anything but a free and democratic society as the conference of psychiatrists, or most of us, would define a free and democratic society, and Freud was not an enfranchised citizen of it until his middle years. His having been reared in such a society surely goes far to explain why some of his views of culture are tragic or skeptical, and very far toward explaining why he conceived of the self as standing in opposition to the general culture. But the cultural circumstance in which he was reared did not, so far as I can make out, impair the functioning of his ego or his superego.

Why did it not? Well, certain things in his particular cultural situation intervened between him and the influence of his society. His family situation, for one thing: the family is the conduit of cultural influences, but it is also a bulwark against cultural influences. His ethnic situation, for another thing: he was a Jew, and enough of the Jewish sub-culture reached him to make a countervailing force against the general culture. Then his education: who can say what part in his self-respect, in his ability to move to a point beyond the reach of the surrounding dominant culture, was played by the old classical education, with its image of the other culture, the ideal culture, that wonderful imagined culture of the ancient world which no one but schoolboys, schoolmasters, scholars, and poets believed in? The schoolboy who kept his diary in Greek, as Freud did, was not submitting his ego or his superego to the debilitating influences of a restrictive society. Then the culture of another nation intervened between him and what was bad in his own culture: Freud's early love of England must be counted among his defenses. Then he found strength in certain aspects of his own culture, bad as it may have been by our standards of freedom and democracy: he loved the language and thus made it his friend, and he loved science.

And then beyond these cultural interpositions there was his sense of himself as a biological fact. This sense of himself as a biological fact was of course supported and confirmed by the various accidents of Freud's cultural fate, but it was, to begin with, a given, a donnee—a gift. It was a particular quantity and a particular quality of human energy, and its name was Sigmund Freud.

The place of biology in Freud's system of thought has often been commented on, and generally adversely. It is often spoken of as if it represented a reactionary part of Freud's thought. The argument takes this form: if we think of a man as being conditioned not so much by biology as by culture, we can the more easily envisage a beneficent manipulation of his condition; if we keep our eyes fixed upon the wide differences among cultures which may be observed, and if we repudiate Freud's naive belief that there is a human given in all persons and all cultures, then we are indeed encouraged to think that we can do what we wish with ourselves, with mankind—there is no beneficent mutation of culture, there is no revision of the nature of man, that we cannot hope to bring about.

Now Freud may be right or he may be wrong in the place he gives to biology in human fate, but I think we must stop to consider whether this emphasis on biology, correct or incorrect, is not so far from being a reactionary idea that it is actually a liberating idea. It proposes to us that culture is not all-powerful. It suggests that there is a residue of human quality beyond the reach of cultural control, and that this residue of human quality, elemental as it may be, serves to bring culture itself under criticism and keeps it from being absolute.

This consideration is, I believe, of great importance to us at this moment in our history. The argument I made from Freud's own cultural situation in boyhood was, as I know, in some degree unfair, for the society of Vienna, although certainly not what we would call free and democratic, was apparently such a mess of a society that one might, without difficulty, escape whatever bad intentions it had; and its tol-erance of mess may lead us to conclude that it had certain genial intentions of freedom. Nowadays, however, societies are less likely to be messes; they are likely to be all too efficient, whether by coerciveness or seductiveness. In a society like ours, which, despite some appearances to the contrary, tends to be seductive rather than coercive, the individual's old defenses against the domination of the culture become weaker and weaker. The influence of the family deteriorates and is replaced by the influence of the school. The small separatist group set apart by religious or ethnic difference loses its authority, or uses what authority it has to support the general culture. The image of what I have called the other culture, the idealized past of some other nation, Greece, or Rome, or England, is dismissed from education at the behest of the pedagogic sense of reality—it is worth noting that, for perhaps the first time in history, the pedagogue is believed to have a sense of reality. And we have come to understand that it is not a low Philistine impulse that leads us to scrutinize with anxiety our children's success in their social life; it is rather a frank, free, generous, democratic, progressive awareness of the charms of Group-Living, an engaging trust in the natural happiness of man-in-culture, or child-in-culture, so long as that culture is not overtly hostile.

We do not need to have a very profound quarrel with American culture to feel uneasy because our defenses against it, our modes of escape from it, are becoming less and less adequate. We can scarcely fail to recognize how open and available to the general culture the individual becomes, how little protected he is by countervailing cultural forces, how the national culture grows in homogeneity and demandingness, even in those of its aspects that we think of as most free and benign. And if we do recognize this, we can begin to see why we may think of Freud's emphasis on biology as being a liberating idea. It is a resistance to and a modification of the cultural omnipotence. We reflect that somewhere in the child, somewhere in the adult, there is a hard, irreducible, stubborn core of biological urgency, and biological necessity, and biological reason, that culture cannot reach and that reserves the right, which sooner or later it will exercise, to judge the culture and resist and revise it. It seems to me that whenever we become aware of how entirely we are involved in our culture and how entirely controlled by it we believe ourselves to be, destined and fated and foreordained by it, there must come to us a certain sense of liberation when we remember our biological selves.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Through Eden took their solitary way.