When, in the midst of unpacking boxes and arranging my bookshelves at my new apartment, I pulled out and set aside Diana Trilling’s essay collection We Must March My Darlings, a book I bought impulsively one night at the Housing Works Book Cafe on Crosbie Street, it was with every intention of throwing it away — the awful title, the truly bizarre picture of the elderly Trilling curling up girlishly on a lawn in front of some administrative buidling, these had me wondering why I ever coughed up the buck for the book in the first place. But instead of throwing it away, I ended up getting drawn in to an essay about the critical reception of the film Easy Rider that seemed especially astute, and did much to conjure a sense of what it must have been like to be confronting the climate of social change at the end of the 60s.
But what especially struck me was her defense of criticism as a moral practice. Appalled by the go-along get-along nature of the critics in the popular press, who failed to question the bogus purity of the film’s heroes and the dubious implications of their passive victimhood, Trilling is moved to present this definition of critical practice: “It is the critic who is supposed to warn us not to be seduced by art and who is delegated to ask questions about the worth of codes being offered us. It is always a first task of the critic to make the implicit explicit.” –Not because, she might have added, its a tour de force of self-congratulating exegetical power, not because it makes the critic seem smarter than the artist, but because art often masks its ideological intent or inclinations in order to be more direct, more moving, more persuasive, more affecting. The critic resist affect while acknowledging it, in order to explain what ideological tendencies that affect utimately serves. There is a tendency in a sensual culture like the one created by consumer capitalism to accept one’s being moved as inherently good, since feeling is held to be uncorruptible, natural and authentic, automatically a reflection of inner moral rectitude — this is an inheritance from the moral sense philosophers of the 18th century: Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Adam Smith. But the degree to which one is made to feel is no indication of the moral quality of art, even if it is an indicator of its technical prowess. As Trilling explains, “It is a piety of our art-loving culture that between moral and social intelligence and artistic intelligence there is an inevitable congruence.” But in fact artistic craft often “give authority to . . . a false view of the moral and social life.” Critics, when they are eager to “bring themselves into the full current of strenuous contemporaneity” by lauding what is being marketed as transgressive and cutting edge, cooperate with this moral fleecing, and miss opportunities to articulate the meaningful distinctions that once defined liberalism/radicalism as something more than a belief in an individualistic free-for-all.