Lionel Trilling, On the Teaching of Modern Literature (Modern Man vs. Old People)

…After my pedagogical exasperation has run its course, I find that I am sometimes moved to give them [literature majors] a queer respect, as if they had stood up and said what in fact they don’t have the wit to stand up and say: “Why do you harry us? Leave us alone. We are not Modern Man. We are the Old People. Ours is the Old Faith. We serve the little Old Gods, the gods of the copybook maxims, the small, dark somewhat powerful deities of lawyers, doctors, engineers, accountants. With them is neither sensibility nor angst. With them is no disgust – it is they, indeed, who make ready the ways for ‘the good and the beautiful’ about which low-minded doubts have been raised in this course, that ‘good and beautiful’ which we do not possess and don’t want to possess but which we know justifies our lives. Leave us alone and let us worship our gods in the way they approve, in peace and unawareness.” Crass, but – to use that interesting modern word which we have learned from the curators of museums – authentic. The rest, the minds that give me the A papers and the B papers and the C+ papers, move through the terrors and mysteries of modern literature like so many Parsifals, asking no questions at the behest of wonder and fear. Or like so many seminarists who have been systematically instructed in the constitution of Hell and the ways to damnation. Or like so many readers, entertained by moral horror stories. I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: “Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.

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