Academic journal article Shofar

Lionel Trilling's the Middle of the Journey and the Complicated Origins of the Neo-Conservative Movement

Academic journal article Shofar

Lionel Trilling's the Middle of the Journey and the Complicated Origins of the Neo-Conservative Movement

Article excerpt

The Middle of the Journey (1947) contains the ideological dilemmas out of which the neo-conservative movement would grow in the 1970s. The origins of this movement lie in the novel's subject, the break with communism. Trilling was himself Jewish, as were many neo-conservative intellectuals, but his novel is conspicuous for its lack of Jewish characters. The novel's ideological content helps to explain this. Trilling made a stark separation between religious conservatism and the secular liberalism to which he personally adhered. He foresaw the ways in which anti-communism would legitimate both liberalism and conservatism, yet his novel offered no room for its characters fo synthesize ethnicity or religion with involvement in the modern world. The absence of Jewish characters allowed Trilling to explore a liberalism uncomplicated by religion or ethnicity. Jewish neo-conservatives perpetuated the anti-communist world of Trilling in 1947, but they discovered within it the possibility of being Jewish, conservative, and modern; hence the complexity of Trilling's relationship to them.

And did the countenance divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among these dark satanic mills?

-- from William Blake in "A New Jerusalem"

Elliot Cohen's mission statement for Commentary, published in the magazine's first issue, was titled "An Act of Affirmation." Writing in November 1945, Cohen betrayed an acute consciousness of the Holocaust and an attendant optimism about America, the best hope for a Jewish people devastated by European carnage. He betrayed as well a longing for an end to diaspora. Cohen celebrated the "faith that, out of the opportunities of our experience here, there will evolve new patterns of living, new modes of thought, which will harmonize heritage and country into a true sense of at-home-ness in the modern world."(1) In 1945, Commentary was not the neo-conservative magazine it would become in the late 1960s; there was, of course, no such movement for it to oppose or affirm in 1945. Still, it was affirming America in words that must have given radical readers pause: heritage and country, at-home-ness in the modern world, and all of this under the auspices of a capitalist superpower. Cohen's mission statement contained elements within it of what would become the neo-conservative movement: an insistence upon religious heritage as well as proud participation in the American polity. The opportunities of the American experience might dissolve the polarities that diaspora had imposed: tradition versus modernity; assimilation versus Jewishness; diaspora versus at-home-ness. Implicit to Cohen's statement was the failure of the Left, of the Soviet Union, to meet the needs of American Jews, or of any Jews for that matter. Communism was simply not the answer. Perhaps the answer to the dilemma of heritage and country stood right before the eyes of American Jews; perhaps it was America itself.

Lionel Trilling was a friend of Cohen's, a contributor to Commentary from its early days onwards, and a subtle critic of the American Left, whose ideas would inspire such neo-conservatives as Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Norman Podhoretz. Trilling was both a diagnostician of the Left's failure with regard to communism and the proponent of a liberal alternative to radicalism. His 1947 novel, The Middle of the Journey, Trilling's most personal reckoning with the ideas of his generation, was oddly prescient.(2) Unlike many of his intellectual contemporaries, Trilling saw that the demise of the Soviet alternative would foster new kinds of conservatism and intermingle conservative and liberal ideas, and that liberals would have to meet the intellectual challenge of conservatism. Trilling never became a neo-conservative himself, but his refashioning of liberalism offered a foundation on which neo-conservatives would later build their own ideological edifice. …

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