Monday, November 24, 2014

The Shrinking World of Ideas

The Chronicle of Higher Education
November 21st, 2014

When, in 1942, Lionel Trilling remarked, "What gods were to the ancients at war, ideas are to us," he suggested a great deal in a dozen words. Ideas were not only higher forms of existence, they, like the gods, could be invoked and brandished in one’s cause. And, like the gods, they could mess with us. In the last century, Marxism, Freudianism, alienation, symbolism, modernism, existentialism, nihilism, deconstruction, and postcolonialism enflamed the very air that bookish people breathed. To one degree or another, they lit up, as Trilling put it, "the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet."
Trilling belonged to a culture dominated by New York Intellectuals, French writers, and British critics and philosophers, most of whom had been marked by the Second World War and the charged political atmosphere of the burgeoning Cold War. Nothing seemed more crucial than weighing the importance of individual freedom against the importance of the collective good, or of deciding which books best reflected the social consciousness of an age when intellectual choices could mean life or death. And because of this overarching concern, the interpretation of poetry, fiction, history, and philosophy wasn’t just an exercise in analysis but testified to one’s moral view of the world.

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