In The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (2009), Michael Kimmage identified a philosophical turn away from the social and the political, towards the individual and the aesthetic. Although Kimmage labeled this a “conservative turn,” through his creative use of fiction in analyzing the intellectual development of Trilling and Chambers, he showed their eventual rejection of the saving power of politics, both left-wing and right-wing. While Trilling’s and Chambers’ renunciation of Communism did represent a turn away from Leftist ideology, more significant and compelling is their turn away from social solutions, away from politics as a liberating force, and towards belief in the particular, the complex, the subtle, and the infinitely beautiful. Placing Trilling and Chambers in conversation with their contemporary, Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov, and his views on the purpose of literature, can help capture this elusive aesthetic turn, and, most important, suggest one way that intellectual historians can examine ideas about society, culture, and justice beyond the tired political dichotomies of left and right, liberal and conservative.
Kimmage developed Triling’s and Chambers’ “conservative” turn by tracing their views on the purpose of literature. During their involvement with the Communist Party, which for Trilling amounted to a mere flirtation and for Chambers treason against the United States, both men believed that fiction could be a tool in social reform. As Kimmage explained, they believed that “one might use art . . . to transform the polity.”1 Trilling was “intrigued by literature’s civic resonance,” and Chambers wrote poetry and short stories about his commitment to the Party, published in the Daily Worker.2 In this phase of their lives both Trilling and Chambers focused on social and political action. “Mass politics, rather than subtle ideas,” Chambers asserted, “was crucial to political action.”3 Trilling’s and Chambers’ eventual rejection of Communism amounts to a rejection of social and political action—a rejection of mass politics in favor of subtle ideas.
After their break with Communism, Trilling’s and Chambers’ views on the purposes of literature came to resemble the views of a fervent opponent of mass politics and partisan of subtle ideas, Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov’s aesthetic turn was forged when supporters of the Tsar murdered his father, a Russian politician. His family, persecuted by Russian Communists as well as Tsarists, fled to Germany in 1922 only to flee the Nazis in 1937. “A work of art has no importance whatever to society. . . . I don’t give a damn for the group, the community, the masses, and so forth,” Nabokov audaciously proclaimed.4 “I have no social purpose, no moral message; I’ve no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions,” he wrote.5
As part of his renunciation of Communism and rejection of using literature for political and social transformation, Trilling published an “attack on the conception of literature as power, whether religious, social, or scientific.” He was “coming out for literature as contemplation, as an end in itself,” Kimmage explained.6 Nabokov aggressively advocated this view, arguing that “a work of fiction exists only in so far as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss,” and calling novels written primarily with a social or political purpose “topical trash.”7 After his aesthetic turn, Trilling came to share this view—though perhaps to a less extreme extent—asserting that “Wordsworth was writing very poor poetry during the time of his revolutionary sympathies and very good poetry when he gave them up.”8 Chambers, too, though he remained more political than Trilling or Nabokov, shifted his literary style from writing poems and short stories that amounted to Party propaganda, to telling his own, individual story with Witness. In this Chambers resembles the main character of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, Cincinnatus C., who, facing execution for the mere fact that he dares to have a private self, desperately pours out his personal thoughts and struggles in writing while in prison.
Nabokov did not fully reject that idea that good fiction could have a political message. By his own admission, Invitation to a Beheading represented an “absolutely final indictment of Russian and German totalitarianism.”9 Yet this book opposes totalitarianism by appealing to the sanctity of the individual in all his or her complex, beautiful, infinite details, rather than by appealing to general formulas of political justice or calling for social action. Similarly, Trilling’s indictment of Communism, his novel, The Middle of the Journey, celebrates the individual with an artistic rather than a political sense through the character Laskell. According to Kimmage, “Laskell is politically weak because he is culturally alive. . . . Laskell is sensitive to beauty, culture, and love.”10 Nabokov’s Cincinnatus C.is also politically weak. His only protest against his imprisonment and execution is to repeat “by myself, by myself,” when robbed of his independence or to simply say “I can’t breath,” when suffocated by the oppressive attack on his individualism.11 Yet Cincinnatus is culturally alive. He is sensitive to love and, above all, has an artistic spirit that his tormentors cannot tame or kill. Cincinnatus desires what Chambers strove for by moving to a secluded farm in Maryland: a private self beyond the group, state, or Party organization. “In my heart of hearts I hate machines, and I hate a mechanistic civilization,” Chambers wrote, essentially expressing Nabokov’s reason for writing fiction.12 Chambers’ turn toward religion, particularly Quakerism with its focus on the “inner light” in each individual, also illustrates his shift from faith in social organization to faith only in the individual soul.
In his short story, The Other Margaret, Trilling depicts a naïve middle class girl trying to explain the injustice of punishing her maid for stealing. “It’s not her fault. She couldn’t help it. Society–” the girl exclaims. “But at that big word,” Trilling writes, “she halted, unable to handle it.”13 Although Kimmage interpreted this short story as a conservative endorsement of middle class values, more intriguing—and representing a bigger break from Communist Party ideology—is Trilling’s mockery of those who think in large, political terms with their cant about “society.” Politics, whether liberal or conservative, deal with general ideas and and social solutions to social problems. In The Other Margaret, Trilling not only rejected Leftist arguments, he called into question the value of social and political thinking altogether.
That Kimmage labeled this shift in ideology a “conservative turn” suggests, perhaps, that in 2009 he wanted to tell a story with significance for the rise of Neoconservativism, the Reagan Revolution, and today’s right-wing resurgence. Through his sensitive use of literature, however, Kimmage brings to light what was actually an aesthetic, apolitical turn. The dichotomy between the social or political and the individual or aesthetic, reflected in Vladimir Nabokov’s views on the purpose of writing fiction, constitutes as significant a force in history as the dichotomy between Left and Right. Like Nabokov, Triling, and Chambers, historians, too, can make an aesthetic turn and analyze the individual and aesthetic rather than the social and political, producing work that will have value beyond current political trends. By making use of literature in the ways Kimmage does in The Conservative Turn, historians can further explore arguments against general ideas and social action, as well as other themes in history that might become clearer with more attention to the important human act of reading fiction.
1Michael Kimmage, The Conservative Turn (Harvard University Press: Cambridge and London, 2009), 25.
2Kimmage, 33, 42, 46.
4Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (McGraw-Hill: New York, 1973), 33.
7Nabokov, “On a Book entitled Lolita” published in Lolita (Random House, Inc.: New York, 1997), 315.
8Kimmage, 73, 74.
9Nabokov, Strong Opinion, 156.
11Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading (Random House, Inc.: New York, 1989), 221, 146.