[Lionel Trilling’s] last book, Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), is a battlefield report from the conflict between his private and public selves, in the form of a history of the “moral idioms” that art deploys to conceal and reveal personality. He ends by contrasting the demonic madness of someone who fantasizes he is Christ—a madness praised by the psychiatrist David Cooper as a doorway to truth—with the responsible sanity of the real Christ, who accepted “the inconveniences of undertaking to intercede, of being a sacrifice, of reasoning with rabbis, of making sermons, of having disciples, of going to weddings and funerals, of beginning something and at a certain point remarking that it is finished.”
Trilling, as he saw it, had accepted all these “inconveniences,” interceding in campus disputes, sacrificing himself to his wife and (in her words) “to decency,” reasoning with professors, making lectures, training academic disciples, attending public functions. The last words of his book were Christ’s last words from the cross: “It is finished.” Trilling had at last united his warring “Olympian” and “sacrificial” impulses in a single straight-faced claim that his life and career had been Christlike.
A few chapters earlier he had mentioned “the peculiar bitterness of modern man, the knowledge that he is not a genius.” As in all his generalizations about what “we” know and believe, he may have made a silent, tentative exception for himself.
From Edward Mendelson’s brilliantly incisive portrait of Trilling — surely the best thing ever written about that gifted, perverse, and fascinating man. (PDF here)