Amardeep Singh recently put up a very intelligent post on Lionel Trilling's notion of "complexity." Amardeep quotes from Trilling's essay, "The Function of the Little Magazine":
. . .The writer who defines his audience by its limitations is indulging in the unforgivable arrogance. The writer must define his audience by its abilities, by its perfections, so far as he is gifted to conceive them. He does well, if he cannot see his right audience within immediate reach of his voice, to direct his words to his spiritual ancestors, or to posterity, or even, if need be, to a coterie. The writer serves his daemon [creative spirit] and his subject. . . .
Amardeep's gloss on this passage:
In short, there should be a place where people write, freely assuming their audience knows way more than the average reader of USA Today. Serious writers and thinkers should feel free to take advantage of such an intellectually enlivened -- if rarefied -- space to work out complex ideas. And if that means a few thousand readers a day rather than a few million, then so be it. The circulation of your magazine (or today, your hitcount) is not everything; if it is, you're probably not doing your best thinking.
I agree with this entirely, but in further commenting on Trilling's analysis of Wordsworth's second thoughts about the French Revolution, Amardeep says that "what Wordsworth wanted to do was use art to think about things that are too complicated (which could also mean: too personal, too mysterious, too dynamic) to be represented via any available political or ideological system. Trilling would equally value the pursuit of complexity to anyone engaged in artistic creation or serious criticism of the arts." Perhaps at his weakest Wordsworth wanted to "use art to think about things," but I like to think that what Wordsworth finally wanted to do was write poems that were complex not in their "thinking" per se, but that were "complex" in their expressions of experience, a complexity that only poetry could embody because of its non-propositional nature.
I am not so much questioning Amardeep's interpretation of Trilling as identifying the inherent limitations of Trilling's own notion of "complexity," limitations suggested in one more passage that Amardeep quotes, from The Liberal Imagination:
It is one of the tendencies of liberalism to simplify, and this tendency is natural in view of the effort which liberalism makes to organize the elements of life in a rational way. And when we approach liberalism in a critical spirit, we shall fail in critical completeness if we do not take into account the value and necessity of its organizational impulse. . .The lively sense of contingency and possibility, and of those exceptions to the rule which may be the beginning of the end of the rule--this sense does not suit well with the impulse to organization. So that when we come to look at liberalism in a critical spirit, we have to expect that there will be a discrepancy between what I have called the primal imagination of liberalism and its present particular imagination. The job of criticism would seem to be, then, to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty.
Trilling's hesitations over the bureaucratic "rationalism" of liberalsim are only superficially about "complexity" as the word might be understood by literary criticism. Trilling wants something like the consciousness of sin injected into liberalism, and the "job of criticism" is thus the moral critic's job of raising our awareness of humankind's fallen state, something for which Trilling finds literature eminently useful. "Complexity and difficulty" in Trilling's vocabulary have little do with their aesthetic manifestations. As Amardeep notes, it has more to do "with the connection between a kind of intellectual discipline to a humanist ethical imperative."
When Amardeep says "Trilling would equally value the pursuit of complexity to anyone engaged in artistic creation or serious criticism of the arts," I actually have my doubts. The pursuit of complexity in criticism is one thing, and it is certainly true all critics need not be generalists, hoping one day to reach even that reader of U.S.A. Today. But I don't really think that the sort of complexity one finds in literary works such as, say, Ulysses or The Recognitions or Gravity's Rainbow is what Trilling has in mind, except to the extent one can catch the authors of these books using them as a way "to think about things." In fact, one suspects such books are too complex for critics like Lionel Trilling. They only demonstrate, in their formal and thematic intricacies, that the kind of purely moral complexity he was looking for is itself way too simple.