Sometimes as a scientist, you wonder if literature has anything really important to say that science won't be able to answer given adequate time, resources and techniques. Can everything be reduced to some laws, even they are quantum or probabilistic ones? Experiments in giant fMRI machines are showing which areas of the brain are responsible for what affective qualities in decision making. While we still try to understand these phenomena literature fills that void. That void is literature's essential subject matter.
More from Menand's piece on Lionel Trilling:
In Trilling’s view, the faith that liberals share, whether they are Soviet apologists, Hayekian free marketers, or subscribers to Partisan Review, is that human betterment is possible, that there is a straight road to health and happiness. A liberal is a person who believes that the right economic system, the right political reforms, the right undergraduate curriculum, and the right psychotherapy will do away with unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy. The argument of “The Liberal Imagination” is that literature teaches that life is not so simple — for unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy happen to be literature’s particular subject matter. In Trilling’s celebrated statement: “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance . . . because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” This is why literary criticism has something to say about politics.