Books: The Metropolitan Critic — F. R. Leavis in America | clivejames.com
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F. R. Leavis in America

With 150 pages of text devoted to only four pieces, Lectures in America by F. R. Leavis and Q. D. Leavis is far from being a collection of writings by-the-way. In spite of the ambling tone, perhaps too faithfully retained from its original lecture form, each piece is a distillation, rather than a dilution, of complexities of thought brought into being by one or the other of these two highly original minds and worked over for a long time: the book would take about four hours to read out, and took about four decades to think up. The first three pieces are general ones on the unity of culture, on Eliot and on Yeats: all these are by F. R. Leavis himself. The fourth and last piece, a fusion of two lectures, deals closely with Wuthering Heights, has four appendixes, and is composed by Q. D. Leavis. Reading from the back of the book to the front (there is no reason why you should, but it is revealing), you will proceed from criticism that opens and looks hard at a single book to criticism that closes books and gazes above and across them at the contemporary scene. The gaze is unfriendly. It is a brave, not a weak unfriendliness, but it is most unsettling. Lectures in America is a disturbing book, difficult to sum up and easy to distort, and it has mostly been reviewed favourably rather than well.

It is not that F. R. Leavis ranges beyond his reviewers’ competence as literati, but that he ranges beyond their preparedness to discuss cultural issues as matters of life and death — of what life should be like, of what furthers it, what cheapens it and what defeats it. Although he has always made a point of disclaiming philosophical rigour (most specifically in the fine essay ‘Literary Criticism and Philosophy’ in The Common Pursuit) he is a philosopher in the true sense, and has been recognized as such by all who have read him since he first began to work, in the intensity of their acceptances and rejections if not in their vocabulary. In Britain in this century Croce’s old rule about the philosophical spirit has been obeyed: if it can find no home in the philosophy schools, it will descend to, and take up residence in, the nearest activity in which men are committing their whole understanding. As anyone capable of grasping the issues is well aware, in Britain the mental battles that matter, the battles which involve the intellectual passions, have for a long time now been fought out in the field of ‘literary criticism’ in the first instance, with the result that literary criticism has constantly seemed, to those intent on providing it with habitable professional limits, to be getting above itself. The descent of scholarship to data-processing they can just live with — jokes can be made, and there’s no denying those machines are impressive. The ascent of criticism to philosophy, however, looks more damaging — and is more damaging, since diffidence is denied its due respect.

F. R. Leavis’s objection to practising criticism in what he conceived to be a philosophical way was that criticism could not afford to be preoccupied with method. He could equally have said that philosophy could not afford to be preoccupied with method. As things have turned out, he has been far more free than professional philosophers to speak on issues. He has been able to identify the issues as they come up and go on to get them right, get them wrong or get them confused. This is the work that philosophy is bound to do or else pay the penalty of falling back upon the investigation of its own ways and means. When F. R. Leavis says that the English school should be the centre of the university (he says it again here, in the first lecture ‘Luddites? or There is Only One Culture’, a piece in which many often-heard themes return as in the last minutes of a Ring cycle rather scrappily conducted), the assertion sounds at first absurdly pretentious. But rephrase it in terms of his own intellectual commitment, say that the first concern of the university should be to create philosophers, and it makes, on a traditional view, more sense — while being even more subversive of the modern order as he characterizes that state, or tendency, of affairs. He might accept the victory of ‘the blind enlightened menace’ (magnificent phrase) as inevitable, but he refuses to accept the inevitable as the good. The bravery of this stand remains to be admired even if one does not agree with his diagnosis of the present, his interpretation of the past, or his premonition of the future.

The reinstatement of a truly embracing concept of culture; a reversal of the ‘alienating’ tendency of industrialism and a restoration of the unity of work and purpose; the dismissal of the debilitating ‘leisure’ concept — it probably can’t be done. F. R. Leavis admits it probably can’t be done but doesn’t cease to press for it; to point to the danger even as the danger becomes an unstoppable reality. His enormously complicated (and always knottily expressed) view of historical change has been strong in so far as it has enabled him to give a clear account of the changing conditions of creativity, and weak in so far as it has slid towards pessimism — towards an impression, implicit in even his finest work, that the conditions of life are working now towards the utter defeat of the creative spirit. Britain’s political continuity has perhaps saved him from a more thorough pessimism (that and his own temperament): like his equal in America, Edmund Wilson (for whom he seems to have had little time), he has benefited from an early disinclination to identify the coherence of culture with the pplitical integrity of Europe, and his continuing rage is not to be equated with the resigned despair of the European panoptic scholars who compared the ruined present with the supposed unity of the past and forgivably reached the conclusion that the thread was at last broken. As he is once again at pains to avow, he is not to be saddled with the advocacy of a return to the past:

We [he and Denys Thompson in Culture and Environment] didn’t recall this organic kind of relation of work to life in any nostalgic spirit, as something to be restored or to take a melancholy pleasure in lamenting; but by way of emphasizing that it was gone, with the organic community it belonged to, not to be restored in any foreseeable future.

And as well as not being nostalgic about the wheelwright’s shop, he is of course even more emphatically not misty-eyed about the disappearance of a supposedly integrated Christendom. As a consequence, F. R. Leavis is not vulnerable to an attack on his bases in the past. Nevertheless he has a view of the flow of history in recent times which is open to attack. He sees the tide of mediocrity, of second-rate work and inhuman charity, rising ever higher. He consistently underestimates the capacity of the productive spirit, both creative and critical, to survive and flourish, and faced with the spectacle of a swarm of seaside trippers listening to pop on transistor radios he reacts in the very tones of Malcolm Muggeridge, his phrases differing only in their cost per word. Beethoven’s name coming up, F. R. Leavis does not suggest that these people would have listened to his music once upon a time, but he does suggest that some kind of conspiracy, some inexorable rigging of the circumstances, is getting in the road of their doing so now. Well of course it is, but what are the factors? This is where we have only the famous tone of voice, and not the much more important clarity of statement, to answer us. Whether nostalgically or not, the past is vaguely invoked — an organic unity then that is not an organic unity now. Standards. Life. For life. But suppose that culture were one factor in a plurality, had always been and must always be one factor in a plurality, ranged then, now and for always against forces that are ranged against it. Suppose that, and you will quickly see that when we ask a man of F. R. Leavis’s stature to beware of pessimism, we are not asking him to embrace optimism. The choice is not between pessimism and optimism, but between both these things and truth.

It is no more polite but a lot less trivial to attribute to a calculated pessimism, rather than to a quirk of temperament, those recurring themes in his work which do most to cheapen the level of discussion and whose wholesale adoption infallibly marks the more boneheaded of his disciples. The dread ‘modish literary world’ is with us again in this book, once again working in far-flung, intricately connected conspiracies across modish literary London for the downfall of standards and against life. Well, there’s something in it, but you’d be amazed to know how often the singleness of utterance among mediocrities is to be explained not by their clubbing up but by their being mediocrities. F. R. Leavis is unable to give a clear account of the second-rate or to show that he has any idea of how culture needs to be staffed and run by differing orders of intellect in proper relationship to one another. Pessimistically, he is always assuming that the gangs are increasing their grip, buying their way to power with cocktails and flattery or fingering the independent operator for a quick, lethal dose of ‘misrepresentation’. Even more nebulous and rapidly fatal than the modish literary world is the much-feared social world. ‘Eliot’s intelligence doesn’t show to advantage in the social world.... I don’t think I need spend time over shades and transitions of meaning.’ Of course you don’t. Your audience is already rippling with knowing laughter and nodding agreement, just as it did at Eliot. Or perhaps you do.

This shying away from detail, while at the same time giving a tremendous air of having the social realities well weighed up, leaves the problem sign-posted but invisible, like a whale between death and destruction. In fact it is not possible for life, in the past, the present or the future, to offer us the example of great men moving in a milieu which is equal to them: if it were, it would not be a milieu, and the men would not be great. It’s sad but necessary to say that F. R. Leavis’s view of society (if something so subtle can be designated by that term) is very seriously hurt by pessimism, to the point that his feeling for language deserts him and actual bromides — not just characteristic turns of phrase — turn up in a prose otherwise free of dead talk.

But as for the actual working-class people who can be regarded as characteristic, it’s not anything in the nature of moral indignation one feels towards them, but shame, concern and apprehension at the way our civilization has let them down — left them to enjoy a ‘high standard of living’ in a vacuum of disinheritance.

Well, our civilization can only have ‘let them down’ if it was at some time possible for our civilization to have seen and wilfully neglected to pursue a better course. But for ‘our civilization’ or anybody else’s such a choice never reveals itself as a choice at the crucial time. Also (and this is a cliché, but the point being made here is that in this passage he let himself in for it) those ideas of disinheritance are handed down from above. In reality (and reality includes all the passions that drive society) the transition from that condition of ‘inheritance’ (it probably means ‘organic kind of relation of work to life’) to the ‘high standard of living’ is a neutral one. As a neutral transition, it can be analysed infinitely, or at any rate down to the level of the individuals concerned. But once judged pessimistically, it ceases to yield information about the present or the past. History acquires a downward curve. It becomes possible to write a sentence beginning, ‘The problem is to reestablish an effective educated public ... ’ Just ‘establish’ would have done.

The essay on Eliot is called ‘Eliot’s Classical Standing’ and leaves nothing to be desired except a few pages on The Waste Land, which was by-passed to save time but which might very well be treated in future editions of what really is a superb essay — no, lecture; one forgets. Not many lectures, and few enough essays, go so far towards tracing the main course of a creative life while never ceasing to emphasize the impossibility of simplifying it. When speaking of Eliot’s poetry, F. R. Leavis isolates his concept of significance by marking the difference between the ‘sincere’ and the ‘social’ Eliot the ‘social’ being whatever force it was that induced him to infiltrate superstition into The Cocktail Party. He sees Eliot’s creative career as ‘a sustained, heroic and indefatigably resourceful quest of a profound sincerity of the most difficult kind’, a quest which finds realization in ‘one astonishing major work’ (Four Quartets). In fine, all Eliot’s poetry can be read as one longish poem getting, aberrations aside, progressively better. This is not a startling conclusion to reach — the quotable judgments in the lecture sound quite ordinary — but the way of reaching it is wholly original and will have to be contended with from now on. The measure of the ‘sincerity’ is daringly made dependent on subtly implied estimates of the poet’s personality, the poet in his creative manhood having been regarded by the lecturer as a polar intellect over a period of decades.

Whether or not in discussing — that necessity of fully human life which is wanting — discussing as Eliot evokes it that which might meet human spiritual need — one finds oneself dealing in Christian theology depends on who one is. I myself think I am paying a high tribute to the genius of the poet when I express my conviction that as literary critic one had better not find oneself doing that — and that it needs literary criticism to do justice to Eliot.

By thus leaving a theological approach out of the question he makes room for judgments upon Eliot’s personal truth to the spiritual needs and lacks he presumes to deduce from a long contemporaneous study of the work in its development. It would be interesting to see how steadily these judgments would hold if all the major work, and not just a few selected passages, were to come under close discussion. But even in this restricted space, the approach makes possible some revolutionary statements, as when he abruptly decides to ‘risk saying crudely that in relation to his own quest, Eliot over-valued what Dante had to offer him’. The inference is that Shakespeare would have been better than Dante at helping Eliot in what ‘should’ have been of importance: to deal with ‘the creative relation between the sexes in all its significance’. To come to grips with the implications of this short but heavily scored line of argument it is not only necessary to know exactly what you think of Eliot, it is necessary to know exactly what you think of Dante.

‘Yeats: The Problem and the Challenge’ isn’t up to the Eliot piece for several reasons. To begin with, it is too restrictive: ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, ‘Byzantium’ and ‘Among School Children’ are the only qualifiers for the title of ‘fully achieved thing’. This has to be wrong. In outflanking the dreaded ‘fully equipped commentators’ F. R. Leavis is concerned with identifying and isolating the major poems (not just the many Yeats poems ‘worth having’) which do not require ‘that one should bring up any special knowledge or instructions from outside’. But here one of his most valuable strains of thought, the one which has always been able to evaluate academic pressures and characterize rampant scholarship as a cultural threat, has been mightily over-asserted. Yeats’s poems explain each other where they do not explain themselves, and it is possible to go a long way towards a full understanding of his work without ever once opening any ancillary volume by him or anybody else: his intention of writing a magic book of the arts was fulfilled.

F. R. Leavis’s whole argument — it is intricately developed about the extra-poetical in Yeats could as well be detached from that poet and attached to, say, Eliot — in relation to whom, it seems plain, some very extra-poetical considerations are gone into in the lecture next door. Looking at the two essays in conjunction, it seems likely that such considerations are rationalized when admiration is total and developed into a limiting commentary when it is not.

It is characteristic of Yeats to have had no centre of unity, and to have been unable to find one. The lack is apparent in his solemn propoundings about the Mask and the Anti-self, and in the related schematic elaborations.

Not the same, apparently, as being solemn about the Etruscans.

Throughout this piece on Yeats, the appreciation of the few poems does not link up with the limiting of the many: the appreciation and the limiting do not spring from the one impulse, despite the vigour with which singleness of viewpoint is asserted. It can be added, perhaps impertinently, that this lecture, like the others, contains several endearingly familiar turns of speech and all on its own offers us one of the master’s most memorable put-downs.

I remember vividly the impact of The Tower, of which I have a first edition, acquired in the way in which I have acquired such first editions as I have had — I bought it when it first came out.

What a burn! Yet here again you see what he is driving at; rejecting the fashionable, recalling the essential.

I don’t believe in any ‘literary values’, and you won’t find me talking about them; the judgments the literary critic is concerned with are judgments about life.

When a man offers ‘the friction, the sense of pregnant arrest, which goes with active realizing thought and the taking of a real charged meaning’, he is not offering something he will be honoured for in any conventional way. But as a living force in the plurality of society his recognition is assured, and his name becomes a known quality. Lectures in America helps to define that quality even more closely.

(TLS, 1969)

Postscript

Trying to get Queenie Leavis out of the road in one line was the biggest single bêtise I committed in that period. It was worse than a crime: it was a mistake, because the old lady boiled over and went for me. She wanted to know why someone so obviously unqualified had been sent to judge her work. She was right about that, although not completely. I had indeed not read much of the recent scholarship on the subject of her lecture, ‘Wuthering Heights’; but I had read Wuthering Heights recently enough to wonder if she had ever read it at all, in the sense that ordinary mortals do. The apparent premise of her lecture was that nobody had ever understood Wuthering Heights before she picked it up. I thought she was crazy. I was just reluctant to say so. To venture a few strictures about her husband’s share of Lectures in America had already taken all the courage I could muster.

Though a few chips had appeared in his plinth by that stage, R. Leavis’s prestige was still mighty, so it was quite standard procedure to screw up the tone of awe a notch or two when going against him. Also I retained, as I still retain, a high regard for some of his early work. But I had never thought him much of a judge of poetry. To my mind his praise of T. S. Eliot was decisively undermined by his often stated conviction that Ronald Bottrall was Eliot’s successor, and I couldn’t see the point of his insistence that Shelley was not Shakespeare: it wasn’t as if anybody had asserted the contrary. On top of these particular misjudgments there was his pervasive indulgence in the language of calumny. Special venom was reserved for fellow critics who had arrived at his conclusions before he did. When he finally decided that Dickens was a great writer, he took particular care to vilify any other critics who had ever said so: they hadn’t been right in the right way. He treated D. H. Lawrence the way the scholiasts had once treated Virgil, as a voodoo talisman. I already thought that there were totalitarian tendencies in all this but had not yet found the nerve to say so: hence the strained tone, of respect trying to conceal repulsion. When I called his view of history ‘enormously complicated’, the ‘enormously’ was the tip-off. I not only didn’t really believe it, I thought his view of history was the opposite of complicated — i.e. Actively simplistic and misleading. But I didn’t yet dare to say what I thought, partly because not enough people seemed to be thinking it. Later on, with the back-up provided by having absorbed the life’s work of real historians such as Pieter Geyl and Golo Mann, I found the moxie to declare, instead of just hint, that Leavis’s historiographic rigmarole was a religious dogma in disguise.