F.R. Leavis & his debatable tradition

F.R. Leavis

Is there such a thing today in English letters as a ‘major critic’? The cognoscenti could perhaps name one or two, but it’s hard to think of a household name. Of course it would be silly to pretend that F.R. Leavis, even in his 1950s heyday, was up there with Tony Hancock or Dixon of Dock Green. But then even I, as a schoolchild of limited literary horizons, came to an awareness of Leavis in the decade after his death in 1978. Then as now, ‘Leavis’ seemed to connote a literary-critical austerity, the fastidious formation of a canon (Eliot/Conrad in! Dickens/Hardy out!), ‘the common pursuit of true judgement’ as to what constitutes excellence in a work. By legend Leavis was a teacher who didn’t have pupils so much as disciples. His two best-known titles, The Great Tradition (1948) and The Common Pursuit (1952), also the seminal New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) and the re-evaluating Dickens The Novelist (1970, co-authored with his wife and fellow scholar Queenie) are all available in Faber Finds.
If Leavis fell from fashion toward the end of his life, he seemed to disappear in the 1980s/1990s (though I wonder what was his influence if one happened to be a student of Eng.Lit. at Cambridge in that time?) What happened, of course, was Structuralism: the interrogation of ‘texts’ as opposed to the elucidation of ‘works’, the querying of previous valorisations of the ‘great’ author, the consequent diminishing of the idea of a critic as one who explains how and why a work is great (though all this seemed to make for a lift, funnily enough, in the notion of ‘great’/unanswerable critics).
In the eyes of this reader a great many scholars who embraced Critical Theory instantly wrote/talked themselves out of any interest or relevance, since one does not require chiefly of a lit-critic that they instruct us in geopolitics – or, as Leavis is said to have remarked, we don’t go to D.H. Lawrence to learn whom we should vote for.
But if one fancifully imagines 1970s Cambridge as a bastion of Truth/Beauty values threatened by scruffy and voguish French theories (and a profoundly anti-Leavis interest in the movies)… then the clash is defined by ‘The MacCabe Affair’ of 1981, evidently a nasty business in its day, and one that spoke poorly of Cambridge’s tortuous internal workings. For those new to this story, its protagonist Professor Colin MacCabe provides a useful summary in this, an obituary for his rightly esteemed former colleague Frank Kermode.
As one fortunate to have been taught by Colin MacCabe and to count him a friend, I should say that his concern for standards of excellence in English and his passionate regard for great writers and writings would yield to no-one. And in saluting Kermode I’d say he also demolishes the clearly phoney opposition that was proposed to exist in Eng.Lit. between Fixed Canon and Floating Signifier.
Colin’s personal view of Leavis and his legacy is very clear – ‘no one but the scholars will read Leavis’ rebarbative and angry prose in the future…’ But there are a couple of other voices worth hearing out in this discussion. One is Terry Eagleton, who wrote in the THES that “MacCabe is an inheritor of that dissenting tradition from Leavis and Empson to Williams, that was neither dully conformist nor callowly iconoclastic, but that was rather, in Leavis’s poignant words, ‘Cambridge in spite of Cambridge.’”
And then one can hardly imagine a finer tribute to Leavis – to any teacher of literature – than this, which Frank Kermode composed for the London Review of Books in 1995.
“[Leavis] gave one a new idea of what it meant to read… the whole business of criticism acquired a new and exhilarating quality. That gnarled manner of speaking or writing sounded serious, deliberate and urgent, a new way of stressing the high importance of the subject. At his best, Leavis seemed to move with the most exciting movements of language, and he was determined to teach others who wished to be civilised how, at its best, language, the main medium of culture, worked in great writing. He believed that such study was a principal means of access to a civilised society.”
Let us hold at bay for now the obvious rejoinder expressed so well by George Steiner, following Adorno et al, that the twentieth century left us with little faith in culture’s power to civilise. Let’s just here take Leavis on his own terms. His former student Robin Wood, later a film critic of note, once wrote that Leavis was especially fond of quoting Lady Chatterley’s Lover to the effect that:
“It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives. And here lies the vast importance of the novel, properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead.”
Reasonably put, no? And as an assertion of value in literature – however many quarrels that issue has thrown up – who could quarrel with it?

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