|The Spirit of Europe|
The New Criterion, Jan. 1996
To American readers the name F.R Leavis (1895-1978) may signify little more than half remembered phrases and controversies -the Great Tradition, the Two Cultures- now surely, it might be thought, relegated to literary history. In England, Leavis's influence has waned but his name still evokes strong reactions, as the reviews of Ian MacKillop's new biography show.1 Leavis is variously described as “neurotic,” “petty,” “authoritarian,” “impossibly haughty,” exhibiting “suppressed hysteria” or “crazed paranoia”; he is mocked as “the good doctor,” surrounded by “disciples,” his life “claustrophobically book-based.” As for his critical achievements, we hear from one writer that “he was often conspicuously wrong,” from another that he made “often extraordinarily dumb judgements about fiction, such as the absurd idea that Lady Chatterley is better than Women in Love”-a valuation Leavis made in 1930 and withdrew in 1955 and again in 1961. Yet another reviewer refers to Dickens the Novelist (1970) as Leavis's “last major work,” although there were three books left to come, all of them important. Of course, the reviewers all agree that the man they are treating with such personal contempt, patronizing distortion, and simple inaccurary was fantasizing when he voiced the opinion that he was being misrepresented, or that some people considered themselves his enemies, or that the London literary establishment was out to get him. “They say I have persecution mania,” he remarked once. “Comes of being persecuted, you know” An unimpeachable source.
Not that such viciousness was rare during Leavis's lifetime. Dr. MacKillop tells the story of the meeting which was arranged, at Leavis's request, to discuss the appointment of someone of whom he disapproved to the lectureship established in his honor after he had retired from full-time teaching at Cambridge. One of those turning up to the meeting, John Newton, said that he wanted to call Leavis a liar. Someone else said that this might kill Leavis: Newton replied, “Yes, but at least he'd die in the truth.” I remember these (to me) shocking words whenever I read of Leavis's “vindictiveness.”
I saw him only once, in 1972 when, persuaded to make the journey by a former pupil who was a senior faculty member at my university in the north of England, he came to give his lecture “Reading Out Poetry.” The lecture room was packed to overflowing. At the appointed hour Leavis, then seventy-seven and looking it, was ushered in, still wearing a shabby fawn raincoat over his jacket. After the chairman's introduction he took from his briefcase a dog-eared manuscript which he began to read in a semi-audible monotone -a deliberate ploy, I later discovered, to frustrate those who had come expecting a “performance” rather than out of genuine interest in what he had to say. Nevertheless, there was a performance at one point. In pursuit of his contention that to arrive at a satisfactory reading-out of a great poem was in itself an act of interpretation, challenging all one's resources of intelligence and sensitivity, Leavis did some reading-out with interpolated commentaries. Eventually he came to the last speech of Othello. This prompted him to explain how he despised actors who treated Shakespeare as providing them with an opportunity to display their “eloquence”; and he mentioned with particular scorn Sir Laurence Olivier, whose performance as Othello had reportedly been influenced by Leavis's essay on the play. Then, raising his head and raking the room with still-magnificent eyes, he jerked out in increasingly forte bursts: “Olivier! That...old Etonian ... golden-voiced ... NARCISSUS!” (Olivier was not of course an old Etonian -Leavis was typecasting.) Since this was the only sentence everyone had been able to hear, there was laughter and applause. Leavis subsided, resuming his former quiet delivery. At the end of an hour he broke off with a weary gesture-“I must end there, my voice has gone.” The chairman, somewhat nervously, invited questions. There were none. How could there be?
I didn't find the lecture impressive. I had only been at university a year, and didn't have the intellectual equipment to make a qualified judgment on Leavis. Worse, I didn't know I wasn't qualified, and mocked with the others. Only in reading him, subsequently, have I come to realize how well he described himself in that lecture, when he characterized the good reader as “the ideal executant musician, the one who, knowing it rests with him to re-create in obedience to what lies in black print on the white sheet in front of him, devotes all his trained intelligence, sensitiveness, intuition, and skill to re-creating, reproducing faithfully what he divines his composer essentially conceived.”2
Dr: MacKillop's is not an authorized biography. Denied access to crucial papers, he falls back too much on secondhand testimony, and his coverage of Leavis’s life is patchy (for instance, there is no mention of the one visit Leavis and his wife made to the United States, in 1966). Much of his material necessarily consists of academic minutiae which could only be made gripping by a livelier style than his. Moreover, when he comes to the indisputably painful episodes in the lives of Leavis and his wife, Dr. MacKillop is compromised by a delicacy of feeling perfectly proper to an ex-pupil (which he is) but not ideal in a biographer. In the end, of course, the emphasis ought to be on what in fact Leavis achieved as a literary critic: but even here MacKillop, like almost everyone else, slights or ignores the books of the 1970s. His book is better than nothing, and it expands valuably the perspectives of the collection of essays edited by Denys Thompson, The Leavises: Recollections and Impressions (1984). However, it makes no reference to some important biographical essays published since then. It certainly does not represent a definitive account of Leavis's life and works.
Leavis was Cambridge born and bred. His father, a Victorian rationalist and “centre of human power” (the son's phrase), kept a piano shop opposite the gates of Downing College, which was later to be Leavis's center of operations for so many years. After a year he joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit, in 1915, and was present at the Somme -an experience, rarely afterward alluded to, which left an indelible memory. It's not difficult to imagine how monstrously unreal academic History must have seemed to him on his return to Cambridge in 1919. He switched to English, then in its infancy as a degree subject, and graduated with first-class Honours in 1921-an achievement all the more astonishing when we know that his father died, following an accident, on the morning of his last examination paper. Despite his good degree, Leavis was not seen as a strong candidate for one of the scarce research fellowships. He embarked on a Ph.D., then a distinctly lowly career move for an aspiring academic. His thesis, on the relationship between literature and journalism in the eighteenth century, was supervised by the flamboyant professor of English (and ex-Fleet Street man) Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, and examined by George Saintsbury. It's striking to think of these sturdy Victorian figures, born respectively in 1863 and 1845, giving their blessing to Leavis’s work; but then a case could be made for his being, in curious ways, closer to their world than might first appear.
After receiving his doctorate in 1924, Leavis must have thought a move to a lectureship would be swift; but circumstances went against him, and perhaps not only those, for Quiller-Couch had written privately of his pupil’s “Self-Sufficiency” as an ominous trait: “no good fortune would easily equal his sense of his deserts.” He subsisted on free-lance teaching-“hand-to-mouth disease” as I.A.Richards called it- for a number of colleges; one of his pupils, Queenie Roth, became his wife in 1929. Dr MacKillop cannot, for many reasons, do full justice to the figure of Mrs. Leavis. She was a more confidently ambitious person than her husband, and on the novel, in my view, a greater critic than he. Her Ph.D. thesis, published in 1932 as Fiction and the Reading Public, had been supervised by I.A.Richards, but relations between them, already uneasy, broke down when he failed to support her after her parents bitterly opposed her intention to marry outside the Jewish faith. Despite a string of brilliant scholarly publications (now mostly gathered in three volumes of her Collected Essays, published by Cambridge University Press), she never attained an official university teaching post; instead she continued free-lancing, as well as playing a major role in the editing of Scrutiny, contributing officially and unofficially to her husband's books, and bringing up three children. Leavis was rather in awe of her; he described her as “the embodiment of passionate will,” and once exclaimed, “They talk of the atom bomb -there's enough energy in my wife to blow Europe to pieces!” Certainly she worked with amazing intensity, especially when one remembers that she was for years gravely ill. Not all the biographical facts about Mrs. Leavis are available, and speculation would be impertinent, but there is enough to warrant the detection of a psychological pattern of rejection which became more pronounced with time.
For years the Leavises watched as their contemporaries, and eventually their juniors, blossomed in careers while they languished. Dr. MacKillop is surprisingly reluctant to endorse Leavis’s belief that his progress was blocked by enemies within the Faculty. How else are we to explain the facts: that his appointment in 1932 was followed -in 1936- by only a part-time university lectureship which was not made full-time until 1947, promotion to Reader (the next grade below full Professor) coming in 1959 when he was three years away from retirement? It was a ludicrously mean way in which to reward his achievements. Not until retirement did honorary chairs, at Bristol and York, come his way; he endured years of financial hardship, with damaging consequences for his pension, on top of family problems (his wife’s ill health, the breakdown and estrangement of one of their sons). In the face of all this he worked unremittingly, never taking a sabbatical term or a proper holiday, and publishing his last book at the age of eighty-one. Thereafter, until his death two years later, he slowly declined into senility. Dr. MacKillop gives a harrowing account of this sad period, during which Mrs. Leavis reported Leavis as saying, “I am wretched. I am in despair.” He would often tell his pupils that Blake died singing. He himself alas, did not.
Why should a life which was, in many ways, so uneventful have been so stormy? Leavis's temperament, like his wife’s, was not an easy one, and not well suited to the kind of academic life which flourishes in England. University teachers, not only at Cambridge, often value good manners more than the disinterested pursuit of the truth, and laugh (because of embarrassment and deep-buried guilt) at people who “take it all too seriously.” No one took it more seriously than Leavis. Unfailingly courteous and sympathetic, by all accounts, to his pupils, he was not urbane, and saw no need to be polite to colleagues whom he felt to be in error or worse. He was a tireless antagonist-“Eight stone, fighting weight” he would say of himself proudly- and unbeatable in discussion. He never simply won: he annihilated. His sense of professional responsibility offended the Cambridge worship of “good form”; he wouldn't play the game, wouldn't be hypocritical for the sake of getting on with people. The inevitable accusations of paranoia combined with his and Mrs. Leavis's suspicion of former friends and colleagues; there were accusations of betrayal and painful scenes from which no one emerged with credit. The fascination of reviewers with these battles, however initially understandable, becomes ultimately tedious. Who, at this distance of time, has the right to adjudicate such disputes? What we know of the facts makes us certain that the cost in personal terms for all concerned was ruinous. Is that not enough?
No estimate of Leavis’s criticism can ignore its origin in the classroom: as Dr. MacKillop excellently says, “His teaching was a way of being a person” (though little of the individuality of that teaching is conveyed in the biography). The charges of narrowness often brought against him are unsustainable: he wrote about far more authors than people realize (over thirty in Revaluation alone), and had read far more authors than those about whom he wrote -not just in English, either. As a teacher, however, he had responsibilities toward students whose time was limited. Most undergraduates would barely have time to read -really read, not just skim-and-look-at-the-criticism- the major works of English literature, let alone those “strangely neglected” minor figures. Almost all Leavis’s books were worked out in classroom and lecture hall, a fact which must be borne in mind when considering their self imposed limitations and economies. One must add that he despised colleagues who crammed students for the examinations, and that he insisted on a far wider range of reading than was usual (“Cultivate promiscuity” he would say picturesquely) -but he would not waste his pupils’ time on irrelevancies. Everything he himself had to say was fresh and firsthand. An undergraduate noted of his lectures in 1928, “the fact that his arguments are always founded on the works of the authors themselves makes them unassailable on their own premises” -clearly this was both novel and exasperating!
In the crudest terms for measuring a teacher’s success -examination results- Leavis must be rated highly, though the consistently good performance of his pupils led to jealousy and to the first whisperings about cliques and disciples; in less definable but more important terms his influence reverberated far beyond the specific texts to which he was addressing himself. His teaching was a mode of life, of thought; something Dr.MacKillop hits off in saying that he “allowed students to experience the pains of seriousness” (this appears in the review-caricatures as joyless Puritanism). Profiting from the autonomy of colleges within the Cambridge system, Leavis, secure at Downing, could defy his critics and carry on teaching as he wished. That this did not always work to his pupils’ advantage, in worldly terms, is undeniable; denied permanent posts at Cambridge, they frequently went abroad. Yet it is absurd of Marius Bewley (who applied Leavis's ideas extensively to American literature) to complain, as Dr. MacKillop records, that Leavis should have thought more about the consequences of his actions on students who “have expended years, energy, and money, to study with him, and enlarge his reputation.” If that was their aim, they should have reconsidered the propriety of their motives. Conversely, no real teacher imagines that the goal of his work is an enhanced reputation -as if that mattered! Leavis is the only great critic who has earned his living as a teacher: and we are all his pupils.
Leavis’s writing will not fit into neat classifications, but four broad phases can be distinguished. In the first -the period of his early pamphlets and of New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) and Revaluation (1936)- he was mainly preoccupied with rewriting, under Eliot's influence, the history of English poetry from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, and with sketching his view of the nature and purpose of university education. In the second he turned his attention to the novel, probably at his wife’s instigation; this is the period of The Great Tradition (1948) and D.H. Lawrence, Novelist (1955). From the time of his lecture Two Cultures: The Significance of C.P. Snow (1962) Leavis sought a more eclectic treatment of literary, educational, and social issues; the central focus remained literature but the perspective from which he commented was enlarged, so that English Literature inOur Time and the University (1969) is quite different from Education and the University (1943), just as Dickens the Novelist (1970, with Q.D. Leavis) is quite different from the book on Lawrence. This phase of Leavis’s work, the “higher pamphleteering” as he called it, reaches its apogee in Nor Shall My Sword:Discourses on Pluralism, Compassion, and Social Hope (1972). The fourth and final phase is in many ways the most interesting of all. It consists of two books, The Living Principle: “English” as a Discipline of Thought (1975), and Thought, Words, and Creativity: Art and Thought in Lawrence (1976), to both of which Nor Shall My Sword acts as a curtain-raiser. Here Leavis branches out into areas of thought which must be described-despite his resistance to the term- as philosophical. Such a grouping of his books leaves out of account, of course, the collections of essays The Common Pursuit (1952) and “Anna Κarenina” and Other Essays (1967) as well as much of his writing in Scrutiny and some posthumously published material (Dr. MacKillop gives a full list). I shall try to say something briefly about each phase in turn.
Leavis was much struck by Eliot’s early critical works The Sacred Wood and Homage to John Dryden, as well as by Eliot’s poetry, and he hailed Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, in a review, as containing “more of the history of English poetry” than in any other book he knew. Empson’s own poetry, too, was unusually impressive. (Yet later, as Dr. MacKillop reports, he would say, “If you want a character study of Empson, go to Iago.”) Revaluation and New Bearings accepted Eliot’s catchphrase “dissociation of sensibility” as corresponding to something real in social and literary history during the seventeenth century: and they reflected, although in a less intense and pyrotechnic fashion, Empson's insistence on analysis as the route to understanding. The nineteenth century was seen as a diversion from the genuine in poetic language (Leavis would later argue that poetry in this period is to be found in the novel rather than in the formal verse); Eliot and Pound had rediscovered the strengths of seventeenth-century poetry -its complex fusion of tones, its wit which was not joke-making but the detached yet engaged play of cultivated minds over the widest range of human experience, its subordination of metric to the cadences of the speaking voice- and had managed to apply it in poems which, far from being pastiche, were unmistakably modern in their idiom and preoccupations. Victorian dream-worlds had been ousted by Metaphysical nervous strength. This view entailed a reconsideration of the “mellifluous” tradition coming down from Spenser through Milton to Tennyson. Those poets were not (as is often said) simply dismissed, nor was their classicism written off. Many early English teachers at Cambridge were classicists by training, and assumed that the evaluative criteria they were in the habit of applying to Greek and Latin verse could be transferred to English verse: Leavis maintained that this would lead to little beyond “aesthetic” (a word he detested) appreciation which absolved the aesthete from critical thinking. Milton comes alive, for instance, when he is close to Shakespeare in part of Comus, in ways which are absent from his attempts to imitate Latin verse in English; a comparable alertness to Shakespeare’s language would benefit Milton’s critics too, Leavis hints.
Read without a priori assumptions these books can still teach us, not only about the specific passages and poets they discuss, but more broadly about what it is to have one's own grasped history of English literature -not something mugged up from text books but an indwelt possession. How to achieve this was also Leavis's concern in his educational writings of this period, How to Teach Reading (1932), a response to Ezra Pound's How to Read which elicited from Pound a characteristic riposte (“balls and shit”), and Education and the Unibersity. Despite the widespread assumption that Leavis had no sense of history or was nostalgic or sentimental about it -that he was a “refugee in a never-never-land of the past” in J.H. Plumb’s sneering phrase- it is plain from his “Sketch for an ‘English School’” in Education and the University that his historical sense was both cultivated and extraordinarily delicate. It is true that he had no time for “literary history” as “background” (and showed in controversies with F.W Bateson and W.W. Robson how vacuous “historical scholarship” was when it was made to substitute for criticism), but he emphatically believed that a literary critic should be educated about history. What he asserted was that, while literary texts could never stand by themselves, context-free (so that the common assimilation of Leavis to the New Critics in America is a bizarre mistake), yet there were criteria of relevance to be observed, and in the end the critic’s judgment, however well-informed by other considerations, was a literary one. However, he wanted English departments to act as “liaison-centres” for the humanities in universities, providing in the texts a focus in which specialists could meet, contributing from their different perspectives. Tireless in campaigning for this ideal to be put into practice, he nonetheless sensed, as a realist, that he fought a losing battle. As early as 1970 he warned against “the more and more matter-of-course view that a university is so much plant that should be kept in full production all year round, its staff made to earn their salaries, and its management governed by strict cost-efficiency recommendations.”
Twenty-five years ago this might have seemed melodramatic: now it is sober fact. That is how a modern university is run, in Britain and America. Leavis knew, as we do, that in such an establishment no education can take place.
Before leaving this first group of Leavis’s writings I ought to stress how much Eliot’s practice, as well as his criticism, mattered to Leavis. He had early given offense to the Cambridge establishment in his first published article, “T.S. Eliot -a Reply to the Condescending” (1929). “The Condescending" was F.L. Lucas, a don at King's College who had reviewed For Lancelot Andrewes as “a pleasant little volume written by a man who is evidently fond of reading ...”! Leavis saw that Eliot’s concept of tradition and of the dynamic relationship between the poetry of the past and of the present -his idea of literature as an order, an organic whole-offered the solution to the problem of establishing a critical judgment as more than merely personal, a problem Leavis wrestled with all his life. His discussions of Eliot in New Bearings and Education and the University, which take in the poetry up to the first three of the Quartets, are more approving than his later re-assessments, and his personal contacts with Eliot were never easy (he believed himself to be the “other” of the vision in Little Gidding). Eliot was the figure against whom, and in opposition to whom, Leavis was always defining himself. He would have reacted with mixed feelings to this appraisal appearing in a magazine called The New Criterion.