Literary Criticism

F. R. Leavis: The university and the sage

Richards’s sense of the narrowness of literary scholarship is apparent in the direction taken by his career. After the publication of Practical Criticism in 1929, he spent relatively little time in Cambridge: in 1934, he was commissioned by the General Education Board in New York to recom- mend a set of improvements in the teaching of interpretation, and subsequently directed his energies towards the definition and teaching of ‘Basic English’. In contrast, F. R. Leavis’s career was much more firmly rooted in the routine of academic life: in teaching, lecturing, and holding the small-group tutorials for which he became well known.84 Yet Leavis shared Richards’s distaste for a form of literary criticism that was directed entirely towards the needs of academia, and felt that the 1926 reform of the English Tripos encouraged little more than a ‘narrow aca- demicism’.85 Rather than forming the basis of a specialist discipline, criticism should offer itself as ‘the best possible training for intelligence – for free, unspecialized, general intelligence, which there has never at any time been enough of, and which we are particularly in need of today’.86 Leavis’s conception of criticism consequently represented an attack on two fronts: not only against what Mulhern has described as ‘the palsied cultural regime of post-war England’,87 but also against the formal, central- ised structures that dominated the new Cambridge English Faculty.88 Such an attack drew its motivation from a particular image of Cambridge, and of the ideal university Leavis wished to promote. In his 1967 Clark Lectures, published in 1969 as English Literature in Our Time and the University, Leavis presented the earliest version of Cambridge’s English Tripos in terms of a ‘distinctive tradition’ that had made ‘the intelligent study of literature possible’.

89 This notion of ‘intelligence’ is set in stark contrast to the ‘academic ethos’ of Oxford, summed up by what Leavis described as ‘compulsory Anglo-Saxon and the naïve associ- ated notions of “language” and “discipline”’ .90 While Oxford’s English School was dominated by a nineteenth-century belief in the importance of philology, Cambridge’s early English Tripos was modern, ‘distinctly literary’ and humane.91 Nevertheless, this ideal had been undermined by what Leavis perceived as a certain kind of institutional interference from the Cambridge English Faculty, and by changing conceptions of higher education and its purpose. The increasing specialisation of academic life meant that Cambridge’s English Faculty had become populated by ‘“brilliant” charlatans’ and ‘dull mediocrities’: the university was ‘no longer a centre of life and hope’, but was threatened by a ‘vacuity’ that was iden- tified both with the influence of America and with Leavis’s fear of the ‘technologico-Benthamite’ forces with which society was threatened.92 English Literature in Our Time and the University is, in essence, a plea for the ‘real’ university to avoid the utilitarianism of mechanistic learning and research, and to become instead a ‘centre of consciousness and human responsibility for the civilized world […] a creative centre of civilization’.93 Thus envisioned, the university would become the embodiment of Arnold’s critical spirit, a place where the play of the mind could be brought to bear on the problems of modernity. Leavis’s sense of the crisis facing the universities, made urgent by the beginnings of student unrest and by the ‘blankness […] that characterizes our civilization’, is apparent in his belief in the importance of the present as a point where culture is crystallised.94 In English Literature in Our Time and the University, this belief is used to articulate a sense of the importance of English, which ‘has its reality and life (if at all) only in the present’.95 In a formulation that recalls Richards’s description of disturbance and equilibrium, Leavis states that this reality changes ‘as the inner sense of stress, tension and human need changes’, meaning that each age needs to discover the ‘significant relatedness’ of literature in ‘an organic whole, the centre of significance being (inevitably) the present’.96 Consequently, the task of the undergraduate was not to master a particular body of knowledge, but to form a sense of this whole, and therefore to become part of a wider realisation of literature’s potential:

At any point in his student career his ‘English Literature’ will be patchy and partial, but, properly guided, he will in acquiring his knowledge of his selected areas and themes be forming a sense of the whole to which they belong and which they implicitly postulate. […] He will at the same time be developing a strong sense of himself ‘belonging’ as he reads and thinks and works at organizing his knowledge and thought; and this sense – one of belonging to a collaborative community, the essential nucleus of which is the permanent English School – will play a very important part in the force and effectiveness with which he realizes the fact, and the nature of the existence, of ‘English Literature’.97
‘English’ under such a description becomes detached from its institutional existence and becomes, instead, a mode of life and thought, a way of helping the student to make sense of and contribute to the present. If McCallum’s ‘Arnoldian paradox’ (that of how to reintroduce an increas- ingly isolated culture into society at large) was to be resolved, then Leavis’s university – with the English school at its centre – was presented as the site of this resolution. Leavis’s reference to the idea of an ‘organic whole’ inevitably recalls Eliot’s concept of the reordering of experience, and of the need for criticism to be a constant process of reinterpretation. Indeed, Eliot is a frequent presence in Leavis’s work. In The Common Pursuit (1952), whose title was taken from Eliot’s definition of criticism as ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’,98 Leavis’s concept of the interaction between literature and society – one in which artists exist as part of a tradition they can modify and challenge, but not escape – has clear parallels with Eliot’s own philosophy of tradition. Leavis’s desire to assess the contri- bution of various texts to the literary tradition, represented by New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), Revaluation (1936) and The Great Tradition (1948), is a profoundly Eliotian task, influenced by Eliot’s sense of criticism as ‘a process of readjustment between poetry and the world in and for which it is produced’.99 And, in Education and the University: A Sketch for an ‘English School’ (1943), Eliot lies behind Leavis’s attempt to address the problem of methodology that dominates the ‘Arnoldian paradox’, shaping the ‘sketch for an English school’ that Leavis offers therein. Leavis’s ideal course, which was also influenced by the work of the American educationalist Alexander Meiklejohn, would lead to examinations in practical criticism, Dante, French literature, the seven- teenth century in England, and the transition from the seventeenth century to the modern period, echoing both Eliot’s sense of the centrality of seventeenth-century literature and Meiklejohn’s conviction of the need to study a culture in relation to its formation.

Students would have to sit an oral examination and write reviews of a number of books, an activity that seems to have been motivated by Leavis’s opinion that commercial reviewing was a ‘literary racket’ that lacked honesty and intelligence.100 They were also required to take part in discussions and seminars, reflecting Leavis’s conviction that examinations merely tested ‘examinability’.101 Leavis recognised that the process of discussion was always, invariably, both tentative and incomplete, and acknowledged that such a course would not offer security, resting on a mode of thought that involved questions and challenges rather than the mechanical acquisition of knowledge. However, he also believed that this incom- pleteness was superior to the ‘spirit of strict scholarship’, a spirit that could be ‘vicious, a mere obstructiveness, a deadness, and an excuse for pusillanimity’. Instead, Leavis’s scheme would foster ‘a scrupulously sensitive yet enterprising use of intelligence’, offering a liberal ideal that aimed to promote the values of a humane culture.102 In some respects, Leavis’s ideal English school did offer to unite scholarship with a more personal form of criticism. Its emphasis on discussion would help to foster individual judgement in the manner Quiller-Couch had intended at the time of the English Tripos’s inaugu- ration, and drew on Leavis’s own encouragement of critical debate (a process that also fostered the student’s sense of belonging to a community of thinkers). Its historical breadth, its inclusion of Dante and French literature, and its use of practical criticism offered both a sense of rigour and the familiar ‘borrowing’ of other disciplines. Moreover, it was ‘specialist’ in its view of the university as a centre for intellectual debate.

Yet this was where its specialism ended, as Leavis did not intend to train a school of academics. Instead, as with Richards’s promotion of interpretation as the key to an appreciation of value, Leavis’s school of criticism was ultimately generalist in aim. His course was intended to offer an advanced programme that students would follow after studying a different discipline (MacKillop compares it to Part Two of the Cambridge Tripos, taken in the final year of a degree course after two years of preliminary study) and as a result he treated English as ‘a cross- roads subject, signing to routes out and on from itself’, rather than as an independent discipline.103 Yet while English Literature in Our Time and the University spoke of the need to make English ‘a real and potent force in our time’,104 Leavis’s earlier work on education insisted that English should not be seen as anything more than an example of the kind of thought the university should encourage: ‘to say that the literary- critical part of the scheme is the crown of the whole, and that the training and testing of judgment on pieces of literature is the ultimate end in view, would be to misrepresent my intention’.105 Leavis’s sketch of an English school was less a plan for ‘a discipline of scholarly industry and academic method’ than a process of training a mode of thought, providing ‘a discipline of intelligence and sensibility’ that would act as a ‘focus of the finer life of cultural tradition’.106 This generalist emphasis means that Leavis’s English school shares more with Richards’s practical criticism than Leavis himself would probably have acknowledged, given the strength of his objection to the ‘Neo-Benthamism’ of Richards’s critical method.107 Yet Leavis’s concept of the process of criticism was articulated in terms that were much less precise than Richards’s.

His emphasis on the importance of interpretation, present in his borrowing of Eliot’s image of the ‘organic whole’ and the need to reinterpret literature for the current age, casts the critic in the role not of the academic expert but of the sage, endowed with the wisdom that is needed to detect the needs of the present and reshape the literary tradition accordingly. Yet the exact nature of the qualities needed by such a critic is left indistinct. English, being ‘at the other extreme from mathematics’, is based – so Leavis argues – on ‘kinds of judgment of quality and value that don’t admit of demonstrative enforcement’, and is therefore surrounded in a vagueness and a mystique that recall those created by Orage and Murry.108 This vagueness continues in Leavis’s subsequent descriptions, which define the skills acquired by students in resolutely circuitous terms. According to Leavis, students of English are essentially learning ‘what reading is and what thinking is […] By “reading” and “thinking” I mean the kinds characterizing the discipline of intelligence that belongs to the field of literary criticism.’ The student’s initiation into ‘reading’ and ‘thinking’ will come about ‘by the time he has come to intelligent critical terms with, and made himself, with personal conviction, intelligently articulate about, two or three of the great Shakespeare plays, two or three major novels, and some poems of diverse kind by great poets’. Such a programme would form the first stage in ‘a development of powers and interests and understanding that is education as “university” promises it’, continuing the liberal ideal established in Education and the University.

109 Yet in Leavis’s work, terms such as ‘intelligence’ and ‘conviction’ – while conveying a moral seriousness that befitted the important role criticism could play in modern society – are allowed to pass undefined, acting as general terms whose meaning, so Leavis implies, should be obvious to those who possess a true understanding of them. Consequently, they represent a critical tradition that stands in opposition to the scholarship of Oxford, with its much more mechanistic motion of disciplinarity. The distinction Leavis makes between Cambridge and Oxford echoes the opposition drawn by Wallace Martin between ‘criticism’ and ‘scholarship’, and their corresponding concepts of knowledge as under- pinned by either scientific or personal ‘canons of truth’. Leavis’s elevation of the latter is clear throughout English Literature in Our Time and the University: he deplores ‘the thought-frustrating spell of “Form”, “pure sound value”, prosody and the other time-honoured quasi-critical futilities’ (an analysis of which had helped English to secure its disciplinary status), and describes Scrutiny as representing a kind of skill that was ‘not regarded by the actual profession as professional. […]

The professional spokesmen, the institutional powers and authorities, the rising young men and the recruits for co-option regarded such skill as offensively unprofessional’.110 This defence of Scrutiny’s anti-academic nature was also apparent in the journal itself, as Leavis sought to dissociate Scrutiny from ‘the view that criticism can be a science’: indeed, Leavis wanted to make it clear that the journal had never ‘done anything but discounte- nance the ambition to make it one or to win credence for the pretence that something of the nature of laboratory method can have a place in it’.111 Leavis’s feeling of being regarded by the profession as ‘unprofes- sional’ is difficult to separate from his sense of injustice at the problems he experienced in securing a permanent post in Cambridge’s English Faculty.112 Yet it is also true that much of Leavis’s criticism appears ‘unprofessional’ in tone and technique, drawing on the rhetoric of personal authority as a means of securing its judgements. R. P. Bilan has singled out Leavis’s ‘failure at times to state any reasons for his judgment and, allied to this, his tendency to offer rhetoric in place of reason’ as important weaknesses in The Great Tradition;113 Ian MacKillop argues that Revaluation is dominated not by an actual theory of evaluation but by Leavis’s desire to be received by readers who would recognise what he was looking for without needing explicit guidance.

114 Indeed, it is fair to say that Leavis’s critical rhetoric often recalls that of critics who appealed to personal forms of authority. Often, he relies on the Woolfian technique of offering an imaginative reconstruction of the minds of his chosen authors. Of a short passage from ‘The Fall of Hyperion’, Leavis states that ‘the facts, the objects of contemplation, absorb the poet’s attention completely. […] His response, his attitude, seems to us to inhere in the facts, and to have itself the authenticity of facts.’115 The tone of The Mill on the Floss, meanwhile, ‘strikes us as an emotional tone. We feel an urgency, a resonance, a personal vibration, adverting us of the poignantly immediate presence of the author. […]

The emotional quality represents something, a need or hunger in George Eliot, that shows itself to be insidious company for her intelligence – apt to supplant it and take command’.116 What is on display is not knowledge, but sensibility, of a kind that is remarkably ‘generalist’ in tone. For Pamela McCallum, Leavis’s emphasis on this sensibility – and on the individual reader – weakens his capacity to address the Arnoldian problematic, creating a paradigm in which isolated individuals are able to respond to culture through their possession of a particularly receptive consciousness, but which offers no methodology for the reintroduction of culture to a wider society, beyond the sharing of ideas and ideals that was fostered by the kind of intellectual community represented by Scrutiny. According to McCallum’s criteria, Leavis’s work was therefore less successful than Richards’s; for Richards was at least able to devise a methodology that conceptualised ‘meaning’ in a more objective manner, and could therefore be taught to others in a more systematic way. For Leavis, ‘meaning’ appeared through the lived experience of the text, rather than through any kind of analytical process. McCallum sees such an experience as lacking the distance necessary for a balanced process of judgement or analysis, reflecting ‘not so much the intransigence of genuine critical thinking as a kind of blind vitalist intuitionism without theoretical understanding’.117 Crucially for my analysis, this means that while Leavis’s criticism offers both a concept of literary value and a broad justification for literary study, it does not formulate this study in terms that are congruent with the needs of a specialist academic discipline. Neither does it exemplify the practices that such a discipline might involve. Leavis saw the university as a place where discrimination and judgement could be fostered, and where the processes of discussion, reading and thinking could contribute to the formation of responsive minds. However, his ideal university was a liberal community of thinkers rather than a centre for scholarship and research. In emphasising the need for the former, Leavis dismisses – with varying degrees of explicitness – the need for the latter.

At the beginning of this chapter, I signalled my intention to focus on a different set of questions about Eliot, Richards and Leavis, concentrating not on the politics of their literary criticism but on its relationship to academic literary study. While their criticism faces the ‘Arnoldian problematic’ of reintroducing an alienated culture into society, it also embodies another, much less widely recognised paradox: that in making criticism both socially and politically engaged, it also denies its status as a specialist academic discipline. Inherent in the work of all three critics – in Eliot’s comments on the limitations of technical criticism;118 in Richards’s sense of the futility of ‘books- about-books-about-books’;119 and in Leavis’s critique of the ‘academic ethos’ of Oxford120 – is a sense that the specialist nature of academic literary criticism undermined its capacity to be useful. What is significant is that for all three critics, it was social utility – rather than academic specialism – that won. All three continued to draw on nine- teenth-century arguments about the importance of judgement, the inculcation of morality and the relationship between criticism and ‘right thinking’121 as a means of promoting criticism. Yet they were also united in their opposition to a form of criticism that remained within the university, serving only the needs of an academic community. Chris Baldick’s statement that ‘the innovations of Eliot and Richards enabled what had been suspected of being a soft option, a frivolous subject, to adopt that appearance of strenuousness and difficulty proper to a serious branch of study’122 therefore misses the point. Eliot and Richards may well have contributed to the development of critical rigour, but the consolidation of English as a specialist academic discipline was never their main intention. Instead, it was criticism’s wider social role that was felt to be more important.

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