Ian Robinson on Leavis, the spirit unappeased
Dying of the malady of accelerating scientism tackling problems of epistemology". Leavis's and industrialism, we need to recognise that human beings are spiritual beings, and that the work done on the values we live by, the essential thought about them, belongs not to any kind of science but to the cluster of disciplines which centre, for the capable minority, on the study of literature. English has the most splendid literature in the world, a tradition of non-mathematical and non-logical thought about humanity which is the effective guarantor of sense and depth in the language we all speak — but which is ignored at Westminster and in Whitehall, and treated with levity by the Sundays and weeklies, the BBC and all the metropolitan academic centres of culture. They lose thereby not any particular policy or set of commandments, but the understanding of our life possible to our language.
This is my bald summary of what is far too strong and fine to be adequately paraphrased, F. R. Leavis's work since the splendid Two Cultures? (first published in The Spectator in 1962). Earlier, one might have had to argue about 'spiritual', but Dr Leavis makes the word very central in his new book.* Leavis's direct comments on the life of our age (in his Clark Lectures and Nor Shall My Sword) are underpinned by that lifetime's devotion to literary criticism which has effectively 'revalued' much of English literature for our age — our anti-poetic age. Poetry only exists in reading; without recognition, a poet cannot belong to a literature. Leavis's renewal of English literature, together with his insistence on its necessity to our "technologicoBenthamite" age, makes Leavis as much a creator of English literature as its great originators, and gives him a unique fortress of resistance to the various styles of philistinism that govern us.
The present age of English literature is the age of Dr Leavis in much the same way that the late eighteenth century was the age of Dr Johnson, because in the absence of any great originator in any traditional mode Leavis has 'constituted literature as it is possible to us, and shown us its relevance. The argument which shows that this age of our literature is the age of Leavis explains also why Leavis is a considerable philosopher of language. His thought about literature as a manifestation of language has inevitably involved him in considerations of how individuals (the only sort of human being there is) meet and become themselves as they share a sense that is neither public nor private; what he does with the phrase "the third realm" ought to be of interest to philosophers. And "you cannot give an intelligent account of how words mean without tackling is genuine, though flawed by self-imposed ignorance of the best that has been thought by others on the subject.
Unlike Johnson, and because his hatred of the sense-killing orthodoxies is unequivocal, Leavis will never become a Great Chan. He will never be forgiven, and is too alive and kicking to subside into a Grand Old Man, be made the subject of academic celebration in festschriften or given a peerage. In fact the grub-sheet vendetta against his last book, the useful collection Letters in Criticism, was so intense that I agreed to review the next, though I was afraid I might seem to be 'flank-rubbing'.
Now The Living Principle is here — and I don't think I am going to like it. Given a severe length limit I can only make preliminary gestures towards saying why.
As a taking further of Leavis's thought about how literature is thought, the book is important in all three sections, the long introduction, the long concluding essay on Four Quartets, and the practical criticism exercises in the middle. First and last sections both seemed to me at first reading self-indulgently lengthy and repetitive. I have known works by Leavis improve remarkably on further acquaintance, and Dr Leavis would no doubt point to his caveat that his procede may be found disconcerting; but the reviewer has to report looseness if he thinks he has seen it. I am afraid that the pages about a paragraph of my own are trite, for instance. Yet there are so many good things; and even if the work is notes for a book rather than an achieved book, I think it possible to see in it a justification of the subtitle — on which Leavis has worked so hard for so long.
The middle section is Dr Leavis's old series of Cambridge lectures on 'Judgment and Analysis' (or 'practical criticism'), somewhat revised but not enough. They are, of course, full of excellences, many of which have been going round my head for twenty years; and they do, by a sort of saturation bombing, cumulatively hit a target and develop a sense of 'English' as thought. All the same, both the occasional inserted new paragraph, and some of the old comments, draw attention uncomfortably to the fact that this work comes from a much earlier phase of Dr Leavis's thinking.
The real stumbling-blocks in the book for me, though, are the wilful unfairness of some of the remarks on Eliot, together with a certain complacency elsewhere which I will exemplify. Leavis on Four Quartets is for all the world like Johnson on Shakespeare — as excellently defined by Leavis. Dr Leavis cannot but see the 'major' poetry he has in front of him (with the astonishing exception of 'Little Gidding', on which he says hardly anything needing a reply, merely asserting that it is relaxed and inferior) and cannot but do his work in establishing it as such. So the commentary on particular passages is often inimitably con vincing. But Leavis just won't have what Eliot does, just as Johnson, having seen what is really there in Macbeth and paid tribute, can still scarce check his risibility.
I think Leavis is in a muddle about transcendence. He insists that Eliot is demanding
something absolutely other than and unrelated to life in this world, and rightly says that this would be a vacuum, and that Eliot can only express transcendence by analogy with the things of this world. Of course! Simone Weil observes that there is nothing else for the light of heaven to shine on. What Eliot tries to transcend — having in various ways undermined — is "the usual reign", common. sensicality of clock-time, our appetency-governed lives, the worlds of scientific reliability (or haruspication).
I think he misunderstands "that which is only living/can only die" — ignores the contrast with time in the same line and makes "only" reductive and dismissive as Eliot doesn't. The remarks on the beautiful third paragraph of 'East Coker' are wantonly simplistic: Leavis thinks Eliot is disrespectful to the rustics and then asks what the Elyot words about the sacrament of marriage are doing. Well, they are contributing to Eliot's picture of the dignity of that life. And in the end in "dying and death" is no more an argument's conclusion than Shakespeare's Golden girls and boys all must Like chimney-sweepers, come to dust — it is a turn of musical 'mood'.
At first reading the comments on Eliot were often so unfair as to need explanation rather than answer. Blake (that essential genius, beloved but often silly Blake) is almost infallible in Leavis's book, but Eliot is allowed no progression through contraries. The passage culminating in "fare forward, voyagers" in which Eliot so characteristically and uncomfortably liberates us from the ordinary confidence that we are ourselves is said to deny human identity, but the complementary passages about the impossibility of leaving the past behind are also condemned. It is as if here, for, all his finely cultivated sense of the 'musical' procedure of Eliot's thought, Leavis is taking each passage as a propositional tract of discursive prose.
Eliot is rebuked for not seeing that their work gives sense to fishermen but Leavis himself perpetually denies the possibility of sense to work in our world (and can't even useful work go dead for a man?); Eliot is said to have none of the faith that speaking a language entails, but exactly the same things could be said, with the same unfairness, about Leavis's comments on the present English we all speak; and Leavis repudiates the suggestion that anything properly called 'literary culture' can fail to heighten our sense of spiritual values, but has himself said justly hard words about Bloomsbury.
What Eliot leaves as real and dependable after all his work of necessary upset and undermining are the "hints followed by guesses" (and the consequent "prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action" — in, of course, our human life in the body in this world) which he calls "Incarnation". The only difference I can understand between that and Leavis's 'ahnung' and 'responsibility' and 'living principle' is that Leavis's problems are less well solved. This trouble, so much of our time, is the simultaneous need and impossibility of using religious terminology. Leavis's "living principle" seems to me unmistakably the third person of the Trinity, but Leavis can't say so. 'Sin' is not a humanist word: sin is against God and if
'sin against life' means anything it is because 'life' is being invested with attributes of God. There can, notoriously, be sin against the Holy Ghost, the lord and giver of life. Eliot had certain advantages, including the possibility of a clear recognition of evil.
Leavis's basic objection, many times repeated, is that Eliot is driven by despair and Paradoxically lacks faith in human creativity — paradoxically because he implicitly relies on creativity in being a genuine poet. My objection IS not that Leavis is wrong about creativity — in fact what he says is an essential part of his message to our null age — but that he cannot see that not all creativity comes from his 'living principle'. I am afraid that the Devil is a pretty creative fellow too; and I don't believe that the Four Quartets passages about language are faithless. (Has Leavis never felt it an intolerable wrestle with words and meanings himself?) Actually it is Lawrence, not Eliot, whose sense of the necessary co-operation between a writer and his language is so incomplete.
I hope it is not impossible to take up Leavis's challenge "What conviction of spiritual values as intrinsically in his life's work has Eliot himself?" by pointing back to Four Quartets. There is a simultaneous discussion to be conducted about why Leavis can show us so much and yet be so hostile to Eliot. I think The Living Principle is only partly successful because it forces me to think about Leavis's own limitations.
These, however, as I said, are all preliminary responses. One thing I need no more time to be quite sure of. There is, Leavis believes, a body of philosophers called "the Wittgensteinians". (They closely resemble "the Leavisites" in another mythology.) Dr Leavis knows so little of these dangerous people that he can't even name them, but he seems (he is so vague one cannot be sure) to confuse them with the Oxford school of linguistic philosophers. These Wittgensteinians are, anyway, pronounced with the utmost aplomb to be "weak on language."
I have repeated my opinion that Leavis is himself a considerable philosopher of language, but (to use a famous phrase) he doesn't begin to be a critic of other philosophers. This is a matter of fact, not opinion, for Leavis is totally ignorant of the work he offers to condemn. His method is to give an occasional sketch of a Russell-like view of language, attribute it to philosophers he has never read, and knock it down.
He has read D. F. Pears's booklet on Wittgenstein in the Fontana Modern Masters series of cribs, and thinks that sufficient for forming a judgment. How can that have happened to anyone who knows so well that judgment is personal or nothing? Because Leavis thinks all philosophy is paraphrasable. But that is another guess based on ignorance, and it is false. What would Leavis say if a philosopher informed him that D. H. Lawrence is always weak on language? 'I haven't read any, of course, and there is no need. I have read Kermode's booklet, and anyone can see from it what a poser Lawrence was. But wandering round Heffers I did find a marvellous book by E. M. Forster which said just what I wanted to hear,' It is rather shocking that one needs to tell Dr Leavis that he has done something precisely comparable with Wittgenstein and the wellmeaning but woolly Marjorie Greene. I know! I've read them. Leavis should remember that in The Pilgrim's Progress there is a way to hell from the very gates of heaven — but, thank God, his own journey is not yet done.