SIR CHARLES SNOW, DR. F. R. LEAVIS, AND THE TWO
The reaction to our publication last week of ihe full text of Dr. Leavis's Richmond lecture was quick and copious. We publish below a small sample. It will be appreciated that a great deal has had to-be held over.
WILLIAM GERHARDI You may consider that Shakespeare got Leavis's number when he said of him: This is some fellow, who, having been praised for blunt- ness, doth affect a saucy roughness. . . . He, an honest mind and plain, he must speak truth. . . . These kind of knaves I know, which in this plainness harbour more craft and more corrupter ends than twenty silly-ducking observants, that stretch their duties nicely.' That is why he is in the dock. He is charged on three counts: insincerity, incapacity and envy. You must, there- foie, consider not his words, but his probable intentions. You have to read between the lines.
The operative word upon which he relies to justify the gangster warfare he has inaugurated as a new form of literary criticism, in the at- tempt to assassinate the reputation of an eminent contemporary, is: duty. Commando means employed to a noble, if unspecified, encl. That is his defence. But read between the lines, his message is: 'Down with Snow and up with Leavis That is all it is.
The doctor starts with a show of having his subject well in hand, but soon muddles his two issues: Snow's thesis of social hope and Snow's novels of diverse personal ambitions. He wildly overstates his case, condemns Snow out of hand, totally from head to foot, so that only one of two conclusions is tenable: that either Snow or Leavis is bereft of all the faculties entitling a human being to wield a pen. Flushed with rising bile, spluttering, the doctor becomes irrespon- sible and silly. Seven times seventy devils splatter their spleen through one loud orifice. The im- pression is of Amanda Ros incoherently up- braiding, without either grammar or much sense, Barry Pain who has hurt the lady's literary vanity.
And all because Leavis has read into Snow's prerequisite to being at home in the two cul- tures (a familiarity with the second law of thermodynamics) a heinous attempt to dismiss Leavis, who is uneasy in it, as an ignoramus. As far-fetched an inference, to say the least, as Dostoievsky reading into the Times St. Peters- burg correspondent's innocent request that his Russian host might help him on with his over- coat Iwo deliberate insults: of Dostoievsky as a man, and of Russia in the nafne of England. ('Doesn't he know that in Russia only servants help you on with your overcoat? You will tell me that the man was just ill-bred. No, I tell you! He belonged necessarily to the highest English aristocracy: he was a Member of Par- liament.') You might consider Leavis incapable of jump- ing to similar conclusions. A mania of persecu- tion is easily acquired. Wyndham Lewis believed that Kingsmill was trying to sprinkle poison into his food.. Leavis, after his memorable perfor- mance, complained: 'I am being persecuted by the press.' So poor persecuted Leavis, quoting portentously on very slender relevance a truism, as though it were a revelation, from his hero D. H. Lawrence; then, having lost his thread, he blubbers over his defunct foolishest (as Carlyle would say) Scrutiny and what it 'stood —and stands—for.' (My italics.) An instance of bemused drivelling reminiscent of the declining intellect. of Ramsay MacDonald, who, when asked in Parliament what was his attitude to the question at issue, said it was where it has been; and, questioned sharply : 'Where is it?' replied, bemused: 'It—is—here.' Any take-over bid for Scrutiny? With the sub-title The Literary Police Gazette, it would bring home the image of Leavis sitting at the frontier of his intolerance, Sam Browne belt with holster for revolver, and jack- boots (as Priestley put it), narrowly, perhaps through rimless pince-nez, scrutinising your pass- port to literary validity in the interests of what he calls--life. Leavis is the Himmler of Litera- ture. The cult of his personality is already out.
Finally, his vicious attack on Snow peters out in folie de grandeur: 'We [i.e., foolishest Scrutiny] were, and knew we were, Cambridge.' I, as an Oxford man, am glad for Oxford and poetry that Oxford turned him down.
A Subtle Poison For, considered soberly, what is this pressing 'duty' incumbent on the retiring don, unintoxi- cated by Snow's vision of social hope and who would rather club in with people, as he says, 'more fully human or more alive'—specifically, Bushmen? Why not Mau-Mau? D. H. Lawrence (from whom this sedentary pedant gets all his dubious ideas of the Dark Unconscious) wished he could take to the sea and be a whale, a great surge of living blood; but, in his better moments, discovers himself as 'a big anticipatory fool.' Here, but for want of the saving grace of realisation, the Fellow of Downing College may be said to come closest to his idol.
He rams Lawrence down Snow's throat and quotes a sorry platitude to the effect that people should have their share of the world's gear so that they should mind themselves and not ob- struct Lawrence, who himself constantly ob- truded on other people's creative life by urging them to join him `to try and make a life together.' A foregone disaster, since, wherever Lawrence fled to, he had to take Lawrence with him. Hazeltine told Delius: 'Lawrence is a subtle and deadly poison. . . . The man really must be a bit mad.' That was also my own impression. In evidence I should perhaps adduce that I can have no axe to grind. Lawrence took to me on the instant, urged me to discard my new friend Beaverbrook and 'make a life to- gether,' Frieda excitedly agreeing: 'Wouldn't Katherine have loved him!' He called me an immortal spirit. 'We, real writers . . he re- iterated. I thought the plural singular. He wrote to Middleton Murry: 'You may meet him: he is nice.' But suddenly he raved with insane venom at the image he himself projected for my novel (foreshadowing atomic disintegration of the world) of Mrs. H. G. Wells joining a handful of refugees on an isolated mountain-top and carrying a typewriter—though a typewriter was what he carried himself. Middleton Murry, who later likened him to Jesus, Lawrence called an obscene bug. What he would inevitably have called Leavis after a brief attempt at 'making a life together' on `Rananim,' I leave to the imagi- nation. The doctor's infatuation with his shaggy god is like the 'pash' of an hysterical schoolgirl viciously jabbing her pencil into the back of any girl daring to utter one word of criticism of her adored mistress. And Snow's crime is in not mentioning Lawrence among his favourite writers.
When I asked Lawrence which of his novels he considered to be the best, he answered that, as soon as they were done, he loathed them all. That his ever-changing revulsions from any sort of life, coupled with his chagrin at being unable to satisfy the one woman he ever had, should have been interpreted as a sexual revo- lution which has vitalised the whole of English life, is, as Dr. Johnson would say, an absurdity not easily conceivable: yet passed without ap- parent scrutiny by our closely scrutinising Himnnler. Fornication is what it always was, neither abated, if it is a smouldering volcano, nor increased, if the itch is no stronger than a sneeze, by moralising in either direction. How dare Snow—how dare he?—not fall in with Leavis's naïve notion that Women in Love is the greatest English novel of the century? But Kingsmill, endowed with the glowing insight into 'Take it from me, you won't get a penny out
life provided by humour, of which Leavis is totally bereft, has this to say. `Not so lush as The Rainbow and Women in Love, The Plumed Serpent is at least as preposterous; the difference in verisimilitude being only such as might exist between Tennyson's Idylls of the King rewritten in a madhouse by Dostoievsky and Rider Hag- gard's She transposed by Nietzsche into the style of Also Sprach Zarathustra.' Leavis dismisses Kingsmill's famous parody of Housman because, denied all humour, Leavis cannot understand that parody is the only viable criticism, accep- table from one who by close similitude offers creative proof of his subject's faults. Kingsmill remarked that one tended to be unduly taken in by the printed word, until, meeting one's humourless critic face to face, one quickly took his measure. Kingsmill, all the while tugging at his coat-button, would have made literary mince- meat of Leavis.
The doctor says he is not averse to a little jam issued also to the masses. You may well ask: then what does he want from Snow? Jam or no jam, he wants their daily bread buttered on both sides with Leavis. Echoing slavishly his master's views, Leavis taunts Snow with his social hope as against Lawrence's sinking his shaft into his individual preternatural Dark Un- conscious and let the community go hang. Some of the greatest works of literature—Faust, The Three Sisters—combine social hope with the tiny trigger-movement of true poetry, alone capable of releasing spiritual forces of the individual soul having its deepest being in divinity.
Faust: . . Auf freiem Grund mit freiem Volke stchn .
. . . Im Vorgefi1h1 von solchem hohen GUI& Geniess' ich jetzt den hochsten Augenblick. Olga, in The Three Sisters: (For Leavis, who doesn't know Russian and not for Snow, who does, and to whom Russian literature is more than knowledge: it is a passion, for Leavis I translate as follows): . . . Time will pass on, and we shall go away for ever; they will forget us, forget our faces, voices, and how many there were of us; but our suffering will turn to joy for those who will live after us; peace and happiness shall reign on earth, and they will speak kindly of us and bless our memory.
With Bated Breath
Against this philosophy of social hope, pro- pounded by Snow in The Two Cultures, there is the Lawrentian view, more to Leavis's liking, 'that only,' as the doctor says, 'in living indi- viduals is life there, and individual lives cannot be aggregated or equated or dealt with quantita- tively in any way.' Quite. So that Lawrence saw fit to tell Lady Cynthia Asquith that he would be mortally indignant if the war cost him even too much of his liberty, let alone his life, and in a letter to Lady Otteline Morrell he proceeds to aggregate individuals: 'What is death in the individual! I don't care if sixty million indi- viduals die.' 'It was,' Kingsmill points out, `the hypothetical death of the sixty-million-and-oneth individual which shocked him.'
Leavis pounces with gloating venom on Snow's phrase 'We die alone.' Looked at in a hostile spirit, the statement is incontestable; but no more so than a line Leavis quotes with bated breath from Lawrence: `Nothing matters but life.' Had Sir Charles, however, in the current fashion, instructed the printer to slice his prose into unequal lengths of broken-backed verse, by sheer dint of a typographical new look an un- exceptional statement would have become unex- ceptionable, and Leavis (who claims to have set Mr. Eliot on his feet, who has since got on quite well without him) would have slavishly approved. Here goes:
The individual Condition of Each of us Is tragic, We die Alone.
So intoned, the line might not be unworthy of Macbeth after his lady has kicked the bucket. Nor is this the end of it. Leavis has still not cottoned on to my idea that emotion is true thought, and thought its shadow. To him, thought is `discipline'—a five-finger exercise he puts his pupils through to learn the rudiments of a borrowed method which, as they develop on their own, they discard like used linen. And there are more ways than one of dying alone. Snow's sentence might release a poignant emo- tion, pregnant with thought, in a mother of a loving family gathered around her death-bed. at the realisation that nobody of all those here so close and loving can help her to draw another breath: we die alone. Lawrence's line, 'Nothing matters but life,' would leave her cold
A Cryptic Banality
That Snow can't for the life of him virile novels is not true just because Leavis says so, but rather untrue because Leavis, who can't write at all, wouldn't know whether Snow could or not. It might be said that a critic could write as badly as he likes, provided that what he says makes sense. But this is not true. Even were Leavis capable of sense (and I have already laid enough material before you for you to ponder this question), his book on Lawrence, for in- stance, is such an abomination of style (and he argues against Snow that style reveals the man) that the fact that Leavis could have stomached the swill himself, and even passed it for print, argues an absence of sensibility and taste with which to measure up the shortcomings of others. Straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel is a stale proverb made new and luminous by his example. In that ragbag of platitudes and special pleading there is not one notable idea, except at the end, when Leavis culls a well-known passage from Anna Karenina, to illustrate the natural superiority of a self-taught genius over a polished, formally-instructed copy-cat. What he quotes from Lawrence is nearly always so em- barrassingly bad that it gives one an idea of what this scrutiniser considers good; and his invariable commendations are not borne out by the quo- tations. One has to wade through a bog of un- couth sentences with their parentheses and arch asides affecting to carry weighty thoughts: only at the end of it to be rewarded for one's exer- tions with some piffling statement. His style is redolent of a cryptic banality disguising the total absence of original thought. There is no music in his soul; and, as Shakespeare has it, such a man 'is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; the motions of his spirit are dull as night, and his affections dark as Erebus [down in the Dark Unconscious]: let no such man be trusted. But what disqualifies him as a serious judge of Snow's novels is that the over-earnest don has not a glimmer of humour. The only really serious thing in literature is humour. Serious because of its detachment, its unbribable in- tegrity, its humorous compassion. Serious be- cause humour is nothing less than clairvoyance in the service of this life, and without humour the vision is awry. At a glance, as though from the vantage of a helicopter, humour surveys the whole field of tangled guesswork and tells you how things really stand. Any man deprived of humour must always be a bit of an ass.
Hard Sharp Point
How can Leavis know, what can he say, about Snow's novels, one so blighted of the comic vision? No wonder he sees nothing. Nothing will come from nothing. Yet Snow's minor comic characters have abundant life—to name only a few: the vicar, the barrister, his clerk, the earl, the narrator's father—all have comedic life. But how would Leavis know? This is the question. Some major characters have more, some less. After all, only Dickens's minor characters can be said to live. Turgenev's young girls arc in- sufferable in their stilted artificiality. Dostoiev- sky's children have no life at all. Tolstoy's Napoleon is tinsel; Schiller's Tell, pure teak. I am not here concerned with Snow's faults. Every writer has some. I can think but of one exception. And I have here before me a minute analysis by C. P. Snow of a passage in a novel, an evaluation beautiful in its precision but also in its subtle suggestion of expanding meaning. Compared with this piece of criticism, an exer- cise by Leavis (e.g., on Donne's 'Ecstasy') re- sembles a rough carpenter taking a delicate piece of furniture to bits. To an imaginative writer, like Snow, meaning expands as it pervades. With the Leavis tribe of logical positivists, meaning contracts into the hard sharp point of a needle they deem themselves to be, pricking others for verification, and being `meaningful'—at vanish- ing-point. The Gospels have it: he who would save his life shall lose it. That is the meaning of meaning, in reverse.
Leavis bitterly deplores that Snow does not bring out the shining intelligence of Cambridge dons. With, say, a Leavis, to go no farther afield for authentic portraiture, Snow would be hard put to it to bring out something that isn't there. Leavis says that Snow cannot depict love. He couldn't have read the narrator's passionate love for Sheila, wonderfully depicted in that perhaps best of all Snow's novels, Time of Hope: and again in Homecomings. But what does Leavis know about love? The only first-hand knowledge he has of anything is hate. Leavis complains that Snow's Cambridge is not as Leavis knows it. A novelist is not a photographer, but a creative artist conveying his own circumambient private image of the world. Snow's style is (as, in another sense, Tolstoy's) not drab or fiat, but deceptively simple. It has its lyrical undertones for those who have ears to hear with. Witness the tiny trigger-movement suddenly releasing suppressed cumulative emotion, at the end of The Light and the Dark. Leavis uses, not once but a dozen times, the abhorrent word cliché- s though turning aside to say, `French,' and little realising that it has become the worst cliché of all. People without style and with no sense of style are too pusillanimous to praise a writer whose style has been decried for no other reason than that the critic doesn't know better. Leavis is a jack-in-the-box popping out to shout a dismissive word and popping in again before anyone has time to land him one over the ear. He is a teacher of a band of analphabetics who, young and foolish, applaud his cold contempt for writers he does not understand; but in later years confess that they have shaken off the cramping and sectarian influence and have spread their wings. But when reminded that he is no critic but a pedagogue, he pathetically rejoins: `No—a critic.' However, as Charlus (otherwise adamant on social pretensions) contends on behalf of his aunt, the Marquise de Villeparisis, masquerading under a marquisate and place-name of her own invention : `Cela n'a fait mal a personne, tout au plus un peu a lui et bien peul—so, for all I care, let Leavis call himself a critic, since it gives him pleasure.
Whenever I tell my old friend Max Beaver- brook that I would like to write an article for one of his papers, he purrs softly, cooing tenderly: ‘`Whom do you wish to attack?' Believing, as you may, that attacker and attacked both thrive under attack, you may conceivably consider that, for all you know, the doctor and the knight between them have contrived a piece of ingenious leger- demain to focus attention, respectively, on Scrutiny and The Two Cultures; at the conclu- sion of this colossal hoax having been seen and duly photographed, arms linked and beaming mutual benevolence, murmuring by turns: . . . the kindest chap. . .
Assassination If you honestly believe this, you will acquit -the prisoner. If not, not. Conversely, you might • be drawn to another theory. The Soho footpad, to save his bacon, looked around and spotted • in his shop, talking shop, the patron, renowned not only for his cosmopolitan souffles but also 'for his plain fare. It is inadmissible to resort to vitriol and razor-slashing because a man more talented than you is also more successful. So envy ' must be transmuted into a more palatable word. :,`Duty' will do duty for attempted assassination of a reputation. If this might seem brutal and c uncalled-for, another word will come usefully to hand—a portent. Snow was a portent of the :times that made him. That sounded well. His souffles and his plain fare, though people came ;back for more and more of both, were made of 'air. Snow didn't know they were. But Leavis knew that Snow didn't know. So to assassinate the universally esteemed patron became to the carping footpad a moral duty and a sacred cause. Why? To clear the way for the way of life of 'the more fully human Bushmen.' • This is his case for pouring upon Snow's venerated head some ten thousand words of total defamation. He claims he is a critic Who owes a prior duty to literature, as he ,understands it. Carlyle thought otherwise. The critic perches himself on the shoulder of his hauthor and from there looks down upon him as :though by natural superiority of stature. In this Way does the critic triumph over the author. 'But,' says Carlyle, 'it is the triumph of a fool. In this way, too, does he recommend himself to certain readers, but it is the recommendation of a parasite and of no true servant.' And Carlyle bids Leavis to ask himself whether star- vation were better or were worse than such a dog's existence.
To recapitulate, the prisoner in the dock is charged on three counts: insincerity, incapa- city and envy. If you are satisfied that his in- capacity alone induced him in all good faith to resort to defamation, you will acquit him. If, on the other hand, you find that he employed his insincerity in the service of envy to gratify his vanity, you will declare him guilty. In either case you may consider it a sufficient punishment that, in setting out to assassinate another writer's reputation, he has assassinated his own.