1 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 33



Scrutiny has not yet reached the famine price of Astounding Science Fic- tion (complete • sets of which are now bargains at $600) but £45 for a photo- graphic reprint of nineteen volumes suggests that the

notorious Metropolitan Literary Gang are at last realising what they missed

throughout the years of its publication. Even the embalmed corpus of Leavism is approached with edgy circumspec- tion—both our literary weeklies employing two coroners each for the autopsy as if afraid that the body might later revive, and denounce them for unprofessional conduct, if they attempted to undress it without a witness present. Despite all the tributes and wreaths piled on the maga- zine's grave by these and other reviewers, I was left with a feeling of niggling reluctance to make a warm, generous gesture of gratitude. Be- tween the lines of many of these lengthy epitaphs,. I could savour something of the Old Boy's re- venge on the pensioned-off tyrant of a school- master, a last chance to chalk up 'Kick Me' on the back of his gown.

As an unqualified practitioner in this discipline.... —neither a don, nor a critic, nor an author of literature—who has never met Dr. Leavis, I would prefer to remember the feeling of release I experienced when I first met Scrutiny. It was like the first time you discover you can swim without water-wings, or ride a bicycle without someone's hand at the back of the saddle. The time was 1944, the place a NAAFI canteen, and the introduction was performed by a fellow air- gunner who appeared to be equally as scruffy, beery and philistine as I appeared to be. It was only a year since I had left Oxford and I was go- ing through a period of culture-rejection. I listened only to the Light Programme, read only the Daily Mirror, talked like a backward brick- layer, and spent all my non-flying time in a state of horizontal torpor from which I was occasion- ally aroused by a, cigarette burning down to my fingers.

The last thing I thought I wanted to do was behave like a soldier-scholar with the Oxford Book of English Verse in his gasmask case. It was Oxford which had put me off English Literature in the first place. Now I wore bore- dom like a suit of armour—undoing the beaver or the cod-piece only when it was my turn at the bar or the barmaid. If the point of reading was to learn how to rewrite the original in diluted form—as the Oxford school seemed to insist— then I would give up,reading, and writing. What made the system so unattractive was not that it was difficult, but that it was too easy. Books were devoured like memorable meals and the student's task was to annotate the menu with footnotes in rich, romantic prose.

The promising pupil was the one who could paraphrase a poem, pot a novel or digest a

critical work without using any of the same words -that occurred in his source. The tutorial was an academic parlour game with its own rules and conventions like a double acrostic. To pro- cess another man's language through Roget so that it emerged as a parallel translation—colour- ful, knowledgeable, and yet immune from the chate of plagiarism—was a clever, meaningless trick which I soon learned to master. It was ex- cellent training for advertising copy-writing or second-rate journalism, but it seemed to have little to do with literature. In the end I began to feel that there never had been a Spenser or a Mil- ton, a Keats or a Shelley. These were simply labels given to volumes of famous quotations.

Oxford in 1942-43 was not, perhaps, at its most impressive. Blacked-out at night and greyed-out by day, it was dominated by scientists and women. The arts men were almost all de-. ferred servicemen, granted a temporary respite from uniformed slavery to receive a lick of cul- ture and a dab of tradition. Probably never, be- fore or since, have so many non-U under- graduates dropped their aitches in the ancient precincts, held the silver cutlery in clenched fists, and turned up at the Master's sherry party wear- ing brown shoes, bright blue suits and open-neck Aertex shirts. Some of the dons were heard openly to complain that it was impossible to in- stil civilised values into such provincial corner boys. But whether we were good enough for them or not, I heard no one, whether Old Etonian or Old Souphalesian, doubt that they were more than good enough for us. But the mass of the remaining dons were -prehistoric dugouts, fossil- ised in the petty peculiarities of Victorian pedantry. I was permitted to worship at the slipper socks of a Reverend Doctor to whom any book on the Syllabus was part of Holy Writ. Twenty years ago, this was the Oxford which is now pictured -as having been narrowly saved from the stormtroops of Dr. Leavis and his dic- tatorship of the intellect. In truth, I never once heard his name mentioned or his magazine dis- cussed, even unfavourably.

It is not surprising -perhaps that, in the RAF at nineteen, higher education seemed to me part of the higher pretentiousness. The sole reason which urged me to return was the certainty that my college did not want me. (`YOu will come back to this place, Mr. Brien,' observed the Principal, 'over my dead body.' As you say, Dr. Hazel,' I replied. And as he said, I did.) But Dr. Leavis's Scrutiny brought all those pseudo-books down from the library shelves and put them in, the bookseller's window. I realised for the first time that I was under no obligation to like and admire everything that had ever been written and survived to be 'set in examinations. Certainly, he was angry, opinionated, dogmatic, contrary —spoiling for a fight. But a fight presumes opponents and the possibility of rival viewpoints. Dr. Leavis behaved as if the authors -of the past were equally as alive as he was. Here at last was a scholar who thought literature was worth losing your temper over.

Too much has been made of this tendency to personal abuse—is it really such a disqualifying attribute of a. critic? Do we think less of the work of Sainte-Beuve, or Hazlitt, or Dr. Johnson because they attacked their enemies? It is also alleged that he pandered to the prejudices of lazy-minded youth by supplying them with an easily imitated line on every author: But at least the line was unexpected, unusual and bolstered by chapter and verse..To agree, or disagree, you were expected to read the text with an attention to detail only given in Oxford to Anglo-Saxon.

When an Oxford don like C. S. Lewis did soak his literary views in his own philosophy' (in this

case a kind of mediaeval mysticism), no one com- plained that he was poisoning the generations and creating a priesthood of little Lewisites. Yet Professor Lewis often manipulated the evidence quite brazenly to fit his silly-clever intuitions in a way which any trained Scrutineer could soon fault but which still' passed for gospel among his own students. For example, his claim in The Allegory of Love (page 352) that Spenser's Bower of Bliss is 'a picture, one of the most powerful ever - painted, of the whole sexual nature in

disease. There is not a kiss or an embrace in the whole island: only male prurience and female provocation.' This is the sort of talk which is'very exciting to young readers, yet what do we find when we check with Spenser? Only five stanzas before the one he quotes, there is Acrasia And oft inclining downe with kisses light, For feare of waking him, his lips bedewd And through his humid eyes did sucke his spright, Quite molten into lust and pleasure lewd.

In the stanza he does quote to prove that no one does anything but 'peep' at her breast, the next lines go on : And yet through languour of her late sweet toyle, Few drops, more cleare than Nectar, forth distild, That like pure Orient perles adowne it trild.

What does Professor Lewis imagine that 'her late sweet toyle' was unless making love? Dr. Leavis

never promulgated such a howler. Yet it remains uncorrected in the 1958 edition.

Even some of those who grant Dr. Leavis and Scrutiny the highest marks cannot help suggest- ing that he and his closest followers suffer from a persecution mania. They concede that at one

time he may have been treated with contemptuous disdain but argue that those days are long gone.

But are they? Only a fortnight ago in the Sunday Times, John Raymond accused him of being

responsible for `this blighting period in which literature has been proscribed as a matter of enjoyment and enjoined as a substitute for pre- destinarian theology ... the rose of its enjoyment cankered at the centre by a cloud of literary misanthropes who have made a Moloch out of a

mere literary technique and spoiled the pleasure of ordinary people.' Did Scrutiny ever use harsher and more malicious invective? If they did they proferred another view of literature to

replace the one they condemned. What does Mr. Raymond produce as an alternative to 'a mere literary technique?' His method is almost a parody of Oxonian clubmanship in action:

Perhaps the best way to review the collection is to try to imagine which other poets would have enjoyed which of the poems most. I am certain, for example, that Browning would have delighted in Mr. Hilary Corke's wonderful and evocative....

While intelligent and erudite critics can write like that in serious papers, the Metropolitan Literary

Gang is still not disbanded and Dr. Leavis has more demolition work to do.