Tuesday, 30 December 2014

On F.R. Leavis (ii): a close shave

(The following discussion is a continuation of my previous post, On F.R. Leavis (i): Dangerous Driving.)

Ray’s Barber Shop in All Saints Passage used to be a Cambridge institution. I only went there once, but Ray greeted me cheerfully and, after chatting for a few minutes, suddenly said, ‘I believe, Sir, you may be an English teacher.’ Disconcerted, I admitted this was true. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Ray, ‘I can always tell. Lots of English teachers come to me. Can you guess my most famous teacher? Dr Leavis himself!’ Ray waited to see how I would react to this news, before continuing, ‘Yes, he always came here. You’re sitting in the very chair he sat in. And this, Sir,’ he added, suddenly brandishing an ancient barber’s cut-throat, ‘is the very razor which I shaved him with!’

Leavis was himself a Cambridge institution. As Clive James wrote in Always Unreliable,  ‘He was part of the landscape. You became accustomed to seeing him walk briskly along Trinity Street, gown blown out horizontal in his slipstream. He looked as if walking briskly was something he had practised in a wind-tunnel.’ He was usually tieless, in an age when open-necked shirts were frowned upon, unless you were wearing a cravat. He had grown up in Cambridge, gone to school and university there, and spent virtually his whole life teaching at Downing. So why had he said, when I interviewed him, that he was ‘an outsider in Cambridge now’ and that he had ‘never really belonged there’?

Biographers and critics have often suggested that Leavis saw himself as an exile; and if an exile is someone who has to leave his native home (voluntarily or otherwise) because he cannot in conscience reconcile himself to the prevailing climate – political, cultural, religious etc. - this seems to me to describe Leavis’s position precisely. He was simply never comfortable with Cambridge University and its English Faculty, or the literary establishment at large.  His stance was always oppositional, though he believed that the business of criticism was, in one of his favourite phrases (borrowed, with acknowledgement, from TS Eliot), ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’:

‘ "The common pursuit of true judgment": that is how the critic should see his business, and what it should be for him. His perceptions and judgments are his, or they are nothing; but whether or not he has consciously addressed himself to co-operative labour, they are inevitably collaborative. Collaboration may take the form of disagreement, and one is grateful to the critic whom one has found worth disagreeing with.’ (The Common Pursuit, Preface)

‘Collaboration may take the form of disagreement’: this is the key to Leavis’s dialectical method. He came to believe that the essence of Cambridge lay in a willingness to say ‘Yes, but …’, questioning everything as a way of challenging intellectual complacency. This complacency was for him the cardinal sin into which British academic life had strayed, and outside academia he also found it everywhere embodied by England’s literary establishment: the BBC, the newspapers, and professional bodies such as (I’m sorry to have to say) the English Association (EA). He greatly admired Henry James for turning down, in 1912, an invitation to become chairman of the EA. Reading Leavis’s account of this in Scrutiny, (vol. XIV, 1946) you can hear him cheering James on when the novelist replies to the Association, ‘I am a mere stony, ugly monster of Dissociation and Detachment’.  This was Leavis, too.

As often happens with exiles, Leavis acquired a certain glamour among those who admired his principles and shared his contempts. I suspect he played up to this a little; at least it enabled him to claim of himself, his wife Q.D. Leavis and their collaborators on Scrutiny, that ‘We were – and we knew we were – Cambridge – the essential Cambridge in spite of Cambridge’. He even had a definition of what ‘we’ meant in this context: in an Appendix to his Clark Lectures, delivered in 1967 and published two years later as English Literature in our time and the University, Leavis described ‘we’ as ‘a suitably indeterminate word, suggesting as it does the unofficial, informal and non-authoritative’. And true it is that this unofficial group of exiles (‘No pupil of mine was ever appointed to a post in the Cambridge English Faculty’ he once claimed with a combination of outrage and satisfaction) came to exemplify an approach to English that teachers, sixth-form pupils and university students would learn to think of as Cambridge English.

I have to admit that, rather than Leavis’s own best-known texts (The Great Tradition, Revaluations, et al.), it was books such as L.C. Knights’ Explorations (1946) and, from a generation later, David Holbrook’s English for Maturity (1961) which gave me a keener sense of what the study of English Literature could be; of why close reading is a creative and ‘re-creative’ as well as critical activity, and of why teaching literature is an important vocation. But these convictions had first been articulated by Leavis and, long after he had sat to be shaved for the last time in Ray’s Barber Shop, they continued to animate some of the best English teaching in schools and HE departments. Do they still?

It has always been my instinct to distrust people as aggressively confident of their own opinions as Leavis was; and many of his dismissive judgments about writers seem to me at odds with the idea of a common (i.e. collaborative) pursuit of true judgment.  Here, though, I must pause and reply ‘Yes, but…’ to my own judgment, for I want at least to say, unambiguously, that Leavis’s conception of English as ‘a discipline of thought’ should still resonate wherever the teaching of English is taken seriously. It’s time, too, to acknowledge that Leavis was the first academic in England to recognize Eliot and Lawrence as writers of ‘major creativity’ whom English studies could not ignore if English was to be taken seriously. Who else of his generation could have written New Bearings in English Poetry? It was published in 1932, the same year his wife, Q.D. Leavis, published Fiction and the Reading Public?  1932 was also the year in which together they launched Scrutiny. From then until his death he believed as he made clear in the lecture I attended as a naïve undergraduate that universities must strive to become ‘anti-academic’ in order to regain their status as true creative centres of civilization’. By anti-academic he meant outward-facing, not inward-looking; self-critical, not complacent.  He insisted, above all, that you cannot be really thoughtful about literature if you are not, at the same time, thoughtful about life. I am surprised, but glad, that it has taken the rediscovery of my interview with him so long ago to make me, at last, say plainly why I think he still matters so much.

Adrian Barlow

I have written about F.R. Leavis before:


  1. Thanks, Adrian, a lovely essay to start off the year.
    PS I only ever heard him on the radio, but I spotted him once in winter, running across the quad below in tennis shoes and a flapping open-necked shirt with a haversack of books over his shoulder. Too elderly to be a student late for lectures....

    1. Many thanks, Paddy. Your brief glimpse of him is entirely characteristic of the man - sums his persona up beautifully. Frank Kermode, reviewing Ian McKillop’s biography of Leavis in LRB (24.8.95) said, ‘McKillop certainly allows one to see the contrast between the passionate ambition of the man and the sour harassed parochialism of the man’, and a friend who was at Cambridge reading English in Leavis’s latter years has written to tell me, ‘I have always found FRL fascinating whilst never quite being able to stomach him .... At Cambridge I thoroughly disliked him and have always been suspicious of his disciples.'

  2. "Collaboration may take the form of disagreement" is worth anyone applying to how they approach their personal and professional lives.
    Leavis could be, as you say, dogmatic and incorrigible in his (dismissive) views of some writers, but perhaps he did so in the expectation that a worthwhile disagreement could generate a deeper understanding of the subject?
    I am glad that you have been able to share Leavis' belief that universities have responsibilities in the wider society. I wonder if that is more widely accepted (and acted upon) by academic centres now than in his day?
    Thanks for such a thoughtful essay to open the batting in 2015!

    1. I think the answer to your first question is ‘Yes'; to your second question, Anil, the answer is a guarded ‘Possibly’.The inclusion of ‘Impact’ as a 20% criterion for the assessment of university departments in the recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) has forced universities to demonstrate such responsibilities in tangible terms (up to a point); but I cannot help feeling that there are many in HE who prefer the view that the wider society has responsibilities to universities.

  3. Adrian – Being reminded of Leavis – through your undergraduate encounter and correspondence with him – has made me think again of my response on reading (some of) his writing in the 1970s. I was then entirely removed from the primal internecine world of academia! – so well portrayed in Ved Mehta’s ‘Fly and the Fly Bottle’.
    I remember understanding that Leavis’ views were selective and extreme – sometimes to the point of risibility – as to who was worthy of inclusion of ‘The Canon’ (and I would prefer the idea of a ‘Canon’ to be dropped entirely, so close is it to the deadly ‘Canonical’ memorialisation of Roman Catholicism). However, I remember concurring with him almost entirely in his criticism and appreciation of Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’, and was in general quite happy to take from him what I thought valuable (allowances being made, as they always must). I further see – both from your blog Adrian – and from an Amazon review of ‘The Living Principle’, that, “Leavis could certainly be clear, even forceful, in his judgements; but the notion that he regarded his views as unarguably true conflicts with both his ‘theory’ and his practice: he knew that intellectual and cultural life was a collaborative enterprise which involved ‘the creative play of differences’ and even ‘strong disagreements’. He set out to present his own judgements clearly – and, crucially, to support them with argument and analysis – so that informed critical debate was enabled. It was a more intellectually honest procedure than the kind of sweeping assertions that often pass for criticism of his work from people who show little sign of having actually read him.”
    As far as I am concerned, Leavis is fine (when he is). Still, there must be life lived in the raw if we are to have literature. And uneasy remains the link and the (sometime) void between the two.

    1. Your thoughtful comments remind me, Peter, that Leavis wrote on the first page of ‘The Great Tradition’ the following:

      “The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad - to stop for the moment at that comparatively safe point in history .... Critics have found me narrow, and I have no doubt that my opening proposition, whatever I may say to explain or justify it, will be adduced in reinforcement of their strictures .... The only way to escape misrepresentation in never to commit oneself to any critical judgment that makes an impact - that is, never to ‘say’ anything. I still, however, think that the best way to promote profitable discussion is to be as clear as possible with oneself about what one sees and judges, to try and establish the essential discriminations in the given field of interest, and to state them as clearly as one can (for disagreement, if necessary).”

      I think that is fair and wise, and I’m glad we agree on this!

  4. A very intereresting account Adrian, and some thoughtful responses. Do you and others know of the Leavis Society? We have been in existence formally for nearly two years and certainly welcome new members interested in discussing Leavis's legacy and his continuing relevance. For more information google Leavis Society or follow this link: http://leavissociety.com/. We have a conference planned at Downing College Cambridge this year in September.

  5. Thanks, Adrian! Somehow - presence of grandchildren? - I missed this when it first appeared. It's a fine and thoughtful piece to read, as ever, and I'll be coming back to it.

    Unlike Clive James, I never saw Leavis walking briskly down Trinity Street, although I walked along it countless times for three years in the late 1960s. Or if I did, I failed to realise who it was, although his face and appearance were familiar to me from photographs. I heard him give at least one of the Clark Lectures but [for some reason] not all.

    When he died in 1978, I wrote to his widow, saying something along these lines: Although he put forward many judgements I don't agree with, nearly all my thinking about literature since I was seventeen has been the product of arguing with or against him in my head.

    She didn't reply - I didn't expect her to - but I'm glad to have written what was then [and to some degree still is] an important if partial truth.

    I don't understand why some people don't find him at times a very funny writer. His scorn is memorable even if sometimes unearned.

    Did you see a play [purportedly] about him on television about twenty years ago? It was by Nigel Williams, starred Ian Holm, and was called The Last Romantics. I thought it was silly and trivial - unlike your blogs.

  6. Yes, I did see ‘The Last Romantics’, Tom. I remember thinking the title was inappropriate since Leavis himself did not rate Yeats very highly. I thought the best thing in it was the casting of Estelle Kohler as Queenie and the worst, the parodying of Q , who was played by Leo McKern. What you wrote to QD Leavis after her husband’s death undoubtedly reflects what many people felt - and still feel now. Many thanks.