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On Leavis and Lawrence

Anna Karenina and Other Essays

by F.R. Leavis
Pantheon, 241 pp., $5.95

That F. R. Leavis is a first-rate critical personality is certain, but that is by no means the same thing as saying that he is a first-rate literary critic. No doubt he has at times achieved that stature; at other times not at all. I am here primarily concerned with him as a critic, not with his reputation as a formidable teacher, nor with his educational theories, nor with his standing as the charismatic head of the sectarian Scrutiny group, consisting in the later years of that periodical mostly of epigones who have for some years now acquired positions of influence in the British schools. In the America of the late 1940s and early 1950s the “new critics” tried to annex him by gratuitously referring to him as one of their own, a comrade-in-arms. That was a mistaken assessment, if not something worse.

Actually, the peculiar combination of formalism and traditionalist ideology (à la Eliot), characteristic of the “new criticism,” has always been foreign to Leavis. He has never committed himself to any kind of religiosity (covert or overt) and he has explicitly repudiated the formalist position. Typical of him is the following remark, repeated throughout his career in different critical contexts: “Questions of technique—versification, convention, relation of diction to the spoken language, and so on—cannot be isolated from considerations of fundamental purpose, essential ethos, and quality of life.” In his view, a “serious interest in literature” cannot be limited to the kind of local analysis, however intensive, associated with “practical criticism”—the effects of linguistic strategy, metaphor, symbol, etc. “A real literary interest is an interest in man, society and civilization, and its boundaries cannot be drawn.” Clearly, this position is wholly at odds with the circumscriptions imposed upon the theory and function of literary criticism by the “new critics.” Happily, their dominance of the American literary scene in the immediate postwar period is a thing of the past now and virtually forgotten; and my aim in recalling them in this discussion of Leavis is simply to set the record straight.

What I chiefly like about Leavis’s work are its Johnsonian qualities: the robustness, the firmness, the downrightness. He is not one to beat around the bush, to play the diplomat, to cultivate ambiguity, or to shun controversy. A critic in the Arnoldian tradition, he aspires, in his own words, “to the highest critical standards and the observance of the most scrupulous critical discipline”—an admirable aspiration in the attainment of which, however, he has, to my mind, failed quite as often as he has succeeded. For he is plagued by all the defects of his virtues. What I have in mind is not his plain speaking, of course, but rather the esprit de sérieux animating many of his critical pronouncements. It expresses itself in a kind of provincial moralism (by no means to be equated with the “marked moral intensity” he so esteems in his literary preferences), a protestant narrowness of sensibility, basically puritan, resulting in what seems to me the thoroughly unjustified rejection of Flaubert, Joyce, and other important literary artists of the modern line, a tendency to elevate “English studies” to the status of a major force in the shaping of culture if not of society itself, and his endless and tiresome fulminations against Bloomsbury, the “London literary establishment,” the system of “personal and institutional relations” that appears to him to dominate the British literary world and to obstruct the free play of the critical mind.

IT IS NOT MY INTENTION to defend the literary establishment, whether of London or of New York, or to question Leavis’s all-too-strenuous distaste for such literary figures—of unequal stature, to be sure—as Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf, and Lord David Cecil. The trouble is that his clamorous and prolonged campaign against the establishment has all the marks of an obsession. It is common knowledge that every major capital has one, and that it is usually lacking in the seriousness and discrimination that Leavis demands. It is quite possible to dissent from established opinion without going on and on about it in a compulsive manner. After all, Bloomsbury, which no longer exists, is at present merely a footnote in literary history. A class struggle in literature is one thing, even if of doubtful value, as in the 1930s we saw in this country, because the partisanship involved easily gets out of hand; but the conversion of a petty social antagonism into a full-scale crusade is something else again.

In truth, what Leavis is waging can in no sense be described as a Kulturkampf, which invariably deals with basic values, the clash of opposing world-views, not merely literary issues and personalities. Leavis’s obsession cannot be regarded otherwise than as a symptom. Of what? I am afraid there is no other way to characterize it than as a symptom of class ressentiment, and that very condition also sufficiently explains his uncritical identification with his supreme paragon among modern writers, D. H. Lawrence, upon whom he heaps panegyrics in his regrettably influential book, D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (1955). But more about that book (and even earlier critical studies) later. First one wants to take a close look at his new collection of essays and reviews.

THE LEAD ESSAY, on Anna Karenina, is excellent. Its interest lies not so much in any new insights it offers—in that respect John Bayley’s recent Tolstoy and the Novel is certainly superior—but rather in the angle from which Leavis approaches the novel. Given his age, critical background, and past allegiances, he was bound to confront openly certain animadversions on Anna Karenina expressed by Arnold, James, and, surprisingly enough, D. H. Lawrence. Admiring as he is of all three of these figures, especially Lawrence, he could not conceivably have arrived at his major conclusion, that Anna Karenina is not only one of the great European novels but “surely the European novel,” without first challenging their negative views. A younger commentator on Tolstoy might well have ignored these views as being manifestly irrelevant. Leavis, however, immersed as he is in “English studies,” is constrained to deal with them.

Arnold, though immensely struck by Tolstoy’s novel, nevertheless characterized it as “not a work of art but a piece of life.” Leavis demonstrates what hardly needs demonstrating today, that everything in the novel is fully rendered, fully “enacted,” and that only of a work of art of such validity and force can one authoritatively say: “This is life.” The antithesis of these formulas—“a piece of life” and “this is life”—is very apt, very neat. As for Henry James, his view was substantially the same as Arnold’s. And given his peculiarly subjective conception of the art of the novel, what could he do, when faced with the Russian novel’s centrality of experience and sheer comprehensiveness, but stress its alleged deficiency in “composition” and utter the phrase “fluid pudding”? One therefore welcomes Leavis’s comment on James’s “narrowly provident economy” in novel-writing, for it is about time that a critic of Leavis’s stature should come right out with this sort of objection, thus implicitly calling into question the portentous, self-justifying, and self-loving mystifications that play no small part in his famous Prefaces. Leavis rightly insists that the creativity possessed by Tolstoy is of the highest kind—“a higher kind than James’s.” One might add that the Jamesian type of creativity, particularly as displayed in his later phase, is so idiosyncratic as to preclude his becoming a model for others. Moreover, it provides scarcely sufficient grounds for generalizing about the medium of narrative prose.

But in the case of Lawrence—whose opinion of Anna Karenina is thoughtless, to say the least—Leavis has a different problem on his hands. For, long before writing his book on him, he committed himself to the estimate of Lawrence as “the finest literary critic of our time—a great literary critic if ever there was one.” So Leavis treats Lawrence’s opinion of Tolstoy as a mere momentary aberration. But such an approach is evasive; it simply won’t do. Just listen to Lawrence:

Why, when you look at it, all the tragedy comes from Vronsky’s and Anna’s fear of society…. They couldn’t live in the pride of their sincere passion, and spit in Mother Grundy’s eye. And that, that cowardice, was the real “sin.” The novel makes it obvious, and knocks all old Leo’s teeth out.

The novel makes obvious nothing of the sort. The impact of its cumulative episodes convinces us that it was impossible for Anna and Vronsky to live for long “in the pride of their sincere passion.” Leavis goes into great detail to show how adverse conditions (of personality and environment) defeated them; thus the charge of cowardice amounts to no less than “a refusal to take what, with all the force of specificity and subtle truth to life, the novel actually gives.” The implied comparison with Frieda and himself (which Lawrence alludes to in a letter) is fatuous. Being the kind of man he was, Vronsky could not live just by devoting himself to being Anna’s lover—his attempts to become an artist and later a landed magistrate are pathetic and come to nothing—while Lawrence had his work cut out for him even before he met Frieda: he could wander from country to country and still do his writing with unparalleled ease. As for Frieda, though the loss of her children made her suffer, she was, as Leavis observes, “an amoral German aristocrat” who finally attained “a floating indolence of well-being,” remaining “placidly undomesticated.” Anna, however, could not be reconciled to the loss of her son. And from all the evidence concerning Frieda that we have, adds Leavis, “we can see that what Tolstoy makes present to us in Anna is certainly something finer.”

STILL, in this very essay Leavis again praises Lawrence as a “marvelously perceptive critic.” Is such high praise deserved? I think not. Lawrence made some very percipient remarks about the relation of the truth of “art-speech” to the novel as a genre. But such remarks are merely fine generalities; when it comes to specifies he is nearly always wrong-headed, absurdly doctrinaire. Thus in a letter he refers to Chekhov as “a second-rate writer and a willy wet-leg.” Dostoevsky enrages him: he is “foul,” presumably for “mixing sadism and God.” About the characters in The Possessed he says: “They bore me, these squirming sorts of people; they teem like insects.” So much for Verhovensky père, Stavrogin, Kirillov, Shatov, Captain Lebyadkin and his sister! And again about Dostoevsky:

He is…like the rat, slithering along in hate, in the shadows…. His will is fixed and gripped like a trap. He is not nice.

To be sure, Dostoevsky is far from “nice,” but if niceness is to be our criterion, then Lawrence’s fiction, in which emotions of cruelty, anger, and hatred so frequently dominate, is positively malignant. Reviewing Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Lawrence finds its author “somewhat banal,” suffering from the same complaint as Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary seems to him “dead.” Nor does he in the least appreciate either Proust or Joyce.

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