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.
The truth is that as a critic Lawrence is wholly lacking in disinterestedness and even a minimum of objectivity. Violently prejudiced, he is a contemner of many works of great formal beauty; as well as psychological and dialectical power, simply because their contents fail to correspond to his own new Gospel of life, or “metaphysic,” as he sometimes called it. Even his Studies in Classic American Literature is not the masterpiece it is reputed to be. It contains one basic insight which has influenced some American critics, and I too have been affected by it. He detects in “moral duplicity” the “fatal flaw” of nineteenth-century American writers, expecting Whitman, and in this insight he appears to me to be right. Hawthorne, for instance, gives “tight mental allegiance to a morality which the passional self repudiates.” Yet in his essay “Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter,” having made his point about that “blue-eyed Wunderkind of a Nathaniel,” he soon wanders off into sheer rant about matters irrelevant to the text. Page after page of the essay is given up to a furious denunciation of Hester Prynne as “a demon, a devil when she was so meekly going around as a sick-nurse…the great nemesis of woman.” What Lawrence is doing is simply exploiting his ostensible subject in order to indulge himself in a fit of characteristic misogyny, damning a certain type of modern woman whom he loathed. Whether such a type is more than a figment of Lawrence’s imagination is doubtful; but that she is not the Hester of Hawthorne’s novel, in either a latent or a manifest sense, is certain.
The essay about Cooper opens well, only to turn into a romance. Nor does Lawrence even begin to understand Poe, to see through his neurotic rationality (his famous bent for ratiocination) and recognize it for what it really is—a shield against the murderous phantasies that threatened to unhinge his mind. All that he notes in Poe is “the pride of human conceit in knowledge,” with Ligeia, Berenice, and the rest as victims of his “obscene” will to know. Here Lawrence is again riding his favorite hobby-horse, the execration of knowledge or “mental consciousness,” his bête noire of which he cannot rid himself either in his discursive prose or in his fiction. Moreover, the Poe essay is entirely lacking in specific literary or critical interest, being a piece of amateur psychologism pure and simple, and offensively preachy at that. Yet even as psychology it is useless. One has only to compare it to Marie Bonaparte’s psychoanalytic study of Poe—not to be classified as literary criticism either—to realize how wide of the mark it is.
BUT though the Lawrence question still haunts Leavis’s new volume, there are essays in it deserving commendation, such as the two very satisfactory pieces on Conrad, the fine analysis of “Johnson as Critic,” and the truly enlightening review of The Letters of Ezra Pound, in which he sums up with admirable economy and persuasiveness all that he previously said about him. Though paying generous tribute to Pound’s beneficent influence on Yeats and Eliot (among others) at “crucial moments” of their creative careers, he none the less contends that his limitations are overwhelming. Mauberley is his only valid claim to significance as a poet, while “the spectacle of his degeneration is a terrible one.” It is apparent in the “barren and monotonous” Cantos, as in his hapless politics, in which there is “something repellently brutal, a certain naïve, tough, and truculent insensitiveness turning into a positive vice.”
In this fully supported judgment Leavis is at his best, and it should suffice to shatter the Pound cult, were it not for the fact that the cultists and their leading hierophant, Hugh Kenner, in their highly suspect, devious ideological bias and vain exegetical ardor had not already proven themselves immune to critical argument. I wonder how they will now react to the startling revelation by Daniel Cory (Encounter, May 1968), a reliable witness and a friend of Pound’s of long standing, that the poet had but recently admitted to him in Italy that he had in fact “botched” the Cantos. (“I knew too little about so many things.…I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them into a bag. But that’s not the way to make a work of art.”) There is much pathos in this belated confession, bringing a melancholy end to a long and remarkable career.
Pound’s admission also makes fools of the cultists who have for a long time dominated the criticism of Pound. Even the late R. P. Blackmur, in an essay of the 1950s, in effect retracted his shrewd earlier reservations about Pound. And T. S. Eliot certainly lent a hand in promoting the cult in a variety of cordial and (perhaps) propitiatory remarks about Pound, finally announcing that his interest is not in what the latter had to say but only in the way he said it. Leavis comes down hard on this equivocal statement, in which form is so drastically isolated from substance as to convert it into a sheer abstraction.
IN THE LAST ESSAY of this new collection, “The Orthodoxy of Enlightenment,” we are again embroiled in the Lawrence question. Reviewing the Penguin documentary record of the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he strains to show, though without any recognition of the irony involved, that his backing of Lawrence had been misconceived and misused in the trial by persons of a type that would have been inevitably hostile to Lawrence during his lifetime and who are now, to put it bluntly, kowtowing to him because of the new “enlightenment” of sex. It should be observed that even in his extravagant book about Lawrence (1955), Leavis excised Lady Chatterley, as well as The Plumed Serpent, from the canon. Now he speaks of it as “a bad novel,” arguing that his distaste for it is something “that the normal Lawrence would have shared and justified,” if the “abnormal state” he was in when writing the novel had not “violated his wholeness.” What a way of putting it! This new evocation of a Lawrence split into normality and abnormality flagrantly contradicts the insistence in D. H. Lawrence: Novelist that there is “no profound emotional disturbance in Lawrence, no obdurate major disharmony; intelligence in him can be, as it is, the servant of the whole integrated psyche.”
Plainly, there is something deeply wrong here, a tortuous, willed self-deception, on account of which this critic’s reputation for integrity and independence of judgment incurs a damaging loss. No doubt there are stages to be noted in Lawrence’s development as a thinker and artist, but the novels that Leavis disowns—including Sons and Lovers which he manages to dismiss, without seeming to do so, as little more than a case-history—embody the essential Lawrence just as much as those Leavis acclaims as supreme masterpieces. (To my mind, Sons and Lovers remains Lawrence’s best novel, by far the most convincing, fully enveloping its Oedipal theme, which cannot be reduced to mere clinical material, and free of the patently compensatory over-assertiveness and arbitrariness, that in no small degree mar his later work.)
Leavis’s emphasis on “health” and “sanity” and his mandatory distinction between what “makes for life” and what does not are singularly inappropriate to “placing” Lawrence. Terms like “health,” “sanity,” and even “life” are at once too vague and too inclusive, too invertebrate as it were, for use in any precise analysis, and, above all, too moralistic to make much sense in literary discourse. As criteria they are in constant peril of toppling over—though Leavis would hardly countenance such a fall—into the popular cure-all of “the power of positive thinking.” Evidently there is no getting away from the Lawrence question in examining Leavis’s contribution to contemporary criticism.
* * *
THE TRUTH is that by radically separating his art from his doctrine without fully acknowledging what he is up to, Leavis has been able to create a Lawrence who never really existed. Hence the stress on the word novelist in his book on him. But this procedure is misleading in Lawrence’s case. For as E. M. Forster has observed, he was “both preacher and poet…though without the preaching the poetry could not exist. With some writers one can disentangle the two, with him they were inseparable.” It is this very “inseparability,” which cannot be said to affect in the same drastic manner Dostoevsky and other novelists of intense ideological animus, which calls into question Lawrence’s status as an artist. Furthermore, as Forster adds, as he grew older he became “more and more mannered and didactic.” None of that is recognized by Leavis. Nor does the concept of neo-primitivism, of which Lawrence is the most extreme exponent in modern literature, ever engage Leavis’s attention, though that concept is far more cogently deployed in appraising Lawrence than the meager literary notions Leavis brings to bear in his apotheosis of him as before all else an artist, “a creative writer of the greatest kind,” as well as “an incomparable critic” and “one of the greatest masters of comedy.” His determination to endow his beau idéal with every possible virtue is appalling.
I have already dealt to some extent with Lawrence’s criticism. To attribute to him a mastery of the comic mode is equally spurious, for a kind of archness, even cuteness, was the only result of his occasional attempts to be amusing. Historically, Lawrence represents, as I see it, “the return of the repressed,” (to use Freudian terminology) to English literary expression after the long Victorian epoch of inhibition and repression of the sensual life. Such a return, however, exalting the pleasure principle above the reality principle, cannot but take, under inauspicious social and historical conditions, a form at once anarchic and compulsive. Nor is this return, as embodied in Lawrence, in any sense complete, involving as it does frequent relapses and more than incidental backsliding. Thus even while protesting the repression of sexuality by civilization, he at the same time turns away from any real orgiastic freedom and actually disincarnates sexuality by preaching the continuance of traditional male domination, by envisaging marriage as “ultimate” and “final” (a lapse into the very idealism he otherwise repudiated), and by denying (emphatically in The Plumed Serpent) the orgasm to women.
Such obscurantist predications are not what I would call creative contradictions but rather a set of corrosive inconsistencies that add to his disabilities precisely in his role as novelist. He is not what Leavis says he is: he is not an up-to-date version of George Eliot, nor is he a realist, except superficially and only intermittently. Leavis maintains that modern civilization found in Lawrence “a student and analyst of incomparable range and insight.” But he was not so much a student or analyst of civilization as its outright and rigorous opponent. He rejected culture, intellect, consciousness, knowledge—the values that Leavis is above all attached to. Lawrence wrote:
My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels…is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. What do I care about knowledge? All I want is to answer to my blood, direct, without the fribbling intervention of mind, or moral, or what not.
This is no abstraction but a solemn and programmatic avowal, the essential “message” informing most of his work, in the interest of which he was all too prone to disregard the modifications, reservations, and strategic reversals imposed by the discipline of novelistic art. Can Leavis honestly claim that he shares this “message” or faith? One can imagine a critic—though not much of one—who might find this faith acceptable, but my point is that Leavis’s assertion of his own beliefs positively disallows his solidarity with Lawrence. The visionary neo-primitivism, the regression to an animistic and archaic mode of apprehending the world, which dissolves the distinction between the human and the inhuman and between nature and culture, are wholly alien to Leavis. The latter frequently affirms Lawrence’s “intelligence”; and I for one have no doubt that he was very intelligent; at the same time I have no doubt that after Sons and Lovers, ever alert to the threatening inroads of the so abominated “mental consciousness,” he more often than not refused to use his intelligence.
Psychic disorder is just as noticeable in Lawrence as it is in literary artists like Baudelaire or Dostoevsky or Kafka. But from a literary standpoint the significant difference is that, in Baudelaire, Dostoevsky or Kafka, art is for the most part the consequence, even if neurosis is the occasion. This is only contingently and even at times fortuitously true in Lawrence. The conscientious critic, however, cannot adopt the psychiatrist’s crude though useful distinctions between the normal and the abnormal without undercutting the fullness and complexity of his response to the manifold if contradictory “truths of art-speech.” The many quarrels Leavis picks with T. S. Eliot seem to be chiefly motivated by the latter’s disparagement of Lawrence. One of these concerns Eliot’s “over-insistence” on Lawrence’s “sexual morbidity,” which Leavis finds very odd in a writer whose own attitudes “to sex have been, in prose and poetry, almost uniformly negative—attitudes of distaste, disgust, and rejection.” This is as good an example as any of Leavis’s tendency to circumscribe the literary medium by setting up preconceived and obligatory values for it.
For my part, I cannot see why an attitude of sexual disgust is not as valid a theme for poetic expression as an attitude of affirmation, of “health and sanity.” The value of literary art cannot be judged by the bias of its ideology or world-view, but rather by its rendering of felt experience, the intensity of its existential commitment, and above all the incontrovertible force of its concrete enactment. Eliot’s awareness of this is shown by the unremitting attention he gave to the problem of “belief” in poetry. There is something irksome in Leavis’s polemic against Eliot—to whom his best books, New Bearings in English Poetry and Revaluations, are heavily indebted. Aside from the discord relating to Lawrence, Eliot is accused of endorsing Wyndham Lewis, not to mention Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, of being too close to Bloomsbury, of printing Auden and Spender in The Criterion, etc., etc. But all this is trivial. What is really vulnerable in Eliot—his collapse into Anglo-Catholicism in the late Twenties and his embrace of the dogma of original sin—Leavis leaves strictly alone. In other words, he fails to perceive that given Eliot’s militant new adherence to institutional Christianity, it was only logical for him to attack Lawrence as a dangerous “heretic” in After Strange Gods, which is a primer of heresy. There existed in Eliot an empirical critic of genius, usually prevailing in his prose, as well as a fretful and conscience-ridden Christian preceptor. The former produced his important literary essays; the latter produced such nebulous tracts as Notes towards the Definition of Culture and The Idea of a Christian Society. His derogation of Lawrence as a writer “incapable of what is ordinarily called thinking” is far from unjust, if we stress, that is, the word “ordinarily.” But Eliot in his moods of Christian fervor strikes me as equally incapable of that kind of thinking and so does Leavis, who so plumes himself on his critical rigor, when he flaunts his identification with Lawrence.
I THINK that Lawrence was a unique and original writer, perhaps the most “natural” writer in English literature by virtue of his innate gift of fluidity and spontaneous free flow of expression. But this is by no means the same thing as saying that he was a great novelist. In that respect his disabilities are irreducible. His most persistent fault is the unabashed eagerness with which he nearly always subordinates art to prophecy and his ruthless manipulation of scene, act, and character to justify his new Gospel of life at all costs.
While describing himself as “a fearfully religious man,” he was unable, all the same, to believe in any religious tenet except in a purely symbolical manner; and his nostalgia for remote pre-Christian modes of relatedness to the world expresses nothing more than a desire to give his intuitions free play, to escape the limiting and probing articulations of historical consciousness. As Philip Rieff has aptly observed, what he wanted to preserve was “the dynamic of religion” as form without any specific content. Thus he was a “literary Methodist,” proposing attitudes of prayer “without mentioning anyone to whom to pray.” And in the political sphere, into which he sometimes ventured, he was a fantast pure and simple. He understood neither socialism nor liberal democracy, invariably confusing political theory with individual psychology. However, the charges of proto-fascism, of having developed, as Bertrand Russell put it, “the whole philosophy of fascism before the politicians thought of it,” seem to me almost grotesquely unfair. His preaching of “blood-consciousness” has nothing whatever to do with racial or national purity of blood, or the assertion of superiority of one race over another. (The notion of “blood-consciousness,” if at all meaningful, can only be taken as the equivalent, and a very muddled one at that, of Freud’s Unconscious or Id.) Moreover, Lawrence’s fundamental rejection of industrialism places him in diametrical opposition to the fascists, who, glorifying the martial virtues, are the least ready to scrap the industrial machine.
The paradox is that, for all his denunciations of “the modern cult of personality,” and his attack on the ego as “a vile entity,” our interest in him as an artist is primarily called forth precisely by his personality. All the people who knew him, whether friend or enemy, invariably recalled “the strange and marvelous radiance” emanating from him, the “spritelike, electric, elemental” quality. That is what surely comes through in his writing, particularly in the passionate tenderness of his evocations of nature—“birds, beasts, and flowers.” But the other side of his personality—the acrimony, the fits of jeering and hectoring—also comes through. His general ideas about the novel are unimpeachable, and very fine indeed. Let me cite some of my favorite dicta:
Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.
If you try to nail anything down in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.
The novel is the highest example of subtle inter-relatedness that man has discovered. Everything is true in its own time, place, circumstance, and untrue outside of its own place, time, circumstance…. Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance. When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality.
UNFORTUNATELY, his practice belies his theory. In the very novels and tales Leavis regards as masterpieces he seldom hesitates to put his thumb in the scales, “to pull down the balance to his own predilection.” This is exactly what Dostoevsky never did, even in The Possessed, where a subtle balance is maintained in spite of its national and religious prepossessions. For he was able to identify not only with such children of light as Sonia Marmeladov and Prince Myshkin but also with the characters ostensibly set up for ideological rebuttal—Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, the elder Verhovensky, Ivan Karamazov—all children of darkness whom he none the less absorbed creatively without depriving them of their essental humanity. And the secret of that is complicity, that is to say, the indispensable process of identification with the creatures of one’s own imagination without regard to positiveness or negativeness of ultimate judgment. In this sense, Flaubert identified with Charles Bovary and M. Homais no less than with Emma. Not so Lawrence, who identified the people who speak for him, like Ursula in The Rainbow and Birkin in Women in Love, with himself, thus turning them into mere mouthpieces; while he treated his adversary characters, like Skrebensky and Gerald Crich, with punitive harshness; and he proceeded in the same manner against Clifford in Lady Chatterley and against Rico in St. Mawr—a novella rated very highly by Leavis but shown up, by both Eliseo Vivas and Graham Hough in their respective books on Lawrence, as the shabby performance it actually is. Even The Fox, a novella beautifully articulated and rendered in convincing detail, is spoiled in the last few pages when the young protagonist, having won the girl March after the willed death of her friend Jill, suddenly steps out of his role in order to assume as his own some of Lawrence’s dogmatic notions. It is gratuitous as well as out of character for him to demand of March that she submerge herself in him. “He wanted to make her submit, yield, blindly pass away out of all her strenuous consciousness.” This is no longer the simple farmer-boy we have been reading about but Lawrence conducting his continuous struggle with Frieda for dominance.1 What we are up against in Lawrence’s fiction is a kind of “credibility gap” of his own making, the result of the excessive and willful intrusion of a personality inebriated with doctrinal salvationism.
In The Rainbow, as Graham Hough notes, Ursula loves Skrebensky physically while finding him inadequate spiritually, and that is “intelligible enough, but that she found him inadequate in both respects makes their love wholly unintelligible, merely makes one wonder what the basis of their affair can ever have been.” This is even more true, I think, of the Gudrun-Gerald relationship in Women in Love, so bafflingly implausible in connecting motive and action. For much of the novel, despite occasional outbursts of hostility to Gerald, Gudrun is presented as standing apart and not as a mere mouthpiece for the author, as Birkin is. But in the last chapters, when she is with her lover in the Tyrolese Alps, she is suddenly bursting with Lawrentian ideas that make her want to destroy Gerald. What is wrong? Gerald is immersed in the “ethics of productivity,” he is an industrial magnate concerned solely with efficiency and deriving his values from the established social order. Then, through some kind of typical Lawrentian legerdemain, she links these external traits, external, I mean, to his sexual being, with sexual defectiveness. Hence her fury and determination to do him in. It is as if a Marxist novelist were to deduce sexual characteristics of any given bourgeois protagonist from the propositions of Das Kapital. So Lawence simplifies in the most ludicrous fashion the connection between quite different aspects of life. The trouble is, as Hough observes, that Lawrence came to assume that “sexual compatibility and compatibility of mind and spirit are indissolubly linked.” But existence is marked by startling incongruities, and human love is only very rarely so rounded and complete. Individual reality is no more cut of the whole cloth than historical reality.
And for all of Lawrence’s desire to adjust consciousness “to the basic physical realities” and his warm approval of “sex-stimulus” in art, he was quite unable to achieve in his favored female characters the sensual reality, the sense of desirability and carnal attraction that we find so affecting in Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, or even in Kate Croy and Charlotte Stant—heroines of Henry James who is so frequently dismissed as a eunuch. Lawrence repeatedly tells us that Ursula and Gudrun are very alluring but he cannot make us feel it. Sometimes I think that Lawrence was much too overwrought, too morbidly sensitive to physical experience to cope with the sexual theme. William H. Gass was surely right, in a recent essay in this journal, in characterizing Lawrence’s attempts to describe directly sexual feelings and sensations as “moments of disaster”:
…When Lawrence wishes to render these [sexual] feelings, he turns to an abstract, incantational shorthand, often full of biblical overtones and antique simplicities, phrases which are used like formulas, reiterated until they become meaningless: hearts grow bitter and black and cold, souls melt or swoon, bodies freeze or burn, people are rapt or blind, they utter strange blind cries, their feelings ebb and flow…they “go mad with voluptuous delight,” they overmaster or submit, bowels move poignantly…and their eyes sing, laugh, dance, stab, harden, burn, flash, seize, subside, cool, dim and die. One lust could do for another, angers are peas, nothing is clearly envisaged, nothing is precise, and we pass through them soon in a daze.2
* * *
LAWRENCE’S MANIC VITALISM is, in fact, very far removed from the “life-enhancing elements” that Leavis likes to celebrate in his favorite writers. The “obliteration of personality” that Mellors, for instance, demands from Connie, the radical ambition, that is, to “de-create” the self in its social aspects, is essentially hostile to the quite different form that Leavis’s search for “life” has taken. The obsession with Lawrence is the incubus that weighs his criticism down, which, despite its protestant moralism, is none the less among the more heroic efforts in English of this century. He was at his best in his earlier work, but even in The Common Pursuit (1952), as in his latest volume, you find many excellent things. And in comparison with the sorry state of criticism today—when the older critics (Wilson, Tate, Trilling) are silent about contemporary writing, and the field has been preempted by younger men, swinging reviewers rather than critics in any proper sense of the term, who, in the name of a trivialized aestheticism and sophistication, welcome every whim of fad and fashion as a creative “break-through” and a “new” conquest of imaginative experience—Leavis looms large as a force and as a surpassing example. He may be too moralistic and exclusive in his approach, but the currently modish idea that morality has nothing to do with literature is a sheer perversion, an accommodation to the indulgence of degeneracy that marks the arts in our age—an indulgence that on no account will deny artistic status even to obvious pornography. Of course, there are exceptions among the younger critics; their influence, however, hardly counts against that of the promoters of a phony avant-gardism who draw no distinction between integral talent and the crude products of the celebrity-machine.
Ours is a consumers’ society, in which culture has been transformed into another provider of goodies, to be processed, consumed, digested, and eliminated to make room for more. In a situation of this kind, the appearance of another Leavis, or Eliot, or critics of like caliber, is no longer to be expected. No wonder that the more intelligent young people are turning away from literature to politics, where sensitivity of conscience and moral feeling can still find expression, even if only within a minority movement, and where cynical calculation masquerading as worldly sophistication can still be seen through for what it actually is.
September 26, 1968
See his letter to Katherine Mansfield (December, 1918): “In a way, Frieda is the devouring mother. It is awfully hard, once the sex relation has gone this way, to recover. If we don’t recover, we die. But Frieda says I am antediluvian in my positive attitude. I do think a woman must yield some sort of precedence to a man, and he must take this precedence. I do think men must go ahead absolutely in front of their women, without turning around for permission or approval from their women. Consequently the women must follow as it were unquestioningly. I can’t help it, I believe this. Frieda doesn’t. Hence our fight.” ↩
New York Review, August 1, 1968. ↩