Sunday 3 November 2013

On F. R. Leavis

In a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Paul Evans describes an episode involving the critic F. R. Leavis (1895-1978):

At some point during my time at Cambridge I attended a guest lecture by Leavis with the title ‘T. S. Eliot Thirty Years On’. It soon became clear that the thirty years referred to the last time Leavis had passed public judgment on Eliot. Towards the end of the hour, he suddenly stopped, seemingly in mid-paragraph. He looked up, announced that he had left the last page of his lecture in his briefcase, and apologised. He descended from the stage, made a painfully slow journey to the back of the hall surrounded by silence, picked up a battered briefcase, extracted a single sheet of paper, returned once more to the stage, placed the sheet on the lectern, straightened it and looked up. ‘Therefore,’ he announced, ‘I see no reason to change my view of T. S. Eliot.’ He said nothing further.

Leavis was a giant of literary criticism in the days when being and doing such a thing was both respectable and worthwhile. In his view it was an urgent moral imperative to have the highest standards against which to judge the real value of writing, based on a hierarchy of values that contrasted violently with the imported continental apparatus that swept through university English departments in the early 1980s (and which I narrowly avoided). Leavis embodies everything I most admire in academic life (and, of course, represents everything most loathed and feared by his midget detractors) - a commitment to seriousness.

I was too young to be directly influenced by Leavis and the type of critical writing gathered in his high-minded journal Scrutiny. Our schoolmasters (always 'masters', never 'teachers') were for the most part ex-army officers, close to retirement age and rather chilly. They had no truck with long-haired namby-pamby poetry types.

When I finally caught up with the 'Two Cultures' debate (in which Leavis locked horns with the novelist and technocrat C. P. Snow) I knew where my loyalties lay because I'd read and loathed a couple of C. P. Snow's atrocious novels as an undergraduate. Clive James was pitch-perfect when he suggested a typical Snow novel would include Part Two: A Decision is Taken, Chapter One: the Lighting of a Cigarette.

There's another amusing Leavis anecdote from in the LRB. The distinguished historian (and homosexual) A.L. Rowse invited Leavis to dinner at All Souls. Asked afterwards what he made of him, Rowse replied: ‘I cannot understand why they call him Queenie!’

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