The humanist criticism of the nineteenth century persists in the work of F. R. Leavis. As critic and teacher for over forty years and as editor of Scrutiny, Leavis has been the modern embodiment of this critical tradition. His work provides an excellent measure of its present strengths and weaknesses. Against increasing skepticism about the legitimacy of high culture, Leavis has passionately argued that at stake in the defense of what he calls the great tradition is not simply English as a discipline but the creative spirit itself. (p. 69)
Leavis's work is most interesting and most problematic when he conceives of literature and society as threatened by the same corruptive forces. Against those forces he invokes the theme of vitality, of present life. (p. 75)
For Leavis the present moment is without life, because it has cut itself off from what is alive in the tradition…. Modern life is not merely the subject of modernist literature, it is in some sense its source for style and form. Fragmentation, deliberate incoherence, the absence of organic development (marked by a beginning, middle, and end) are converted from mere negatives to aesthetic values. Thus Joyce, or Leavis's version of Joyce, is anathema, and to the extent that Eliot "cultivates" the fragment and the still life, he is the object of severe censure.
Leavis's increasing ambivalence toward Eliot has corresponded with the strengthening of his early conviction that Lawrence is the supreme genius of the modern period. And the ambivalence is emblematic of a hostility toward the modern element in modern literature. Lawrence, unlike Eliot and Joyce, continually sacralizes, or rather discovers the sacred, in ordinary life. Eliot deplores the absence of the sacred, but is incapable of imagining it within the world of common routine. The work of Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett, to name the greatest modernist writers of fiction, is nourished by the clichés of everyday life and by a parodistic relation to classical literature. Indeed, "parody" does not quite do as a characterization, for the luxurious exercise in parody or pastiche becomes virtually an end in itself and we are carried beyond satire to something close to acceptance, if not affirmation. Our satiric sense of Gerty MacDowell's lower class Bovarisme (in the Nausicaa episode in Ulysses) is overcome by a supersaturation of detail in which we achieve an empathic intimacy with her suffering and her perceptions. Joyce and Beckett are supreme examples of the process which passes through Flaubertian self-hatred to a grimly gay self-acceptance, but there are countless instances in contemporary fiction of the comic, desacralizing, profaning imagination. Indeed, some contemporary critics argue that the vitality of serious contemporary fiction (a vitality Leavis finds depressing) depends on its refusal to be pious and portentous about the high literary past. Profanity is the order of the day. Leavis is incapable of facing the possibility that the vitality of contemporary literature may depend upon the nihilism or negativism that he deplores, because he may then be compelled to take up a moral position outside of literature and become a critic of the literary mode. Though his conception of literature is remote from any narrow aesthetic formalism—literature for Leavis is charged with moral and social themes—his conception of literature as the sacred milieu leaves him without resources when literature becomes profane.
Vitality or living speech is not an easy standard to invoke against modernist profanity. If the cadence of living speech—living, that is, in the present not in the past—is an essential condition of vital literature, the clichés of everyday life belong to the literature. By definition clichés are empty of spiritual reality, like dogmatic vestiges of once powerful theological truths. Yet the obsessive imaginations of cliché-ridden minds that one finds in the work of, say, Joyce and Flaubert releases a sense of life of...
(The entire section is 1,788 words.)