F. R. Leavis George A. Panichas

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George A. Panichas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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For the shortcomings in Leavis' criticism we have cause for regret. Magnanimity, after all, is not without its place in the humane tradition of learning. But genius, mutatis mutandis, has its failings. In the end, I think, we shall remember Leavis (and Scrutiny) not for his hardness, or his harassments, but for disciplining us in how to read; for trying to save us from that "spiritual Philistinism" with its "implicit belief that the only reality we need take account of in ordering human affairs is what can be measured, aggregated and averaged"; for helping us to travel beyond the shadow line separating what is dull and dead from what is compellingly alive in our responses to literature as it has its significances and values in our lives and ultimately in the continuity of our culture. No student of English literature, and surely of any literature, can ignore the nature of this achievement in all its greatness of strength and integrity. (p. 388)

Leavis is the only other modern critic who shares with Eliot the honor of representing the critical discipline at its influential best. Together these two men provide a picture of great practicing critics writing in the English language, concerned with the formulation and the maintenance of "standards of discrimination," with specifying principles, and with a discipline to adhere to in terms of constantly coalescing literary and cultural positions. Ultimately, it should be said, Eliot's profoundest strength appeared in his creative work, in his poems from The Waste Land to his greatest triumph, the Four Quartets. As a critic he was often divided and unsure of himself (with exceptions, no doubt, as his essays on the "Metaphysical Poets" and on the Elizabethan dramatists show)—the "cleft" Eliot, in other words, who irritated his friend Paul Elmer More. Eliot's essential heroism was not, in the end, critical but creative. As a critic he had his special loyalties and weaknesses (of inconstancy and of inconsistency), refined and purified only when the creative impulse took over as a total impersonalizing process of critical intelligence. The point is that Eliot lacked the vital inner strength able to guard him against the compromises in essays like that on a parlor-figure like Charles Whibley, or even in plays like The Cocktail Party—and that made him, to the acquiescing social (and coterie) world of his time the "Great Tom."

Eliot's greatness is not being questioned here. Rather, these necessarily qualifying references have their comparative force in establishing the critical place and worth of Leavis. For what Eliot lacked was a vigor, a critical heroism enabling him to overcome the Bloomsbury ethos: e.g., to see Virginia Woolf's limitations as an artist, or to measure the mediocrity of David Garnett's novels, or, above all, to count D. H. Lawrence among the really great novelists of the age. It is precisely that power of conviction, of integrity, that Leavis has disclosed during the last forty years. Critically, socially (for the two go together), Eliot refused, or was emotionally unable, to pay the price that Leavis has been willing to pay in order to uphold his critical function with the honest severity that empowers it. Leavis' criticism has that kind of completeness that Eliot's has only erratically displayed. One need only study Leavis's oeuvre from, say, New Bearings in English Poetry to English Literature in our Time and the University to Nor Shall My Sword to understand the critical strengths that are not consistently there in, say, Eliot's The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, After Strange Gods, On Poetry and Poets. There is in Leavis' work a constant refusal to compromise, to be a party to the trahison des clercs. (pp. 388-89)

The world of enlightenment is, for Leavis, a world in which standards and discipline are sacrificed to the technological spirit, to the spirit of permissiveness, to an attitude "that can see nothing to be quarrelled with in believing, or wanting to believe, that...

(The entire section is 1,243 words.)