F. R. Leavis John Harvey

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John Harvey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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The greatest problem of criticism has always been to work with a sound understanding of the relationship between literary qualities and the values of life in general; the major errors have come either from treating literature too simply in terms of general ethics, or from trying to explain literary values in dissociation from other values. What Leavis developed was a language for evaluating emotion—in terms essentially of one's attitude to one's own emotions: was one nourishing them for their own sake or for the pleasure of the ego, or were they truly defined by their object? Underpinning the particular discussions he had a general account of the interdependence between fine distinctions of emotion and fine distinctions of language in any culture. He was then able to demonstrate that the nuances of suggestion that made particular words right or wrong in poetry did so because they conveyed acceptable or unacceptable attitudes to emotion, in the process of expressing it. Involved in this criticism was a picture of the individual nature, which could either be shapeless and chaotic, at the mercy of every whim of the ego, or could have the delicate whole organisation that would make fine and right feeling possible: the coherence and delicacy of this organisation being married, again, to the coherence and delicacy with which language was used—ideally in poetry.

Of course such an account does not cover all the ground; Leavis had a subtle supporting analysis of metaphor and movement, and of the distinction between language that asserted or gestured towards its meaning and language which, through a complex analogical play, came closer to embodying its meaning. My summary is dense but crude; but it may suggest the way in which Leavis's whole analysis gave something like a full account of the complex relations between values in poetry and values in life. The reader will find that Leavis's formulation actually is subtler and more complete than any given previously—whether by Aristotle, Horace, Johnson or Coleridge; and it is possible to argue that in this central question of critical thought, Leavis "got it right."

From the 1940s he was increasingly interested in the novel, and the impact of his criticism shows in the number of classics that owe a large part of their present currency to him—Hard Times, Nostromo, Portrait of a Lady, The Rainbow. However he did not often give to novelistic prose the searching particularity of analysis he had regularly given to poetry, and his general description of fiction does not have the powerful keenness and coherence of his earlier criticism. His account of fiction presses the argument that a great novel is to be appreciated as a kind of poem, or "extended metaphor": he refers only negatively to the conception of the novel as a world of "real" people governed by the probabilities of "real" life. In his detailed criticism, on the other hand, it is clear that his genius is for conveying the accuracy of the novelist's insight into the way in which, from day to day, people actually make their own fates—it is a genius adapted best to the realistic psychological novel, and his long chapter on George Eliot in The Great Tradition is a masterpiece of criticism.

The claim Leavis made for the novels he especially admired was that they gave the most profound criticism available of the phase of civilisation that had produced them. This conception of what masterpieces do—the creative criticism of civilisation—saves literature from being either imprisoned in its own time, or lost in "eternal verity", and it is realised with great impressiveness in his commentaries on Little Dorrit and Women in Love. But, as Leavis's primary criterion, it has the air of meeting all needs—while it does not, for instance, meet all the issues raised by great tragic art. It may be recalled that at no time in his career did Leavis discuss at length Hamlet, King Lear or Macbeth.

The conception of literature as the criticism of civilisation...

(The entire section is 1,717 words.)