F. R. Leavis Peter Conrad

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Peter Conrad

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The problem of the practical critic who has ambitions as a social moralist as well is to stretch his microscopically intricate method of analysis into a medium of prophecy; his texts have to become tablets, his readings utterances of unalterable law, the corpus of his favourites an embattled cell of opponents to 'the American blankness' or the 'technologico-Benthamite civilisation'. As F. R. Leavis has declined from a critic into a lay preacher, he has turned what used to be a style of critical argument into one of rhetorical assertion. He no longer investigates texts, but plays games of skittles with them, setting up Antony and Cleopatra against All for Love or Conrad against Marry at or Lawrence against Tennyson. Formerly he used to respect the collaborative reader's murmured 'Yes, but—'; these days he briskly curtails discussion, saying that 'no one worth arguing with' would disagree.

The Living Principle is a work of reminiscential pugilism, fighting the old battles over again; those Scrutiny years in the trenches have the same mesmeric appeal that Namur and the site of his disabling wound had for poor Uncle Toby. Some new opponents are swiped at, a revisionist disciple (D. W. Harding) is rebuked, but despite the organicism of its title the book has a hasty, improvised look; it suspiciously resembles the turnedout contents of a bottom drawer. Critically, it makes some apt points against Eliot, demoting him from his papal eminence and convicting him of 'intellectual weakness' and 'imprisonment in his own sick plight', but it squanders them by belabouring Eliot with the blameless examples of Blake and Lawrence, who love life rather than neurotically recoiling from it, and by embedding them in a rhetoric so dense that style strangles content and the Leavis who is another incarnation deplored the elderly James's 'inability to state' produces a work as triumphantly obscurantist in its formalism as The Golden Bowl.

The sad oddity of Leavis's criticism always has been that someone with such reverence for language should maltreat it as he does. Just as George Steiner frets about the destruction of the communal integrity of language in a style whose polyglot gaudiness exemplifies the decadence he fears, so Leavis nonchalantly writes in praise of poetic sensitivity in a style which is bludgeoning, imprecise, encrusted by jargon and contorted by mannerism. His style has a ferocious ugliness, puritanically proud of its warts, but actually it is not so terse and combative as its user thinks: its origin indeed is the effete, timorous association-savouring of Henry James. Leavis, who remains fond of doting Jamesian compliments like 'felicities' and whose colloquial 'don't's have the same naughty consciousness of transgression as the idioms and elisions in James's dialogue, uses a critical vocabulary which is naturally vague, impressionistic and limp-wristed and seeks to make it tough and trenchant. The grotesque incongruities which result act out in little the bravado of the attempt to make 'English' an agent of cultural salvation and the techniques of practical criticism a redemptive telling of beads.

The men of Watergate practised their outrages of language to help it confuse reality and unfocus the truth; Leavis's intentions are not so much political as military—he wants to put language into training for battle, to make a blunt instrument of it. Hence it must be impacted, absolute, threatening: every equivocation must become an assault, every discrimination an execution. The para-military ambition explains many of Leavis's stylistic vices—the habit of yoking verbal adjectives to abstract nouns, for instance ('evoked specificity', 'achieved apprehension'). The proper adverbial use would make cowardly concessions by implying trial and conjecture, the activity of exploration; compressing the adverb into an adjective makes the conclusion a fait accompli and so saves demonstration. (p. 309)

[Underneath the bluster of Leavis's prose] is preciosity...

(The entire section is 1,087 words.)