F. R. Leavis Philip Rahv

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Philip Rahv

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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That F. R. Leavis is a first-rate critical personality is certain, but that is by no means the same thing as saying that he is a first-rate literary critic. No doubt he has at times achieved that stature; at other times not at all. (p. 289)

What I chiefly like about Leavis' work are its Johnsonian qualities: the robustness, the firmness, the downrightness. He is not one to beat around the bush, to play the diplomat, to cultivate ambiguity, or to shun controversy. A critic in the Arnoldian tradition, he aspires, in his own words, "to the highest critical standards and the observance of the most scrupulous critical discipline"—an admirable aspiration in the attainment of which, however, he has, to my mind, failed quite as often as he has succeeded. For he is plagued by all the defects of his virtues. What I have in mind is not his plain speaking, of course, but rather the esprit de sérieux animating many of his critical pronouncements. It expresses itself in a kind of provincial moralism (by no means to be equated with the "marked moral intensity" he so esteems in his literary preferences), a protestant narrowness of sensibility, basically puritan; resulting in what seems to me the thoroughly unjustified rejection of Flaubert, Joyce, and other important literary artists of the modern line, a tendency to elevate "English studies" to the status of a major force in the shaping of culture if not of society itself, and his endless and tiresome fulminations against Bloomsbury, the "London literary establishment," the system of "personal and institutional relations" that appears to him to dominate the British literary world and to obstruct the free play of the critical mind. (p. 290)

The trouble is that his clamorous and prolonged campaign against the establishment has all the marks of an obsession…. It is quite possible to dissent from established opinion without going on and on about it in a compulsive manner. After all, Bloomsbury, which no longer exists, is at present merely a footnote in literary history. A class struggle in literature is one thing, even if of doubtful value, as in the 1930s we saw in this country, because the partisanship involved easily gets out of hand; but the conversion of a petty social antagonism into a full-scale crusade is something else again.

In truth, what Leavis is waging can in no sense be described as a Kulturkampf, which invariably deals with basic values, the clash of opposing world-views, not merely literary issues and personalities. Leavis' obsession cannot be regarded otherwise than as a symptom. Of what? I am afraid there is no other way to characterize it than as a symptom of class resentiment, and that very condition also sufficiently explains his uncritical identification with his supreme paragon among modern writers, D. H. Lawrence, upon whom he heaps panegyrics in his regrettably influential book, D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (1955). (p. 291)

[In "The Orthodoxy of Enlightenment," the last essay of Leavis' new book, Anna Karenina and Other Essays], we are again embroiled in the Lawrence question. Reviewing the Penguin documentary record of the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover, he strains to show, though without any recognition of the irony involved, that his backing of Lawrence had been misconceived and misused in the trial by persons of a type that would have been inevitably hostile to Lawrence during his lifetime and who are now, to put it bluntly, kowtowing to him because of the new "enlightenment" of sex. It should be observed that even in his extravagant book about Lawrence …, Leavis excised Lady Chatterley, as well as The Plumed Serpent , from the canon. Now he speaks of it as "a bad novel," arguing that his distaste for it is something "that the normal Lawrence would have shared and justified," if the "abnormal state" he was in when writing the novel had not "violated his wholeness." What a way of putting it! This new evocation of a Lawrence split into normality and abnormality flagrantly...

(The entire section is 1,339 words.)