F. R. Leavis William Walsh

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William Walsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Criticism, as Leavis conducts it, is the relevant, delicately attentive analysis of a complete response to literature; it is a commentary upon the act by which one enters into as full as possible a possession of the experience given in the words. When sensibility is made articulate there will be found in it elements of judgement and discrimination. But they are explicit in the account only because they are implicit in the response. They are distilled by the experience itself, not items carted in from outside. The method of Culture and Environment is the prolongation of this activity into the business of daily life. Culture and Environment shows a mind skilled and scrupulous in the critic's art interrogating its experience in the face of contemporary conditions, and finding there grounds for particular judgements and for a consistent general attitude. Without this poised attention to the texture of our experience—Leavis insists—the unavoidable accommodation to the environment becomes, in the context in which adjustment has to be made today, a helpless and total assimilation. (pp. 119-20)

[Leavis's effort] was to open a connection between sensibility and practical judgement, and to deploy the resources of literary taste in the interests of general civility; and to do this by bringing into conscious relation and articulate contrast the structure of our finest responses with the assumptions of our daily action. His purpose, in accord with his empirical, very English habit of mind, was not to recommend a system of general ideas but to cultivate skill in grasping an essential continuity. It was an undertaking, he hoped, in which "the many intelligent men and women who every year go into schools might find assurance of vocation…. The instinct towards health—the instinct of self-preservation—that we must believe to be in the human spirit will take effect through them or not at all". I think it will be recognized that this hope has been remarkably justified during more than twenty-five years of the book's existence. It has produced its immediate effects in the grammar schools and in the universities by communicating to students a much clearer and juster conception of the critic's office in a modern society…. Culture and Environment has sharpened the convictions of several generations of the intelligent young, including a whole cluster of young writers. It has offered them an intellectual stance, a radically critical attitude, and a vocabulary of value capable of being dissolved into their own idiom. In doing so, this small book has helped to keep alive, in a world of the irresistibly encroaching context, "a truth of resistance".

How much, one is bound to wonder at this point of time, how much of Leavis's conception is still valid? Won't twenty-five years of active work have put it inevitably into the class of the superannuated? Isn't it now interesting, not for its intrinsic vitality but because it represents the mind of a major critic at a formative phase in his career? On this there are two comments to be made. In the first place the social process which now controls us—the saturation of every fragment of life by the spirit of a commercial civilization, and within that main drive most emphatically by the influence of the entertainment industry—this was well in train in the thirties. Our environment is different from that of the thirties only in being more thoroughly, completely and successfully materialistic. What we have now is what we aspired to then. So that the passage of time has made Leavis's essential intention the more necessary and the more relevant. But one has also to note this: that intention to be realized required not only an ideal of society but a vivid sense of current actuality, a real closeness of contact with the subject. Culture and Environment very strongly gives the impression of...

(The entire section is 967 words.)