Frank Raymond Leavis 3 — Anon

July 25, 2014
Literature for F.R. Leavis, is not merely an aesthetically written work of art designed to give pleasure to the reader.  It is not simply a document of language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.  According to Leavis, it is 'the storehouse of recorded values:  It is the writer's exploration of the cultural tradition of his age.  It is a record of all that the age habitually thinks, feels, and acts upon.  Literature keeps the healthy moral and cultural traditions alive.

Literature for F.R. Leavis, is not merely an aesthetically written work of art designed to give pleasure to the reader.  It is not simply a document of language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.  According to Leavis, it is ‘the storehouse of recorded values:  It is the writer’s exploration of the cultural tradition of his age.  It is a record of all that the age habitually thinks, feels, and acts upon.  Literature keeps the healthy moral and cultural traditions alive.

We no longer have the kind of literary brokers like F.R. Leavis who was able to tell us what to read and why was important to do so. His opinion mattered in ways that no longer exist. It is as if we now have too many experts.


Later Years
There followed a long gap until the publication of ‘Anna Karenina’ and Other Essays (1967), which, in addition to the title essay and further reflections on George Eliot and Conrad, included a collection of fine pieces on classic American literature. Then followed Lectures in America (1969) (with Q. D. Leavis) and Dickens the Novelist (1970), a major joint endeavor with his wife marking the centenary year of Dickens’ death. Leavis would attach much significance to his essay on Little Dorrit, which he came to regard as one of the greatest works of European literature. (In this essay Leavis associates the essential spirit of Dickens’ mature work with that of Blake. It is an unusual discourse for what is in some senses a work of academic criticism, being circuitous in construction and having, as his biographer, Ian MacKillop, pointed out, itself a kind of visionary quality.)

The intervening years had however seen the delivery (and subsequent publication) of a lecture to which he also attached great importance and which would lead the way to a remarkable series of ‘field performances’ (opportunities offered by his visiting professorships). Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P.Snow, being the Richmond Lecture at Downing for 1962, launched a fierce (but – Leavis argues – essentially impersonal) attack on Snow’s characterization of a growing rift between literary or artistic ‘culture’ and a contrasted scientific ‘culture’ (the inference being that he, Snow, personified a unification of the two). But, Leavis argued, there is a human culture (of which science forms a part) of which the paradigm is the prior creative achievement of language: the emphasis being on the imaginative creativity of which literature is a heightened form.

Snow had asked literary friends to explain the 2nd law of thermodynamics: they could not; yet, he argued, it was like asking scientists if they had read a work of Shakespeare. There was, Leavis pointed out, no scientific equivalent to the reading of Shakespeare. Leavis introduced the idea of the ‘third realm’ as a term for the mode of existence of works of literature. They are neither private in the sense of ‘subjective’ nor public in the sense that their nature is capable of empirical verification; they exist only in collaborative re-creation, through ‘meeting in meaning’.

The business of ‘exorcising’ the Cartesian dualism occupied Leavis’s mind ever more intensively in his later years. In the Snow lecture, as in many other places, Leavis stated his well-known model of critical discussion: ‘This is so, is it not? – Yes, but …’, the ‘but’ standing for reservations, qualifications, etc. It is a model which consciously disallows the retort, ‘So for you maybe, not for me’. In the nature of our humanness, we are committed to ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’.

Here [says Leavis] we have a diagram of the collaborative-creative process in which the poem comes to be established as something ‘out there’ of common access in what is in some sense a common world.

The Richmond Lecture sparked heated controversy which, as Leavis drily noted, failed to advance the argument. He would comment on the impercipience of those who had been affronted: ‘I am used to misrepresentation but not resigned to it.’ He took heart, however, from letters of support whose general refrain had been: ‘It needed saying, thank God you said it.’ But the significance of the lecture lies not so much in its dismantling of Snow’s reputation as a novelist and general thinker but in its positive inauguration of a new phase in Leavis’s thinking.

Much of this new phase, from the mid-1960s, was spent at the University of York, to which Leavis expressed gratitude for the opportunities it afforded him as a visiting professor. It was a period which brought a remarkable new harvest. The Dickens book, the engagement with Eliot’s Four Quartets in The Living Principle (1975) and with Lawrence’s texts in Thought , Words and Creativity (1976) showed a return to the close discussion of particular examples of prose and poetry after the engagement with matters of wider cultural concern in Nor Shall My Sword (1972) (which collected the Richmond Lecture and subsequent ‘field performances’); but for Leavis the two were always intrinsically related. Indeed, these books are deeply informed by his highly original engagement with the ‘relationship’ between language, life and the creativity of perception.

The discussion of Eliot prompted one of his most explicit statements of general principle: ‘There is no acceptable religious position which is not a reinforcement of human responsibility.’ Leavis wrote more – and more forensically – on Eliot than on any other single author (writings covering nearly a fifty year period, which are regrettably scattered), preoccupied especially by the question of Christian affirmation in his later poetry and with the ‘limitations attendant on the achievement’. By this he meant the co-existence in Eliot of painful sincerity and capricious judgement, and – as Leavis diagnosed it – an inveterate and paradoxical will to discredit human creativity.

In his later writing Leavis frequently characterized himself as an ‘anti-philosopher’, returning in a more sustained way to the matter of his exchange of the 1930s with René Wellek. He was not in fact hostile to philosophy: indeed, he saw it as one of those ‘liaison’ subjects he often spoke of in discussions about the idea of a university (see, for example, his Education and the University of 1943, a book he felt to have been much neglected).

His later comments on philosophy in, for example, the long section on Thought, Language and Objectivity and the commentary on The Dry Salvages in The Living Principle, suggest a sustained interest in the subject even preceding his friendship with Wittgenstein in the late 1920s (he bought Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World when it came out in 1925) . He had evidently considered carefully Collingwood’s The Idea of Nature (published in 1945) and his comments on Alexander and Whitehead.

He adduced an affinity between his own ideas and those of the scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi. (Recent approaches to his work have also identified, variously, some commonality with Husserl, Heidegger and Dilthey.) But he wanted to find a term which drew attention to the reality of literature as a non-philosophical but heuristic mode of thought. Philosophers, he believed, were generally ‘weak on language’ (‘or let us rather say a language … for there is no such thing as language in general’), failing to perceive the significance of their having to use it to do philosophy.

In these years also, in a remarkable piece of autobiography (and Cambridge topography), he set down his ‘Memories of Wittgenstein’. He made a number of ‘forays’ also at this time to universities in continental Europe, meeting (and subsequently writing on) the great Italian poet Eugenio Montale, with whom he found himself reciting from memory Valéry’s ‘Le Cimetière marin’.

Leavis was made a Reader in English at Cambridge in 1959 and held this post until his retirement in 1962. He gave the Chichele Lectures at Oxford in 1964 and was Clark Lecturer at Cambridge in 1967. He was appointed Visiting Professor of English at the University of York and held this position from 1965 onwards. He subsequently also held Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Wales and of Bristol. He was awarded Doctorates of Literature by the Universities of Leeds, York, Queen’s Belfast, Delhi and Aberdeen.

Leavis was made a Companion of Honor in the New Year’s list for 1978 and died on 14th April that year at the age of 82. His obituary in The Times spoke of the ‘mixture of asceticism and vitality’ that had marked him and of the ‘flame-like nimbleness of his speech and glance’ which ‘compelled attention’. While for many he had ‘seemed a rare talent grown painfully awry’, to others he ‘assumed almost Socratic powers.’

In the valedictory piece for Scrutiny, in October 1953, Leavis had recalled lines from the poem by Arthur Hugh Clough:

Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.


Frank Raymond Leavis 2 — Anon

July 24, 2014
F. R. Leavis, not a happy man. Yet it is also true that in the 40s and 50s and certainly the 60s many writers felt the need to project suffering through embracing drink or drugs.

F. R. Leavis, not a happy man. Yet it is also true that in the 40s and 50s and certainly the 60s many writers felt the need to project suffering through embracing drink or drugs.

We no longer have the kind of literary brokers like F.R. Leavis who was able to tell us what to read and why was important to do so. His opinion mattered in ways that no longer exist. It is as if we now have too many experts.


Leavis moved from Emmanuel to Downing in 1931 and was elected a Fellow there in 1936. Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry, published that year, completed the anterior history suggested by New Bearings; but this was a new kind of literary history centered, as its title suggests, not in descriptive narrative but in critical evaluation, and concerned where necessary with radical reappraisals. It contained one of his most famous and controversial formulations: ‘Milton’s dislodgement, in the past decade, after his two centuries of predominance, was effected with remarkably little fuss.’ Eliot’s influence is explicitly invoked here: his alteration of poetic expression and its relationship to his interest in early 17th century literature.

Another influence was John Middleton Murry. Leavis admired his Aspects of Literature (1920) and The Problem of Style (1922), where Murry compared Shakespeare and Milton to the latter’s disadvantage. In Leavis’s dealings with poetry – and with literature and culture more generally – the Shakespearean use of language was always a touchstone.

The prose style and the underlying intellectual tenor of Revaluation are, however, already distinctively Leavisian. The book also gave rise to an important exchange with René Wellek in Scrutiny (March and June, 1937) where Leavis showed a concern (it was to be a lifelong one) to ‘vindicate literary criticism as a distinct and separate discipline’. Wellek had said he shared a number of Leavis’s assumptions but would have wished them to be stated more explicitly and defended systematically. This misconception has dogged subsequent representation of Leavis’s work, the more so in recent decades when ‘theory’ has been ascendant. The essence of Leavis’s reply is contained here:

Words in poetry invite us, not to ‘think about’ … but to … realize a complex experience … They demand … a completer responsiveness [than an abstracting process can supply]. The critic … is indeed concerned with evaluation, but to figure him as measuring with a norm which he brings up to the object from the outside is to misrepresent the process.

Leavis could be a formidable controversialist, as F.W.Bateson discovered in the pages of Scrutiny for Spring and October 1953. Bateson had challenged Leavis’s reading (in Revaluation) of Marvell’s poem ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and Body’ (and an associated comparison with Pope) alleging deficiencies in Leavis’ scholarly knowledge. He concentrated in particular on what he called Marvell’s ‘picture language’ enlisting the Quarles emblems in support. The truth, Leavis pointed out, was the opposite. Marvell presents us with paradoxes in which a visual element is present but far from dominant:

How do we see the Soul? What visual images correspond to ‘fetter’d’ and manacled’? We certainly don’t see manacles on the Soul’s hands and feet: the Soul’s hands and feet are the Body’s, and it is the fact that they are the Body’s that makes them ‘manacles’ …

Leavis does not deny that a certain amount of specialist knowledge may assist the reading of a poem but it is always the intelligent reading of the poem itself that takes priority. The historical context in which Bateson proposes to anchor the reading is something much less determinate. Leavis takes the opportunity to make a point which is especially valid today in relation to theories of ‘cultural materialism’ and ‘new historicism’:

To suggest that their purpose should be to reconstruct a postulated ‘social context’ that once enclosed the poem and gave it its meaning is to set the student after something that no study of history, social, economic, political, intellectual, religious, can yield. The poem … is there; but there is nothing … that can be set over against the poem, or induced to re-establish itself round it as a kind of framework or completion, and there never was anything.

Middle Years
The Great Tradition, studies of George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, published in 1948, did for the English novel what Revaluation had done for English poetry: it provided literary history that possessed an essential centre of interest. Comment has been made on the narrow focus of this book: an English tradition exemplified in just three novelists, one Polish and one American by birth. In his introductory chapter, Leavis strongly justifies the need for major discriminations in so vast a field and sets his chosen subjects, with special regard to Jane Austen and D. H Lawrence, in a field of reference which illustrates his remarkable range of reading: it amounts to erudition.

The individual studies, mainly derived from Scrutiny, are finely responsive: masterpieces of Leavisian ‘moral’ analysis. Those on George Eliot in particular show a remarkable inwardness, almost unknown today, with the culture from which she stemmed. (Queenie Leavis’s writings on the nineteenth century novel show something of the same quality, and it is here most obviously that the creative partnership between the Leavises shows itself.) In his introduction to Mill on Bentham and Coleridge (1950) Leavis illustrates how the intellectual currents which met in J. S. Mill have their imaginative counterpart in George Eliot’s major novels. At the same time he sketches the nature of profitable literary study: ‘the difference between the retailing of … amassed externalities and the effort to think something out into a grasped and unified order …’

The Common Pursuit followed in 1952, collecting many of his best articles from Scrutiny, including important pieces on Milton and his reply to Wellek on literary criticism and philosophy.

Some have argued that D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (1955) showed a falling off in Leavis’s analytical gifts, having a significantly greater amount of pure quotation and of exclamatory praise. But it is hard after half a century of academic industry devoted to Lawrence (and many others on whom Leavis wrote with originality) to recognize its pioneering nature. It is also marked by a passionate intensity rarely equalled in Leavis’ oeuvre:

I am not, then, [he writes in an appendix on Eliot's attitudes towards Lawrence] impressed by any superiority of religious and theological knowledge in a writer capable of exposing what is to me the shocking essential ignorance that characterizes The Cocktail Party … ignorance of the effect the play must have on a kind of reader or spectator of whose existence the author appears to be unaware: the reader who has, himself, found serious work to do in the world and is able to be unaffectedly serious about it, who knows what family life is and has helped to bring up children and who, though capable of being interested in Mr Eliot’s poetry, cannot afford cocktail civilization and would reject it, with contempt and boredom, if he could afford it.

For all Lawrence’s diversity, which Leavis recognized, two novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love , would always for him constitute Lawrence’s central achievement. With some justification, he adduced the author’s own estimate of them in support of this claim. The emphasis for Leavis was always on Lawrence as a profound explorer of inner human experience, one who developed the possibilities of the novelist’s art in the service of this idea.

D. H. Lawrence Novelist is grounded also in a profound sense of Lawrence ‘s belonging (as he felt himself to do) to the civilization of the English people. Of the earlier novel he says:

The Lawrence who developed in the writing of it found himself compelled to another mood; he expresses in the later part of the book that sense of human problems as they were in contemporary civilization which has its profound and complete expression in Women in Love .

In spite of a sense as the novel draws on that the writer has no conclusion in view, The Rainbow has its own organic form:

And how much of England that can have no other record than the creative writer’s there is in The Rainbow . The wealth of the book in this respect is such as must make it plain to any reader that, as social historian, Lawrence, among novelists, is unsurpassed … The Rainbow shows us the transmission of the spiritual heritage in an actual society … Where Women in Love has that astonishing comprehensiveness in the presentment of contemporary England … The Rainbow has instead its historical depth.

‘These two books,’ he concluded, ‘would by themselves have been enough to place Lawrence among the greatest English writers.’

A striking feature of D. H. Lawrence Novelist – contributing to one’s sense of Leavis’s writing as of a different order from that of the general ruck of critics – is the fiercely articulate conviction with which it attempts to right the injustices perpetrated against a great writer’s reputation. Not least, Leavis takes issue with a widely held view of Lawrence as characteristically humorless. Invoking the short stories in particular, he proposes Lawrence as ‘one of the great masters of comedy’ – a truth exemplified in a wide range of his shorter fictions, ‘tales evoking many different kinds of smile and laughter, though never the cruel, the malicious or the complacent.’ This humor, Leavis suggests, is a ‘natural expression of Lawrence’s supremely intelligent vitality’. But ‘a world that finds the quintessence of wit in Congreve and Wilde will perhaps continue to find Lawrence humorless.’


Frank Raymond Leavis 1 — Anon

July 23, 2014
'In his youth', noted The Times' obituarist, 'he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.

‘In his youth’, noted The Times’ obituarist, ‘he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.

Frank Raymond (F R) Leavis (1895-1978) is now recognized as one of the most influential literary critics and teachers of his time and among the major intellectual figures of the 20th century.


Frank Raymond Leavis was born in Cambridge on 14th July 1895 and attended the Perse School there. He went up to Emmanuel College in 1914, where (resuming studies after the Great War) he read History and English, the latter being then new as a university discipline at Cambridge. He would recall those early years of the English tripos in his 1967 Clark Lectures (published in 1969 as English Literature in our Time and the University), evoking vividly the pioneering spirit of the new venture.

He served in the war in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, carrying a pocket Milton throughout the ordeal. Though he rarely spoke of them, his wartime experiences affected him deeply and remained with him for the rest of his life. He would much later recall carrying buckets of cocoa along the roofs of ambulance trains (without corridors) ‘to men who would have died without it’ and ‘the innumerable boy subalterns who … had climbed out and gone forward, playing their part in the attacking wave, to be mown down with the swathes that fell to the uneliminated machine guns.’

Early  Intellectual Influences
In another autobiographical passage he remembered ‘those early years after the great hiatus’ when he had ‘struggled to achieve the beginnings of articulate thought about literature’. The figures who ‘really counted’ then were George Santayana (though ‘not fundamentally congenial’) and Matthew Arnold, to be followed soon by T.S.Eliot: he bought The Sacred Wood when it came out in 1920. (Eliot’s paradoxical distinction would preoccupy him for much of his life.) Along with these went the influence of Ford Madox Ford’s (or Hueffer’s) English Review to which Leavis had subscribed as a schoolboy in 1912.

It was here that he first came on the writing of D. H. Lawrence (‘the necessary opposite’, as he would later call him, in relation to Eliot). Leavis was impressed by Ford’s recognition that in the ‘irreversible new conditions’ of modern industrial civilisation the concern for ‘the higher cultural values’ must reside with a small minority, while at the same time that concern must concede nothing to ‘the preciousness, fatuity or spirit of Aestheticism’. That view was to be a cornerstone of his own periodical Scrutiny (1932-53). An important aspect of the Scrutiny ‘manifesto’ also, in a Marxising era, would be its freedom from organised ideology: a ‘space’ for disinterested intellectual enquiry founded in the ‘autonomy of the human spirit’.

In Mansfield Forbes, one of the early lecturers for the tripos, Leavis found an inspiring example of critical and teaching method. He also found stimulation in the early work of I.A.Richards (though he would part company with him when Richards developed interests in semiology). In 1924 he took one of the earliest PhDs in the School with a thesis on the periodical literature of the eighteenth century with particular reference to Addison’s Spectator. He retained a lifelong interest in the sociology of literature and a profound concern for cultural continuity. His wife would exemplify similar interests in her classic study (which grew out of her PhD thesis), Fiction and the Reading Public (1932). He collaborated with Denys Thompson on a small primer for schools aimed at encouraging critical awareness: Culture and Environment (1933).

He also admired The Calendar of Modern Letters edited by Edgell Rickword, a quarterly which ran from 1925 to 1927. Leavis was to see its failure to win a sufficient public as an index of cultural decline. Its concern with the maintenance of critical standards was to be an important inspiration behind Scrutiny. The Calendar ran a series of intelligent deflations of what it saw as the exaggerated reputations of such contemporary figures as H.G.Wells, J.M.Barrie, G.K.Chesterton and John Galsworthy (the Galsworthy critique was written by D.H.Lawrence): these articles were later collected by Edgell Rickword under the title Scrutinies.

In 1933 Leavis published a selection from The Calendar, with an appreciative introduction, under the title Towards Standards of Criticism (re-printed in 1976 with both the original and a new introduction – in effect a retrospect – by Leavis). It contains one of his most important and original formulations: a reference point for the many subsequent assaults he made on the problem of value-judgement:

Literary criticism provides the test for life and concreteness; where it degenerates, the instruments of thought degenerate too, and thinking, released from the testing and energizing contact with the full living consciousness, is debilitated, and betrayed to the academic, the abstract and the verbal. It is of little use to discuss values if the sense for value in the concrete – the experience and perception of value – is absent.

Teaching at Cambridge
By 1925 he was doing some part-time teaching at Emmanuel. D.W.Harding, who was later to be a fellow editor of Scrutiny, recalled his qualities as a teacher when, looking back fifty years in a broadcast symposium in 1975, he said:

He was really superb. I remember the feelings with which this other man and I would come away. We would be partly exhilarated and partly a bit subdued and rueful, perhaps. Exhilarated because of the new insights and the fine discriminations he had made, and sobered because he kept such extremely high standards in insight and one just realised how unskilled one was as a reader. At the same time, there was no feeling that he belittled you in any way – if you had difficulties or raised objections, then he met you on those. He could scrap what he was going to say and just meet you on whatever you were interested in.

Another pupil, William Walsh, recalled:

One always had the feeling that one wasn’t simply discussing what was there on the page. This was taking place, of course, but the discussion was deeply rooted and far-reaching, dealing with all that one felt was really important in life … Leavis’s teaching always seemed to engage both these facets: one’s personal life, and the life of the mind – the search for the significance of life itself.

In 1929 he married the vivacious and prodigiously clever Queenie Dorothy Roth, whom he had supervised at Girton. The next few years brought a wonderful harvest of critical work culminating in the annus mirabilis of 1932 when Leavis published New Bearings in English Poetry (with its perceptive discussions of Yeats, Pound and Eliot), Q.D.L. published Fiction and the Reading Public, and the quarterly periodical Scrutiny was founded.

It is sometimes suggested that that Scrutiny in its later years was indifferent to contemporary literature, but it is worth recalling that Leavis in his earlier years was in the vanguard. He incurred the displeasure of the public authorities by lecturing on the banned Ulysses in the mid-1920s. As to the teaching of contemporary work in the 1930s, Muriel Bradbrook recalled Leavis’s interest in the poetry of I.A.Richards’s pupil, the ex-student of mathematics, William Empson. She recalled: ‘It cannot be very often that undergraduates are taught the poetry of a fellow undergraduate, but we were taught about some of Empson’s poems by Leavis.’ He was also writing on Eliot and on Lawrence in the 1920s and early ’30s.

Leavis had enemies in the English Faculty, however; his outstanding abilities and the Scrutiny project did not enable him to obtain a permanent Faculty post (the latter may even have militated against him). In 1936, however, (the year in which Revaluation appeared) he was made a Lecturer (though on a part-time salary), at the age of 41, after having been a Probationary (or Assistant) Lecturer since 1927.

This situation continued until 1947 when, at the age of 52, he achieved a full-time Lectureship. He had seen younger and less able candidates given precedence. All this (and the lack of academic recognition accorded his wife) was to be a source of bitterness to him both at the time and in later years: a bitterness contained by his high intelligence and powers of self-sufficiency. ‘In his youth’, noted The Times’ obituarist, ‘he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.’


Beauty and Desecration 2  —  Roger Scruton

July 22, 2014


Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

We must rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness. Roger Scruton, a philosopher, is the author of many books, most recently Beauty.


Here is another example: it is a special occasion, when the family unites for a ceremonial dinner. You set the table with a clean embroidered cloth, arranging plates, glasses, bread in a basket, and some carafes of water and wine. You do this lovingly, delighting in the appearance, striving for an effect of cleanliness, simplicity, symmetry, and warmth. The table has become a symbol of homecoming, of the extended arms of the universal mother, inviting her children in. And all this abundance of meaning and good cheer is somehow contained in the appearance of the table.

This, too, is an experience of beauty, one that we encounter, in some version or other, every day. We are needy creatures, and our greatest need is for home — the place where we are, where we find protection and love. We achieve this home through representations of our own belonging, not alone but in conjunction with others. All our attempts to make our surroundings look right — through decorating, arranging, creating — are attempts to extend a welcome to ourselves and to those whom we love.

This second example suggests that our human need for beauty is not simply a redundant addition to the list of human appetites. It is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition as free individuals, seeking our place in an objective world. We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us.

Look at any picture by one of the great landscape painters — Poussin, Guardi, Turner, Corot, Cézanne — and you will see that idea of beauty celebrated and fixed in images. The art of landscape painting, as it arose in the seventeenth century and endured into our time, is devoted to moralizing nature and showing the place of human freedom in the scheme of things. It is not that landscape painters turn a blind eye to suffering, or to the vastness and threateningness of the universe of which we occupy so small a corner.

Far from it. Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

Not surprisingly, the idea of beauty has puzzled philosophers. The experience of beauty is so vivid, so immediate, so personal, that it seems hardly to belong to the natural order as science observes it. Yet beauty shines on us from ordinary things. Is it a feature of the world, or a figment of the imagination? Is it telling us something real and true that requires just this experience to be recognized? Or is it merely a heightened moment of sensation, of no significance beyond the delight of the person who experiences it?

These questions are of great urgency for us, since we live at a time when beauty is in eclipse: a dark shadow of mockery and alienation has crept across the once-shining surface of our world, like the shadow of the Earth across the moon. Where we look for beauty, we too often find darkness and desecration.

The current habit of desecrating beauty suggests that people are as aware as they ever were of the presence of sacred things. Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things, our lives are judged, and to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.

Christians have inherited from Saint Augustine and from Plato the vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order. They understand the sacred as a revelation in the here and now of the eternal sense of our being. But the experience of the sacred is not confined to Christians. It is, according to many philosophers and anthropologists, a human universal. For the most part, transitory purposes organize our lives: the day-to-day concerns of economic reasoning, the small-scale pursuit of power and comfort, the need for leisure and pleasure. Little of this is memorable or moving to us. Every now and then, however, we are jolted out of our complacency and feel ourselves to be in the presence of something vastly more significant than our present interests and desires.

We sense the reality of something precious and mysterious, which reaches out to us with a claim that is, in some way, not of this world. This happens in the presence of death, especially the death of someone loved. We look with awe on the human body from which the life has fled. This is no longer a person but the “mortal remains” of a person. And this thought fills us with a sense of the uncanny. We are reluctant to touch the dead body; we see it as, in some way, not properly a part of our world, almost a visitor from some other sphere.

This experience, a paradigm of our encounter with the sacred, demands from us a kind of ceremonial recognition. The dead body is the object of rituals and acts of purification, designed not just to send its former occupant happily into the hereafter — for these practices are engaged in even by those who have no belief in the hereafter — but in order to overcome the eeriness, the supernatural quality, of the dead human form.

The body is being reclaimed for this world by the rituals that acknowledge that it also stands apart from it. The rituals, to put it another way, consecrate the body, and so purify it of its miasma. By the same token, the body can be desecrated — and this is surely one of the primary acts of desecration, one to which people have been given from time immemorial, as when Achilles dragged Hector’s body in triumph around the walls of Troy.

The presence of a transcendental claim startles us out of our day-to-day preoccupations on other occasions, too. In particular, there is the experience of falling in love. This, too, is a human universal, and it is an experience of the strangest kind. The face and body of the beloved are imbued with the intensest life.

But in one crucial respect, they are like the body of someone dead: they seem not to belong in the empirical world. The beloved looks on the lover as Beatrice looked on Dante, from a point outside the flow of temporal things. The beloved object demands that we cherish it, that we approach it with almost ritualistic reverence. And there radiates from those eyes and limbs and words a kind of fullness of spirit that makes everything anew.

Poets have expended thousands of words on this experience, which no words seem entirely to capture. It has fueled the sense of the sacred down the ages, reminding people as diverse as Plato and Calvino, Virgil and Baudelaire, that sexual desire is not the simple appetite that we witness in animals but the raw material of a longing that has no easy or worldly satisfaction, demanding of us nothing less than a change of life.

Many of the uglinesses cultivated in our world today refer back to the two experiences that I have singled out. The body in the throes of death; the body in the throes of sex — these things easily fascinate us. They fascinate us by desecrating the human form, by showing the human body as a mere object among objects, the human spirit as eclipsed and ineffectual, and the human being as overcome by external forces, rather than as a free subject bound by the moral law. And it is on these things that the art of our time seems to concentrate, offering us not only sexual pornography but a pornography of violence that reduces the human being to a lump of suffering flesh made pitiful, helpless, and disgusting.

All of us have a desire to flee from the demands of responsible existence, in which we treat one another as worthy of reverence and respect. All of us are tempted by the idea of flesh and by the desire to remake the human being as pure flesh — an automaton, obedient to mechanical desires. To yield to this temptation, however, we must first remove the chief obstacle to it: the consecrated nature of the human form. We must sully the experiences — such as death and sex — that otherwise call us away from temptations, toward the higher life of sacrifice. This willful desecration is also a denial of love — an attempt to remake the world as though love were no longer a part of it. And that, surely, is the most important characteristic of the postmodern culture: it is a loveless culture, determined to portray the human world as unlovable. The modern stage director who ransacks the works of Mozart is trying to tear the love from the heart of them, so as to confirm his own vision of the world as a place where only pleasure and pain are real.

That suggests a simple remedy, which is to resist temptation. Instead of desecrating the human form, we should learn again to revere it. For there is absolutely nothing to gain from the insults hurled at beauty by those — like Calixto Bieito — who cannot bear to look it in the face. Yes, we can neutralize the high ideals of Mozart by pushing his music into the background so that it becomes the mere accompaniment to an inhuman carnival of sex and death. But what do we learn from this? What do we gain, in terms of emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or moral development? Nothing, save anxiety. We should take a lesson from this kind of desecration: in attempting to show us that our human ideals are worthless, it shows itself to be worthless. And when something shows itself to be worthless, it is time to throw it away.

It is therefore plain that the culture of transgression achieves nothing save the loss that it revels in: the loss of beauty as a value and a goal. But why is beauty a value? It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict. Maybe the degeneration of beauty into kitsch comes precisely from the postmodern loss of truthfulness, and with it the loss of moral direction. That is the message of such early modernists as Eliot, Barber, and Stevens, and it is a message that we need to listen to.

To mount a full riposte to the habit of desecration, we need to rediscover the affirmation and the truth to life without which artistic beauty cannot be realized. This is no easy task. If we look at the true apostles of beauty in our time — I think of composers like Henri Dutilleux and Olivier Messiaen, of poets like Derek Walcott and Charles Tomlinson, of prose writers like Italo Calvino and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — we are immediately struck by the immense hard work, the studious isolation, and the attention to detail that characterizes their craft. In art, beauty has to be won, but the work becomes harder as the sheer noise of desecration — amplified now by the Internet — drowns out the quiet voices murmuring in the heart of things.

One response is to look for beauty in its other and more everyday forms — the beauty of settled streets and cheerful faces, of natural objects and genial landscapes. It is possible to throw dirt on these things, too, and it is the mark of a second-rate artist to take such a path to our attention — the via negativa of desecration. But it is also possible to return to ordinary things in the spirit of Wallace Stevens and Samuel Barber — to show that we are at home with them and that they magnify and vindicate our life. Such is the overgrown path that the early modernists once cleared for us — the via positiva of beauty. There is no reason yet to think that we must abandon it.



Beauty and Desecration 1  —  Roger Scruton

July 21, 2014
The West's great landscape painters, like the eighteenth-century JMW Turner, capture the intimations of the eternal in the transient.

The West’s great landscape painters, like the eighteenth-century JMW Turner, capture the intimations of the eternal in the transient.

We must rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness.


At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them. Philosophers of the Enlightenment saw beauty as a way in which lasting moral and spiritual values acquire sensuous form. And no Romantic painter, musician, or writer would have denied that beauty was the final purpose of his art.

At some time during the aftermath of modernism, beauty ceased to receive those tributes. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties, and it was not beauty but originality — however achieved and at whatever moral cost — that won the prizes. Indeed, there arose a widespread suspicion of beauty as next in line to kitsch — something too sweet and inoffensive for the serious modern artist to pursue.

In a seminal essay — “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in 1939 — critic Clement Greenberg starkly contrasted the avant-garde of his day with the figurative painting that competed with it, dismissing the latter (not just Norman Rockwell, but greats like Edward Hopper) as derivative and without lasting significance. The avant-garde, for Greenberg, promoted the disturbing and the provocative over the soothing and the decorative, and that was why we should admire it.

The value of abstract art, Greenberg claimed, lay not in beauty but in expression. This emphasis on expression was a legacy of the Romantic movement; but now it was joined by the conviction that the artist is outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it, so that artistic self-expression is at the same time a transgression of ordinary moral norms. 

We find this posture overtly adopted in the art of Austria and Germany between the wars — for example, in the paintings and drawings of Georg Grosz, in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (a loving portrait of a woman whose only discernible goal is moral chaos), and in the seedy novels of Heinrich Mann. And the cult of transgression is a leading theme of the postwar literature of France — from the writings of Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre to the bleak emptiness of the nouveau roman.

Of course, there were great artists who tried to rescue beauty from the perceived disruption of modern society — as T. S. Eliot tried to recompose, in Four Quartets, the fragments he had grieved over in The Waste Land. And there were others, particularly in America, who refused to see the sordid and the transgressive as the truth of the modern world. For artists like Hopper, Samuel Barber, and Wallace Stevens, ostentatious transgression was mere sentimentality, a cheap way to stimulate an audience, and a betrayal of the sacred task of art, which is to magnify life as it is and to reveal its beauty — as Stevens reveals the beauty of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” and Barber that of Knoxville: Summer of 1915. 

But somehow those great life-affirmers lost their position at the forefront of modern culture. So far as the critics and the wider culture were concerned, the pursuit of beauty was at the margins of the artistic enterprise. Qualities like disruptiveness and immorality, which previously signified aesthetic failure, became marks of success; while the pursuit of beauty became a retreat from the real task of artistic creation. This process has been so normalized as to become a critical orthodoxy, prompting the philosopher Arthur Danto to argue recently that beauty is both deceptive as a goal and in some way antipathetic to the mission of modern art. Art has acquired another status and another social role.

The great proof of this change is in the productions of opera, which give the denizens of postmodern culture an unparalleled opportunity to take revenge on the art of the past and to hide its beauty behind an obscene and sordid mask. We all assume that this will happen with Wagner, who “asked for it” by believing too strongly in the redemptive role of art. But it now regularly happens to the innocent purveyors of beauty, just as soon as a postmodernist producer gets his hands on one of their works.

An example that particularly struck me was a 2004 production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper Berlin (see “The Abduction of Opera,” Summer 2007). Die Entführung tells the story of Konstanze — shipwrecked, separated from her fiancé Belmonte, and taken to serve in the harem of the Pasha Selim. After various intrigues, Belmonte rescues her, helped by the clemency of the Pasha — who, respecting Konstanze’s chastity and the couple’s faithful love, declines to take her by force.

This implausible plot permits Mozart to express his Enlightenment conviction that charity is a universal virtue, as real in the Muslim empire of the Turks as in the Christian empire of the enlightened Joseph II. Even if Mozart’s innocent vision is without much historical basis, his belief in the reality of disinterested love is everywhere expressed and endorsed by the music. Die Entführung advances a moral idea, and its melodies share the beauty of that idea and persuasively present it to the listener.

In his production of Die Entführung, the Catalan stage director Calixto Bieito set the opera in a Berlin brothel, with Selim as pimp and Konstanze one of the prostitutes. Even during the most tender music, copulating couples littered the stage, and every opportunity for violence, with or without a sexual climax, was taken. At one point, a prostitute is gratuitously tortured, and her nipples bloodily and realistically severed before she is killed. The words and the music speak of love and compassion, but their message is drowned out by the scenes of desecration, murder, and narcissistic sex.

That is an example of something familiar in every aspect of our contemporary culture. It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians, and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, there arises a desire to preempt its appeal, to smother it with scenes of destruction. Hence the many works of contemporary art that rely on shocks administered to our failing faith in human nature — such as the crucifix pickled in urine by Andres Serrano. 

Hence the scenes of cannibalism, dismemberment, and meaningless pain with which contemporary cinema abounds, with directors like Quentin Tarantino having little else in their emotional repertories. Hence the invasion of pop music by rap, whose words and rhythms speak of unremitting violence, and which rejects melody, harmony, and every other device that might make a bridge to the old world of song. And hence the music video, which has become an art form in itself and is often devoted to concentrating into the time span of a pop song some startling new account of moral chaos.

Those phenomena record a habit of desecration in which life is not celebrated by art but targeted by it. Artists can now make their reputations by constructing an original frame in which to display the human face and throw dung at it. What do we make of this, and how do we find our way back to the thing so many people long for, which is the vision of beauty? It may sound a little sentimental to speak of a “vision of beauty.”

But what I mean is not some saccharine, Christmas-card image of human life but rather the elementary ways in which ideals and decencies enter our ordinary world and make themselves known, as love and charity make themselves known in Mozart’s music. There is a great hunger for beauty in our world, a hunger that our popular art fails to recognize and our serious art often defies.

I used the word “desecration” to describe the attitude conveyed by Bieito’s production of Die Entführung and by Serrano’s lame efforts at meaning something. What exactly does this word imply? It is connected, etymologically and semantically, with sacrilege, and therefore with the ideas of sanctity and the sacred. To desecrate is to spoil what might otherwise be set apart in the sphere of sacred things. We can desecrate a church, a graveyard, a tomb; and also a holy image, a holy book, or a holy ceremony. We can desecrate a corpse, a cherished image, even a living human being — insofar as these things contain (as they do) a portent of some original sanctity. The fear of desecration is a vital element in all religions. Indeed, that is what the word religio originally meant: a cult or ceremony designed to protect some sacred place from sacrilege.

In the eighteenth century, when organized religion and ceremonial kingship were losing their authority, when the democratic spirit was questioning inherited institutions, and when the idea was abroad that it was not God but man who made laws for the human world, the idea of the sacred suffered an eclipse. To the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it seemed little more than a superstition to believe that artifacts, buildings, places, and ceremonies could possess a sacred character, when all these things were the products of human design. The idea that the divine reveals itself in our world, and seeks our worship, seemed both implausible in itself and incompatible with science.

At the same time, philosophers like Shaftesbury, Burke, Adam Smith, and Kant recognized that we do not look on the world only with the eyes of science. Another attitude exists — one not of scientific inquiry but of disinterested contemplation — that we direct toward our world in search of its meaning. When we take this attitude, we set our interests aside; we are no longer occupied with the goals and projects that propel us through time; we are no longer engaged in explaining things or enhancing our power. We are letting the world present itself and taking comfort in its presentation. This is the origin of the experience of beauty. There may be no way of accounting for that experience as part of our ordinary search for power and knowledge. It may be impossible to assimilate it to the day-to-day uses of our faculties. But it is an experience that self-evidently exists, and it is of the greatest value to those who receive it.

When does this experience occur, and what does it mean? Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be.

Maybe such experiences are rarer now than they were in the eighteenth century, when the poets and philosophers lighted upon them as a new avenue to religion. The haste and disorder of modern life, the alienating forms of modern architecture, the noise and spoliation of modern industry — these things have made the pure encounter with beauty a rarer, more fragile, and more unpredictable thing for us. 

Still, we all know what it is to find ourselves suddenly transported, by the things we see, from the ordinary world of our appetites to the illuminated sphere of contemplation. It happens often during childhood, though it is seldom interpreted then. It happens during adolescence, when it lends itself to our erotic longings. And it happens in a subdued way in adult life, secretly shaping our life projects, holding out to us an image of harmony that we pursue through holidays, through home-building, and through our private dreams.


Book Review of  ‘Philology’ by James Turner — Tom Shippey

July 18, 2014
Comparative philology, tracing the history and development of especially the Indo-European languages, rapidly gained immense prestige, most of all in Germany. No discipline, declared Jacob Grimm, doyen of philologists and fairy-tale collector, "is haughtier, more disputatious, or more merciless to error." It was a hard science in every sense, like math or physics, with a ruthless ethic of finicky detail.

Comparative philology, tracing the history and development of especially the Indo-European languages, rapidly gained immense prestige, most of all in Germany. No discipline, declared Jacob Grimm, doyen of philologists and fairy-tale collector, “is haughtier, more disputatious, or more merciless to error.” It was a hard science in every sense, like math or physics, with a ruthless ethic of finicky detail.

The skeptical approach of modern scholarship, and its insistence on scrutinizing all forms of evidence, reflects the legacy of a nearly forgotten discipline. Mr. Shippey is the editor of The Shadow-Walkers: Jacob Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous and The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. You’ll find a chapter dealing with evil and the ring from the Dr. Shippey on payingattentiontothesky. 


James Turner’s book on “philology” must be the most wide-ranging work of intellectual history for many years. But what is it about? As Mr. Turner declares in his prologue, “philology has fallen on hard times in the English-speaking world.” It may be the foundation of all the humanities, with one significant exception, but “many college-educated Americans no longer recognize the word.”

Its original meaning, “love of words,” is unhelpful. “Tough love” would be a better description: a critical attitude toward words, their roots and their meanings — one that admits no exceptions. It could well be said that a readiness to scrutinize anything, treating even the Bible “like any other book,” is still one of the distinctive marks of Western civilization, seen in every discipline, from literary criticism to theology, history to anthropology.

The first philologists, back in the pre-Christian era, took that attitude with Homer’s epics, which were already deeply venerated and formed the basis of young men’s education. But “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were centuries old by the time of the great librarians of Alexandria Eratosthenes and Zenodotus. The poems’ texts had been passed on first by word of mouth and then by scribes prone to error or deliberate meddling. The early philologists, then, compared different versions of texts, noted repetitions and struck out dubious lines, such as those added to cover up the non-participation of Athens in the Trojan War.

Textual scrutiny became even more vital in the early Christian era. For one thing, a New Testament canon had to be formed. “The Gospel of John” was in. “The Gospel of Nicodemus” remained popular for centuries, for it followed Jesus down to Hell, but its provenance was dubious, so it was out. The Old Testament presented problems, too, notably the issue of translation, from Hebrew to Greek to Latin. Christian aristocrats built up great research libraries, like Cassiodorus, and brooded on etymology, like Isidore of Seville.

It didn’t last. Modern historians do not like the term “Dark Ages,” but as far as philology goes there was then a centuries-long hiatus, beginning with the fall of Rome in 410. Libraries were destroyed, manuscripts lost or scrubbed down and used again for pious purposes. Medieval scholasticism was deeply intellectual, but it was logical rather than philological.

Only in the 15th century did textual study and textual recovery become once again a passion. Critical moments include the foundation in 1498 of the first “trilingual college” (Hebrew, Greek and Latin) at Alcalá near Madrid, where Cervantes’s house still stands; the literal unearthing in 1546 of old Roman inscriptions, with dates, from the Roman Forum; and in 1519 the publication of what would be the most influential “lost text” of the Renaissance, Tacitus’ “Germania,” an ethnography of German tribes that delighted German scholars with its positive image of their ancestors.

Spanish, Italian and German scholars would soon be joined by the great humanist and Bible scholar from the Netherlands, Erasmus, who established the principle of rejecting the facilior lectio: If you have two readings in different manuscripts, reject the easier one. That’s the one put in by some dumb copy editor. A hasty or absent-minded scribe is more likely to substitute a simpler, more familiar phrasing for a more complicated original than vice-versa. Erasmus’s clever rule of thumb remains one of the foundations of textual criticism.

Not for the last time, however, English scholarship hung back, short of libraries and affected by “cultural cringe”—though after the execution of Charles I in 1649, Milton won the ensuing war of words over classical and biblical precedents for regicide against the royalist French philologist Salmasius. In the following century, Richard Bentley, “the greatest scholar that England or perhaps Europe ever bred,” as A.E. Housman called him, returned to philology’s origins with his discovery of the “Homeric digamma.” Certain irregularities in the Homeric poems, he realized, could be explained by assuming that copyists had consistently omitted a w-like letter that was part of ancient Greek but not Classical Greek. “Oinos” (“wine”), for example, was originally “woinos.” Once Bentley put the digamma back in, these lines became metrically regular.

But how did this textual philology affect other disciplines? Mr. Turner shows with great force and erudition how the habit of skeptical scrutiny affected, first, the writing of history. No longer could you claim to study nations and civilizations without first studying texts. The philological revolution swept away, among others, P.F. Suhm, a Danish historian from the 18th century.

Determined to recover the history of Scandinavia from ancient times, Suhm had put together many volumes and a gigantic “spreadsheet” that gathered every bit of data from all the sagas and chronicles available. But he had not studied the texts, only read them. Most of his data was fiction, his harmonization of it so much work wasted. “Garbage in, garbage out,” as we now say.

What you needed was critically certified and preferably contemporary documentary evidence, as exemplified by the sources Edward Gibbon drew on for his “Decline and Fall” (1776-89) and those that the Scottish historian William Robertson used for his “History of America” (1777). The principle was, once again, check everything, spare nothing.

Well-meaning Americans cleaned up George Washington’s spelling and vulgar idioms; philological historians put them back again. Noah Webster’s 1828 “American Dictionary” piously traced etymologies back to the biblical language Aramaic: After Webster’s death a German philologist removed them. J.M. Kemble swallowed Suhm hook, line and sinker in his first 1833 edition of “Beowulf” but repudiated his mistake in a panic only four years later.

What was happening from about 1800 on was the coming of “comparative philology,” best described as the Darwinian event for the humanities as a whole. Like “The Origin of Species,” it was powered by wider horizons and new knowledge. By the late 18th century, conscientious British colonial administrators, who had had Latin and Greek drummed into them at school, found that they needed classical Persian, and even Sanskrit, to do their jobs properly. They could not help noticing the similarities between the Eastern languages and their classical counterparts. But what did these mean, and what was the origin, not of species, but of language differentiation?

Comparative philology, tracing the history and development of especially the Indo-European languages, rapidly gained immense prestige, most of all in Germany. No discipline, declared Jacob Grimm, doyen of philologists and fairy-tale collector, “is haughtier, more disputatious, or more merciless to error.” It was a hard science in every sense, like math or physics, with a ruthless ethic of finicky detail.

The new model spread almost immediately to mythology, most notably in the work of Max Müller, the great student of the sacred books of India, and was extended to anthropology, the philology of the preliterate, by scholars such as J.G. Frazer, author of “The Golden Bough” (1890). Simultaneously, though, the philological insistence on using and scrutinizing all forms of evidence had revolutionized classical studies, which became in Germany the combined discipline called “Altertumswissenschaft,” the science of antiquity.

Of this transformation archaeology was a vital part, including the rediscovery in modern Turkey of the Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, in 1855, and the shattering later discoveries in Egypt, Crete and Troy. Art history, too. Kenneth Clark later stated explicitly that to identify a painting as by Bellini or Botticelli needed the skills of a Bentley or a Housman. But the most iconoclastic effect of philology may well have been on Bible study, with the coming, once again from Germany, of the “höhere Kritik” or “higher criticism”: looking at words, yes, but also authorship, literary forms and, as Mr. Turner says, “meanings in light of deep history.”

David Strauss’s “Life of Jesus, Critically Examined” (1835-36), written in German, put the cat among the pigeons (it was later translated by George Eliot). It declared that the Gospels must be seen as mythic expressions of faith, not reliable historical narratives. Once again, British scholarship hung back or responded with spluttering outrage. When a rather timid attempt at the new approach appeared in English in 1860, in the form of the overview anthology “Essays and Reviews,” a German reviewer noted that it did not inaugurate a new era in scholarship, as the authors seemed to think; it showed that Oxford “had not yet learned what scholarship was.”

The result, however, as Mr. Turner shows with indisputable range and force, is the structure of arts faculties in modern universities. All but one of our modern disciplines have philology in their ancestry — all except philosophy, which, he declares, “arrives at universally valid generalizations” rather than scrutinizing individual cases.

One may quibble with him here about how much philological influence persists. In the English-speaking world, the last century has seen a determined war of extermination fought against comparative philologists by their deadly enemies, the literary critics. J.R.R. Tolkien in particular, who said of himself “I am a pure philologist,” fought all his career to promote and then to save a remnant of philology within the Oxford syllabus. The critics won within academia, only to find their aces trumped by Tolkien’s success in the wider world. Tolkien nevertheless used his 1959 Oxford “Valedictory Lecture” to lambaste the colleagues he called “misologists.”

Philology played little part in the 20th-century rise of New Criticism, now very old, with its emphasis on context-free close reading, and even less in the craze for literary theory, which has wandered off in the direction of philosophical speculation. Mr. Turner, perhaps wisely, says nothing about the present “bonfire of the humanities,” as seen in declining enrollments. But turning a collective back on Grimm is like ditching Darwin—though their significance does not mean either they, or anyone else, should be immune to scrutiny. “Tough love” applies to everybody.

Including Mr. Turner. J.M. Kemble’s 1836 pamphlet, written in German to show the author was a proper “Philolog,” is not a study of the West Saxon dialect, as Mr. Turner says, but of the genealogy of the West Saxon dynasty: “der Westsachsen” is plural, not singular; and the dialect is called “Westsächsisch,” not “Westsachsen.” Picky, picky, picky. That’s the way philologists work. Bless their cold and stony hearts.


Dan Jacobson Obituary — John Sutherland

July 17, 2014
Dan Jacobson at the Edinburgh International Book festival in 2005

Dan Jacobson at the Edinburgh International Book festival in 2005

Dan Jacobson, novelist and critic, born 7 March 1929; died 12 June 2014. South African-born writer, novelist and critic who became a professor at University College London. Reblogged from the Guardian. 


Dan Jacobson, who has died aged 85, should rank as one the leading novelists of his time. That he was never regarded as such was the result of a combination of factors. He was unusually hard to “place” as an author: he was born and raised in apartheid-era South Africa, but the greater part of his life was spent in Britain. His fiction evolved faster than those who most admired him could always keep up with. 

He shed authorial skins like a snake, each time allowing a new Jacobson to emerge – but one which sometimes disappointed those fondly attached to the old Jacobson. And in his later years he moved, powerfully, into non-fictional literary territories: autobiography, travel writing and even theology. His relationship with his inherited Judaism was intense, but complicated. “How to make sense of it all?” he mused.

He was born in Johannesburg, one of four children of a Latvian father, Hyman, and a Lithuanian mother, Liebe (nee Melamed), both of whom had fled their homelands. Jacobson was brought up in Kimberley. It was a dull town – diamonds went down with everything else in the slump – but one of the places on the globe where Jews were safe to enjoy a dull life.

His late-life memoir, Heshel’s Kingdom (1998), was inspired by a visit to Lithuania. Heshel Melamed, a stern rabbinical paterfamilias, was his maternal grandfather. On the old man’s death, in 1920, Dan’s mother fled to South Africa. She was escaping her father as much as the Pale of Settlement, the term given to a region of Russia where Jews were allowed to settle. Had Heshel lived longer, Dan Jacobson would never have happened. The Nazi extermination of Jews in Lithuania (aided enthusiastically by local Lithuanians) was virtually total.

Dan’s father ran Kimberley’s butter factory. The Jacobson home was well off, liberal in politics and non-coercive in matters of religion. Dan went to a faux-English grammar school, Kimberley Boys’ high school, where, like the rest, he bellowed out his daily wish that God save his king. Meanwhile, outside, squads of barefoot black men mowed the cricket grounds and whitewashed the boundary markers. It struck him, even as a boy, as somehow crazy.

After getting a top degree in English at the University of Witwatersrand in 1949, and suffering a few awkward months at a kibbutz in Israel, Jacobson spent a year in London. He worked for in a Jewish boys’ school, lived in lodgings, and was very lonely. A “demi-alien”, he began, in his solitude, to write a novel. The Wonder Worker (1973) allegorizes this London loneliness. It was, nonetheless, a happy time. He loved the way the English so expertly “imitated” being English. It was on this trip, aged 21, that he committed to the place. But he would not settle there yet.

He was dismissed from his teaching post for thoughtlessly informing his boys that the universe was (contra Genesis) millions of years old. He returned to South Africa and did a number of desk jobs. More importantly, he was already publishing short fiction in American magazines including Commentary and the New Yorker.

In 1954 he married a teacher, Margaret Pye, from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and moved with her to London. He was already highly regarded as a coming author in the US, and in 1956-57 spent a year as writer in residence at Stanford. The 1950s was a period when South Africa – and its Afrikaner resistance to the Winds of Change – was front-page news across the world. In exile, Jacobson built up a substantial corpus of fiction dealing with his native country. It climaxed with The Beginners (1966). His longest work (Jacobson was never one to squander words), it was his equivalent to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, telling the story of a dynasty of Lithuanian Jews “beginning” over again in South Africa.

The Beginners was a valediction. After a longish interval he produced the biblical fantasia The Rape of Tamar (1970). It was, he later surmised, the novel of his most qualified to have won the newly established Booker. A laudatory review was lost in one of the regular printers’ strikes of the time: it might, he felt, have swung things his way.

He shifted away from South African subjects, only returning to the territory as a cold-eyed tourist in his travel writing. Kafka, not Mann, was now the star he followed. The Confessions of Josef Baisz (1977), a fable set in an imaginary country, is the most successfully experimental novel in this second phase of his career.

Cash prizes, Arts Council bursaries, royalties and journalism kept Jacobson going through the 60s. But the life of a writer, with a growing family, was a tightrope walk. When Karl Miller was appointed to the Northcliffe chair at University College London in the mid-70s, he brought Jacobson into his entourage, as a lecturer. It was a happy change of direction. There was an inner pedagogue in Jacobson, only too glad to be released. As an academic, he was stern — particularly on bad writing and jargon, for which he had Orwellian distaste. Colleagues beguiled by his smiling bonhomie into asking him to look at their work in progress would recoil at the brutality of the Jacobson blue pencil.

A follower of FR Leavis by intellectual affiliation, he had little time for “theory”. However experimental his fiction, his literary criticism was traditional and pragmatic. A selection, Adult Pleasures, was published in 1988. He believed – passionately – that scholarship mattered in the real world. His last PhD student was the lawyer Anthony Julius and it was (as Julius acknowledges), largely through Jacobson’s tireless campaigning that Julius’s TS Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (1995), one of the most controversial critical books of the 90s, saw print.

At UCL, Jacobson was for some years a colleague of AS Byatt. As she recalls, the two of them would discuss whether the academic life was good for their fiction. She eventually decided not, and left. He stayed, becoming professor in 1986 and retiring as professor emeritus in 1994. His later fiction was carefully wrought and continued the lines of narrative exploration he had opened in the 70s.

University College London, the godless place in Gower Street, which had been set up, in large part, as a home for the spiritually uncomfortable, fitted Jacobson like a glove. Its open-mindedness encouraged monographs such as The Story of the Stories: The Chosen People and Its God (1982) – the Bible was, Jacobson always thought, the best novel ever written. (We heartily concur.)

In his travel writing, and memoirs, he settled his personal account with the country in which he was born (whose accent his speech never lost) and with Nazi-occupied Europe. “They would have killed us, if they could have got to South Africa,” he mused, contemplating the exterminations in Vilnius and Heshel’s fortuitous death.

There was always a rueful melancholy, stiffened by irony and leavened by humor about him. He chose, on being appointed professor, to give his inaugural lecture on Thomas Hardy’s poetry – and, as always, contrived to extract a laugh or two from this gloomiest of authors. One of the images that recurs in his writing is the pit, or abyss – sometimes it materializes into the vast black holes left by the Kimberley diamond excavations of his childhood.

At other more metaphorical moments, it takes shape as Conrad’s heart of darkness. “The pit of the future,” he once wrote, “is quite as deep as the pit of the past. Through it, too, all things fall endlessly.” And yet, paradoxically he was revered by his colleagues for his cheerfulness. He was the best raconteur and joke-teller in the department and good company to the very end.


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