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.
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.