Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Not Fit to Eat with the Hogs

I checked out David Ellis's Memoirs of a Leavisite: The decline and fall of Cambridge English (Liverpool, 2013) because it was short, looked readable, and had a subtitle delicately imbued with apocalyptic hysteria.  ("Cambridge English" refers to the Cambridge University English literature degree, which was only initiated in the 1920s.  That means it has been around less than a century, and less than half a century when Ellis was an undergraduate at Cambridge.  The academic world existed without English literature programs for hundreds of years, and if they disappear, it will manage without them.)  I was also curious to see an account of F. R. Leavis by one of his former students, especially if it touched on Leavis's notorious attack on C. P. Snow.  (It does.)  Ellis is now Professor Emeritus of English as the University of Kent, Canterbury, and among his other works is a controversial book about biographies of Shakespeare, which looks interesting.  So far the book is engaging enough.

So, what does Ellis have to say about his mentor as a critic?  I've really only begun the book, but I found two revealing anecdotes early on.  Defending Leavis against Stephen Fry's characterization of him as a "sanctimonious prick," Ellis points out that despite Leavis's puritanical streak, he also insisted on discussing raunchy books like Joyce's Ulysses and Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover with his students, despite "official disfavour" (16).  "Leavis was no prude but he was, as I say, a moralist and moral values are always going to play a part in any fully responsive reading of literature.  The danger comes when our judgement of a work of art begins to hinge on our approval or otherwise of certain attitudes, however well they may be represented.  Signs of such a tendency can no doubt be found scattered throughout Leavis's writing ... but I can remember two hints of it in his seminars" (16-17).
One came when he was considering Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, which begins with what is generally acknowledged to be a satirical portrait of its author's father.  In the course of his discussion, his thoughts turned musingly to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the individual in charge when the Cambridge English degree was first launched in the early 1920s ... [Leavis] had once heard 'Q' say about Butler, he reflected, that no man should ever turn on his father and I felt that this was so much his own view that he found it difficult to consider The Way of All Flesh objectively.  I did not know then had Leavis had been particularly attached to his own father who died after a motor-cycle accident at about the same time that he himself began his final degree examination [17].
This looks to me like a common tendency in literary-critical moralism.  I agree with Ellis that moral values are always going to play a part in any fully responsive reading of literature.  I'm a moralist myself, but my values are different from Leavis's, and that also affects my response to what I read.  I don't object to Leavis letting his personal history affect his reading of Butler; anyone's life and circumstances will make it difficult or impossible to appreciate some works.  What I do expect from a professional critic, whether academic or journalistic, is that he or she be aware of the blind spots with which experience has endowed him or her, and take them into account.  I don't see anything shameful in saying something like "I loved my father, so I can't make sense of Butler's hatred of his."  But a person who's read as widely as a Professor of English Literature must read also has to be aware that not all fathers inspire love in their children.  Some are abusive, some abandon -- in short, they "turn on" their children.  To "turn on his father" is not necessarily easy or pleasant, but it sometimes must be done simply in order to survive.  Failure to recognize this is, in my opinion, a moral failure.  This would work both ways, of course: the child of a hateful father would be remiss not to recognize that not all fathers deserve to be rejected by their children.

Ellis continues:
The more serious hint of moral feelings over-riding critical judgement concerned Proust ... But what Leavis appeared to object to, as he elaborated his view, was Proust's constant preoccupation with his homosexuality and the way in which, as the novel proceeds, a surprisingly [sic] number of the characters turn out to be gay.  There seemed to me at the time a suggestion of moral disapproval when Leavis mentioned this and that it was one which prevented him from appreciating to the full a social satirist as vivid and entertaining as Austen, Dickens or George Eliot, and one of the most subtle analysts of human motive in literature.  It cannot, I suppose, have helped that Proust was a major figure in the value system of his enemies in King's College and in Bloomsbury [17].
I can't clearly distinguish here between Leavis's opinions and Ellis's, but my goodness: "Proust's constant preoccupation with his homosexuality"?  I have only gotten through the first two volumes of Proust's big novel, and haven't yet arrived at the queer parts.  I don't recall any evidence of a preoccupation with anyone's homosexuality in the first thousand or so pages.  But who ever complains about writers' "constant preoccupation" with their heterosexuality in most literature?  Jane Austen could, by this criterion, be said to be preoccupied with her characters' heterosexuality, or Ernest Hemingway with his, or Dickens, or George Eliot.  But that's considered normal, like a white writer's preoccupation with the problems white people have in today's world.

As for those "enemies in King's College and in Bloomsbury," many of whom were sods and buggers, this is something I've noticed before in other writers and critics.  How often does criticism of other writers or teachers hide personal squabbles and dislikes?  Quite often, I've come to realize.  But again, to react in this way is a moral failure as well as a failure of the critical faculty.  It might well be that one's personal animosities might make it hard, even impossible to do justice to work by those one dislikes.  But an adult should be aware of this, and make allowance for it, admitting if necessary that one can't write objectively or rationally about this or that figure, and recusing oneself.  I suppose that if this rule were generally observed, we'd have a lot less critical prose, but that might not be such a bad thing.

I give David Ellis credit for acknowledging Leavis's feet of clay, but I wonder if these stories aren't meant as a distraction from other offenses.  (Just as many Obama fans will throw a few crumbs to his harsher critics by admitting that this or that policy "disappoints" them.)  I decided to read his book, after all, because of Leavis's attack on C. P. Snow, which apparently was one that led its publishers to approach Snow to make sure he wouldn't take legal action against them for printing it.  (Britain's libel laws are stricter than those of the United States, I gather.)  Ellis devotes four pages of his book to a discussion of Leavis's opinions of Snow; I peeked ahead, and I don't see any mention of that aspect of the controversy.  Well, I'll see when I get there.  I should probably read Leavis's lecture on The Two Cultures, too.  The examples Ellis gives about Leavis's literary moralism are enough, however, to indicate the weaknesses of that critical approach.