(The following discussion is a continuation of my previous post, On F.R. Leavis (i): Dangerous Driving.)
Ray’s Barber Shop in All Saints Passage used to be a Cambridge institution. I only went there once, but Ray greeted me cheerfully and, after chatting for a few minutes, suddenly said, ‘I believe, Sir, you may be an English teacher.’ Disconcerted, I admitted this was true. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Ray, ‘I can always tell. Lots of English teachers come to me. Can you guess my most famous teacher? Dr Leavis himself!’ Ray waited to see how I would react to this news, before continuing, ‘Yes, he always came here. You’re sitting in the very chair he sat in. And this, Sir,’ he added, suddenly brandishing an ancient barber’s cut-throat, ‘is the very razor which I shaved him with!’
Leavis was himself a Cambridge institution. As Clive James wrote in Always Unreliable, ‘He was part of the landscape. You became accustomed to seeing him walk briskly along Trinity Street, gown blown out horizontal in his slipstream. He looked as if walking briskly was something he had practised in a wind-tunnel.’ He was usually tieless, in an age when open-necked shirts were frowned upon, unless you were wearing a cravat. He had grown up in Cambridge, gone to school and university there, and spent virtually his whole life teaching at Downing. So why had he said, when I interviewed him, that he was ‘an outsider in Cambridge now’ and that he had ‘never really belonged there’?
Biographers and critics have often suggested that Leavis saw himself as an exile; and if an exile is someone who has to leave his native home (voluntarily or otherwise) because he cannot in conscience reconcile himself to the prevailing climate – political, cultural, religious etc. - this seems to me to describe Leavis’s position precisely. He was simply never comfortable with Cambridge University and its English Faculty, or the literary establishment at large. His stance was always oppositional, though he believed that the business of criticism was, in one of his favourite phrases (borrowed, with acknowledgement, from TS Eliot), ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’:
‘ "The common pursuit of true judgment": that is how the critic should see his business, and what it should be for him. His perceptions and judgments are his, or they are nothing; but whether or not he has consciously addressed himself to co-operative labour, they are inevitably collaborative. Collaboration may take the form of disagreement, and one is grateful to the critic whom one has found worth disagreeing with.’ (The Common Pursuit, Preface)
‘Collaboration may take the form of disagreement’: this is the key to Leavis’s dialectical method. He came to believe that the essence of Cambridge lay in a willingness to say ‘Yes, but …’, questioning everything as a way of challenging intellectual complacency. This complacency was for him the cardinal sin into which British academic life had strayed, and outside academia he also found it everywhere embodied by England’s literary establishment: the BBC, the newspapers, and professional bodies such as (I’m sorry to have to say) the English Association (EA). He greatly admired Henry James for turning down, in 1912, an invitation to become chairman of the EA. Reading Leavis’s account of this in Scrutiny, (vol. XIV, 1946) you can hear him cheering James on when the novelist replies to the Association, ‘I am a mere stony, ugly monster of Dissociation and Detachment’. This was Leavis, too.
As often happens with exiles, Leavis acquired a certain glamour among those who admired his principles and shared his contempts. I suspect he played up to this a little; at least it enabled him to claim of himself, his wife Q.D. Leavis and their collaborators on Scrutiny, that ‘We were – and we knew we were – Cambridge – the essential Cambridge in spite of Cambridge’. He even had a definition of what ‘we’ meant in this context: in an Appendix to his Clark Lectures, delivered in 1967 and published two years later as English Literature in our time and the University, Leavis described ‘we’ as ‘a suitably indeterminate word, suggesting as it does the unofficial, informal and non-authoritative’. And true it is that this unofficial group of exiles (‘No pupil of mine was ever appointed to a post in the Cambridge English Faculty’ he once claimed with a combination of outrage and satisfaction) came to exemplify an approach to English that teachers, sixth-form pupils and university students would learn to think of as Cambridge English.
I have to admit that, rather than Leavis’s own best-known texts (The Great Tradition, Revaluations, et al.), it was books such as L.C. Knights’ Explorations (1946) and, from a generation later, David Holbrook’s English for Maturity (1961) which gave me a keener sense of what the study of English Literature could be; of why close reading is a creative and ‘re-creative’ as well as critical activity, and of why teaching literature is an important vocation. But these convictions had first been articulated by Leavis and, long after he had sat to be shaved for the last time in Ray’s Barber Shop, they continued to animate some of the best English teaching in schools and HE departments. Do they still?
It has always been my instinct to distrust people as aggressively confident of their own opinions as Leavis was; and many of his dismissive judgments about writers seem to me at odds with the idea of a common (i.e. collaborative) pursuit of true judgment. Here, though, I must pause and reply ‘Yes, but…’ to my own judgment, for I want at least to say, unambiguously, that Leavis’s conception of English as ‘a discipline of thought’ should still resonate wherever the teaching of English is taken seriously. It’s time, too, to acknowledge that Leavis was the first academic in England to recognize Eliot and Lawrence as writers of ‘major creativity’ whom English studies could not ignore if English was to be taken seriously. Who else of his generation could have written New Bearings in English Poetry? It was published in 1932, the same year his wife, Q.D. Leavis, published Fiction and the Reading Public? 1932 was also the year in which together they launched Scrutiny. From then until his death he believed – as he made clear in the lecture I attended as a naïve undergraduate – ‘that universities must strive to become ‘anti-academic’ in order to regain their status as true creative centres of civilization’. By anti-academic he meant outward-facing, not inward-looking; self-critical, not complacent. He insisted, above all, that you cannot be really thoughtful about literature if you are not, at the same time, thoughtful about life. I am surprised, but glad, that it has taken the rediscovery of my interview with him so long ago to make me, at last, say plainly why I think he still matters so much.
I have written about F.R. Leavis before: