Even paranoids have enemies

Frank Kermode

  • F.R. Leavis: A Life in Criticism by Ian MacKillop
    Allen Lane, 476 pp, £25.00, July 1995, ISBN 0 7139 9062 7

‘We were – and we knew we were – Cambridge – the essential Cambridge in spite of Cambridge.’ So F.R. Leavis in an exultant moment; and this biography for the most part concentrates on the local conflicts and gestures of defiance the remark implies. To a biographer who was also a pupil of Leavis, this limitation will have seemed natural, inevitable. Yet in fact Leavis’s influence extended far beyond Cambridge, and even beyond the schools in which his loyal followers taught English and from which, if they could, they sent their pupils to Downing College for more advanced indoctrination by the master or his acolytes. As a provincial student in the late Thirties I was scolded for impudently and prematurely imitating his voice, mimicking those apparently incontrovertible judgments, trying to master what is here called ‘the wry jeer’.

The reproof was deserved, but the offence was venial. The impulse to emulate Leavis rather than, say, Oliver Elton, was understandable. It wasn’t only that he sounded less tweedy, more challenging, more convinced. He gave one a new idea of what it meant to read, and seemed more intimately, more agonistically engaged with poetry than anybody else except possibly the youthful William Empson, whom at this time he greatly admired. And the whole business of criticism acquired a new and exhilarating quality. That gnarled manner of speaking or writing sounded serious, deliberate and urgent, a new way of stressing the high importance of the subject. At his best, Leavis seemed to move with the most exciting movements of language, and he was determined to teach others who wished to be civilised how, at its best, language, the main medium of culture, worked in great writing. He believed that such study was a principal means of access to a civilised society.

Here, selected almost at random, is a single example of his powers, taken from Education and the University (1943). He is discussing these lines from Lady Macbeth’s welcome to Duncan:

                             All our service
In every point twice done, and then done double
Were poor and single business, to contend
Against those honours deep and broad, wherewith
Your Majesty loads our house.

Leavis comments on the possible conflict between the figures implied by ‘deep and broad’ and ‘loads’, remarking that Shakespeare ‘has controlled his realisation to the requisite degree of incipience. And in this marvellously sure and subtle control of realisation Shakespeare’s genius is manifested as much as in the vividness of his most striking imagery.’ ‘The requisite degree of incipience’ may, like other critical formulations of Leavis’s, have an oddly bureaucratic sound, but it is an accurate description of a power that Shakespeare developed, occasionally almost over-developed, in the plays after Hamlet. Any admirer could multiply instances, memorable insights and formulations achieved almost, it seems, in passing. They do more than the more celebrated hostile analyses, say, of Milton or Shelley, to reinforce Leavis’s right to be called a major critic. To paraphrase Johnson’s remark on Gray and his ‘Elegy’, had he always written like this, it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.

Critical commentary of this kind usually had its origin in the classroom. It was essential to Leavis’s project that he should be at the charismatic centre of an educational movement, and although others might find that claim absurd or presumptuous, Downing was that centre, the essential Cambridge. Until quite late in his career his university lectures were not particularly well attended; his field of operation was the college room. There are many testimonies to his courteous, considerate manners, but they weren’t always evident in his dealings with colleagues in other colleges, and he was quite often at loggerheads with the fellowship of his own. His relations with his pupils – ‘disciples’ might be better – were intense, and complicated by the attitudes of his remarkable partner, Q.D. Leavis. They mostly ended in tears.

Unfortunately it isn’t really possible to understand the agonies and ecstasies of this life without knowing something about the Cambridge in which it was lived. Mr MacKillop is obliged and willing to provide the necessary information, and for this reason among others his book tends to be dull as well as conscientious. The relation between the university and the quasi-autonomous colleges, the absence of what are elsewhere called ‘Departments’, the complexity of the appointments procedures that led to coveted but often impermanent posts with exiguous salaries, the opportunities for lobbying and genteel but ruthless skulduggery, all would be difficult for outsiders to understand. In Cambridge they are of course simply the way things are, but in the circumstances of this book the author is under the necessity of explaining them. MacKillop does so assiduously, but cannot help making the plots, treacheries, even the few genuine disagreements that had some intellectual content, sound like aldermanic bickering; and outsiders could be excused for thinking this Cambridge an uninteresting can of worms, though it was one into which the distinguished critic was, decade after decade, compelled disgustedly to peer. MacKillop certainly allows one to see the contrast between the passionate ambition of the work and the sour, harassed parochialism of the life.

It isn’t unusual for Cambridge dons to be deceived into thinking that there is nowhere else they could possibly exist. One result of this fixation is that the scramble for jobs is especially intense. Rather than seek a living elsewhere, men and women prefer to hang around picking up a meagre living from supervisions while they wait for some college vacancy, quite likely to be temporary and with no certain prospects. The world elsewhere was, in Leavis’s day, for the most part unthinkably redbrick. He himself seems hardly ever to have considered the possibility of working anywhere else (he quite unaffectedly referred to absence from Cambridge as ‘exile’) until, after his retirement, he resigned his fellowship and went to York as a part-time professor.

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