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Thank God for the Leavisites

The familiar Leavis miniatures brought out from their wrappings by John Mullan – the Dickens story, the open white shirt snapshot, the Lawrence-versus-Tennyson set-up, the hostility to ‘popular culture’ vignette – miss the point of what matters about the moment of Scrutiny (LRB, 12 September). I had the good luck in the 1950s to be taught by two tremendous ‘Leavisites’ at grammar schools in Lancashire and Bristol. They were far and away the sanest, most demanding and ironic, least parochial teachers I encountered at the time or later. I still have in my mind’s eye the comments written by one of them at the bottom of an essay (I can’t remember the subject, but Faulkner’s way of writing had come up): ‘If you want to think further about the distinctiveness of American literature, and therefore the US, you might want to look at Yvor Winters’s Maule’s Curse, Marius Bewley’s The Complex Fate and Harry Levin’s The Power of Blackness.’ These were, I realise, Leavisite recommendations; but they were good ones, and added up to no man’s orthodoxy, and they opened my eyes to ‘Americanness’ in ways I remain grateful for. No doubt some university departments turned Leavis’s preferences and demotions (it still seems to strike critics as vaguely scandalous that he had them or made them) into dogma, and settled in for a battle of sects. But what else do university departments do? Out in the wider world of education, through the twenty years of social democracy in Britain, Leavis’s followers, if my experience is anything to go by, gave their pupils the only available breathing space – the only place for argument as opposed to adherence – apart from the then dominant cultural consensus.

It is true that by the time I listened to Leavis in person, at Cambridge in 1961, he had been driven half-mad. Memories of him at the podium are painful. No doubt what I heard at that point had several causes. But one of them was the seemingly necessary link, in the England he knew, between cultural authority – expressing preferences and insinuating demotions in ways that will call out, one is sure, no answering ridicule or condescension – and a certain assumed or inherited class ‘tone’. He hated it, and it destroyed him. Thank God for the Leavisites in the schools, then. They really did, for a while, call that tone into question.

T.J. Clark
London SW4

Unlike the students John Mullan writes about I wasn’t groomed by Leavisite school-teachers and recommended for a place at Downing. When I went up to Trinity I hadn’t even heard of him and neglected to go to his lectures for a long time. Fearing that in later years I might appear like some benighted Israelite who pressed on blindly across the desert, unaware that Moses had come down the mountain with new rules, I finally went along to hear him.

I was so enraged by Leavis’s casually contemptuous asides about Shelley that I decided to interrupt. I was going to quote from ‘Prometheus Unbound’:

My soul is an enchanted boat,
Which, like a sleeping swan …

Perhaps the angel mentioned in the succeeding lines kept me in my seat. Some time later I attended a public lecture at which a student did interrupt. Leavis asked him what he was studying. Engineering. Leavis complimented him on his wit in choosing a subject better adapted to his limited understanding.

At another lecture he handed out companion pieces for appraisal which he then read in what he called his ‘neutral voice’. This particular pair had to do with the fear of imminent death. The first was from Measure for Measure:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
To lie in cold obstruction …

The second was from Shelley’s The Cenci:

My God! Can it be possible I have
To die so suddenly?

After a couple of lines there was no need for that nasal, reedy voice to continue. Comment was superfluous. Shelley was demolished and I was stunned.

Mark Adlard
Glossop, Derbyshire

I enjoyed the glimpse John Mullan gave us of F.R. Leavis, in panic at the sight of a gaggle of 19-year-old undergraduates, squeezing through a gap in the fence into the next-door garden. Actually, Leavis and his wife lived not next door to my mother, Helena Shire, but opposite; he was squeezing through a wicker gate out to the road. The shy Leavis, my mother said, had erected an ‘anti-Scrutiny wall’ at the front of his garden.

Alisoun Shire
Newcastle upon Tyne

My two favourite Leavis anecdotes. The first was told to me by a college fellow. A.L. Rowse invited Leavis to dinner at All Souls. Asked afterwards what he made of him, Rowse replied: ‘I cannot understand why they call him Queenie!’

The second is my own. At some point during my time at Cambridge I attended a guest lecture by Leavis with the title ‘T.S. Eliot Thirty Years On’. It soon became clear that the thirty years referred to the last time Leavis had passed public judgment on Eliot. Towards the end of the hour, he suddenly stopped, seemingly in mid-paragraph. He looked up, announced that he had left the last page of his lecture in his briefcase, and apologised. He descended from the stage, made a painfully slow journey to the back of the hall surrounded by silence, picked up a battered briefcase, extracted a single sheet of paper, returned once more to the stage, placed the sheet on the lectern, straightened it and looked up. ‘Therefore,’ he announced, ‘I see no reason to change my view of T.S. Eliot.’ He said nothing further.

Paul Evans
Crickhowell, Powys

John Mullan says of Leavis that ‘he is little interested in William Empson’s brand of close reading with its minute verbal explication.’ Not so: his first review of Seven Types of Ambiguity was one of the most glowing he ever wrote. He said that it contained ‘more of the history of English poetry’ than any comparable book. The break came when Empson vigorously defended I.A. Richards’s Coleridge on Imagination against Leavis’s attack.

On Dickens, Leavis came to feel that his early estimate, which credited only Hard Times with the requisite seriousness, had been excessively influenced by George Santayana’s dictum that ‘in every English-speaking home, in the four quarters of the globe, parents and children will do well to read Dickens aloud of a winter’s evening’ – the emphasis being too much on children. The Leavises went on to write Dickens the Novelist.

Steve Thorn
Axminster, Devon


Who started it?

Christopher Clark’s review of The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan and July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean McMeekin, like The Sleepwalkers, his own book on the origins of the First World War, slyly attempts to obscure or minimise evidence that contradicts his own thesis, which attributes equal blame, malice and lack of vision to all the major European powers (LRB, 29 August).

Much of what Clark has to say is good and proper. No, the war did not have its origins in a German plot hatched two years earlier and ruthlessly pursued. Yes, the Austrians had a legitimate grievance based on an act of international terrorism that was effectively sponsored by Serbia. Yes, powerful forces within the French government wanted war and egged Russia on. No, the Serbian response did not accept almost all of the Austrian ultimatum’s demands. And more.

But Clark’s central failing is to ignore or downplay much of the evidence of German and Austrian blame just as surely as Fritz Fischer distorted and overstated it. One could read Clark and forget that there was one alliance that started military action by shelling Belgrade, and one country, Germany, that declared war against Russia and France before any nation had taken military action against it or declared war on it. The Germans’ flat rejection of the British foreign secretary’s call for an international conference and their failure even to respond to the tsar’s suggestion that the matter be referred to The Hague are not given the attention and importance they deserve.

Indeed the irony of demolishing the Fischer school and then adopting some of its tactics reveals itself in an incongruity in Clark’s review. He compliments McMeekin for showing how Russia took military measures that supposedly left Germany with ‘no choice’ but to mobilise its armies. Yet he ends his review by quoting MacMillan’s ‘There are always choices’ – to support the idea that the statesmen of 1914 together manoeuvred Europe into catastrophe. There are always choices unless they conflict with Clark’s central thesis.

Norman Frink
Portland, Oregon

Christopher Clark writes: I thank Norman Frink for his insightful and generous comments about the review and about my book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. But I don’t accept that there is anything ‘sly’ about my handling of the evidence for German war guilt. The book engages the case for German war guilt head-on, proposing in place of the primary culprit model a polycentric and interactive account of the war’s aetiology. In the process I do indeed shift the emphasis, bringing aspects of the war’s prehistory to the fore that I argue have been underexposed, and concluding that if responsibility for the decisions that brought war is so widely distributed, then perhaps ‘blame’ is an unhelpful category.

Those who remain attached to the Austro-German culpability thesis will object to this rebalancing of the analysis (they already have) and I don’t doubt that the debate over these issues will continue. But in presenting his own case for that view, Frink replicates a longstanding optical bias in the narrative of German culpability: namely, a tendency to focus attention on a selection of decontextualised moments that were in fact embedded in a complex sequence of events. Yes, the Germans declared war on Russia before the Russians declared war on Germany. But by the time that happened, the Russian government had been moving troops and equipment to the German front for a week. The Russians were the first great power to issue an order of general mobilisation and the first Russo-German clash took place on German, not on Russian soil, following the Russian invasion of East Prussia. That doesn’t mean that the Russians should be ‘blamed’ for the outbreak of war. Rather it alerts us to the complexity of the events that brought war about and the limitations of any thesis that focuses on the culpability of one actor.


Sauntering

I started studying philosophy in 1998, three years after the start of the electronic revolution described by Rebecca Solnit (LRB, 29 August). That revolution hadn’t yet permeated the academic world. I occasionally wrote to friends elsewhere on email, but within the university our main means of communication were little slips of paper left in pigeonholes.

Reading lists were still on pieces of paper, handed out by tutors at the start of term. They listed journal articles by year, volume and page number, and we read them in the library, walking along the shelves to look for the required volume. Mobile phones existed though I didn’t know anyone who owned one. I did own a pager – a free gift acquired when I opened a NatWest student account – which sat bulkily on my belt loop with no real purpose.

By the time I was a graduate student, things had changed. Mobile phones were commonplace and email was the standard means of communication between friends, between students and supervisors, and between the university and its members. And the increasing prominence of philosophy blogging meant academic gossip was no longer confined to conversations after the seminar.

My academic life now is mediated by the screen. I email reading lists to students as PDF attachments. I follow philosophical discussions on Twitter and blogs. I check online systems to see when my papers have been assigned to referees. I used to read philosophy books in quiet places. Now it’s most often on the laptop, punctuated by the flash of messages in the lower corner of the screen. Sometimes reading philosophy wins out; more often, it does not.

Philosophy requires a capacity for sustained attention: for slow reading, slow writing and slow thinking. I worry that the changes documented by Solnit – these changes to my academic habitat – have reduced that capacity for me. Of course procrastination did not begin with the internet, and the impulse to switch to something easier is not a new phenomenon. But Solnit’s plea for slowness reminded me of the importance of John Campbell’s description of philosophy: ‘Philosophy is thinking in slow motion. It breaks down, describes and assesses moves we ordinarily make at great speed – to do with our natural motivations and beliefs. It then becomes evident that alternatives are possible.’

Anil Gomes
Trinity College, Oxford


Screw the Troika!

True, as Susan Watkins writes, the Troika and a swaggering Berlin behind it have increasingly taken legislative control out of the hands of elected – or, as is increasingly the case, appointed – governments (LRB, 29 August). However, she risks writing domestic political elites out of the story altogether. ‘Screw the Troika’ is a common enough refrain at the anti-austerity rallies we attend in Portugal, but it is a message that concedes too easily the government’s insistence that blame lies solely with Brussels and Berlin and downplays just how happy Portuguese elites are to see their own neoliberal vision take shape. The Troika’s insistence on cutting public expenditure has given Portuguese neoliberals an opportunity to implement their dream policies. Indeed, the government’s austerity drive has exceeded any external demand. ‘We are going beyond the Troika memorandum,’ Prime Minister Passos Coelho said of the 2012 budget, a relentless attack on public servants that continues today. The government has been called ‘more troikista than the Troika’. The externalisation of blame, on the part of apparatchiks and protesters alike, risks placing domestic culprits beyond critical scrutiny altogether.

Tor Krever and Teresa Almeida Cravo
Coimbra


Why Labor Lost

Jeremy Harding writes that the Australian Labor Party’s commitment to ‘the existing system’ of climate change policy based on a carbon tax ‘was one of its strong suits’ (LRB, 26 September). In one sense, what Australia’s policy is or was hardly matters: emissions taking place in Australia make up perhaps 1 per cent of the global total. But Australia is one of the largest coal exporters in the world, and a principal source of imported coal for major emitters – China, India and Japan, for example – which have no Kyoto commitments and whose emissions alone make overall global reductions impossible. Australia’s recent relatively healthy economic performance is based on raw material exports, coal exports in particular. Did the Labor Party think this coal would not be burned? The Australian carbon tax was not merely fatuous, it was hypocritical. Though the election was dominated by the Labor Party’s grotesque self-absorption, this hypocrisy was an important factor in its defeat.

David Campbell
Lancaster University


Malick’s Memories

Gilberto Perez’s description of Terrence Malick’s evocation of memory is right to focus on his editing (LRB, 12 September). It is undoubtedly the movement between and juxtaposition of images, not simply their content, that gives film so much of its power. However, Perez misses out on a fundamental aspect of Malick’s cutting: the frame itself. In the first two stills from The Tree of Life, for example, Malick’s camera neither centres on nor straightens the objects it presents. The heads of both flowers and humans are cut off and we are too close to see it all. This messy intimacy with the object of the gaze has two particular effects. The first is centrifugal. The edge of Malick’s frame is less a boundary or a limit, but something that feels more like a horizon. We cannot see it, but perceive nonetheless that the world extends out from this image or event, that there is an elsewhere we could move into. The images are fragments of a larger whole. At the same time the randomness and ambiguity of the frame’s edges deny it a sense of authority, that this and only this is what we must see, what we must remember. This effect is centripetal. Instead of searching for significance beyond the frame in the wider world our focus is concentrated inwards towards the centre of the image (the closely held kid goat, the density of the sunflowers), creating a sense of these objects as things that are touched rather than simply seen. It is the combination of proximity and distance, close-up detail and vague openness, that we recognise as being like our experience of memory.

Greg Tuck
Chepstow, Monmouthshire


Into Flames

What Mike Jay describes as the ‘inbuilt trajectory of hubris and nemesis’ of early balloon flight applies even more acutely to pre-Second World War ballooning (LRB, 8 August). Joseph Goebbels directed the use of Zeppelin airships – filled with hydrogen because helium was banned by the US – for propaganda purposes and requested that the Hindenburg’s name be changed to Adolf Hitler. But for the rejection of this request by the Zeppelin company manager Hugo Eckener, it would have been the Adolf Hitler that burst into flames over New Jersey on 6 May 1937.

David Bradford
Lewes, East Sussex