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Vol. 2 No. 2 · 7 February 1980

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Leavis and Marxism

SIR: I write in response to Roger Poole’s article on F.R. Leavis (LRB, 20 December 1979). When Leavis said that Scrutiny was ‘anti-Marxist’ he meant ‘anti-English Marxist’. The curious admixture of romantic idealism and attenuated Marxism which is peculiar to England was obviously of little use or value in relation to the real function of literature and criticism as Leavis saw it. Its notions were greatly oversimplified, its concepts and terminology poorly defined and its whole method eagerly dogmatic. The whole question of ‘economic determinism’ illustrates the vitiating lack of subtlety or penetration on the part of these interpreters of Marx. Leavis (in ‘Under Which King, Bezonian?’) resists the claim for attention to the material conditions, the ‘dogma of the priority of economic conditions’. This dogma does not occur in Marx’s own writings and it is a contention of the so-called ‘vulgar Marxists’. Both Marx and Engels recognised that, in the realm of the arts, the interaction between the ‘economic base’ and the overlying ‘superstructure’ was a far more complex activity than this dogma allows. In the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy Marx asserts that ‘certain periods of the highest development of art stand in no direct connection with the general development of society, nor with the material basis and the skeleton structure of its organisation.’ The complexity of the problem was recognised and consciously engaged by the theory. Engels, in a letter to Starkenburg in 1894, wrote: ‘It is not the case that the economic situation is the sole active cause and everything else a passive effect. But there is a reciprocal interaction within a fundamental economic necessity, which in the last instance always asserts itself.’

It is essential to realise that it is the ‘reciprocal interaction’ that finally asserts itself, not the ‘fundamental economic necessity’. This kind of insight into the issue derives from the proper understanding of the dialectical method, which was not widely possessed by the early Marxist writers in England. It was their simplified sociological model (after Plekhanov) of ‘art as a reflection of the class struggle’, and the insistence on the absolute primacy of the material conditions in relation to the arts, that Leavis rejected as inadequate. There is in fact a greater contiguity between his ideas and those of Marx and Engels.

Leavis is not a crypto-Marxist. That there are major similarities between Leavis and Marx is clear enough, nevertheless. In the article referred to above, Leavis refutes, through his discussion of Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, the ‘orthodox’ Marxist dogma concerning the relationship between culture and the ‘methods of production’. This misses the point, he says, because the central feature of the contemporary (1932) situation is the potentially catastrophic ‘breach in continuity’ of our cultural tradition. This has fractured the relationship between the tradition and the ‘real culture’ that existed until the 19th century: ‘When England had a popular culture, the structure, the framework, of it was a stylisation, so to speak, of economic necessities.’ The industrialisation of the 19th century undermined this relationship (resulting in the ‘loss of the organic community’), so that ‘what survives of cultural tradition in any important sense survives in spite of the rapidly changing “means of production".’

The significance of this is the qualification ‘in any important sense’. First, because, if it were not for that qualification, the substance of the argument would be rendered contradictory: a ‘popular culture’ still exists and it still, in essence, bears a dialectical relation to the prevailing ‘economic necessities’. The qualifying clause is a qualitative judgment designed to avoid this logical fallacy. It is an illustration of the peculiar complexity of Leavis’s approach to literature. On the one hand, he accepts the principle of the relationship between culture and the ‘methods of production’ (‘a stylisation … of economic necessities’); on the other hand, with regard to the present situation, he exhibits a curious, atavistic tendency to dismiss this relationship as no longer functional. Yet, according to the logic of his own reasoning, this relationship must still operate.

It is this atavism which produces the flaw in Leavis’s methodology, and which highlights the essential distinction that must be made between it and the methodology of dialectical materialism. If one accepts the principle of the interaction between the arts and the social and economic reality, as Leavis does, then it cannot logically be dismissed in favour of individual preference. ‘Logic’ is the crux. Marx and Engels recognised that the nature of the interaction cannot be statically defined – hence their insistence on the idea of constant change. Leavis chose the alternative, which was effectively to abandon the concept of interaction/stylisation of economic necessities – claiming that the line of continuity had been broken and the relationship therefore nullified – and to embark upon a form of criticism which regards each text as an autonomous, sealed entity. The point is, his judgments are subjective, a matter of individual preference. Hence his insistence on the ‘training of the sensibility’ and the development of ‘critical awareness’, which requires a sensuous responsiveness to the words on the page, for all practical purposes to the exclusion of everything else. By making that choice, Leavis moved from a position of close proximity to Marx’s original conception to one almost diametrically opposed to it.

Kevin Keys

William Empson and ‘Advanced Thought’

SIR: One thing about Sir William’s very peculiar piece (LRB, 24 January): unless he has access to Greville’s notes, he cannot know that Sidney said ‘need’, for Greville in his book says ‘necessity’; he, not I, preferred the long fussy word.

Frank Kermode
King’s College, Cambridge

William Empson writes: I am sure Kermode is right. If I had checked, I would have ascribed the mistake to Greville. Everyone who recalls the legend says ‘thy need’, and that is what Sidney would have said.


SIR: What a novel thought of Frank Kermode’s: ‘Blasting the past has long been a habit of avant-garde artists and malcontent youth, but anti-passéisme [some kind of foreign food, I take it] has made small headway in the learned professions’ (LRB, 24 January). I’ve never met such an avant-garde artist: as far as I know, they might blast misplaced repetition or imitation of the past in the present, which is a very different sort of thing. I can’t speak for malcontent youth and am not even sure Frank Kermode necessarily thinks it mates with avant-garde artists. He doesn’t say so, probably because he knows avant-garde artists aren’t always still young (though ever youthful).

Anthony Barnett

Syllogisms of grass

SIR: I see that, in Blake’s words, I have ‘thrown the sand against the wind, and the wind has thrown it back again’.

I had not realised Gregory Bateson (Letters, 24 January) was such a master at affirming the consequent. He can even use it as a method of disparaging a critic:

Humphrey did not think much of my book.
A dreary pedant would not think much of my book.
Humphrey is a dreary pedant.

Not only is the conclusion false, but it is not even particularly poetical.

And that is just the trouble. Bateson presents an example of false logic which does have the ring of poetry to it:

Men die.
Grass dies.
Men are grass.

And thereby he tries to establish that all such examples of false logic are poetical:

My argument is illogical.
Poetry is illogical.
My argument is poetry.

But it will not wash. One has only to choose other examples to show so:

Men die.
Turnips die.
Men are turnips.

A synthetic falsehood, but not poetry. Or:

Men die.
Women die.
Men are women.

An analytic falsehood, but not poetry.

Blake wrote in his poem Milton: ‘There is a land where contrarieties are equally true.’ Much of that land is barren, and the oases of true poetic insight are few and far between. Neither a theologian, a dreamer, a schizophrenic nor Gregory Bateson can expect us to follow them into the wilderness merely because they themselves have been brave enough to turn their backs on the ancestral gardens of rationality. Creative genius may require bravery, but it also requires that the poet carry Moses’ rod.

I do not think that Bateson does carry Moses’ rod. ‘Logical sleight of hand’ … well, maybe that was unfair when Bateson performs his trick so openly (and, as he now says, proudly) in front of us. But it is not a trick which I myself want to emulate, or would encourage others to. In rejecting the call of Bateson’s book I perhaps share some of the feelings of Hesse’s Siddhartha: ‘On the way back, Govinda said: “Siddhartha … if you had stayed there, you would have soon learned to walk on water." “I have no desire to walk on water," said Siddhartha.’

Nick Humphrey
Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour, Cambridge University

Jane Austen’s Children

SIR: Roy Fuller, on Radio 3, looked forward to the development of your magazine. So do many. He noted that there were ‘strange, even alarming, features of the present-day literary scene that seem insufficiently recognised’ in the new magazines, and was particularly concerned by Arts Council subsidies to political activity ill-guised as theatre. He might have been equally agitated by the London Review of Books subsidising less blatant platforms. I find it alarming that Brigid Brophy’s review of Jane Austen’s Letters could have your approval (LRB, 6 December 1979). The crude, feminist whine is tiresomely familiar elsewhere, but surely you can guard us against it? And if you will not or cannot, surely your standards should be rigorous enough to bar from your pages such ludicrously procrustean argument?

In the third paragraph of her notice, Brophy says: ‘The fact that Jane Austen … didn’t marry probably seemed at the time the result of circumstance and chance.’ In the next paragraph she tells us that ‘I think she in effect decided not to marry – and on the rational grounds that marriage, in the necessary presence of Affection but the absence of contraception, was unlikely to leave her energy enough to write her books.’ One paragraph later, this silly conjecture is presented as fact: ‘Jane Austen’s novels, on whose account she declined to marry and breed …’

At no stage in her review does Brophy give any but the most flimsily circumstantial evidence for such certainty. Mary Russell Mitford, writing in 1815 to Sir William Elford, noted that her mother was acquainted with Jane Austen before her marriage: ‘Mamma says that she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers.’ Probably deadly accurate. Further, the reason for Jane Austen’s non-marrying was clearly the same as it was for thousands of other young women of her time: chance did not have it so. Brophy’s dislike of marriage and children is her own business and I resent her trying to make it mine: I do not subscribe to the London Review of Books to read about her private dislikes, and I am offended and disappointed that you, as editor, should allow her to impose her aversions on a great novelist.

Finally, a word about her obligatory swipe at publishers. Since I became a full-time writer three years ago, I have had dealings with Hutchinson’s. As a first novelist, I am unknown, likely to remain so, unlikely ever to make even a modest profit for any publisher. Considering the ‘names’ on the Hutchinson list, I was prepared to be ignored and maltreated in the way that Brophy and others over the years have described. Why then, in all my dealings with them, have I found courtesy, encouragement, concern, and – when my first novel fared badly – a kind of magnanimity which I was led to believe had disappeared from publishing years ago? My experience with my American publishers has been the same.

David Hanly
Tinahely, Wicklow

Brigid Brophy writes: The Mitford butterfly was exploded in 1869. Mary Russell Mitford was recounting her mother’s supposedly eye-witness account, which her mother dated to the period before her own marriage. J.E. Austen-Leigh was able to show that the mother moved out of the Austens’ neighbourhood when Jane Austen was seven. Being nice to writers they exploit is an old tradition of British publishers. Jane Austen wrote of one of her publishers: ‘He is a rogue of course, but a civil one.’ The notion that I dislike marriage and children will surprise my husband and daughter.

A word was omitted from a sentence of James Lighthill’s in the article ‘Strange Loops’ which appeared in the LRB of 24 January. The sentence in question should have read: ‘Indeed, Gödel’s work is related by Hofstadter to linguistics and to biology quite as much as to musical and visual art.’

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