F.R. Leavis, Politics and Religion

Roger Poole

  • The Moment of ‘Scrutiny’ by Francis Mulhern
    New Left Books, 354 pp, £11.75
  • The Literary Criticism of F.R. Leavis by R.P. Bilan
    Cambridge, 338 pp, £12.50

The appearance of the 20-volume reissue of Scrutiny in 1963 should have made it possible to evaluate at last the achievement of F.R. and Q.D. Leavis and their colleagues with some degree of unanimity. Here at last were the actual essays, beautifully reprinted and laid out, essays which had been virtually unobtainable for many years, and of which original sets (even incomplete and battered) had enjoyed a prestige which was not merely commensurate with their rarity.

But no. Although a sizable secondary literature greeted the 1963 reissue – ranging from reminiscence and regret to hostility and outright Schadenfreude – there was still no consensus. Francis Mulhern, who now attempts to tell the whole story of that journal for the first time, announces: ‘The true measure of the problem is that, 25 years after its closure, and 15 after its triumphant reissue, there exists not a single systematic examination of Scrutiny.’

There isn’t one even now, though Francis Mulhern has done valuable work towards making such a thing possible. His book offers an analysis of the major periods of the journal’s history, and what emerges is a kind of contour map of a very rugged terrain. But Mr Mulhern has, he admits it frankly, an ulterior purpose in writing this account of Scrutiny. His aim is to warn Marxist writers and thinkers to be less naive, less dismissive of a man whose work still threatens Marxist ‘discourse’. F.R. Leavis, he implies, even from beyond the grave, insists that we shall all continue to misunderstand each other. Marxists must be wary of this harassment.

Among younger writers, Mulhern says, Leavis’s work ‘is usually figured in the past perfect’ and is considered to be ‘not a central issue today’. But Mulhern admonishes them: ‘This attitude is understandable but perilous … it is historically evasive and may, in the worst outcome, prove self-defeating.’ Why so? Mulhern is quite clear about this. For him, as for, say, a group like the Tel Quel group in Paris, criticism is part of the class struggle, an attempt to overthrow the bourgeoisie and ‘the dominant culture’. He announces a battle to come: ‘If “Leavisism” still constitutes a “problem” for the dominant culture, how can it have ceased to disturb the vulnerable, minoritarian exponents of Marxism? What is in question, now as much as in the far-off Thirties, is a cultural struggle, to which the composed, self-sustaining practices of peaceful methodological competition will sooner or later prove fundamentally inadequate.’

So Mulhern’s stance is an embattled one. He is a Marxist trying to ‘place’ and understand and master the significance of 20 years of ‘discourse’. Scrutiny refused right from the beginning to take political sides, as is well-known. What perhaps is not quite so well-known is the sheer force and power with which Leavis refused to join the Marxist camp in particular. His essay of 1932, ‘Under which King, Bezonian?’, is impressive reading, even today. His discussion of Trotsky and the Marxist cause in general is bitingly sarcastic, and he feels it morally irresponsible for a journal such as Scrutiny to take sides with a position which intellectually, so far as he could see, held about as much water as a colander. To talk politics, he says there, to talk any kind of politics, is to betray political responsibility. Only constant attention to, only constant scrutiny of, political language (from whichever faction it might come) would be an adequate political commitment.

‘Leavis’s polemic,’ writes Mulhern, ‘drew a prompt response from a leading Communist intellectual of the time, A.L. Morton, who, writing in the following number of the journal, greeted “Bezonian” as a “challenge … very welcome to Marxists”, and attempted to allay the misgivings of its author.’ Needless to say, this did not work, and Scrutiny kept up its policy of proud and lonely independence all through the Thirties. The reason for this was itself impressive, seen from this distance: ‘The editorial circle and more regular contributors were basically at one with Leavis: ostensibly revolutionary, Marxism was in fact not radical enough, in its analyses of the contemporary era or in its programmatic solutions. “What has disintegrated,” Leavis insisted, “is not merely ‘bourgeois’ or ‘capitalist’ civilisation; it is the organic community.” ’

With that concept, of course, Mulhern’s whole intellectual commitment is at odds. He has to describe, without believing a word of it, and as levelly as he can, the famous doctrine of irreparable cultural loss, of the ‘organic community’ gone and never to be seen again, and of trans-historical verities which must at all costs be preserved by the self-appointed guardians of high culture. It is a theory which, for a Marxist, is distasteful because it is not true. Nothing, for the Marxist, is ‘trans-historical’ in this sense, and some of the reasons why Mulhern is anxious to warn Marxists not to dismiss Leavis and Scrutiny too lightly may have their origin in the perception that the view of history propounded by Leavis and his collaborators has never been falsified, though it may often have been denied.

Mulhern cites Raymond Williams to the effect that ‘what we have to inquire into is not, in these cases, historical error, but historical perspective’: ‘If such constructions – and there are many of them – typically lack any sure empirical grasp of the past, it is because they are essentially para-historical figures, whose real significance lies in their ideological function in the present.’ Mulhern then proposes, realising this, ‘to identify the exact place and function of this patently idealised “history” within the complex of meanings and values that constituted the ideology of Scrutiny’.

This, and much else which he promises, he does not in fact do. The book fails, centrally, on this matter of the guaranteeing function of the myth of the ‘organic community’. It would be up to Mulhern, or anyone else attempting what he says he attempts, to show in what ways an originating myth, like the myth of the ‘organic community’, can actually be false, if it continues to generate true and valuable and responsible and committed and intelligent results. It would not be enough to prove that the doctrine was factually false: it would be further necessary to show that the doctrine was in some way malign or inefficient, which it certainly wasn’t in the case of the Scrutiny ‘para-historical figure’. It was more like a prophecy than a failed act of recall. Blakean, it proposed as aim what it analysed as loss. The Salvation Army does, so to speak, a great job, even if Eve never bit an apple in her life.

Undoubtedly the most valuable part of Francis Mulhern’s book is its conscientious cataloguing and listing. He describes very well, for instance, the struggles and infighting attendant upon the founding of the English School at Cambridge just after the First World War. He is illuminating about how and why Scrutiny came about in the first place. He divides his account into the periods 1932-1939, 1939-1945, and 1945 to the closure of Scrutiny in 1953. It is now possible to see why Scrutiny had such a sudden success when it was founded, why it had trouble during the war, and why it finally folded. Scrutiny is now clearly seen not to be monolithic, as even the 1963 reissue might have led one to believe. Indeed, it looks more or less as if each and every issue were a last-minute staving-off of final collapse, but for very varied reasons.

It was the period of the Cold War after 1945 that put the heaviest strain on the Scrutiny enterprise. The original contributors had now broken up and gone to live elsewhere. As a final blow, Q.D. Leavis suffered a serious illness. The old team had been disbanded, a period was over.

But it was not only these personal factors that counted. Scrutiny had had to do battle to preserve its political virginity both before and during the war, but the pressures of the Cold War after 1945 made its particular style of non-alignment and proud independence obsolete. Things had now come to the point where one decidedly had to answer the question: ‘Under which King, Bezonian? Speak or die!’ And this, for reasons specific to their whole history, aim and meaning, Leavis and Scrutiny just could not do. The journal had been founded to preserve, as well as to purify, the dialect of the tribe, and did not see itself as responsible for the survival of the tribe itself as such.

The increasing pressure was not only political: it was also academic. In 1951, Leavis’s old antagonist through the years, F.W. Bateson, founded (at Oxford) a new journal, Essays in Criticism. ‘Its main objective,’ writes Mulhern, ‘was to transcend what its editor had long regarded as the chief limitation of Scrutiny criticism: its lack of scholarship.’ This must have been a bitter draught indeed to Leavis, whose own idea of scholarship had always been that scholarship ought not only to be good, but also to have some relevance to its possessor.

But this was not all. Scrutiny was now radically out of sympathy with both East and West. ‘By 1953, the newly-founded monthly, Encounter, was calling anti-Communist intellectuals to a cultural campaign of a much less ambiguous kind.’ It would seem as if Mulhern has made his point. The ‘moment’ of Scrutiny was over.

But was it? Is it? I find the last seven pages of Mulhern’s book the most interesting of all, for in them he spells out the linguistic reason why Marxism should pay attention to Leavis and Scrutiny. To any reader who comes to this book from a full diet of semiology or deconstruction or any other linguistic interest, I would recommend the following: read pages 325 to 331 first. The withdrawal symptoms which would inevitably attend the beginning of the book will in this way be averted. For what transpires is that the ‘discourse’ of Scrutiny cannot be ‘ingested’ into ‘socialist cultural theory’ without making that theory ‘unintelligible’ to itself. It seems as if the collaborators on Scrutiny have carried out an impossible feat. By paying scrupulous attention to the language of political commitment, they have proved that some kinds of discourse are ‘trans-historical’ after all:

It is not that Scrutiny was ‘Luddite’ … nor merely that it idealised the past and saw only what was meretricious in the present … It is essentially that the basic and constant discursive organisation of the journal, the matrix of its literary and cultural criticism and of its educational policies, of its radical and conservative manifestations alike, was one defined by a dialectic of ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’ whose main and logically necessary effect was a depreciation, a repression and, at the limit, a categorial dissolution of politics as such. Nothing could be more disorienting for socialist cultural theory than the ingestion of a discourse whose main effect is to undo the intelligibility of its ultimate concern: political mobilisation against the existing structures of society and State.

Game, set and match to F.R. Leavis, Q.D. Leavis, and all those who contributed to Scrutiny. They have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. It is the word ‘discourse’ which points to the degree of that success. Scrutiny has obviously managed to keep its original promise. It has analysed language and literature, but cannot be ‘ingested’ into ‘socialist cultural theory’. This can only be because some of the intellectual ‘stances’ and original parti pris (listed by Mulhern in his closing section) had some intrinsic validity after all: ‘The Scrutiny group continued a line that included Cobbett and Shelley, Carlyle and Lawrence … they resumed an argument initiated by Coleridge and brought to classical maturity by Arnold.’ Leavis’s ‘epistemological themes of “recognition” and “inwardness”, of cultural knowledge as “recreation”, as the identity of the knower and the known, belong to that tradition of Verstehen (sympathetic understanding) whose representatives include the Germans Dilthey and Rickert, the Italian Croce – and, in another, very different variant, Max Weber.’

With intellectual precursors and forbears like this, it is scarcely surprising that the Leavisian ‘discourse’ refuses to be ‘ingested’ into ‘socialist cultural theory’, because, when one adds (as one must) all the liberal precursors who in their time entered a similarly strong protest against the Industrial Revolution’s excesses, and the reductivism of ‘technologico-Benthamism’, what the Scrutiny ‘discourse’ represents is nothing more nor less than the individual’s right to say no to the System.

One reason for this non-ingestibility is now suggested by Professor R.P. Bilan of Toronto. He suggests something which has long been on the verge of being said, without ever quite achieving it: that Leavis’s ‘discourse’, especially in the last six books, was tending more and more towards endorsing those values in literature which could be called religious, in that they create and preserve meaning in a hostile technologico-Benthamite climate.

One must be extremely grateful to Professor Bilan for daring at last to open up an entire new Leavisian landscape of the mind. One could wish that his book got going earlier than it does on his new proposals: the first part seems unnecessary or over-simple in view of what he proposes to do half-way through his book. But when he comes to the chapter called ‘Judgments and Criteria’, his book takes off. He passes in review the conceptual instruments with which Leavis was working in the earlier period up to The Great Tradition of 1948 – ‘impersonality’, maturity, specificity, concreteness, realisation, ‘life’ – in order to arrive at the watershed of his book, which consists of four vast chapters on Lawrence and one on T.S. Eliot.

That Leavis had a lifelong struggle with Lawrence and with T.S. Eliot is a commonplace. Professor Bilan now tells us what the essential character of that struggle was. It would appear that Leavis had to win clear of Eliot, and to do this, he came to endorse more and more the values D.H. Lawrence represented. More than that, as the years passed, he began to elevate other writers to the pantheon (in particular, Blake and Dickens) precisely because they had affinities with what Lawrence was proposing. For the same reasons, the ‘life-denying’ Eliot, the Eliot of negation, refusal, disgust, and a longing for eternity, was pushed further and further away from Leavis’s central preoccupation, which by now (the mid-Sixties) had become the religious discourse of a ‘great tradition’ – the one composed of the new triumvirate Blake-Dickens-Lawrence.

The chapter on T.S. Eliot is especially fascinating. The struggle between Leavis and Eliot which it describes was like the struggle between Holmes and Dr Moriarty on the edge of the abyss. If Lawrence, Blake and Dickens were now central to the ‘religious’ sense that Leavis wanted to spell out and endorse, then Eliot had to go. And Bilan shows brilliantly, I think, how the analyses of Four Quartets in English Literature in Our Time and the University (1969), in Lectures in America (1969), and, more decisively than ever before, in The Living Principle (1975), grow more and more hostile.

Bilan has a further point to make about this progressive rejection. It was for Leavis a painful matter, because Eliot had stood, for so many years, as a spokesman for spiritual values in a materialist desert, and now, at the end, there had to be a parting of the ways. Leavis’s own sense of what ‘the religious’ consisted in was a sense of spiritual qualities in the here and now. The Eliot who did that, in his poetry, was still acceptable. But the Eliot who wanted to cancel the world and leap into Eternity was repulsive to Leavis. It is surprising, for instance, to find just how emphatic is Leavis’s rejection of the quatrains which make up movement IV of East Coker:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

By the time of The Living Principle, Leavis’s own developing religious sense has led him to the strongest possible refusal of this: ‘the quatrains certainly give us something essential in the position defined by Four Quartets, and my “No” is as emphatic as the quatrains.’

Bilan enters his closing chapter, ‘The Religious Spirit’, with the question: in what, then, did Leavis’s religious sense consist? It is an infinite pity that this chapter, where Bilan engages with something of first importance, should not only be the shortest but also the last. It is here that his book should have begun.

What would Leavis’s explicit theology have been like? Bilan mentions that it would have been immanentist, not transcendental. He cites, as possible parallel theological stances, those of Buber, Bonhoeffer and Tillich. One important clue to defining Leavis’s theological ‘positive’ is the way he constantly links together, in his ‘discourse’, the idea of ‘the religious’ with the concept of ‘responsibility’. As early as 1967, in the Clark Lectures (published in 1969 as English Literature in Our Time and the University), he writes: ‘I have more and more settled down to the conviction that he [Blake] stands for a new sense of human responsibility, and that this is the Romantic era’s great permanent contribution.’ From then on, Blake was an informing ‘moment’ in Leavis’s developing theological meditation. Bilan quotes from Nor shall my sword (1972): ‘It is the Blake corroborated and reinforced by Lawrence that I have in mind when I contend what desperately needs to be emphasised in the present plight of mankind is the essential human creativity that is human responsibility.’ And in The Living Principle, the third part of the syllogism is added: ‘And unless it has a religious quality the sense of human responsibility can’t be adequate to the plight of the world that so desperately needs it.’

Bilan writes: ‘one gets the sense that Leavis’s criteria practically preclude the presentation of the eternal.’ Leavis’s sense of ‘the religious’ is indeed resolutely ‘this-worldly’. Hence it is easy to see the parallels with the thought of Bonhoeffer and Tillich. ‘The religious’ for Leavis is what preserves meaning in a world of technologico-Benthamite reductivist materialism.

And yet it would be possible to develop much, much further than Professor Bilan does Leavis’s religious grasp of responsibility. Inevitably, responsibility is responsibility to something, and where or what is that something?

I was myself sufficiently absorbed in this problem a decade ago to ask Professor Leavis personally about it. He spoke, not of religious beliefs, but of a ‘stance’. He went on to say that he owed much of his ‘stance’ to his ‘strong Huguenot background’. ‘My own family background,’ he added, ‘is entirely typical of the 19th-century graph: Unitarian by 1820, radical reformer by 1880, and agnostic pacifist by 1914.’

Putting all that together, I don’t think we can be satisfied with the idea that Leavis as theologian would have regarded ‘responsibility’ as a sufficient ultimate criterion. The comparison with Bonhoeffer is potentially a rich one, for Bonhoeffer argued for ‘God not on the borders of life but at its centre’, as Bilan reminds us in a footnote to page 300 that forms a little potential book in itself. Bonhoeffer, however, even in the hands of the Gestapo, was never related, in his ‘responsibility’, purely or merely to the ethical imperatives of this world. He would have endorsed those quatrains in ‘East Coker’ (‘My “Yes” is as emphatic as the quatrains’) because, without them, or the implications of something like them, there would be no ‘guaranteeing model’ of something to be responsible to. And this would surely have to be so, in the last analysis, for Leavis as well.

I think one can go further and say that it was so. One can see this in Leavis’s powerful and merciless downgrading of most of ‘Little Gidding’ at the end of the 1975 book, The Living Principle. The ‘guaranteeing model’ was, for Leavis, ‘life’ itself. Looking back over the Four Quartets, and over Eliot’s whole poetic career, Leavis indicts him at the last without pity: ‘The sin recognised in the truly strong section of “Little Gidding” as requiring expiation is a sin against life.’ Endlessly invoked throughout his later criticism, ‘life’ was for Leavis a transcendent reality against which Eliot had ‘sinned’. It was perhaps only because they had each adopted different ‘guaranteeing models’ that Leavis’s struggle with Eliot at the end was so bitter – a struggle to the death between two brothers in the spirit. Did Leavis stop one step short of becoming a Huguenot again?