Confessions of a Lapsed Leavisite

by David Stubbs

Despite the intimidating dominance with which he attempted to hold sway for much of the 20th century, the English academic FR Leavis (1895-1978) is rather a swept away figure today. Stephen Fry, that modern arbiter of all things – well, all things, has described him as a ‘prick’, while Clive James, in his Cambridge memoir May Week Was In June demolished the old master for the ludicrously vitriolic terms in which he lashed his academic rivals, which, said James, left him no linguistic room to condemn Himmler or Hitler. James also took issue with the narrow range of the canon Leavis proposed as worthy of study, asserting that it merely encouraged students to do something they were already rather too good at, which was not read.

I was reminded of what a risible, contemptible figure Leavis could cut by a recent review in the London Review of Books of two Leavis studies, including a memoir of one of his former pupils David Ellis, entitled ‘I Was A Leavisite’. The reviewer recalled how Leavis had recoiled in horror at Jimi Hendrix's pre-eminence in 1960s. John Mullan's review implies that Leavis had himself written disgustedly that Hendrix's onstage style was ‘characterised by highly amplified, tortured sounds’ from his guitar, which he ‘handled with strong, sexual overtones.’ These are actually the words of the Times obituary, written following Hendrix's death in 1970, which Leavis is quoting. He does so with utterly sarcastic revulsion, however. That this supposed paragon of 'pop art', should be deemed worthy of such attention of the Newspaper of Record is, for Leavis, compelling evidence of the ‘loss in the "educated" class of the fastidiousness; that is, of the finer habit of discrimination.’ Amplified! Tortured! Strongly Sexual! This is how far down the Fall of Man has taken us.

I myself was once a Leavisite of sorts but the ignorant, borderline-racist cultural hauteur Leavis employs here justly deserves to be buried in the mass grave of 20th-century stupidities – or, failing that, cremated in the furnace of Hendrix's legacy, which burns with ever greater intensity with each passing generation.

Funnily enough, ‘intensity’ is a word of which Leavis was excessively fond, and it was a quality which drew him to me as a young sixth-former preparing for my Oxbridge exams, a year or so after Leavis had passed away. I scraped together what nuggets of information I could find about Leavis in those pre-internet days – he seemed to cut a striking, anti-academic figure, with his open-necked shirts, his confidently judgmental style, his wife called Queenie. He had, I learned, founded the quarterly Scrutiny. He was a champion of the great modernists – Eliot, Joyce, and particularly DH Lawrence. After the war he had written The Great Tradition (1948), a crucible in which all but the most essential English novelists - Austen, Eliot, James, Conrad – were burnt away under his penetrative, critical gaze.

I was especially taken with his study DH Lawrence: Novelist (1955), which I used as a primer for Lawrence in my Oxford entrance exams. I was smitten by the passionate yet brimstone quality of Leavis/Lawrence, almost composite in places of this reading; at once teeming with Promethean, hormonal energy yet also with a high moral tone which appealed to the still-earnest young Catholic in me (I was educated at St Michael's college, a Jesuit, grammar school in Leeds - Leavis's ethos, which he spread evangelically among a network of acolytes, was especially well received in Catholic schools). Morality is that which fulfils the natural demands of man; I liked that. I admired also Leavis' fiery, impassioned, super-confident sense of his own rectitude, as well as the way in which he opened up his critical view to the world at large, beyond the fusty, leather bounds of the text.

I went up to Oxford full of fervour; however, although I formed key relationships there, I was left profoundly cool by the University. One reason was that, coming as I did from a grammar school turned comprehensive, from an unassumingly lower-middle-class background, I became aware, more keenly than at any time before or since of the class system in all its rigid, unbridgeable, complacency. The people to whom I was in close physical proximity were, and would remain, stratospherically distant from the likes of me, then, now, forever. Leavis didn't help much there, nor did he seem to speak to the blank indifference on the part of my tutors and the vast majority of my fellow students to what I considered to be the highly evolved state of popular culture at the time. Whether it was Coronation Street as a modern kitchen sink twice-weekly masterpiece, or street fashion as a witty, acerbic manifestation of postmodern acuity, or the post-punk/avant-funk music scene so forcefully celebrated by the NME, I found barely anyone other than a tiny handful of fellow students, including future Melody Maker colleague Simon Reynolds, who shared this sensibility. Although critical theory was enjoying a fresh resurgence under the aegis of tutors like Terry Eagleton and Valentine Cunningham, who railed against still-prevalent ideas of the ‘personal response’ to English literature being its primary connection, even they didn't seem to embrace my ‘low is the new high’ aesthetic. I was reading people like Paul Morley provocatively describing synthpoppers Depeche Mode as ‘hard’. Didn't anyone see the implication of that? The way he was deconstructing and upending the complacent assumptions of rock critical discourse, with its uninterrogated assumptions of softness, hardness, authenticity, integrity? Terry Eagleton listened to folk music. Et tu, Terry? Hadn't he read Paul Morley write that new pop was ‘anti-folk’? My undergraduate years were a long sulk, tutorials lukewarm affairs of mutual boredom. What did I read at University? I read the NME.

I didn't quite realise until later just how little sympathy Leavis (or many of his cherished ‘modernists’) would have had with me despite our both being at radical odds with academic mores. Although he never went quite so far as DH Lawrence did in urging that the newly founded and too-numerous ‘masses’ of the early 20th century be herded into Crystal Palace and be gassed, to relieve them of their frightful state of ‘unconsciousness’, Leavis certainly believed that modern man had been made sick by the mechanised lifestyle of the 20th century and all forms of mass culture and irrelevant distraction, which he held in utter, undifferentiated scorn. He duly regarded America as a vast mistake, of minimal interest. Ditto movies. He once joked about Wittgenstein often being found in the queue outside a Cambridge cinema. After a day’s hard philosophy, Leavis told his pupils, ‘you perhaps need a period of complete mindlessness in order to recover.’ The Bicycle Thieves and The Three Stooges, The Seventh Seal and Holiday On The Buses, it was all the same rubbish from where he was sitting, which was certainly not ever in a cinema seat.

Perhaps it was the mechanically generated nature of cinema that vexed him so. In his 1972 collection Nor Shall My Sword: Discourses On Pluralism, Compassion And Social Hope, he is so exercised by some remark he has heard that a ‘computer could write a poem’ that he stomps back to it, fuming, in the text, at least three times. It's from this book, based on a 1960s lecture series, that his offending Hendrix quote is taken. Leavis would doubtless turn in his grave were he to learn that in the 21st century, a still further fallen time, it is possible to buy a book from a computer, as I did in order to obtain my copy of Nor Shall My Sword.

For many, the 1960s were a time of high excitement, emancipation and enlightenment – not for Leavis, however, who saw all around him the world slipping away from the desideratum, into a ‘technologico-Benthamite’ utilitarian civilisation. He claimed repeatedly not to be a Luddite but this is as convincing as David Cameron claiming not to be against the right to strike in Britain, although never once in his life approving of any industrial action, ever. Leavis's beef, he said, was that mankind had not developed spiritually in tandem with the advances of the machine age. To do so, extensive study of the sanctioned classics of English Literature was required to bring humanity up to speed, which was why he considered study of English to be paramount and sacred in and of itself. He argued for a recasting of the University role to reflect this much-needed specialism, and railed against the likes of the Lords Snow and Annan for their misguided public spiritedness in educational policy.

Nor Shall My Sword is at times a wonderful read, although not necessarily for the reasons Leavis intended. The blood pressure of his prose remains high throughout, like an old man trying to make himself heard above what he imagines to be the infernal, cacophonous racket of modern life. It bristles with sneery inverted commas, sideswiping sub-clauses and an assumption that the compliant reader will accept in good and obedient faith his judgments on what is felicitous or otherwise in modern culture. He is, at all times, loftily untroubled by any of the qualms of the new age of relativism. There's a priceless passage in which he describes ‘my attitude, which I think the right one, towards America.’ So, that's what you think of what you think, eh? Crikey.

He tries to paint himself as a friend of humankind full of hope for its collective betterment, but the sight of ordinary people doing stuff never fails to raise his hackles. He alludes to such horrors as ‘congested roads, the smell of fish and chips and the ubiquity of transistors’ with barely disguised repugnance as the side effects of mass democracy, a phenomenon at which he glowers askance. He is pessimistic about the receptiveness of the lower orders to higher culture, ‘In those quiet places... near Cambridge to which my wife and I used to take our children, the working class people now everywhere to be met in profusion carry transistors round them almost invariably. The music that comes from these, like that one hears in greater volume in the neighbourhood of the bingo establishments (of which the smallest coast-hamlet has at least one – bingo being the most pathetic of vacuum fillers) doesn't at all suggest aspirations towards Beethoven.’

All of this he regards as a ‘sickness’ - he often reminds me of Dr Roderick Glossop, the Harley Street ‘nerve specialist’ who recurs in PG Wodehouse's Jeeves And Wooster stories, constantly misdiagnosing the frolics he witnesses in 1920s youth as evidence that they urgently require treatment for a mental disorder. Leavis's own prescription for the healthy, bingo-less life well lived is emphatic and much-repeated, yet vague. It involves, in the Laurentian manner, life, lived, with intensity, experienced with full consciousness in a real, a very real, organic and intense way. Organically lived; intense and experienced. All of these words crop up frequently with Leavis, though he doesn't elaborate further on them. It is for the reader to discover this Nirvana of intense intensity through close and rigorous reading of Austen, Blake, even, in certain instances, Dickens, who ‘lived intensely, experienced intensely.’

For those who cavil that Leavis's canon of approved artists are somewhat dead and white, he does have some use for other ethnic sorts, though certainly not the electrically overcharged Jimi Hendrix. He cites the Bushmen and Indian peasants ‘or a member of one of those poignantly surviving primitive peoples’ for instance who, innocent of knowledge of transistors and bingo, are ‘fully alive, fully human.’ It is not clear to what extent Leavis himself imitated the simplicity of the bushman's life in the suburbs of Cambridge but he certainly recommends them as a specimen for his readers to glean wisdom from.

Perhaps Leavis was exercising a relativism of sorts but from his wistful tone he believes that 20th-century existence, as studied, enjoyed, revered, viewed with discernment by some is, for him, a gross, collective lapse. Having winced at it from afar, the matter of its pernicious mediocrity is settled. For mankind to swim in the mechanically generated stuff of the 20th-century, from jazz to rock, from cinema to television, is to be out of his ‘natural’ element. He must urgently forsake all of this trivia, or all is lost. As for those who argue that machines are labour-saving, sparing millions from the sort of drudgery with which Leavis would never have had to busy himself, he issues a warning that automation will bring with it the ‘menace of leisure’. He foresees far shorter working hours for the working masses from the 1970s onwards, leading only to an expansion of meaningless activity in their spare time.

This projection turned out to be as groundless as the rest of Leavis's spurious social prescriptions. At best they are quasi-religious pap, in their faith in the uplifting, replenishing powers of art. At worst, they are an echo of the 20th-century modernists' at times deeply reactionary disdain for mass culture, and the regrettable embrace of the populace at large for ‘mass democracy’ and modern conveniences, rather than their romantic, peasant authenticity of pre-industrial yore. All of this has diminished Leavis's reputation and modern relevance considerably. While there's probably an excess of person-hours dedicated to, say, deconstructing Lady Gaga today, and certainly some who feel just as Leavis does about the modern world but aren't emboldened enough to say so too loudly, there is a narrowing of old concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’. There is an increasing willingness to find the sort of life-affirming intensity and artistic excellence worthy of critical examination in what a previous generation once saw as the self-inflicted white noise of a self-lobotomising generation dedicated to oblivion. Jimi Hendrix. Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful.

I certainly believed all of this as I left University and embarked on a career in music journalism in the late 1980s. And yet . . . with the postmodern playfulness of the early 80s (ABC, The Human League, etc) having run its dialectical course, I decided that the late ‘80s would mark the postpostmodern era, the rediscovery of rock's elemental properties. These qualities I discerned in a small handful of groups, including The Young Gods and Big Black, and any groups who did not share their burning, righteous intensity of purpose were to be discounted. When asked to review bands like Microdisney, for example, I dismissed them, essentially on the grounds that they were not The Young Gods, and therefore damned. (The Damned were also damned, for the same reason). I vaguely hoped that the masses would embrace these groups as part of a general, social transformation; the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - ‘for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire’ - sometimes swirled in my skull as I battered zealously at my typewriter. However, when I listened to what was blaring out of transistor radios, I despaired. Yup ... I was, kind of a Leavisite. I'd long given up Leavis, about the time I gave up Catholicism – neither, however, entirely quit my bloodstream. Maybe they never have, and never quite should – that fervid desire to exalt, or to burn through perceived dross. Never dispense entirely with anything, or anybody. In my parents' attic, patiently awaiting rediscovery, is a copy of DH Lawrence: Novelist. All should never quite be lost . . .