Leavis through a different glass

Re-Reading Leavis
November 7, 1997

The Leavisites and the post-structuralists - those modern-day Montagues and Capulets of our English faculties - have at long last, it appears, found a willing go-between. To Gary Day, the author of this good-intentioned new book, this long-running feud should never have started, let alone lasted some 30 years or more, because the post-structuralists, if only they would re-read Leavis in a suitably constructive spirit, must come to appreciate the fact that their only love sprang from their only hate, and that Leavis is thus far more of a friend than he ever was a foe.

Day speculates that one reason why post-structuralists might regard F. R. Leavis as a foe rather than a friend is that there has been "a subliminal awareness that there are similarities as well as differences between the two positions, and to confront these would undermine post-structuralism's claim to be a radical departure from the kind of thought associated with Leavisian literary criticism".

An uncommonly constructive reading of Leavis, argues Day, would reveal that Leavis, rather like his post-structuralist critics, believed that literary works are not explicable entirely in terms of their author's intentions, and that the meaning of a text is not fixed and final but fluid and flowing, and that it is the process whereby reality is generated through the use of language, rather than the correspondence of language to the material world, that is the proper concern of the critic of culture. Leavis's work, in short, can be thought of, Day claims, as "post-structuralist" to the extent that "his writings refuse the reductions and conformities of mass culture, promoting instead the virtues of multiplicity, complexity and difference".

This spirited re-evaluation of Leavis's position is but the first part of Day's project. His next step is to use the cultural criticism of Leavis - along with that of Theodor Adorno - as "a corrective" to what he regards as the limitations of post-structuralism, such as its anti-humanism and its tendency to allow its commitment to difference to "decay into an indiscriminate toleration of whatever proclaims itself as such". The central tension in the work of Leavis and Adorno, Day argues, is to be located between the commitment to critical precision and the recognition of the inevitability of critical imprecision; both writers, in spite of the absence of any final court of appeal in the arbitration of value judgements, insist on the obligation to continue to make and defend them.

Day's attempt at establishing the grounds for a possible happy marriage of the Leavisites to the post-structuralists is not entirely successful. The most sceptical reader will question the wisdom of interpreting Leavis and Adorno from a "broadly post-structuralist perspective". Such a reader might respond to Day's claim that "there are post-structuralist elements" in both writers' work by noting that the more apposite formulation would be that there are elements drawn directly or indirectly from Leavis and Adorno in the work of the post-structuralists. The subsequent issue that is thus not fully explored is the question of which of these perspectives represents a genuine step forward, and which a step back, and which, as a consequence, deserves to be redeemed by the assistance of what.

One might also query Day's bold use of Adorno as an ally of Leavis. Some of Adorno's ideas about the relation of art to society can indeed, as Day suggests, "be shown to resemble Leavis's own", but many others (not least those concerning the proper role of critique, the historicity of theory and the reliance of cultural change on material change) surely can be shown to differ quite considerably from Leavis's own perspective.

It would be unfair to dwell on such points of contention, as this is a book that takes risks not to court controversy, but rather to cultivate a more constructive critical debate about some highly influential figures and some very interesting ideas. It does not tell us which of the warring gods we should serve, but it does suggest how best we might benefit from their respective gifts.

Graham McCann is a fellow, King's College, Cambridge.

Re-Reading Leavis: 'Culture' and Literary Criticism

Author - Gary Day
ISBN - 0 333 62900 0
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £37.50
Pages - 307

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