Words as weapons

Study of the best that has been thought and said is under attack. Fred Inglis turns to F.R. Leavis for the ordnance with which to defend the humanities

May 5, 2011

There is a shoot or two of new, green growth cracking open the reinforced concrete that was poured over the collective brain of university humanities departments by the big mixers of Theory.

The growth is not, of course, only a response to the murderous attempts to extinguish the humane vocation of the humanities by Foucauldians and Lacanians, blindly certain of the finalities of Discourse and of the contorted impossibility of saying anything good and true unpoisoned by the will to power on the part of imperialism, sexism or the old unconscious.

Green growth is also apparent as a denial of the dreadful and illiterate blankness of government policy towards the noble and far-from-moribund idea of what universities are for, what are the function and meaning of an education in the humanities, and what those who have experienced such an education make of it when they proceed to their careers, especially when those careers lead either to politics or the academy.

The vast financial crisis of the past four years, which still has such a long way to run, has stirred dormant allegiances. It has returned some university teachers to the big old questions put with such pungency and unignorable acerbity by far and away the greatest crusader of the 20th century on behalf of the importance of the university and its custodianship of the essential sources of a nation's identity and strength.

The crusader was and is F.R. Leavis, who died as recently as 1978 and was writing and fighting for the future, and the future as necessarily shaped and impelled by the past, right up to his last moments.

In a late collection of essays, he launched an irrepressible attack on the "blind, enlightened menace" of bien-pensant and complacent thoughtlessness on the part of everybody whose business it was to cut the heart and life out of the precious necessity of studying the best that had been thought and said. He gave the collection the well-earned title Nor Shall My Sword: Discourses on Pluralism, Compassion and Social Hope (1972).

Well, his sword was certainly sleepless, and he used it to cut down, by name, plenty of those who confirmed the tendency of the day to sever the connection between critical thought and the life of the nation; to drain the blood out of the body politic in order to render it the zombie of the managers; to replace the terrific energy of education with the compliant inertia of "training" - training in the enslaved service of an unexamined standard of living death.

Thirty-three years later, what Leavis, in a deliberate periphrasis, called "technologico-Benthamite civilisation" charges on its headlong way. A businessman who resigned from the headship of BP, a company with a reputation tarnished by a string of safety and environmental disasters during his tenure, is appointed to present a report recommending that all money for teaching be removed from the humanities. Applicants for the study of literature are requested to find themselves an annual cheque for £9,000 and select a course they will "enjoy" (Lord Browne of Madingley's word) by way of preparation for the restoration of the banking system and the devastation of old England.

None of the "neo-" or "post-" formations of Marxism, liberalism, colonialism, feminism or modernism has anything to say by way of addressing this crisis (for once, it is the right, the only, word). The language of managerialism, as the immortal parodies written every week for these pages by Laurie Taylor assure us, is a language in which it is impossible to tell the truth.

Leavis forged his own idiosyncratic language of truth-telling. Year after year, unafraid of repetitiveness, undaunted by the wholly English device on the part of the noble Lords who stood in as figureheads for Benthamism - which was to murmur in pained, well-bred incomprehension at Leavis' vehemence - he kept up his solitary fusillade until, tired out, he died in dark depression.

As a great admirer of Leavis, the historian E.P. Thompson once wrote: "It ill becomes us not to play out our old roles to the end." Like all the great moral critics of British civilisation and its awful failings, like Dr Johnson, J.S. Mill, John Ruskin and William Morris, Leavis was no mere polemicist. His strictures and his mighty positives grew out of the six decades of his labours, during which he gave solid life to his solidly grasped moral and political allegiances.

At the same time, he dramatised with no less vitality and vividness the death-in-life of all those he took to be inimical to life, to civilisation, to the essential sources of renewal and fulfilment. Much accused of humourlessness, he himself wrote, with his splendid lieutenant Denys Thompson, a marvellous school textbook, Culture and Environment: The Training of Critical Awareness (1933). In it he nailed down, by way of his own wickedly funny parodies, the abominations of advertising and its lethal role in the abasement of English. Eighty years later, schoolchildren are set not to study this ruination of the Word, but to copy it faithfully.

No one, however, was less liable than Leavis to the drunkenness of demonisation. He opposed the enemy with his formidable, exhilarating troop of writers on the side of "life" - that utterly central concept to his moral vision. "Life" is the property of Shakespeare, William Blake, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence. Life is that quality, as Leavis finds and defines it, in the language mastered and deployed by these exemplary writers. Life declares itself in the strong and subtle sense each so variously displays of responsibility towards a living civilisation, of nurture of that civilisation's best aspects, of delight in fostering it and of a keen intuition of the points at which it is menaced and must be defended.

Thus and thus, responsibility is to be found in the poise of language balanced between the rendered reality of the experience and the sincerity with which it is properly felt and judged.

Studying such actualities is the point of the study of a nation's literature, and especially of an English now become a world literature. But Leavis was, I think, the first theorist (to allow a designation he would have fiercely refused) to make the connection between writer-thinker (and for him great literature embodies thought at its fullest and most responsible) and the circumambient culture in which he or she must swim.

Mark Twain's Mississippi, Joseph Conrad's HMS Conway, D.H. Lawrence's mining village of Eastwood around 1900, George Sturt's wheelwright's shop in Farnham, were each of them intensely civilised, as well as exiguous, places. Not to see that is to fail to understand how language, used with completeness, grace and sincerity, feeds and carries and sustains the only life which can count as life, summoning up forms of life that the political language of our day cannot name and fatally neglects.

Of course, the syllabuses of our university courses in English are heavily imprinted by Leavis' moral vision of "the great tradition" that he himself rewrote for the 20th century, and this is so even for teachers who don't know his name.

But something more urgent presses upon the day. It seems to me to be the case that a new, drastic hiatus impends in our civilisation, matching two of the great historical splits of the past, those of the 17th and 19th centuries. The old order is breaking down, economically, environmentally, meaningfully. The official forces will fight to the end to restore things as they were; they will fail.

In these circumstances, it will prove the responsibility of university teachers of the humanities - philosophy, history, literature - and like-minded allies in social science to rediscover a language capable of speaking of matters of life and death, whether in lectures, books for the risible research excellence framework, seminars and conferences or, indeed, in the long, drawn-out disputes with management about the whole horrible hoo-ha over balancing the rigged books as handed over by the government. The language to hand is Leavis', and we had better learn to speak it again before it is too late.

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