Friday, September 6, 2013

F. R. Leavis on Genius, etc

The above is a review by John Mullen of three books on F. R Leavis.  Leavis is not presented as addressing “genius” per se, but it is implicit and even mentioned once.  Leavis does not admire Dickens, but he does admire Hard Times:  “Dickens does not merit a chapter in The Great Tradition, but Hard Times, on its own, does. ‘If I am right,’ Leavis writes, ‘of all Dickens’s works it is the one that has all the strength of his genius, together with a strength no other of them can show – that of a completely serious work of art.’. . .”

One can therefore read this article, or the books it reviews, and take Leavis’ “great tradition” as an indication of who he believed were the geniuses of English literature – or moving to the idea (which Leavis would probably approve) that there are no geniuses only works that embody genius by talented writers. 

Leavis like Britain is considered by some to be irrelevant:  “Ellis begins his memoir by accepting that, for those now teaching English in schools or universities, ‘Leavis is an irrelevance.’ He certainly seemed an irrelevance to us as students in the late 1970s. We were about to be plunged into the giddy world of structuralism and deconstruction. If any of us had been recommended Leavis by an earnest English teacher, his authority would soon have been relinquished for Barthes and Derrida and Foucault. Some of the convictions that sustained him now seem odd relics. Hilliard details the mythologisation in Scrutiny of a lost world where labourers were creative artisans rather than alienated wage slaves. In particular Leavis recommended George Sturt’s 1923 study, The Wheelwright’s Shop, a paean to the fulfilment supposedly once found by the skilled worker in an organic community. Leavis mentions it again in ‘Luddites?’ as evidence of a relation between ‘cultural values’ and ‘economic fact’ that is ‘finally gone’.

“Yet that supposed ‘irrelevance’ is only apparent. All these books manage to suggest that Leavis reshaped ideas about the value of reading so completely that we do not notice it. He taught that every encounter with the greatest literature is completely fresh and demanding. In his early book How to Teach Reading he scorned ‘discussing literature in terms of Hamlet’s and Lamb’s personalities, Milton’s universe, Johnson’s conversation, Wordsworth’s philosophy, and Othello’s or Shelley’s private life’. We don’t have to reject all these topics to understand the value of clearing them away. Leavis bequeathed a confidence in the essential value of any intelligent reader’s intense engagement with the best literature. There is not exactly a Leavisite method to follow. As Collini rightly says, reading Leavis’s criticism one often gets the disconcerting sense that ‘the work of discrimination’ has already been done and that ‘the reader is merely being issued with a reminder of what was “plainly” the case.’ He is little interested in William Empson’s brand of close reading with its minute verbal explication. His critical writing often deploys extended quotation as if the best writing proves itself. But he had a virtue that would be rare among leading academic critics of a later generation: he found all that was valuable within the literary work rather than taking pride in his own critical ingenuity (in this respect at least, Byatt’s caricature seems wrong). Leavis taught his students that great literature is a test of the reader, endlessly renewable, and in this he seems both influential still and right.”

Thus, if we are sufficiently interested in the nature of genius as exemplified by British novelists and poets we would read Leavis to find out who he considers to be the great authors in the “Great Tradition.”  Leavis would say that if we read a great novel and don’t appreciate it then we are falling short of appreciating its genius probably because we ourselves fall far short of genius and are incapable of grasping what the author achieves.  That would be an intimidating conclusion if all those who developed lists of works in the Great Tradition agreed with each other.

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