Meeting in Meaning: Philosophy and Theory in the Work of F.R. Leavis

By Joyce, Chris | Modern Age, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Meeting in Meaning: Philosophy and Theory in the Work of F.R. Leavis


Joyce, Chris, Modern Age


WILLIAM WILKINS'S BUILDINGS of Downing College, Cambridge, in his Attic style, are mainly of a warm Ketton stone, from Lincolnshire. Spare of ornament, and enclosing three sides of expansive lawn and broad gravelled pathways, they mark the whole design with "a mixture of vitality and asceticism." This apt phrase comes from an obituary in The Times of 18th April 1978, characterizing not Downing itself but one of its most remarkable former fellows: the literary teacher and critic, F.R. Leavis (1895-1978). Leavis was in many ways the academic glory of Downing in the twentieth century, although the severance of relations between them in 1964 hardly suggests this. The college provided an appropriate setting for his "lived, serious and intransigent project." (1) It was--like the university of which it forms part--the outward and visible presence of an ideal. (2)

This paper tries to indicate the Leavisian gravitational field--or the field of association in which I want to "situate" him. I shall argue that his thought was profound and penetrating and very far indeed from exhibiting any kind of pre-theoretical innocence. I also suggest--the argument is related--that his work resists classification and that to call him a "moral formalist" or even (without qualification) a "liberal humanist" is to misunderstand him. I am not suggesting that "by a devout study of [his] symbolism a key can be found that will open to us a supreme ... wisdom" (his disparaging words of the Blake "industry"). (3) But some essential clues seem to me not to have been widely taken up. Testimony bearing on this comes from a surprising source--Raymond Williams:

  At the surface level there was a very strange mixture of the
  deliberate and the reckless, but below that again there was a
  condition I have only ever seen in one or two other men: a true sense
  of mystery, and of very painful exposure to mystery, which was even
  harder to understand because this was the man of so many confident and
  well-known beliefs and opinions. (4)

A former pupil, William Walsh, offers a similar "take":

  One always had the feeling that one wasn't simply discussing what was
  there on the page. This was taking place, of course, but the
  discussion was deeply rooted and far-reaching, dealing with all that
  one felt was really important in life.... Leavis's teaching always
  seemed to engage both these facets: one's personal life, and the life
  of the mind--the search for the significance of life itself. (5)

I associate these two recollections and, in doing so, think of Leavis's own observation in The Living Principle about the nature of a language as taking "the individual being, the particularizing actuality of life, back to the dawn of human consciousness, and beyond." (6) The use of the word beyond is particularly striking here ("In the beginning was the Word"). (7) His long engagement with the work of T.S. Eliot was, I suggest, the main testing ground for the condition identified (rightly, I think) by Williams.

"Painful exposure to mystery": the mystery immanent in the evolution of organic matter which can think and talk about itself, about its life and imminent death, but can do so, of its nature, only within insurmountable limitations. For, where ontology is concerned, the knowing consciousness is its own putative object ("the brain is alive" (8)). Whether Leavis would have acknowledged this way of putting it, one cannot know. He ploughed a furrow of his own making, developing original thought out of long pondering on the nature of literary creation.

Was Leavis religious? The answer, I believe, has the closest bearing on the nature of his thought. His father--influential in his formative years--was a Victorian radical. "There was," Leavis said, "a fierce, Protestant conscience there, but it was divorced from any religious outlet." (9) There is an evident sympathy in him for the English tradition of religious non-conformism--and non-conformism more generally.

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