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Leavis, Tolstoy, Lawrence, and “Ultimate Questions”

F. R. Leavis’s essay on Anna Karenina is distinctive in his work because it is really against his usual critical assumptions to engage with a work in translation. In fact it turns out to be one of his best essays, one in which he is prepared to be critical of his admired D. H. Lawrence and in which he deals with his own deepest moral concerns and with the nature of tragedy. Toward the end I draw a comparison between a narrowing moralism in the later Leavis and the later Tolstoy.

Leaviss turn from a preoccupation with poetry to a preoccupation with the novel in the second part of his career has long been recognized. There is a consensus that he had a wonderful feeling for the textual particularity of poetry, the way that a poem is not just its paraphrasable content, in that the meaning is carried by the movement, rhythm, tone, and tempo of the speaking voice. Poetry intended for the eye and print reading only (as so much modern so-called poetry seems to be) passed him by. It is not surprising, then, that when Leavis’s concern turned from poetry to the novel, he wanted to assimilate the novel as much as possible to poetry. He preferred to think of the novel as a “dramatic poem” and claimed in D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, “In the nineteenth century and later the strength—the poetic and creative strength—of the English language goes into prose fiction.”1 In the same work, he speaks of words and associated symbols in The Rainbow and of the clear symbolism associated with the chapter “The Diver” in Women in Love (DHLN, p. 195).

It is clear, however, that on strictly Leavisian principles a critical essay dealing with a work in translation should be ruled out. The sound and [End Page 157] syntactical levels omitted, only the semantic one is left. Nevertheless we must be grateful that Leavis overcame any scruples he may have had on this matter and addressed the Cambridge University Slavonic Society on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina even to the extent of speaking of the “mode of speech, for instance, so rendered by Tolstoy as to give us the tone and inflection.”2 Philip Rahv, who in his review of “Anna Karenina” and Other Essays in the New York Review of Books was highly critical of Leavis and himself a good critic of Tolstoy, spoke of the Anna Karenina essay as “excellent.”3 It is indeed a superb essay, one of Leavis’s very best pieces of writing, because in it he brought his own lifelong concern with what we might call “ultimate questions” to one of its clearest articulations. Indeed, he tells us that his overwhelming sense of “the range and variety of human experience” and the “depth and vividness” of its rendering emboldened him to embark on the task of lecturing on it (AKOE, p. 9).

Leavis was, of course, aware of how much the experience of reading Tolstoy’s novel together had meant to D. H. Lawrence and Jessie Chambers in their adolescence, from the wonderful account Chambers gives in the chapter “Literary Formation” in her memoir of Lawrence. She writes:

In the end he brought me his own copy of Anna Karenina. He said it was the greatest novel in the world and we revelled in it, father, my brother, and I. We felt most sympathy in those days with Levin and Kitty, and followed their experiments in farming with deep interest. The book was like a piece of new experience, and the people real individuals whom we could discuss and argue about as though they had been personal friends. Lawrence, however, was more interested in the problem of Anna.4

Earlier in the chapter she remembers Lawrence referring to George Eliot’s “usual plan” being “to take two couples and develop their relationships” and to the fact that she had been the first to “put all the action inside” rather than just convey the externalities of plot, intrigue, and action as Fielding had done. Chambers adds, “I always found myself most interested in what people thought and experienced within themselves, so I ventured the opinion that George Eliot had been right” (DHL, p. 103). The novel Anna Karenina is, of course, strikingly concerned with two couples (as Lawrence’s Women in Love was to be) and with characters striving to understand their inner experience.

But a very different presence from D. H. Lawrence stands behind Leavis’s essay, that of Matthew Arnold. Leavis rated Arnold very high [End Page 158] among the English critics, well above Coleridge, despite the fact that Arnold had made his peace, in his urbanely Oxfordian Arnoldian way, with the Church of England. Leavis undoubtedly felt he was continuing Arnold’s work of promulgating the high culture achieved in past, stratified agrarian civilizations (such, by the way, as Tolstoy’s still was) into modern capitalist and urban societies. But there is another link between the two, Arnold’s “vitalism.” This may seem a strange word to use of such an urbane author, but Arnold was undoubtedly interested in “what makes for life.” In a famous passage in his essay on Wordsworth, Arnold rejects the aesthetic immoralism that had arisen in his time and which was to affect his successors Pater and Wilde. Arnold claimed the revolt against morals arose from seeing morals “in a narrow and false fashion.” This narrow vision had led to the revolt against moral ideas. Such a revolt was a delusion. Arnold wrote, “The best cure for our delusion is to let our minds rest upon that great and inexhaustible word life, until we learn to enter into its meaning. A poetry of revolt against moral ideas is a revolt against life, a poetry of indifference towards moral ideas is a poetry of indifference towards life.”5

Arnold’s own 1887 essay on Anna Karenina, given the fact that he too acknowledged his lack of Russian, may have encouraged Leavis to follow his example. Leavis, of course, expressed some disagreement with Arnold’s approach, as we shall see, but affinities between them also exist. Arnold describes a striking contrast between “the spirit of observation and the touch of hardness” (EIC, p. 254) in Flaubert’s portrait of Emma and “the fullness of life, the softness and strength joined” (EIC, p. 267) in Tolstoy’s portrait of Anna. Arnold contrasts Flaubert’s taint of “sensuality,” so to speak, with Tolstoy’s wholesome “sensuousness.” Arnold writes:

Let us revert for the moment to the powerful novel of which I spoke at the outset, Madame Bovary. Undoubtedly the taint in question is present in Madame Bovary, although to a lesser degree than in more recent French novels. … But Madame Bovary with this taint is a work of petrified feeling; over it hangs an atmosphere of bitterness, irony, impotence; not a personage in the book to rejoice or console us; (the springs of freshness and feeling are not there to create such personages.) Emma Bovary follows a course in some respects like that of Anna, but where, in Emma Bovary, is Anna’s charm? The treasures of compassion, tenderness, insight, which alone, amid so much guilt and misery, can enable charm to subsist and to emerge are wanting to Flaubert.

(EIC, p. 276) [End Page 159]

Ultimately Arnold’s own stance toward life is rooted in Goethe’s Der Zweck des Lebens ist das Leben Selbst (The Aim of Life Is Life Itself). Goethe’s stance goes back to Spinoza’s pantheistic immanentism with its total rejection of transcendence, its identification of God with Nature, and its life affirmation as expressed in the proposition from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that Arnold quotes in his essay “A Word More about Spinoza”: “Man’s very essence is the effort wherewith each man strives to maintain his own being. … Joy is man’s passage to a greater perfection. … Sorrow is man’s passage to a lesser perfection.”6

It is interesting that Michael Baxandall, in Episodes: A Memory Book, writes of Leavis, “There were also touches or fragments of something like a vitalistic ideology. In short, one was entering an implicit system.”7 I see this Leavisian vitalism as somewhat neo-Nietzschean (despite his remark that “the Nietzschean witness had better be dispensed with” in “Tragedy and the Medium”8). It is first formulated, I think, and then more frequently articulated subsequently, in his preoccupation from the nineteen fifties onward with the work of D. H. Lawrence.

Starting with his book D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, which Rahv characterized as “extravagant” (rightly, I think), Lawrence is more and more thrown into the scale, so to speak, against what Leavis had come to see as the life-denying, etiolated Christianity of T. S. Eliot, which made him move from the appreciative “Why ‘Four Quartets’ Matters in a Technologico-Benthamite Age,” published in English Literature in Our Time and the University, to the much more critical account of the poems in The Living Principle. A striking expression of Leavis’s vitalism appears in his second study of Lawrence, Thought, Words and Creativity: “‘Life,’ as I have said more than once, is a necessary term; that is, it’s far from meaningless, and Lawrence, making his necessary points, has to use it—and uses it without inner resistance. ‘Nothing,’ his maxim runs, ‘is important but life.’”9

Leavis’s vitalistic immanentism comes out in his essay on The Rainbow in the same book, where he shows that not only does Eliot’s Christianity have something wrong with it but also Will Brangwen’s. Leavis claims that Lawrence is implicitly critical of “Will’s cult of the cathedral” (TWC, p. 134). Will’s reaction is “placed,” to borrow a Leavisian term, by Anna’s resentment of “his transports and ecstasies.” Leavis shares Lawrence’s distrust of claims to have attained the “absolute” and “eternity,” whether they are Will’s at Lincoln cathedral or Eliot’s in the rose garden. Such claims arise from and evince a basic nihilism. But, if we triangulate the Leavis, Lawrence, and Tolstoy relationship, we see that not only [End Page 160] was Leavis prepared to use Lawrence to criticize Eliot but also to use Tolstoy to criticize Lawrence. “What for—what ultimately for?” is the question “implicitly asked in all the greatest art,” claims Leavis in the essay entitled “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” an essay in which he makes a not, I think, wholly successful attempt to dissociate what he sees as Bunyan’s “vital religion” from his “deathly theology” (AKOE, p. 46).

But Leavis was aware that no final doctrinal statement of answer to the concern implicit in that question (if it can be called a question) is possible. The answer (if it can be called an answer) lies, as he puts it, “in the communication of a felt significance: something that confirms our sense of life as more than a lineal succession of days, a matter of time as measured by the clock, ‘to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow.’” A like quest for significance is also posed in the essay on Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, in which Leavis writes, “When you’ve crossed the line out of the state of being young, in which you ask no ultimate questions, what answer do you find to the questions that begin to put themselves, the question above all ‘What ultimately for?’ Is a prosperous career enough to give meaning to life—to bring fulfilment?” (AKOE, p. 119). Leavis was undoubtedly impressed by Tolstoy’s depiction of Levin’s tortured reflections on the meaning of life in chapters 8 and 9 of book 8, the final book of Anna Karenina: “‘Without knowing what I am, and why I am here, it is impossible to live. Yet, I cannot know that, and therefore I cannot live,’ he said to himself.” Leavis sees, along with the Wittgenstein whose influence he misunderstood and mistrusted, that the “answer” to these perplexities can only be “shown,” not “said.”

Here I want to turn for a moment to a philosopher who came out of a tradition very different from that of Wittgenstein, that of Edmund Husserl and his phenomenology, namely the Polish philosopher Roman Ingarden. In section 43, “Metaphysical Qualities (Essences),” of his book The Literary Work of Art, Ingarden sees certain apprehensions of metaphysical qualities emerging at moments from the represented objectivities in a literary work. It is to such moments that Leavis as a critic is notably capable of responding. Ingarden writes:

These qualities are not “properties” of “objects” in the usual sense of the word, nor are they, in general, “features” of some psychic state, but instead they are usually revealed, in complex and often very disparate situations or events, as an atmosphere which, hovering over the men and things contained in these situations, penetrates and illuminates everything with its light. … Life flows by—if one may say so—senselessly, gray and [End Page 161] meaningless, with no regard for the great works which might be realized in this antlike existence. And then comes a day—like a grace—when perhaps for reasons that are unremarkable and unnoticed, and usually also concealed, an “event” occurs which envelops us and our surroundings in just such an indescribable atmosphere. … These “metaphysical” qualities—as we would like to call them—which reveal themselves from time to time are what makes life worth living, and, whether we wish it or not, a secret longing for their concrete revelation lives in us and drives us in all our affairs and days. Their revelation constitutes the summit and the very depths of existence. … In their unique form they do not allow purely rational determination, and they cannot be “grasped” (as, for example, one “grasps” a mathematical theorem). Instead they merely allow themselves to be, simply, one might almost say “ecstatically,” seen in the determinate situations in which they are realized.10

In a central passage in the essay on Anna Karenina, Leavis points out that Tolstoy’s temptation is one of stating doctrine about a life wisdom that he refuses to recognize can only be obtained intermittently and even in different ways from different viewpoints. The central viewpoint in Anna Karenina is, of course, that of Levin, and we shall see how Leavis, leaning on the narrator Tolstoy’s own shoulders, questions the nascent later Tolstoyanism implicit in some of Levin’s attempts to reach a definitive conclusion about life. Leavis writes of Levin, “The cogent force of the whole great work makes it plain that the answer he threatens to commit himself to with the whole force of his will is a desperately simplifying one; that is, not an answer at all—unless a rejection of life is an answer.” In his final comment on Tolstoy himself, Leavis writes, “But we, most of us, have to recognize a higher authority in the art, the creative power of Anna Karenina than in the wisdom of the ‘sage and prophet’” (AKOE, pp. 31–32).

The only thing I would demur from here is Leavis’s use of the word “wisdom,” unless he intends a tinge of irony (though the word is not in scare quotes), as perhaps he does. The ethical absolutism of the aged Tolstoy was anything but wise, as anyone reading J. M. Robertson’s collection of essays Explorations, a wonderful and devastating criticism of the dubious assumptions and weak reasoning in Tolstoy’s later ethical and religious works, will be convinced. Oddly enough, what Santayana wrote of the early Bertrand Russell’s realist ethics (Russell later changed his mind under Santayana’s influence) applies beautifully to the later Tostoy’s ethics: “ethical absolutism, being a mental grimace of passion, refutes what it says by what it is.”11 [End Page 162]

Leavis begins his essay by rejecting the Arnoldian and Jamesian view that Tolstoy had plenty of life, but lacked art. He goes on to refer to James’s “confident censure” (and we know how greatly Leavis admired James’s criticism in general from his preface to Morris Shapira’s selections of that criticism)—only to dismiss it forcefully. James is seen as less encumbered than Arnold, who, as Leavis says, using the urbane eutrapelia he had learned from Arnold himself, had “public school Classics and Aristotle and Oxford” behind him, but this only makes James’s censure of Tolstoy’s art less excusable. Leavis sees James as having evolved a too-limited conception of art from his own practice. He finds Lawrence’s conception of the novel as exploratory expression of thought much more fruitful. Leavis sees “the thought in question necessarily being … thought about the nature, the meaning, and the essential problems of human life”; in short, thought like Wordsworth’s “On Man, on Nature and on Human Life”—thought on “ultimate questions.”

The elements of experience are diverse, and Leavis sees such thought about them as is expressed in art as thought that engages the human being as a whole “and defeats the distorting effects of abstraction and selection.” For Leavis, an “addiction to art” in the Jamesian sense “entails a severe limitation in regard to significance,” whereas the “relation of art to life in Tolstoy is such as to preclude this kind of narrowly provident economy” (AKOE, p. 11). In Tolstoy the artist is both profoundly involved in life and profoundly engaged with focusing that concern in art. Tolstoy has to guard against “didactic lies” in the novel, and whereas Lawrence accuses him of having given in to them, Leavis thinks that in the novel (as opposed to the didactic writings) Tolstoy has triumphed over them. Leavis puts the matter superbly, as follows:

What Tolstoy has to guard against is the intensity of his wish for an “answer.” The temptation in wait for Tolstoy is to relax the tension, which, in being part of his integrity, is the vital tension of his art, by reducing the question into one that can be answered—or, rather, one to which a seemingly satisfying answer strongly solicits him; that is to simplify the challenge life actually is for him and deny the complexity of his total knowledge and need.

(AKOE, p. 12)

Levin, as we have seen, is the center of consciousness in the book, and is, as Leavis sees, “particularly close to Tolstoy himself.” But Leavis then adds, “That, however, is not the same as saying he is the author, the artist, directly present in the book.” It is patently clear that whatever [End Page 163] Levin is, “he is not a great novelist” (AKOE, p. 13). Levin is the focus of Tolstoy’s temptation to simplify, but he is more than just an abstract seeker for solutions to “ultimate questions”: Levin is an “aristocrat” who sees Vronsky as an immoral social climber. Levin is a self-consciously exhibitionist skater, “a sportsman with the proper pride of a first-class shot” (AKOE, p. 14). The love, courtship, and marriage of Levin and Kitty form a contrast both to Kitty’s unhappy sister Dolly and her husband Oblonsky and, of course, to the tragic Anna and her lover Vronsky. Yet all unfolds completely naturally, totally unlike, as Leavis observes, the relationships in Shakespeare’s “frankly contrived” (as Leavis puts it) Measure for Measure (AKOE, p. 15). In fact, in his essay on Tostoy’s novel, Leavis comes closest to articulating those feelings about tragedy that many of his students always felt he wanted to articulate, and never really managed to do, with regard to Shakespeare.

It is clear that Leavis no more shares the disapproval of Tolstoy’s novel on the part of his admired D. H. Lawrence than he shares the disapproval of it by Arnold and James. But, of course, he rejects Lawrence’s view on very different grounds. I have already mentioned Lawrence’s intense engagement with the book at the time of his love for Jessie Chambers. He obviously discussed the book a lot with his wife, Frieda. These discussions no doubt fed into the explicit comments about Anna Karenina in Phoenix. He rightly praises the artist in Tolstoy and condemns the moralist, but he confuses the Tolstoy of the didactic writings with the Tolstoy of the novel. His condemnation is fine as long as we apply it to the author of the infamous “Afterword to the Kreutzer Sonata,” a piquant contrast with its recommendation of monkish chastity to Lawrence’s A Propos Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But Leavis rightly rejects such objections when they are applied to Anna Karenina (AKOE, p. 20). Here is Lawrence’s attack on the book in Phoenix:

Tolstoi has a perverse pleasure in making the later Vronsky abject and pitiable: because Tolstoi so meanly envied the passionate healthy male in the young Vronsky. Tolstoy cut off his own nose to spite his face. He envied the reckless passionate male with a carking envy, because he must have felt himself wanting in some way in comparison. … Tolstoi tries to insult and to damp out the vividness of life. Imagine any great artist making the vulgar social condemnation of Anna and Vronsky figure as a divine punishment! Where is now the society which turned its back on Vronsky and Anna? Where is it?12 [End Page 164]

Sometimes when Lawrence’s prose becomes repetitive and incantatory like this, one feels that he is trying to convince himself that he has been carried away by his own case. But I am certainly not carried away, and we shall shortly see that Leavis wasn’t either. Rarely could there be such a heap of tendentious hypotheses about motives and patent misapprehension of what lies before one as that evinced by Lawrence here! What establishes that Tolstoy—who was virile, as the countess wryly noticed, into his eighties (alas poor Lawrence!)—envied Vronsky? It is clear, on the contrary, that Tolstoy celebrates Vronsky’s physicality, as the chapter describing his own delight in his body in the carriage ride vividly shows. Levin’s physical vigor is also wonderfully evoked and celebrated, in such passages as the skating scene and the mowing scene.

There is not a trace of vindictiveness toward Vronsky on the part of the author, who portrays him with insight and sympathy. He is seen as a decent if limited man (who progresses morally as the events unfold, as Arnold notes). Of course, as a rival for Kitty early in the book, he provokes Levin’s indignation and harsh judgment, but Levin, as we have seen, is not the narrator. Lawrence completely misses the ambiguous irony of the epigraph, which points up the distance between the narrator and the hypocritical society that condemns Anna for her affair. It is as though Lawrence wanted Anna to behave like Frieda (an “amoral German aristocratic,” Leavis calls her) and Vronsky to write a Russian equivalent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. As Leavis points out, Lawrence completely neglects the complicating issues of the suffering that Anna and Vronsky cause her son Serezha, and Karenin himself. Lawrence also overlooks Karenin’s moment of tenderness toward Anna’s baby with Vronsky and Anna’s own neglect of the baby (which Karenin notices).

It is well known that Leavis held aloof from the enlightened and emancipated who queued up to defend Penguin Books when they were prosecuted for their publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In his February 1961 piece in The Spectator, “The Orthodoxy of Enlightenment” (reprinted at the end of “Anna Kareninaand Other Essays), Leavis went as far as to say that “the suggestion that the book tends to provoke respect for the idea of marriage is fantastically and perversely false. Lawrence, when he wrote it, had forgotten what marriage (as opposed to a liaison) was” (AKOE, p. 241). In his essay on Anna Karenina, Leavis firmly rejects Lawrence’s line, “No-one in the world is anything but delighted when Vronsky gets Anna Karenina.” At this, Leavis exclaims, [End Page 165]

“O, come!”—that gives my reaction when I read the opening sentences of Lawrence’s commentary on the book. What he is recognizing, of course, is the impossibility of Karenin for Anna, and that it is in her relations to Vronsky that she comes to life. But he ignores all the tormenting complexity—the shame feelings that Anna, inevitably, can’t escape, her sense of guilt, her perception of irreconcilable contradictions, Vronsky’s sense that the son (Karenin’s) so dear to Anna is a nuisance.

(AKOE, p. 20)

Lawrence claims that “all the tragedy comes from Vronsky and Anna’s fear of society” and adds, “They couldn’t live in the pride of their sincere passion, and spit in Mother Grundy’s eye, and that, that cowardice was the real ‘sin.’ The novel makes it obvious, and knocks all Leo’s teeth out.”13 Leavis strongly dissents. He writes:

It is astonishing that so marvellously perceptive a critic as Lawrence could simplify in that way, with so distorting an effect. What the novel makes obvious is that, though they might live for a little in the “pride of their passion,” they couldn’t settle down to live on it; it makes it plain that to live on it was in the nature of things impossible: to reduce the adverse conditions that defeated them to cowardice is to refuse to take what, with all the force of specificity and subtle truth to life, the novel actually gives. Anna, we are made to see, can’t but feel (we are considering here an instance of the profound exploration of moral feeling enacted in the book) that, though Karenin is insufferable, she has done wrong.

(AKOE, p. 21)

Leavis sees that though the genre is the novel, and not the drama, what we have here is tragedy—and tragedy is not compatible with a gospel, a good news, whether that of Lawrentian sexual assertion or that of Christian humility. That is why tragedy, pace Aldous Huxley, is, in the end, the whole truth. As Hardy so tersely said, “Tragedy is true guise. Comedy lies.”

In conclusion, I will deal with the relationship of Levin’s problems to Tolstoy’s own problems. In the concluding pages of his essay “Tolstoy, Lear and the Fool,” George Orwell drew a forceful, if fanciful, parallel between the aged Tolstoy and the aged Lear; and I should like to draw parallels between Leavis, Levin, and Tolstoy. Leavis writes of the sense Tolstoy’s novel conveys of how milieu resonates (or not) with moral feelings, “Moscow to Petersburg, town to country, one social world to another.” Levin, as he says, “feels sure of his judgment and his criteria only when he is at his home on his estate, engaged in the duties and responsibilities that are his real life” (AKOE, p. 25). [End Page 166]

Could we not say the same of Leavis and Cambridge? My friend David Ellis says of Leavis that “he didn’t get about enough.” Even with his ten-year stint visiting York and his visits to America (not to mention his memorable occasional lectures in Oxford, some of which I was privileged to hear), he was always in an academic milieu and always carried his Cambridge carapace with him. He also had a very nineteenth-century way of regarding American civilization as an evil that is taking the world over, not dissimilar to Tolstoy’s distrust of innovations coming into Russia, notably the railways.

Leavis writes of Anna Karenina, “A normative search after the social conditions the individual needs for happiness, or fulfilment, and for the individual responsive moral sense that serves it—that is the preoccupation” (AKOE, p. 26). “All the book,” he adds, “is a feeling out and a feeling inwards, for an adequate sense of the nature of life and its implicit laws, to break which entails the penalty” (AKOE, p. 27). Oblonsky seeks happiness in the sense in which it denotes pleasure, Levin seeks happiness in the way in which it denotes something like fulfilment, what Aristotle, if one dare mention him in a Leavisian context, called eudaemonia. We are left with Levin at the book’s conclusion, and Levin “is content for the time being with some inconsistencies … and a certain tentativeness” (AKOE, p. 27). There is the problem of his relation to the peasantry, and the problem of belief “associated with his intense inner response to the fact of death” (AKOE, p. 28). Leavis quotes from Levin’s remarks to Oblonsky in book 4, chapter 7, occasioned by Levin’s sense that his brother is dying: “If you once realize that to-morrow, if not to-day, you will die and nothing will be left of you, everything becomes insignificant.” Both problems are presented with a subtlety that makes any thematic summary seem gross.

What Levin at times comes nearest to committing himself to is a sort of capitulation to what he sees as the religiousness of the Russian peasant. One might compare Leavis’s “religion” of the organic community. But, of course, Leavis recognized that such a community had gone forever (some, though perhaps not he, doubted if it ever existed) in just the same way as he sees Levin’s view as “a desperately simplifying one; that is, not an answer at all—unless a rejection of life is an answer” (AKOE, p. 30). Leavis writes, “The significance of the book is what is conveyed by the whole, and the suggestion of the whole doesn’t in the least encourage us to think of Levin as anything but ill-judging, ill inspired, and in for disillusionment” (AKOE, p. 31). [End Page 167]

I want to suggest that Leavis had himself come to rest not on purely literary values, a chimera he always abhorred, but on life values as embodied in past literature. He lived in and through literature alone because he could no longer find worthwhile life values embodied in a living community around him, except possibly in some putative community of his pupils, the equivalent, so to speak, of “Tolstoyans.” But Tolstoy had a strong tendency to repudiate “Tolstoyans,” and no doubt Leavis must have been disillusioned with the paths some of those influenced by him were to take. There is something simplifying and monotonous about his diatribes against America and against technologico-Benthamite civilization. They have a curious similarity to the later Tolstoy’s narrow moralism, which, as we have seen, Leavis deplored. Certain ironies here perhaps await further exploration. Both Leavis and Tolstoy end up preaching some kind of personal doctrine that they claim as transpersonal, a doctrine defined more by what it rejects than by positive content—a doctrine, nevertheless, that comes perilously near to a dogma for an unheeding, unredeemable world.

There is always a tension in Leavis between the personal—“a judgment is personal or it is nothing”14—and the impersonal, the sense of something “not me,” something greater than the ego. One of Leavis’s greatest essays, which repays constant frequentation and pondering (though not necessarily commanding agreement), is “Tragedy and the ‘Medium’” in The Common Pursuit. It is particularly appropriate to reconsider it here, as we have seen that Anna Karenina, though by genre a novel rather than a play, is, in fact, a tragedy, perhaps the supreme tragedy of modernity.

In his essay Leavis takes on Aristotle, Santayana, and Nietzsche. As an Arnoldian and Oxfordian, I cannot endorse his finding that there is nothing of value in Aristotle. Moreover, though he is not uncritical of Santayana, he is too kind to Santayana’s finding that there is a tragic philosophy to admire in the works of Seneca. A reading of Kurt von Fritz’s chapter “Tragische Schuld und Poetische Gerechtigkeit” in his Antike und moderne Tragödie would have enabled him to see something of value in Aristotle and to recognize that tragedy is impossible in the necessitarian, noncontingent world of Stoicism. Von Fritz, in fact, shows that Shakespeare’s tragedy comes far nearer to meeting Aristotle’s demands than any neoclassical tragedy.

What the essay does give us, however, is one of Leavis’s best attempts to bring out what he means by the impersonal. He claims that it is “an essential part of the definition of the tragic” that “establishes a kind [End Page 168] of profound impersonality in which experience matters, not because it is mine—because it is to me that it belongs or happens, or because it subserves or issues in purpose or will, but because it is what it is, the ‘mine’ mattering only in so far as the individual sentience is the indispensable focus of experience” (TCP, p. 130). Leavis is, of course, referring to tragedy as experienced by the audience, for he goes on to quote Yeats to the effect that tragedy is “a breaking of the dykes that separate man from man,” and assents with qualifications to Nietzsche’s idea of the Dionysian. He sees tragedy as vindicating positive value in the face of death in a way that makes the valued appear unquestionably more important than the valuer. He quotes D. W. Harding on Isaac Rosenberg, “The value of what was destroyed seemed to have been brought into sight only by the destruction” (TCP, p. 132).

Though, as we have seen, Leavis himself could be theatrical and self-dramatizing as a preacher of Spenglerian cultural pessimism, a perhaps partly puritan current of antitheatricality in him made him, in his essay on Othello, dismiss Othello’s “self-approving self-dramatization” (TCP, p. 142). Had Leavis considered the last speech of Sophocles’s Ajax before his suicide or, to stay with Tolstoy, Anna’s tortured monologue before hers, would he have spoken of “self-approving self-dramatization” so disapprovingly? We ask of tragedy with Aristotle only that the tragic protagonist is not so wicked and depraved that our sympathy is precluded. Tragedy extends also to the framework in which the protagonist is set, along with the fates of all the characters in the novel or play with whom the protagonist interacts, and those who, in turn, come into contact with them. In the case of the tragedy, that means the chorus, Ajax’s wife Tecmessa, and his brother Teucer, and even his one-time enemy Odysseus; in the case of Anna Karenina, Karenin, Vronsky, Serezha, Dolly, Kitty, Varenka, Levin’s brother Nicolai, and, of course, the center of consciousness, Levin himself.

Edward Greenwood
University of Kent


1. F. R. Leavis, D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (London: Chatto and Windus, 1955), p. 18; hereafter abbreviated DHLN.

2. F. R. Leavis, “Anna Karenina” and Other Essays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1967), p. 2; hereafter abbreviated AKOE. [End Page 169]

3. Philip Rahv, “On Leavis and Lawrence,” New York Review of Books, September 26, 1968.

4. Jessie Chambers, D. H. Lawrence: A Personal Record by E.T. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1980); hereafter abbreviated DHL.

5. Matthew Arnold, “Wordsworth,” in Essays in Criticism, 2nd series (London: Macmillan and Co., 1898), p. 144; hereafter abbreviated EIC.

6. Matthew Arnold, “A Word More about Spinoza,” in Essays Literary and Critical (London: Everyman’s Library, J. M. Dent, 1950), pp. 182–83.

7. Michael Baxandall, Episodes: A Memory Book (London: Francis Lincoln, 2010), p. 67.

8. F. R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (London: Chatto and Windus, 1958), p. 131; hereafter abbreviated TCP.

9. F. R. Leavis, Thought, Words and Creativity (London: Chatto and Windus, 1976), p. 68; hereafter abbreviated TWC.

10. Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 291.

11. George Santayana, “The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell,” in Selected Critical Writings of George Santayana, vol. 2, ed. Norman Henfrey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), p. 171.

12. D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix (London: Heinemann, 1970), p. 246.

13. D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix II (London: Heinemann, 1978), p. 417.

14. F. R. Leavis, Education and the University (London: Chatto and Windus, 1943), p. 68. [End Page 170]