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F. R. Leavis’s depreciatory comments on literary critics’ invocation of the aesthetic, and on philosophers’ understanding of language, have reinforced a view of him as hostile to both the aesthetic and philosophical thought. In fact, his criticism exercises a sophisticated appreciation of the aesthetic similar to the philosophical aesthetics that passes through Schiller, Nietzsche, Dilthey, and Suzanne Langer; a tradition in which the aesthetic is fundamental to human culture. Leavis’s conception of creativity in language not only underlies his charismatic impact on students and readers but also remains the most plausible rationale for any publicly funded study of literature.

I never heard or met F. R. Leavis personally, but like many others I have felt the impact of his writing as teaching and would like to reflect on its nature in that regard. His published criticism is strongly inflected toward the purposes of teaching. His notorious exclusions, for example, of authors he knew very well are partly directed to the practical consideration of how much a conscientious student can read attentively in a three-year degree syllabus, and what reading in that time will best form the capacity for critical judgment. Yet he resisted the authority implicit in the notion of the teacher and saw the seminar as engaging in a common pursuit of reading, albeit with those less experienced than himself. I propose to examine the connection between his demurral at the ascription of authority and his charismatic impact on so many of his students and readers.

Of course, the essence of the matter neither requires nor admits of explanation, and I don’t wish to inflict impertinence on his memory. His sheer intelligence is manifest in incomparable essays that cannot [End Page 171] gain from paraphrase or explication. Part of the reason for this, however, is the writings’ dextrous handling of Occam’s razor such that no extraneous conceptualization obscures their objects. That is in itself a remarkable intellectual—indeed philosophical—discipline, and his famous exchange with René Wellek indicates how self-consciously it was exercised.1 Moreover, his intelligence encompassed philosophical and historical understanding while, for good reasons, exercising itself on literary texts. This meant that his significant philosophical intelligence was exercised in a domain where few would expect it and still fewer could recognize it.

As far as teaching is concerned, it could be said that Leavis places the authority not in himself but in the text. That practice is modest for the tutor, and liberating for the student, yet it echoes the ambiguity of some human ministers who claim to speak with the authority of an invisible God. Leavis appeals to the visible form of words, which may be why skeptical readers have especially struggled to resist. Yet they feel in doing so that they are resisting not just the text but him. This charisma is caught in the story Leavis related to Wittgenstein of the young man who removed himself from Leavis’s influence, saying, “You are like Jesus Christ.”2

If the rift between disciples and skeptics has proved to be as abyssal as that between believers and atheists, it is partly because of the misleading transparency in Leavis’s critical procedure, which is itself based on his evident belief in the transparency of the text. This belief explains some peculiarities of his rhetoric and his almost invariable tendency to initiate his own critical reading through a strategic disagreement with another critic who is usually shown, by the inevitable logic of the occasion, to be a radically incompetent reader. How else, if the text is transparent, could there be disagreement? And what could be the reason other than a failure of attention; a quality with some ethical force if it is not indeed the sine qua non of the ethical life.

The resulting mixture of evaluative asseveration and apparent personal aggression has constantly distracted attention from the fact that he had a powerful and coherent conception of reading. Indeed, his demonstrative practice of reading as such was compelling. The outcome is that, although he made it sufficiently clear on notable occasions, his conception still remains widely, if not willfully, misunderstood. I say willfully because I believe it is not ultimately an idiosyncratic conception but deeply representative, and his effect is often, like that of Socrates and the later Wittgenstein, to expose common-sense wisdom. But common [End Page 172] sense constantly regroups itself, which is why I think it is still useful to offer a philosophical account of his practice, despite his own well-known refusal to do so, and the fact that many readers have understood him very well within his own intuitive holism.

I argue in my 1988 book that Leavis’s reflection on literary texts brought him to an understanding closely parallel to central traditions of German thought in the domains particularly of phenomenology, hermeneutics, and aesthetics.3 Leavis was not directly nourished by this tradition largely because, after its immense prestige for the Victorians, German high culture went into eclipse in the Anglophone world. For many of the modernist generation, Russian became the new German. Moreover, he saw that the positivist and analytic conceptions that dominated the practice of philosophy in British universities in his time were positively damaging for the understanding of language in general, and literature in particular, so that, accepting their claim to represent philosophy as such, he rejected the whole discipline as a possible aid to his own practice.

Even the thinking of Wittgenstein, whose later emphasis on the tacit dimension in language might have had something to say for Leavis, was similarly distorted by his apparent assimilation to contemporary linguistic philosophy. At the same time, Leavis as English literary critic rather than continental philosopher contributed a distinctive strain to the continental tradition and I believe the implicit philosophical reflection within his critical practice helps to explain his impact as a teacher. I would like to add some further thoughts on this aspect and, in light of a quarter century’s retrospect, emphasize more strongly the importance of the aesthetic in his thought and practice.

Leavis notably demurred at the implications of the word “aesthetic,” and the reasons he gives in The Great Tradition in relation to Henry James underlie his critique of other modern writers such as James Joyce. The central discrimination he makes with regard to James is his susceptibility to overvaluing the literary doing as opposed to the thing done. This is central to Leavis’s running comparison of James with George Eliot, as he indicates on the opening page of the Eliot chapters:

Henry James seems to me to have shown finer intelligence than anyone else in writing about George Eliot, and he … tells us that for her, the novel “was not primarily a picture of life, capable of deriving a high value from its form, but a moralized fable, the last word of a philosophy endeavouring to teach by example.” The blur is seen here in the misleading [End Page 173] antithesis, which, illusory as it is, James’s commentary insists on. What, we ask, is the “form” from which a “picture of life” derives a value? As we would expect, the term “aesthetic,” with its trail of confusion, turns up in the neighbourhood (it is a term the literary critic would do well to abjure). James notes, as characterizing “that side of Eliot’s nature which was weakest,” the “absence of free aesthetic life,” and he says that her “figures and situations” are “not seen in the irresponsible plastic way.” But we ask, in what great, in what interesting, novel are the figures and situations seen in an “irresponsible plastic way” (a useful determination of the word “aesthetic”)?4

Although Leavis goes on to demonstrate the fallacy of the antithesis, the effect of moments such as this has been to reinforce an impression of his hostility to the aesthetic as such and thereby, I believe, to extend the “trail of confusion” to which he refers. In truth, what should be most gained from Leavis is a proper understanding of the aesthetic.

We may start with the confusion lurking in Leavis’s own key term, the word “literary,” which denotes his specific concern for the linguistic medium. In English usage, “literary” is often taken to designate a specialist body of material and a mode of appreciation. This can take on a sectarian implication, as in common reactions to his confrontation with C. P. Snow, in which so many commentators continue even now to accept Snow’s assumed separation of “literary” and “scientific” cultures.

But Leavis uses the word “literary” with the ontological force of the word “aesthetic,” in the tradition of German thought for which it is fundamental to the human and underlies the scientific. For this tradition, as in Leavis, there was only one culture and the aesthetic was at its heart. Yet Leavis is constantly taken as a literal-minded moralist applying directly to life the ethical concerns of favored literary texts. Reviewing the Twickenham edition of The Dunciad he similarly seized on the editor’s reference to its “purely aesthetic values”: “‘Aesthetic’ is a term the literary critic would do well to deny himself. Opposed to ‘moral,’ as it is in this sentence, it certainly doesn’t generate light” (CP, p. 89).

Once again, however, his objection is not to the aesthetic as such but to its putative separation from the moral. His previous sentence had spoken of the “peculiar difficulties,” where satire is concerned, of “recognizing the nature of art.” His point, in both cases, is an intra-artistic one: precisely because the category of the aesthetic was vital to him was the word critically unusable. In a philosophical discussion on the nature of art, that is to say, the category of the aesthetic is of the essence, but for arguing specific critical judgments about literature it is likely to be [End Page 174] a distraction, a confusion of levels. Leavis puts this point in his dual insistence that you must read literature as literature and “not another thing,” yet there are “no purely literary values.”5 He always kept these aspects distinct, although his care could not circumvent confusions that were, and still are, so widespread in the culture. My present purpose is not to improve on his own demonstrative practice but to discriminate some relevant understandings, and misunderstandings, of the aesthetic.

Confusion about the aesthetic has a long history that, for present purposes, can be traced back to Friedrich von Schiller’s great treatise On the Aesthetic Education of Mankind in a Series of Letters (1795). Indeed, to appreciate Leavis’s case, I believe it is worth reminding ourselves of this seismic shift in European thought. There seems to be no human culture that does not practice art, and meditation on its meaning and value goes back to early phases of European tradition. But only in the latter half of the eighteenth century, a few stretched-out lifetimes ago, did there emerge the conception of a special aesthetic condition. Schiller’s treatise remains, in my view, one of the subtlest and most eloquent accounts we have of the moral function of art—largely because it captures the profound novelty of this conception. At the same time, it is perhaps rather overrich and has generated mutually opposed lineages deriving from different aspects of his thought.

The latter part of the treatise argues the ennobling, and also detaching, effect of aesthetic beauty on individuals and communities. This was the idealist Schiller, whose conception could be assimilated into that of Matthew Arnold and also eventually transmogrified into the nineteenth-century aesthetic movement as encapsulated in the slogan “art for art’s sake.” Such an idealistic conception did not fare well in either the historical experience or the artistic practice of modernity, but nor was it the philosophical heart of Schiller’s legacy. This utopian notion of the aesthetic directed toward the future was based on a prior anthropological theory whereby the aesthetic was the primordial origin of culture and indeed of the human as such. The conscious idea, oriented toward the future, rested on an explanatory account, a retrospective consciousness raising, of the past. Otherwise expressed, the aesthetic was the unconscious basis of culture.

At its heart is a notion of freedom as responsibility in the self-creation of mankind. The late eighteenth-century thought world included theories of moral sentiment that sought either to reverse or reconcile the traditionally conflictual hierarchy of reason over feeling, whereas Schiller saw humanity as caught between two rival compulsions. As instinctual, [End Page 175] embodied creatures, human beings are compelled by appetite and desire. They are also bound by reason—not in the sense of living by reason but in knowing inescapably that two and two make four. Hence, whereas eighteenth-century sentimentalist ethics had sought to identify the motives of individual desire and moral reason, or else had agonized over their irreconcilability, Schiller converted this dilemma into a vital liberation.

Reason, for Schiller, liberates from the compulsion of instinct and appetite, which in turn resist the power of reason. For rather than privileging reason, Schiller saw both instinct and appetite as dangerous if they dominate. The aesthetic for Schiller was the state in which human beings experience both powers while in thrall to neither, just as his treatise takes critical bearings from both Kant and Rousseau. The aesthetic state is the capacity, which must have evolved in the earliest phases of culture, to detach from immediate motives and actions so as to contemplate values and choices as such. Reason and feeling are exercised while action is suspended.

It is important to note that aesthetic capacity, which distinguishes the human from other animals, is on this account an evolutionary necessity with initially no intrinsic connection to art or beauty. In an evolved culture, however, art is the unique context for fully experiencing, developing, and celebrating this capacity. In life, judgments are necessarily limited by the practical requirements of action and choice, whereas in the work of art, as defined by its Kantian “purposiveness without purpose,” a full range of values can be held provisionally in the mind, to be weighed and discriminated as such. The virtuality of aesthetic experience is of the essence, which is why, in contrast to the illusionistic assumptions of eighteenth-century sentimentalist theory and its characteristic fiction, Schiller insisted on the importance of appreciating semblance as semblance, not as apparent reality.

Aesthetic capacity, as evidenced by delight in semblance as such, is a sign of moral freedom and the basis of true responsibility. Hence, the proprium of the aesthetic for Schiller was its ontological remove from the realm of life in order to properly serve life. It is the vital center of human culture, although it must be said that, just as the evolutionary emergence of the aesthetic preceded its coming into consciousness, so it still functions in the present as a largely implicit condition. The aesthetic precedes, and remains the unconscious of, the moral.

The parallel term that has similarly reinforced the impression of Leavis’s naively moralistic literalism is “life,” which he adduced in his [End Page 176] critique of James and later declared a “necessary word.”6 Here, too, however, it is necessary to recognize the ontological condition of the aesthetic. Suzanne Langer has some apt remarks on the meaning of this term and not, significantly, just for general aesthetics but specifically as the proprium of Leavis’s own medium of poetry:

The word “life” is used in two distinct senses, ignoring the many esoteric or special senses it may have besides: the biological sense, in which life is the characteristic functioning of organisms, and is opposed to “death”; and the social sense, in which “life” is what happens, what the organism (or, if you will, the soul) encounters and has to contend with. In the first sense, all art has the character of life, because every work must have organic character, and it usually makes sense to speak of its “fundamental rhythm.” But “life” in the second sense belongs peculiarly to poetic art, namely, as its primary illusion. The semblance of experienced events, the illusion of life, is established with the opening line; the reader is confronted at once with a virtual order of experience.7

In using the phrase “primary illusion,” Langer perhaps acknowledges that the distinction she is making may be meaningful primarily to a philosophically minded reader. One might be a responsive reader of literature from within the illusion without consciously attending to this discrimination, as might on occasion appear to be the case with Leavis. When discussing, for example, details of character and action in fiction, he sometimes focuses on the substantive values in play and speaks of characters as if they were moral beings on a plane with the reader. Nonetheless, Langer’s use of the word “semblance” signals the Schillerian heritage of her thought in which discussion of poetry as poetry, and “not another thing,” must respect the ontological distinction. This Leavis always did, as, for example, in his remark on Pope’s satire.

When Schiller’s conception of the aesthetic was mediated into modernism by Nietzsche, the latter discriminated very sharply between its two aspects. He let slip no opportunity to lob a devastating one-liner at Schiller the moral idealist: “the moral trumpeter of Säckingen,” as he called him. But when it came to defining the aesthetic, Schiller was the one figure Nietzsche honored and who was crucial, for example, to his ontological definition of tragedy. The original Dionysian ritual of orgiastic participation is transformed when it becomes artistic spectacle: an imaginative participation in virtual actions. Note, too, that the aesthetic condition of tragedy enables an encounter with the darkest potential of the human. Art is not the promotion of Enlightenment idealism but the recognition of all possibilities. [End Page 177]

In this respect, Nietzsche pulled Schiller’s thought firmly away from the Arnoldian. And rightly so, for although the idealist Schiller may be so absorbed, the Schiller of ontological heurism recognized that great art does not ennoble the vicious or endow the stupid with wisdom, although it can enhance these better qualities where they already exist. Nietzsche had even less trust in the virtuous effects of cultural knowledge or possession as such. For him, indeed, the significant enemy was not the acknowledged philistine but precisely the philistine produced and fed by culture, for which he coined the term Bildungsphilister, or “culture philistine”:

To be cultivated means: to hide from oneself how wretched and base one is, how rapacious in going for what one wants, how insatiable in heaping it up, how shameless and selfish in enjoying it.8

For Leavis, too, the true enemies to be exposed and excoriated were the official “custodians of culture.”9

It is highly problematic, of course, that the distinction should be not between the cultured and the philistine but internal to the realm of culture. The culture philistine can be properly recognized only by one who is authentically cultured, ein echt gebildetes Mensch, and therefore appears to be of the same ilk. How, then, is the distinction to be enforced? Ultimately this is a matter of general moral standing, which cannot be usefully defined in the abstract—but there may be something in how the relation to artistic experience is conceived and to what extent, as Nietzsche seems to suggest, it is seen as possession. Apart from physical works of art, in what sense, for example, do you “possess” a poem you know by heart (a notion for which English and French [par coeur] suggest a more intimate possibility than the German auswendig)? I would like to define more closely Leavis’s mode of relation to the literary work with full regard to its virtuality.

Langer performs a doubly useful service in bringing the word “life” into the sphere of the aesthetic. For, having insisted on the virtuality of the aesthetic, its remove from the plane of daily experience, it is then equally necessary to free it from the aestheticist aura by which it is constantly occluded. Leavis was not just formed within the modernist generation, he was one of its primary thinkers, and the major writers of the time—Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence, Proust, Mann, Stevens—had all followed Nietzsche’s crucial turn on the aesthetic. As T. S. Eliot pointed out, “art for art’s sake” is either a banal or an incoherent slogan, [End Page 178] reflecting one of the great nineteenth-century myths. Yet it had a metaphysical basis in the charismatic pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the Will.

For Schopenhauer, the “purposiveness without purpose” of the aesthetic made it one of the few means of escaping, at least in the mind, the humiliating human subservience to the Will. Nietzsche, however, while retaining the structure of Schopenhauer’s metaphysic, reversed its implication. He affirmed the aesthetic as the fundamental metaphysical activity of man in a sense directly opposed to contemporary aestheticism. The aesthetic was now the model for the creation and sustaining of a human world, and for the affirmation of life as a chosen, rather than a simply imposed, destiny. Instead of being separate from life, the aesthetic, while retaining its self-conscious virtuality, became the basis of all values and endeavors. Likewise, these modernist writers did not reject aestheticism so much as sublate it into a creative heurism sustaining the human world.

In effect, this doubleness of the modernist aesthetic is a recovery of Schiller’s original conception won back from aestheticist distortion, and it is strikingly embodied in an image that Nietzsche quotes from Schiller’s account of the Greek dramatic chorus: the chorus, he says, is “a living wall that tragedy constructs around itself in order to close itself off from the world of reality and to preserve its poetical freedom.”10 In their immediate contexts, both Schiller and Nietzsche were primarily concerned to emphasize the aspect of separation in the dramatic action, but the oxymoronic phrase “living wall” aptly catches the doubleness of the aesthetic as they understood it. The living wall embodies continuity as much as separation: far from mere detachment, it is an image of highly concentrated concern. The ontological condition of the aesthetic, that is to say, opens the evaluative possibilities while intensifying the judgmental attention.

Leavis’s comments on the role of the Wanderer in the Excursion version of “The Ruined Cottage” suggest a similar kind of choric doubleness of detachment and sympathy in the poem—although he would, I imagine, have found such abstract talk otiose and objected to the listing of all these names, Eliot and Lawrence jumbled in with Joyce and Proust (CAP, pp. 32–40). Indeed, he rightly detected aspects of post-Nietzschean metaphysical melodrama and authorial display in some of these writers, but his critical disapproval would not gainsay their philosophical commonality with himself, while his own resolutely sober practice has suffered from being philosophically underrated. [End Page 179]

I have emphasized both the virtuality and grounding import of the aesthetic as they underlie the high ambitions of Leavisian reading. For a more specific understanding of what was at stake for Leavis in literary reading, it is relevant to note that he initially undertook a degree in history before transferring to English, and in his subsequent career he notably beat down the bounds between literature and philosophy. His defense of his own philosophic discipline was not insular insofar as he recommended what would now be called interdisciplinarity—although this term is open to various understandings. When D. H. Lawrence regretted the separation of philosophy and fiction, he said they should come together “in the novel”; not, that is to say, in some imaginary space between them.

Leavis likewise saw the literary not as a sectional division that may work jointly with neighboring areas but as a radical mode of attention properly underlying the other activities. Just as his skirmishes with contemporary academic philosophy arose from his having a philosophically considered position of his own, so his transfer from history to literature was a move to the heart of historical understanding. In this regard, the thinker who significantly articulated Leavis’s essential conception was Wilhelm Dilthey.

Two of Dilthey’s major concerns were the rationale of the humanistic disciplines within a scientific culture and the nature of historical understanding, the interpretation of the past. Moreover, his was explicitly a Lebensphilosophie in which the elusive notion of “life” was fundamental. As respectively philosopher of culture and literary critic, he and Leavis came at the same concerns from opposite sides to reach remarkably similar insights. Here is Dilthey on the understanding of history through poetry:

[I]n Germany the point was finally reached where the conception of society according to the natural system passed into true historical consciousness. Herder found in the disposition of the individual that which changes and constitutes historical progress. The medium though which this progress was studied in Germany was art, especially poetry.11

Dilthey anticipates Leavis’s insistence that “only in the individual can there be experience” (LA, p. 77) and that poetry provides the most intimate understanding of history.

The classic exchange between Leavis and F. W. Bateson turned on this question. Like Charles Snow in a later, different context, Bateson offered to “bridge the gap,” as he put it, between criticism and scholarship while [End Page 180] assuming their separation. As he baldly expressed it: “the qualifications of a good critic and a good historian are very different.”12 Leavis’s devastating reply, more tellingly concrete than his reply to Wellek’s request for critical principles, demonstrated the fallacy of conceiving a historical context separately from the poem. His reading of Andrew Marvell’s “A Dialogue between Soul and Body,” entirely in the spirit of Dilthey’s claim, caught the mobile configuration of historical meanings within the words of the poem.13 The poem does not refer to, or reflect, history; it is history. In other words, even in the past of its happening, history was not in supposed external “facts,” but in the mind. Its shifts and conflicts of values occurred in the virtual ontology of the aesthetic.

Such an account places a heavy burden on works of literature, which is why Dilthey, like Leavis, was clear that only great, or what Leavis called “major,” works were in question. Here is Dilthey’s definition:

[W]hen in a great work, a spiritual content is liberated from its creator, whether it be a poet, artist, or writer, we enter a realm where deception ends. No truly great work of art can want to put forward a spiritual content that misrepresents its author; indeed, it does not want to say anything about its author. Truthful in itself it stands—fixed, visible and abiding—and it is this that makes possible a methodically reliable understanding of such works. Thus there arises in the confines between knowing and doing a sphere in which life discloses itself at a depth inaccessible to observation, reflection, and theory.14

Here is the often fetishized, modernist emphasis on impersonality expressed with something of the same delicacy that Leavis exercised in his criticism. Impersonality is not a conscious stance of the writer, still less a technique, but something that occurs in the creative process; a process that is almost imitated in Dilthey’s description of it. Initially, the work is not seeking, and would not be able, to produce a “content that misrepresents its author.” Leavis echoed this in his respect for the authors he admired. For him, a work of genuine, as opposed to technical, impersonality was not just a reflection of the writer but the index of an immense moral achievement. But then, in Dilthey’s account, the work suddenly appears in itself, standing in Leavis’s “third realm,” detached from its author and available for interpersonal understanding. “Understanding” is a crucial term for Dilthey’s conception of the humanities. He sees it as participatory and, like Leavis, he explicitly contrasts it to the protocols of scientific and philosophical knowledge: “life discloses itself at a depth inaccessible to observation, reflection, and theory.” [End Page 181]

Yet despite the congruity of their abstract models, the crucial difference between Dilthey and Leavis was that, whereas Dilthey defined greatness in principle, Leavis was permanently engaged with the critical-historical question of determining the greatness, or otherwise, in any given instance. Indeed, he distinguished between the great and the major artist: T. S. Eliot, for example, being clearly major, but maybe less than great (AKOE, pp. 177–96). There is for Leavis a wholly different urgency in the question of judgment, and I say “permanently engaged” because this engagement leads to the quality I find peculiar and pervasive in his critical reading.

Leavis’s reading seems on each occasion to take on the radical responsibility of determining—and, where appropriate, justifying—major status. Indeed, the whole field of literature was at stake for him in every act of reading. In the widespread common-sense view that pertains even in the academy, there is a vast body of textual material known as creative literature, and some of it is better than most. Literature can in that sense be regarded as a given. But it is not a given in the sense that nature is for a scientist. Indeed, its apparent givenness is the index of cultural inertia. In truth, it is a creation of constantly contestable values and as an activity to be justified, for example as an object of publicly funded study, it ultimately rests on the value of the major achievements. Great works, that is to say, do not just happen to sit in the middle of a given field of enquiry; they are its justification as a field. Hence, Leavis saw most of his fellow academics, such as Bateson, as busily cultivating a field but innocent of its, and consequently their own, need to be grounded.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress Bunyan’s narrator is perceived by his neighbors as a madman, and he recognizes that he must be so perceived. Leavis, as the result of his metaphysical insight, lived at a comparable distance from the common-sense world inhabited by most of his colleagues and suffered a similar frustration as the possessor of a vital truth that was incommunicable within their conscious worldview even as it underpinned that view. Indeed, there is a further Bunyanesque dimension here. While the literary field, as Leavis understood it, is underwritten by its great historical achievements, their true mode of existence is not even in the apparent solidity of the text but in the minds of readers. Great works cannot of themselves subtend the field. They have to live in the mind of the present and they constitute, if I may for once use the word appropriately, an awesome responsibility.

Dilthey provided some suggestive terms for the responsibility implicitly asserted in Leavis’s demonstrative reading. Reflecting on the nature of [End Page 182] historical understanding, he borrowed from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s study of hermeneutics, especially the interpretation of historical texts. Schleiermacher, he said, seeks a reading that “apprehends an author through the same creative act—albeit conceived as receptivity—that generated the work in the first place.”15 In other words, to appreciate a work of genius requires a measure of creative collaboration, or what Dilthey, in another borrowed term, called “congeniality.” In a very similar spirit, Leavis insisted that reading is “a creative process”16 and Dilthey adopted from Schleiermacher a highly suggestive term for this order of reading: he called it Nacherlebung, or “living over again.”

This notion may be taken in weaker or stronger senses, and Leavis seems to me to enact it in its strongest form. In the strict logic of his emphasis on reliving, rather than simply rereading, Dilthey points beyond the given text to the unknowable matrix from which it emerged and in doing so he comes to the heart of Leavis’s practice. I believe the peculiar intensity of Leavis’s reading of a text lies in his habit of putting himself imaginatively into the condition of its nonexistence. He does not just follow the lines of the work but invokes the sometimes stupendous process of its creation.

This is not, of course, the literal process as understood biographically, nor a scholarly reconstruction as from successive drafts, both of which are familiar academic practices that do not of themselves entail this imaginative leap. It is something more counterfactual and abyssal. To imagine the world without this work having been written, or without this author having lived, would be in many instances extraordinarily difficult. It might require the imaginative resources of a metaphysical fable by Borges, as in Funes’s stupendous memory, to appreciate the nature and magnitude of what is entailed. Can we imagine a world of which Shakespeare’s plays are not a part?

To put it in this way provides a further clue, perhaps, to how a given work might be judged as “major.” If it is easy to imagine its nonexistence, then it is not of this order. Where it is impossible to imagine its nonexistence, however, the work is likely to be major but also, for that very reason, the more likely to be threatened with banality. Not so much banality at the level of appreciating quality, as we can always be newly moved by a fresh performance or rereading, but banality at the radical level of taking its existence for granted. The banality in question is that of assuming a given field, however much connoisseurship it may sustain, as opposed to sustaining the aesthetic virtuality of the field itself. [End Page 183]

The quality of Leavis’s reading I have in mind can be seen especially in his reading of authors such as Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot, and Lawrence, in whom the creative process is a dramatic element of the work. He reads as if alongside these authors in the act of writing, responding line by line to their success or failure. The notation of relative failure, it should be said, is not a curmudgeonly emphasis of the critic but integral to the nature of the creative struggle, while one of his favorite words, “felicitous,” catches the precarious nature of the success when it occurs. So, too, he dwells approvingly on moments, as in Shakespeare, in which the thought is still syntactically or grammatically embryonic so that the reader or listener participates in the intuitive creative leap.

His reading can be compared to the more overt case of D. H. Lawrence, whose reading of Hardy or the American writers is frankly that of a creative artist. Lawrence takes over these authors’ projects by quarrelling with their interpretation of their own material. Leavis, by contrast, scrupulously observes the protocols of critical impersonality yet communicates, at his best, a comparable sense of the precariousness of the heuristic process. Such an understanding underlies a remark such as this: “the distinctive Eliotic intensity was a necessary condition of that astonishing feat of sustained creative integrity, Four Quartets” (LA, p. 53). This declaration can seem an emptily adjectival assertion if not underwritten by the intensive reliving of Eliot’s poetic creation.

A further, more practical, index of Leavis’s Nacherlebung is his parenthetical brushing aside of readings that might be characterized as interpretations.17 This word, “interpretation,” has a range of meanings. At one extreme is the professional interpreter, who is expected to approximate a neutral mediation of sense from one language to another. At the other is the reading, which seeks, for the sake of originality, to subvert common sense or familiar understanding. Of course, these meanings are on a continuous spectrum in that every act of reading is an interpretation, but the differences of degree are qualitative insofar as they reflect motives and a given relation to the text. Whereas the pressure toward originality in the academy has encouraged interpretation in the stronger sense, Leavis’s reading is at the other extreme. The texts that are important for him tend to be complex, yet seemingly transparent, which is another reason why the profound and the banal lie so closely together in his criticism and thought.

His critical endeavor is not to read behind the overt meaning of the work, but to participate in it. Even when he is quite evidently interpreting in the stronger sense, he will incorporate this as if part of the [End Page 184] transparent, self-evident impact of the text. The itch to interpret is surely an unconscious admission of banality in the reader, just as Leavis’s refusal of it reflects his investment in recovering the original creation, his participatory Nacherlebung. Even the most familiar text escapes banality if the mystery and labor of its creation can be relived.

So far, then, I have emphasized two aspects of Leavis’s engagement with literature. First, the virtuality of the aesthetic condition is the necessary basis for the open play of values in the heuristic creation of the human world. That, in turn, is the basis for his reliving of the original creative moment when a complex of competing possibilities is first brought to its now-familiar configuration. The step into the past is a creative act insofar as it invokes the still-open range of possibilities that lay before the original author. In this regard, Leavis preserves in its original freshness the eighteenth-century discovery of the aesthetic, but he replaces Schiller’s idealism with a sober utopianism. For his ultimate concern was not historical reconstruction but the ongoing, future-directed process of creativity in the present. If poetry is not merely the reflection but the making of history, then the labor of creativity in the past provides the best clue to creating the future. Only to the degree that one escapes the banalizing of the past can one feel a comparable power and responsibility in the present. Leavis’s invocation of historical creativity gave his reading its characteristic intensity underwriting a messianic edge and commitment in which many readers could participate.

At this point it is appropriate to note that, although Leavis seemed to be substantively unaware of the German post-Enlightenment tradition to which he was closely akin, he did have intimations of it. He used The Birth of Tragedy in his early teaching and in later years drew sustenance from Marjorie Grene, the British Heideggerian, without apparently inquiring further into her German source. Likewise, in The Living Principle—as he finally outlined in highly Diltheyan terms the conception of aesthetic heurism underlying his critical practice—he dwelt on the German word Ahnung to define what he meant by the creative process. As he says, no English equivalent exists for this word. Although it could mean something as apparently distinct as the English “idea,” Ahnung rather refers to the obscure embryo of what has not yet formed itself in the mind. This sense of elusiveness, of conceptual blankness, is perhaps reinforced by its popular use in the phrase keine Ahnung.

Martin Heidegger, in his late essays on poetry and language, which are highly relevant to Leavisian creativity, was given to invoking imaginative etymologies to argue philosophical connections, and Leavis’s use of [End Page 185] Ahnung lends itself to a similarly poetic play on words. The verbal form of Ahnung, Ahnen, is identical to the noun Ahnen, meaning “ancestors,” and the punning connection here is most apt. The latter word seems to have the potential, moreover, for stretching into a murkily elusive past, just as Leavis’s Ahnung peers into an obscure future. I think of Gottfried Benn’s line: “O dass wir unserer Urahnen wären, ein Klumpchen Schleim auf einen warmen Moor” (O that we were our remote ancestors, a little lump of slime on a warm moorland.) Poetically, the historical chiasmus of different meanings in the word Ahnen suggests the obscure, but active, presence of the ancestral past as a leading intuition in the creative encounter with the future.

I have claimed Leavis as the major thinker of the modernist generation. Whereas Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” set an ambitious standard for the poet, Leavis sought to apply its argument on a more general educational scale, albeit still for a likely minority. More broadly, one of the truisms about modernity is its replacement of religion with art or the aesthetic. Whereas this replacement often takes naive or florid forms—such as Auguste Comte’s religion of humanity or Bertrand Russell’s A Free Man’s Worship—Leavis’s conception of creativity provides a soberly substantive version of such a development. When he deprecates Arnold’s suggestion that “religion is going to be replaced by poetry,” this is partly because of its propositional crudeness and the limitations of Arnold’s conception of poetry. But he goes on to endorse the underlying thought that “as the other traditions relax and social forms disintegrate, it becomes correspondingly more important to preserve the literary tradition” (CAP, p. 56). Typically, Leavis demurs at the slogan but delivers much of the meaning.

In seeking to articulate the implicit philosophical rationale of Leavis’s practice, I have placed it in a historical context. In doing so I am conscious of questions that become more pressing in attempting to reach an overall conclusion. To what extent should we see Leavis as the product of an era that is now over? He admired Samuel Johnson as the powerful expression of a tradition that was evidently limited and past. By contrast, he was critical of Arnold as one whose limitations were more personal than epochal and whose epoch he still largely shared. Leavis in turn was the spokesman of a modern conception for which the relevant thought world seems to have disappeared even as the conception remains compelling when understood.

Part of the problem here is that any summary statement is likely to be ensnared in the fatal proximity of the profound and the banal. [End Page 186] We can readily say that Leavis’s demonstrative readings acquire their compelling and inspiring force for many readers from a combination of elements: the seismic historical import of major literary works in sustaining the human world; their dependence metaphysically on creative reliving by readers; and the responsibility for bringing the example of these past acts of creativity to bear upon the future. But the true force of the intended meaning here, what it takes to put them into practice, surely eludes these abstract formulations, just as Leavis’s own practice is reduced to banality in the eyes of skeptical or unsympathetic observers.

The question, however, is what this banality signifies. I believe it arises from the fact that the conception I have outlined is not peculiar to Leavis but is the likely rationale of critical reading as such if it were ever driven properly to justify itself and especially as a publicly funded activity. To what extent, in other words, is Leavis an idiosyncratic or a profoundly representative case? I have commented elsewhere on unwitting reinventions of Leavis’s thought, and I believe his idiosyncrasy lay precisely in an unusually clear-sighted, philosophically grounded, and morally tenacious grasp of the act of literary reading as such.18 This question continues to matter insofar as the institutional funding of literary study usually rests on a loosely assumed Arnoldianism or else on politically inflected ideological revisionism, both of which tend to assume too readily the givenness of the field. Hence, although Leavis could so easily appear to be creating a high cultural drama out of a routine professional activity, I am inclined to view the relation the other way round: that in refusing to banalize the act of reading, he was, and remains, the repressed conscience of the academy.

Michael Bell
University of Warwick


1. F. R. Leavis, “Literary Criticism and Philosophy,” in The Common Pursuit (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952), pp. 211–22; hereafter abbreviated CP.

2. F. R. Leavis, The Critic as Anti-Philosopher: Essays and Papers by F. R. Leavis, ed. G. Singh (London: Chatto and Windus, 1982), p. 134; hereafter abbreviated CAP. I discuss more fully the question of authority in Leavis in Michael Bell, Open Secrets: Literature, Education and Authority from J-J. Rousseau to J. M. Coetzee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 193–216.

3. Michael Bell, F. R. Leavis (London: Routledge, 1988). [End Page 187]

4. F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (London: Chatto and Windus, 1948), pp. 28–29.

5. F. R. Leavis, “Anna Karenina” and Other Essays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1967), p. 195; hereafter abbreviated AKOE.

6. F. R. Leavis, “‘Life’ Is a Necessary Word,” in Nor Shall My Sword (London: Chatto and Windus, 1972), pp. 11–37.

7. Suzanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), p. 214.

8. Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 168.

9. F. R. Leavis, Lectures in America, with Q. D. Leavis (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), p. 21; hereafter abbreviated LA.

10. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 58.

11. Wilhelm Dilthey, Introduction to the Human Sciences, ed. Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 215.

12. F. W. Bateson, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Essays in Criticism 3 (1953): 1–27.

13. F. R. Leavis, “The Responsible Critic, or the Function of Criticism at Any Time,” in A Selection from Scrutiny, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), pp. 308–15.

14. Wilhelm Dilthey, The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences, ed. Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 228.

15. Wilhelm Dilthey, Selected Works, vol. 4, Hermeneutics and the Study of History, ed. Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 158.

16. F. R. Leavis, English Literature in Our Time and the University (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), p. 48.

17. See CAP, p. 31, on Herbert Read’s Freudian interpretation of the Annette Vallon story; CP, pp. 248–54, on the logic of Christian Discrimination; and CP, p. 173, on interpretations of Cymbeline.

18. Michael Bell, “What Price Collaboration? The Case of F. R. Leavis,” in Critical Ethics: Text, Theory and Responsibility, ed. Dominic Rainsford and Tim Woods (London: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 23–36. [End Page 188]

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