FR.Leavis: Literature and Society
Two or three years back, or at any time in the Marxizing decade, having been invited to discourse on 'Literature and Society' , I should have known what was expected of me- and what to expect. I should have been expected to discuss, or to give opportunities for discussing, the duty of the writer to identify himself with the working-class, the duty of the critic to evaluate works of literature in terms of the degree in which they seemed calculated to further ( or otherwise) the proper and pre-destined outcome of the class- struggle, and the duty of the literary historian to explain literary history as the reflection of changing economic and material realities (the third adjective, 'social', which I almost added here, would be otiose). i should have been braced for such challenges as the proposition that D.H. Lawrence, though he
was unquestionably aware of and tried to describe the outside forces that were undermining the bourgeois society into which he made his way.. saw those forces fro a bourgeois viewpoint, as destroyers to be combated. Consequently he misrepresented reality.
What was wrong with his work was that he ‘shared the life of a social class which has passed it’s prime’.
I assume that the expectation I should have had to address myself to in those not so very remote days isn’t entertained at all generally on the present occasion, and I assume it gladly. But that does leave me with a large undirected formula on my hands: ‘Literature and Society’ might, in fact, seem to be daunting and embarrassing in the wealth of possibilities it covers. However, certain major interests of my own respond to it quite comfortably and I had no difficulty in concluding that I should be expected to do what, in accordance with those interests, it would suit me to do: that is, to try and define on what grounds and in what ways the study of literature- literature as it concerns me, who am avowedly in the first place a literary critic should, I think, be seen as intimately relevant to what may be presumed to be the major interest of students at the London School of Economics.
For if the Marxist approach to literature seems to me un profitable, that is not because I think of literature as a matter of isolated works of art, belonging to a realm of pure literary values ( Whatever they might be); works regarding the production of which it is enough to say that individuals of specific creative gifts were born and created them. No one interested I literature who began to read and think immediately after the 1914 war- at a time, that is, co- incident with the early critical work of T. S Eliot- can fail to have taken stock, for conscious rejection, of the Romantic critical tradition( if it can be called that): the set of ideas and attitudes about literary creation coming down thought the nineteenth century. That tradition laid all the stress on inspiration and the individual genius. How do masterpieces arrive? Gifted individuals occur, inspiration sets in, creation results. Mr. Eliot, all of whose early prose may be said to have been directed against the Romantic tradition, which till then had not been effectively challenged, lays the stress on the there things( or some of them) besides individual talent and originative impulse from within that have to be taken account of when we try to understand any significant achievement in art. Of course, it was no discovery that there are these things to be taken account of : criticism and literary history had of generations dealt I influences., environments and the extra –literary conditions of literary production. But we are apt to be peculiarly under the influence of ideas and attitudes of which we are not fully conscious, they prevail until rejected, and the Romantic set- an atmosphere of the unformulated and vague- may be said it have prevailed until Mr Eliot’s criticism , co-operation with his poetry, mad unconsciousness impossible and rejection inevitable.
Something like the idea of tradition so incisively and provocatively formulated by him plays, I think, an essential part in the thinking of everyone to –day who is seriously interested in literature. If I say that idea represents an new emphasis on the social nature of artistic achievement, I ought to add at once that the word ‘social probably doesn’t occur in the classical essay, Tradition and the individual talent ( the word that takes Mr Eliot’s stress is ‘impersonal’) . The ‘society’- and ( which is, of course, my point) in the ideal of Tradition- is not the Marxist concept; and the difference is what I have my eye on. But let me first remind your of the idea as Mr Eliot formulates it. The individual writer is to be aware that his work is of the literature to which it belongs and not merely added externally to it. A literature, that is, must be thought of as essentially something more than an accumulation of separate works: it has an organic form, or constitutes an organic order, in relation to which the individual writer has his significance and his being. ‘Mind’ is the analogy ( if this is the right word) used:
He must be aware that the mind of Europe- the mind of his own country- mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind- is a mind which changes…
and so on.
Something, I said, in the nature of his way of thinking seems to me inevitable for anyone who thinks about literature at all. The ways in which it is at odds with Marxist theories of culture are obvious. It stresses, not economic and material determinates, but intellectual and spiritual, so implying a different conception from the Marxist of the relation between the present of society and the past, and a different conception of society. It assumes that, enormously- no one will deny it- as material conditions count, there is a certain measure of spiritual autonomy in human affairs, and that human intelligence, choice and will do really and effectively operate, expressing an inherent human nature. There is a human nature- that is how, form the present point of view , we may take the stress as falling ; a human nature , of which an understanding is of primary importance to students of society and politics. And here is the first way that presents itself of indication the kind of importance literature- the literary critics literature- should be recognized to have for such students: the study of it is, or should be, an intimate study of the complexities, potentialities and essential conditions of human nature.
But that by itself is too large a proposition to take us anywhere. Let me, by way of moving towards more discussible particularity, make another obvious note on the difference between the Marxist kind of attitude toward literature and that represented by the idea of Tradition I’ve invoked. It’s true that this latter stresses the social aspect of creative achievement as the Romantic attitude didn’t: but it allows for the individual aspect more than the Marxist does. This is inevitably a crude way of putting it- as you’ll see, that ‘inevitably’ is my point. But to postpone that for a moment: you can’t be interested I literature and forget that the creative individual is indispensable. Without the individual talent there is no creation . While you are in intimate touch with literature no amount of dialectic, or of materialistic interpretation, will obscure for long the truth that human life lives only in individuals: I might have said, the truth that it is only in individuals that society lives.
The point I wanted to make is this: you can’t contemplate the nature of literature without acquiring some inhibition in respect of that antithesis, ‘the individual and society,’ and losing any innocent freedom you may have enjoyed in handing it ; without, that is , acquiring some inhibiting apprehensions of the subtleties that lie behind the antithesis.
An illustration presents itself readily. I have spoken of the Romantic’ attitude, and the phrase might be called misleading, since the actual poets of the Romantic period- Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats- differ widely among themselves. No general description worth offering will cover them. Though as influences they merge later in a Romantic tradition, they themselves do not exemplify any common Romanticism. What they have in common is that they belong to the same age; and in belonging to the same age they have in common something negative: the absence of anything to replace the very positive tradition( Literary and more than literary- hence its strength) that had prevailed till towards the end of the eighteenth century. It is this tradition, the Augustan, that I want to consider briefly first.
It originated in the great changes in civilization that make the second part of the seventeenth century look so unlike the first, and its early phase may be studied in the works of John Dryden. The conventions, standards and idiom of its confident maturity offer themselves for contemplation in The Tatler and the Spectator. The relevant point to be made about it for the present purpose is that it laid a heavy stress on the social. Its insistence that man is a social being was such as to mean in effect that all his activities, inner as well as outer, that literature took cognizance of, were to belong to an overtly social context. Even the finest expressions of the spirit were to be in resonance with a code of Good Form- for with such a code the essential modes and idioms of Augustan culture were intimately associated. The characteristic movements and dictions of the eighteenth century, in verse as well as prose, convey a suggestion of social deportment and company manners.
An age in which such a tradition gets itself established is clearly an age in which the writer feels himself very much at one with society. And the Augustan heyday, the Queen Anne period, was a period very confident of its flourishing cultural health. But we should expect such and insistence on the social to have in time a discouraging effect on the deeper sources of originality, the creative springs in the individually experiencing mind. We should expect to find evidence of this in the field of poetry , and we find it. This is no place to pretend to give a fair account of the Augustan decline, which was a complex affair: I’m merely stressing an aspect that is relevant to my present purpose. Where, then a tradition like that I have adumbrated prevails, there is bound before long to be a movement of protest in minds of the kind that ought to be creative. They will feel that conventional expression – that which , nevertheless , seems natural and inevitable to the age- imposes a conventional experience, and that this, suppressing, obtruding, muffing, and misrepresenting, is at odds with their own. There will be a malaise, a sense of blunted vitality, that would express itself to this effect it it were fully conscious. Full consciousness is genius, and manifests itself in technical achievement, the new use of words. In the seventeen eighties it is William Blake
Blake in his successful work sys implicitly: ‘it is I who see and feel. I see only what I see and feel only what I feel. My experience is mind, and in its specific quality lies its significance.’ He may be said to have reversed for himself the shift of stress that occurred at the Restoration. But to such a reversal there is clearly a limit. Blake uses the English language, and not one of his own invention; and to say that he uses it is not to say that it is for him a mere instrument. His individuality has developed in terms of the language, with the ways of experiencing , as well as of handling experience, that it involves. The mind and sensibility that he has to express are of the language.
I may seem here o be handling a truism of the kind that there’s no point I recalling. But I believe that the familiar truths that we contemplate when we contemplate the nature of language- in the way, that is, in which we have to when we take a critical interest in literature- have the familiarity of the familiar things that we tend to lose sight of when we begin to think. And what I ha e just been touching on is perhaps the most radical of the ways in which the literary critic’s interest in literature leads to a new recognition of the essential social nature of the individual – and ( I may add) of the ‘reality’ he takes for granted.
In any case, I want to pass at once to an order of consideration that will probably seem to have more discussible bearings on the normal pre- occupations of the student of society. The measure of social collaboration and support represented by the English language didn’t make Blake prosperously self – sufficient: he needed something more- something that he didn’t get. This is apparent in a peculiar kind of difficulty that his work offers to the critic. I am thinking of the difficulty one so often has in deciding what kind of thing it is one has before one.
A pretty sneaking knave I knew-
O! Mr Cromek , how do ye do?
- that is clearly a private blow- off. The Tyger is clearly a poem ( in site of the bluffed – out defeat in the third stanza). But again and again one comes on the thing that seems to be neither wholly private nor wholly a poem. It seems not to know what it is or where it belongs, and one suspects that Blake didn’t know. What he did know- and know deep down in himself- was that he had no public: he very early gave up publishing in any serious sense. One obvious consequence, or aspect, of this knowledge is the carelessness that is so apparent in the later prophetic books. Blake and ceased to be capable to taking enough trouble. The uncertainty I have just referred to is a more radical and significant form of the same kind of disability. In the absence, we may put it, of adequate social collaboration (the sense, or confident prospect, of a responsive community y of minds was the minimum he needed ) his powers of attaining in achieved creation t that peculiar impersonal realm to which the work of art belongs and in which minds can meet – it is as little a world of purely private experience as it is the public world of the laboratory –a failed to develop as, his native endowment being what it was, they ought to have done.
The inevitable way in which serious literary interest develops towards the sociological is suggested well enough here. What better conditions, one asks, can one imagine for a Blake? Can one imagine him in a tradition that should have nurtured his genius rather that have been something it had to escape from, and in a society that should have provided hem with the best conceivable public? But what is the best conceivable public? And so one is led on to inquire into the nature and conditions of cultural health and prosperity.
I will illustrate with a line of reflection that has occupied me a good deal. Harking back from Blake one notes that the establishment of the Augustan tradition was associated wit – indeed, it involved- a separation, new and abrupt, between sophisticated culture and popular . Anticipating the problem of bringing home as convincingly and vividly as possible to ( say) students of modern social and political questions what is meant by saying that there was, in the seventeenth century, a real culture of the people, one thinks first of Dryden’s contemporary, Bunyan, it The Pilgrim’s progress is a humane masterpiece, that is in spite of the bigoted sectarian creed that Banyan’s allegory, in detail as in sum, directs itself to enforcing. In spite of his aim, a humane masterpiece resulted because he belonged to the civilization of his time, and that meant, for a small- town ‘mechanick’, participating in a rich traditional culture.
It is on the reader approaching as a literary critic that this truth compels itself( others seem to miss it) . Consider, not one of the most striking illustrations of Bunyan’s art, such as the apologia and self characterization of By –Ends, but a passage representative in a routine kind of way:
Christian: Did you hear no talk of neighbor Pliable?
Faithful: Yes, Christian, I heard that he followed you till the came at the Slough of Despond, where, as some said, he fell in; but he would not be known to have so done; but I am sure he was soundly be dabbled with that kind of dirt.
Christian: And what said the neighbors to him?
Faithful: He hath, since his going back, been had greatly in derision, and that among all sorts of people; some do mock and despise him; and scarce will any set him on work. He is now seven times worse that if he had never gone out of the city.
Christian: But why should they be so set against him, since they also despise die way that he forsook?
Faithful: Oh, they say, hang him, he is a turncoat! He was not true to his profession. Think God has stirred up even his enemies to hiss at him, and make him a proverb, because he hath forsaken the way.
Christian: Had you no talk with him before you came out?
Faithful: I met him once in the streets, but he leered away on the other side as one ashamed of what he had done; so I spoke not to him.
Christian: Well, at my first setting out, I had hopes of that man; but now I fear he will perish in the over- throw of the city; for it is happened to him according to the true proverb. The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed , to her wallowing in the mire.
The relation of this to the consummate art of the By-Ends passage is plain; we have the idiomatic life that runs to saw and proverb, and runs also to what is closely akin to these, the kind of pungently characterizing epitome represented by ‘turncoat’( which , with a capital letter, might have appeared in By-Ends’ list of his kindred). The vitality here is not merely one of raciness; an art of civilized living is implicit, with its habits and standards of serious moral valuation.
This then is what the literary critic has to deduce from his reading. If the finds that others, interested primarily in social reform and social history, do not seem properly impressed by such evidence, he can by way of bringing home to them in how full a sense there is, behind the literature, a social culture and an art of living, call attention to Cecil Sharp’s introduction to English Folk- songs from the Southern Appalachians. Hearing that the English folk- song still persisted in the remoter valleys of those mountains sharp, during the war of 1914, went over to investigate, and brought back a fabulous haul. More than that, he discovered that the tradition of song and dance( and a reminder is in place at this point of the singing and dancing with which the pilgrims punctuate their progress in the second part of Bunyan’s Calvinistic allegory) had persisted so vigorously because the whole context to which folk-song and folk- dance belong was there too; he discovered, in fact, a civilization or ‘way of life’( in our democratic parlance) that was truly an art of social living.
The mountaineers were descended from settlers who had left this country in the eighteenth century.
The region is from its inaccessibility a very secluded one ….die inhabitants have for a hundred years or more been completely isolated and shut off from all traffic with the rest of the world. Their speech is English, not American, and, from the number of expressions they use that have long been obsolete elsewhere, and the old- fashioned way in which they pronounce many of their words, it is clear the they are talking the language of a past day. They are a leisurely, cheery people in their quiet way, in whom the social instinct is very highly developed.. . They know their Bible intimately and subscribe to an austere creed, charged with Calvinism and the unrelenting doctrines of determinism or fatalism… They have an easy unaffected bearing and the unselfconscious manners of the well – bred… A few of those we met were able to read and write, but the majority were illiterate. They are however good talkers, using an abundant vocabulary racial and picturesquely…