May. 19th, 2017

calimac: (JRRT)
I confess I've never read much of the criticism of F.R. Leavis. What I have read was enough to demonstrate that, rather to my surprise, Frederick Crews' famous "Simon Lacerous" parody - "Another book to cross off your list" - isn't much of an exaggeration. Leavis really was that brutally waspish - or waspishly brutal.

At one time, around the 1950s, he was the most influential critic out there. His disciples, trained by him at Cambridge or by his own earlier disciples, infected English departments everywhere, and the loaded terms seem appropriate. I've read one account by a dismayed college don whose department welcomed its first Leavisite, or tried to. He refused to engage in everyone else's give-and-take conversation about critical views. Either you accepted the master's dogma whole or you were beneath his notice.

The don emphasized that Leavis himself, whom he didn't really know, wasn't like that. But the style was in keeping with the severity of his critical views. Nowadays, I understand, Leavis is out of fashion. An age which eagerly studies even the confessed trash of literature - even if it's really only because everything else has already been done to death - on the grounds of what it says about popular taste and the publishing and societal context in which greater works were written, isn't going to have much time for a view of literature consisting of a tiny canon of unquestionable masterpieces and a vast realm of outer darkness.

But back when establishing a canon was the way to go in literary studies, it was he whose canon was the smallest and purest who became the highest priest, and that, I suspect, was the core of Leavis' appeal.

What I didn't read enough of Leavis to establish was what criteria he used to determine his canon. Which is why I was so interested to read this summary in a lucid book called Literary Feuds (Leavis' is with C.P. Snow, of course) by a state college professor named Anthony Arthur. He writes that Leavis saw great literature "as a positive moral force within society, particularly in the ways it exemplified the virtues associated with preindustrial rural life and exposed, as he saw it, the hollow and degrading materialism that the Industrial Revolution had unleashed."

And it occurred to me that anyone who holds those views ought to have loved The Lord of the Rings. Positive moral force? Check: Tolkien has one of the strongest moral visions in literature; to him, virtue consists of acting virtuous. It isn't inherent in the white hats the good guys wear. Perils threaten on every side. Contrast Tolkien with later fantasists like George R.R. Martin, for whom the absence of any moral force is treated as a feature, and you'll see the difference.

Virtues of preindustrial rural life? Check: By Tolkien's own account, the Shire is an idealized English Midlands village of his own 1890s childhood, with the Industrial Revolution entirely stripped out. The societies the hobbits visit on their journeys are equally idealized icons of cultures in the medieval literature that Tolkien studied professionally.

Exposed the hollow and degrading materialism of the Industrial Revolution? Check: The villains are manic industrialists, pouring out pollution and slag heaps everywhere. They're driven by self-aggrandizement and a lust for power and control. Saruman in particular rapes the Shire for his own creature comforts and to deny them to its inhabitants (see not just the Scouring of the Shire, but the stocks of goods that Merry and Pippin find in the ruins of Isengard).

This adds up to a book that Leavis should have been pleased to consider worthy of his canon of great literature. But somehow, you know, I suspect that he didn't. Leavis never wrote anything about Tolkien - probably he considered him beneath his notice, and the one thing that rings false in "Simon Lacerous" is the idea that Leavis would have bothered to attack Winnie-the-Pooh at such length at all - but less fastidious but equally high-minded critics like Edmund Wilson and Philip Toynbee did attack Tolkien. I don't need to cite how they violated their own loftily-stated critical principles in dismissing The Lord of the Rings - in Toynbee's case, stated not four months earlier in the same newspaper review column - because Tom Shippey has already done it in The Road to Middle-earth.

Would Leavis have done the same, had he bothered? Probably. His loss.

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