Readers who frequent their Homer will recall how Odysseus’ unlucky crew opened their gift of a bag of wind on their journey to Ithaca and were blown back whence they came. Whether or not this suggests that the gods are not smiling upon the Leavis Society, whose own bag of wind has burst open in their most recent newsletter, it is perhaps too early to tell, but the signs are promising.
Their editor has reportedly said that Leavis would detest the Leavis Society, and in this if nothing else he is surely right. One is reminded of the Lectureship Trust, ostensibly set up to honour Leavis, and the debacle that followed. History appears to have come full circle. Indeed, the resemblances are uncanny: “It is very clear that my name has been exploited … I am not honoured but dishonoured and insulted.” This is all to the good, the editor believes. It shows that the Society has struck out on the right course (albeit without compass on a dark sea). Note too the technique at work. Its hallmark is its plausibility. First you offer an apparent concession to the “purists” – tacitly viewed as narrow-minded and even mean-spirited, concerned only with reading Leavis and respecting the “integrity” of his work at the expense of “dialogue” – the latter being what the work really points to, as his more judicious critics recognise. The “purists” occupy their time reading what Leavis wrote (wrote about particular works, not general propositions) and seeking to understand its integrity. A mug’s game. They failed to understand that Leavis had attempted to “create an enclave of ‘great literature’ ring-fenced from the rest of cultural and human worldly activity”. In their naivety, they had supposed – how erroneously! – that this was the opposite of what he had actually done.
“Purist” is akin to such modifiers as “hard-line” or “far-right” in political journalism (inveiglers). Having insinuated the word, you then go on to occupy the high ground by implying how much more generous and “inclusive” are those at the other end of the “spectrum”. The trick is to sound knowledgeable and authoritative (and pump in plentiful bombast for good measure, like hot air in the reader’s eye). In any case (let’s face it) life isn’t long enough to permit of one’s giving much time to reading what Leavis actually wrote. All those essays. He churned them out interminably. Those poets, dramatists, novelists and literary critics. Heavens above! Scores of them. One would need to read them as well! There are surely more important figures we must “engage with”, for “engagement” is the name of the game. Ah, “dialogue”! Had not Leavis himself said ‘yes but’? Even those who had not read him (in the Leavis Society for example) knew that. Thirty-seven books by Derrida, a dozen or more by Lacan, Barthes well over twenty, Foucault, Paul de Man, Spivak, Cixous, Kristeva, Irigaray, J. Hillis Miller, Deleuze, Zunshine (sic) … queer theory and cross-gender (or ‘gender-fluid’) studies, post-colonialism (still going strong) and post-deconstructionism. Post-everything in fact. And that’s before even starting on Belsey! Not much room for literature there. And Leavis had spent fifty years talking about it! Yes, the world had moved on since his time and the Leavis Society had – thank heavens – moved with it, finally freeing itself from the baggage with which the founder members had encumbered it.
But, does not the Society still exist “to promote informed appreciation of the work of F. R. Leavis”? Not on your life. Under the new dispensation their business is to use members’ subscriptions to mount a “determined and emphatic defence of the freedom to make the case of those who strongly disagree” (as if the “purists” aimed to suppress free speech and urged prison terms for those who disagreed with the master). As an earnest of their desire to promote not Leavis’s work but free speech in general, they tell us that their business stretches even to using members’ money to provide platforms for those who, like Catherine Belsey, reject Leavis’s annoying “insistence on valuation” – and most other things about him. She will “be thinking aloud with us” at Downing College in September. The term ‘thinking’ is used to liberal effect. “The thinking of the Leavis Society committee has developed since the last newsletter,” we are told. Has it? Thinking, as Leavis practised it, is as conspicuously absent in this production as in the last one, so astutely analysed by Mr Stotesbury. Leavis once said that he could be handy in a rough house. Let us hope his ghost still haunts the college to handy effect. As for the members (if many are left), they of course can vote with their feet.