À propos the latest Leavis Society newsletter: (i) Exploring Difference

 Duke Maskell

1.    The latest Leavis Society Newsletter is called “How to Disagree”. It doesn’t exactly say how to do it but it makes it pretty plain all the same. Do it nicely. Engage in dialogue with one another. Think aloud together. Explore your differences. Say what you have to say strongly and emphatically but also say equally strongly and equally emphatically that those who disagree with you, however strongly and emphatically, are free to say what they have to say strongly and emphatically too. And if someone should disagree with you so strongly and so emphatically that he might be suspected of wishing to be nasty, don’t take offence, don’t reply in kind, do as you say and as you would be done unto, show him you can take it, name his words … “robust”. This is, after all, just what Leavis meant by “yes, but …” and how he treated the Lords Annan and Snow. He explored his differences with them. And wouldn’t it be good if we still had him with us to explore his differences with Professor Belsey too?

2.   Professor During–especially recommended by the latest Newsletter–thinks there is a way of thinking (he speaks neither for not against it) in which, “the study of literature need involve no love of, or commitment to, literature”. But how, in this way of thinking, can it be known that what is being studied is literature? If I read (that is, scan all the sentences of)–let it be, of all the things it might be–Anna Karenina but feel no love for it, how can I be said to know that what I have just read/scanned the sentences of was literature?

3.   To speak, like Heward Wilkinson, of value-judgements as having a function, diminishing or not superseded or not, seems to me an odd and illiterate way of speaking (an illiteracy open only, of course, to those who are–we cannot say ‘highly educated’–part of the Higher Education Function) but how, putting that consideration to one side, can any member of such a thing as the Leavis Society hold in his mind the possibility that value-judgements are diminishing or superseded (what by?) in function (in ‘value’?) except by inhabiting a state of self-contradiction? Why, except upon the assumption of Leavis’s value (‘function’?) ever join such a society, let alone take a prominent part in it and take on the onerous (and not always rewarding?) task of editing the society’s newsletter? Why, if you just want a hobby, not join some other society altogether? Or knit?

4.   Professor Catherine Belsey doesn’t just hold in her mind the possibility that value-judgements have gone the journey, she “rejects this foundational insistence upon valuation as misconceived” altogether. And good riddance. But isn’t this another self-contradiction? Firstly, isn’t there a valuation entailed in rejecting valuations as misconceived (or whatever )? Doesn’t she found her own rejection of valuations on a valuation? Secondly, what does she think got her the professorship (and the salary and the dignities which go with it) that gets her invited to give her opinion on valuation or anything else? Does she think her merit–and the merits of rivals for promotion–didn’t enter into it? Does she perhaps think she didn’t deserve her elevation, because the idea of a ‘deserving’ based on merit is misconceived? Does she think we might be as well off going to listen to somebody else? Or no-one. Picking our noses? Catherine Belsey: does she think? (For a strong and emphatic answer to that see Brian Lee’s “Theory in the Void”.)