Pseuds Corner Revisited

My review of the inaugural edition of The Leavis Society’s Newsletter has elicited a reply offered ‘on behalf of pseuds corner’. A brief look at its contents seems in order.

The reply is prefixed by a face-saving appeal to Johnson’s ‘I never think I have hit hard unless it rebounds’. In response to this attempt to assume the mantle of Johnson, one might to point to a certain cautionary tale of Aesop’s.

Turning to the matter of the reply, it opens with a general accusation of narrowness, developed through an ostensibly emollient acknowledgement of my work, spiked with loaded epithets and phrases: ‘evangelical’, ‘Leavisian purism’, ‘stern denunciations for our heretical accommodations’, ‘Leavisian discipleship’, ‘Calvinistic certainty’. Since Leavis has been routinely denounced as an intolerantly narrow Puritan and his defenders branded fanatical devotees by the opposition, one can shrug and reflect that one is on the right side.

The crux of the reply is a heated protest at being quoted out of context, which stridently claims that the ‘references to Freud are clearly not merely lifted, but gratuitously wrenched, out of their context…altering their meaning radically in the process’ in the following passage from my piece:

…and the real Leavis is replaced by a littérateur who ‘shows a profound understanding…of…twentieth century (proto-Freudian) elements’ and ‘Freud’s insights’, as well as a ‘recognition of modern nihilism’, and whose literary standpoint is ‘deeply compatible with modern and post-modern, process-based and absurdist, realisations’.

Here is the full paragraph that the reply adduces as ‘context’:

‘Thus, Leavis’s massive rehabilitative work on George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda shows a profound understanding, from the opening scene onwards, of what we may call the twentieth century (proto-Freudian) elements in the work, with its immediate connection to Freud’s insights, and to the recognition of modern nihilism. Whether, or not, he always took it thus far himself, this dimension of Leavis is deeply compatible with modern and post-modern, process-based and absurdist, realisations. (italic emphasis added).’

The crucial omission, one gathers, is the clause with the italicized negative, which conveys the ‘information’ that Leavis always may not have taken it ‘thus far’, or that he always may have.

So what does this piece of hedging that marks time on the spot ‘radically’ change in the quotation? The ‘profound understanding’ of the ‘proto-Freudian’ that immediately connects Leavis with ‘Freud’s insights’, or the ‘dimension’ that is ‘deeply compatible with modern and post-modern, process-based and absurdist, realisations’? Or both? Well, neither. The complaint about being misquoted relies on one of the oldest tricks in the book: shout ‘Foul!’ and gesticulate, trusting that attention will focus on the noise and not on the direction of the hand.

Disclaimers notwithstanding, the paragraph is an Orwellian expansion of Leavis’s literary standpoint; a mission creep, helped by the evasiveness and obscurity of the language, that starts with the obvious and indisputable fact, evidenced by (inter alia) the chapter on George Eliot in The Great Tradition, that Leavis was aware of hidden psychological forces – who in the 20th century wasn’t? – and by dint of conjuring with Freud’s name insinuates him, hedging and all, into the company of the likes of Ernest Jones. This manoeuvre provides a springboard for a quantum leap that sets up an association (‘deep compatibility’) between his work and ‘modernity’ via a clutch of sub-critical taxonomies. The same newspeak tactic is used more blatantly in the reply when Leavis is linked (mirable dictu!) with Derrida through the repeated labelling of his work as ‘deconstruction’ [1]. To cap it all, Leavis’s use of the Lawrentian saying, ‘Never trust the artist; trust the tale’, is adduced to support the classification, which must be deemed to apply to Lawrence – and not him alone, since his maxim is a widely held principle of criticism [2] – in the interest of consistency!

Nobody doubts that nihilism is a complex phenomenon. It can manifest itself as a deep and tormenting condition in the last poems of Yeats’s, where it is not divorced from the awareness of positives, or a shallow and contemptible celebration of meaninglessness in the productions of Hopper, Lichtenstein and Beckett. However, it is of its nature and essence opposed to the reality of prescriptive values that are the foundation of any worthwhile criticism, and a fortiori Leavis’s; and if recognizing this is closing the lager, it is better than throwing it open to the enemy.

In conclusion, the reply does not call for any modification of my observations in the review [3].

1. Cf. ‘Leavis’s own work is, again and again, offered in a spirit of what later became labelled deconstruction [the ‘ingenious Derridean tool‘ referred to in his ‘with the assistance of an ingenious tool, patented in Paris’, see his footnote no. 28], by way, that is, of taking elements in the authors who are subjects of his criticsm (sic) which themselves support the antithetical points he is making on them in critique (“don’t trust the author, trust the tale”).’ The conflation of deconstruction a la Derrida with the time-honoured practice of turning the words of a person against him, at least as old as the Book of Job (‘Thine own mouth condemneth thee, and not I: yea, thine own lips testify against thee.’ 15.6), is characteristic of the modus operandi. To leave no doubt, the point is rubbed in later: ‘Indeed, Leavis’s essay on Yeats embodies very vividly Richard Stotesbury’s watertight-compartment ‘Leavis’ (if we are to talk of virtual ‘Leavises’, as I explicitly was doing in the editorial), both in its full hearted (and deconstructive!) use of Yeats’s chestnut tree, and in its massive avoidance (one is tempted to use Freud’s word, ‘vermeiden’) of the greatest of Yeats’s late nihilistic-tragic poems.’

2. W.K. Wimsatt and M.T. Beardsley offered a formal statement of the principle under the title The Intentional Fallacy in The Verbal Icon (Lexington 1954). Commentators on their work have argued against the principle by construing it as an absolute prohibition on the use of extrinsic evidence of intention to interpret a text, thereby taking it to an ultimate and absurd extreme. The more moderate and correct construction is not that extrinsic evidence of intention is irrelevant but that it does not override the natural meaning of words.

3. I am indebted to David Stotesbury for his invaluable comments on the draft of this piece.