Reply to Richard Stotesbury on behalf of 'Pseuds Corner'

Reply on behalf of 'Pseuds Corner'

‘Readers may be excused for supposing at this point that they have strayed into Private Eye’s pseuds corner.’ Richard Stotesbury (

In the spirit of Gaunilo’s reply to Anselm of Canterbury ‘On behalf of the fool’, I venture an all-too-incomplete reply, to Richard Stotesbury’s somewhat evangelical attack on the Leavis Society, on behalf of 'Pseuds Corner'. One is reminded of the interchange between Boswell and Johnson over Johnson’s pamphlet ‘Taxation no Tyranny’ (1778):

Johnson: ‘I think I have not been attacked enough for it. Attack is the reaction. I never think I have hit hard unless it rebounds.’
Boswell: ‘I don’t know, Sir, what you would be at. Five or six shots of small arms in every newspaper and repeated cannonading in pamphlets might I think satisfy you.’

Well, yes the passionate spirit of an authentic Leavisian purism which pervades not only this paper, but all the papers, about Leavis on Richard Stotesbury’s site: leaves us in the Leavis Society little to be desired in the way of stern denunciation for our heretical accomodations to post-modernism, pop culture, university coterie culture, the collectivist McLuhanesque world of media studies, and ersatz Marxist dilutions of Leavis’s vision, and so forth. I shall draw from more than one of these papers. There is something bracing, - in the spirit of a January 1st plunge into the icy North Sea, and Siberian winds on the East Coast, - about Richard Stotesbury’s writing, and I must indeed, at the risk of once again being accused of being condescending1, do him the justice of saying that he seems to definitely embody one kind of authentic and highly articulate Leavisian discipleship, and refusal of backsliding in the face of the modern world, and to represent a kind of touchstone of a certain kind of purism. And for the Leavis Society to be honoured by receiving such a comprehensive and thought out challenge, from someone so passionate, and thorough, in his - nevertheless quite sparse and intermittent - writings over the years about post-Leavisian matters, suggests that some chord has indeed been struck.

However, the purpose of the Editorial (which was not an ex-cathedra collective effort, but a ‘point of view’) was to argue, in a ‘yes, but….’ spirit, to use Leavis’s catch phrase, that there are elements in Leavis’s work which are more compatible with aspects of the internet era than might at first appear. It was not to tendentiously assume this without discussion, but to provoke discussion. Richard Stotesbury’s response suggests that there is, - for the right thinking Leavisian, - clearly no discussion to be had about these matters, but rather what feels somewhat like a kind of Calvinistic certainty, to diverge from which (despite the evils of ‘associationism’) is to be a ‘renegade’2.

One would never think, to read him, that, for instance, 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 which themselves support the antithetical points he is making on them in critique ('don't trust the author, trust the tale'). I instance, due to space, only one of very many (those also often concerning TS Eliot himself), where Leavis notes TS Eliot writing like DH Lawrence, in After Strange Gods (Mr Eliot, Mr Wyndham Lewis, and Lawrence ):         

Lawrence's concern for health far transcends what is suggested by any talk of sex. His may be ' not the last word, only the first' ; but the first is necessary. His justification is given in these remarks from After Strange Gods (p. 18):

‘We become conscious of these items, or conscious of their importance, usually only after they have begun to fall into desuetude, as we are aware of the leaves of a tree when the autumn wind begins to blow them off—when they have separately ceased to be vital. Energy may be wasted at that point in a frantic endeavour to collect the leaves as they fall and gum them on to the branches: but the sound tree will put forth new leaves, and the dry tree should be put to the axe . . . Our second danger is .. . to aim to return to some previous condition which we imagine as having been capable of preservation in perpetuity, instead of aiming to stimulate the life which produced that condition in its time.’

The tree will not put forth new leaves unless the sap flows. The metaphor, of course, is susceptible of more than one translation, but the very choice of it is nevertheless an involuntary concession to Lawrence.

In this spirit, I turn to one use I made, in the editorial, of such a deconstructive strategy. Richard Stotesbury accuses me of taking words out of context:

‘This rhetorical question [the reference to the Bushmen etc in the Richmond Lecture] is lifted from its context and presented as the sum of Leavis’s account of traditional culture.’

Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. In what I am about to quote, he is ostensibly dismissing  (and unacceptably reifying in the process) my connecting Leavis with post-modern concerns - and what about this for quoting out of context?

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’.

Having earlier accused me of ‘psychobabble’, the endeavour is clearly to portray me as some kind of generalising Freudian reductivist. But here is the reference to Freud and post-modern realisations, etc, in its full 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 references to Freud are clearly not merely lifted, but gratuitously wrenched, out of their context by Richard Stotesbury, altering their meaning radically in the process. That this is not tendentiously attributing a pseudo-Freudianism to Leavis can be illustrated by his comments (in the Great Tradition essay) on Gwendolen’s struggle to decide, in discussion with her mother, whether to respond to Grandcourt’s note requesting to visit her, after her fall into poverty, in Daniel Deronda:

Reading this, it is hard to remember that George Eliot was contemporary with Trollope. What later novelist has rendered the inner movement of impulse, the play of motives that issues in speech and act and underlies formed thought and conscious will, with more penetrating subtlety than she? It is partly done through speech and action. But there is also, co-operating with these, a kind of psychological notation that is well represented in the passage quoted above, and is exemplified in ‘Quick, quick, like pictures in a book beaten open with a sense of hurry….’, and ‘yet in the dark seed-growths of consciousness a new wish was forming itself….’ And ‘The young activity within her made a warm current through her terror….’, and ‘All the while there was a busy under-current in her, like the thought of a man who keeps up a dialogue while he is considering how he can slip away’ – and so much else. (Leavis, 1948/1962 [ pp. 116-7]) 

Now, unlike Lawrence, whose essay on The Grand Inquisitor I had mentioned in the Editorial, Leavis never seriously engages with Dostoievsky, and in his late essay on Yeats he ended with Among School Children, and never addressed The Circus Animals’ Desertion. 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.

Given, then, that my ‘virtual Leavis’ cannot be realistically claimed as aspiring to go thus far, we can point, as an illustration of his recognition of the ‘twentieth century’ ethos, to this great late work of George Eliot. In both its grasp of nihilism, and in its enmeshment in it (as illustrated, in Leavis’s own account, by the failure of the ‘Jewish’ part to be able to realise or fully embody a ‘positive’) it embodies this. One wonders if Nietzsche ever got to read it. In view of the dismissal of George Eliot as a mere moralist in Twilight of the Idols, it seems unlikely, since it is so remarkably close to what he is doing himself. It is almost a ‘death of God’3 work.

In respect of nihilism and the modern world, one can also adduce: aspects of Leavis’s responses to TS Eliot; his in general profound grasp of modern self-reflexive process-based consciousness (starting with Jane Austen’s Emma!); his (and DW Harding’s) recognition of Rosenberg’s dark war poetry; his feeling for Decoud’s suicide in Nostromo; and much else. The dividing line between ‘nihilistic’ and ‘non-nhilistic’ literature is not as sharp as he makes it, despite the emphatic attempt to drive a wedge between Pope and Swift. And the differentiation from ‘popular’ culture is not so sharp either, in view of, for instance, Mark Twain’s, Dickens’s, and Conrad’s, absorption in the developing genre of the detective story and modern melodrama, which obviously emerged from 18th and 19th century gothic. But let us go no further; let us leave to Paris, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Maelstrom and The Purloined Letter; let’s not go there! But we could certainly ask what Leavis would have done with Melville’s Bartleby?

Leavis’s anti-nihilism is, in short, is more ambivalent, to risk another bit of possible psychobabble, - and not as clear cut as it appears in the essay on Yeats. I yield nothing to Richard Stotesbury in my admiration of Leavis as master critic of the twentieth century, and as European mind. I have emphasised both several times in talking and writing about Lawrence with Leavis, - for instance, recently:  

But recognitions do follow from this; for this post-death-of-God European mind, with his going through two twentieth century World Wars, it is impossible that Leavis should not have had to wrestle profoundly with elements of nihilism. We know the path which he, predominantly, took. But he took it as a matter of enquiry not of dogma, and it again and again converged, and had to converge, with elements ostensibly opposed to it, nihilism and Marxism, and Christian and pagan spirituality, convergences which I myself believe are also implicit in his hesitations about philosophy (- the now again renewed argument with Chris Joyce, which I must leave on one side, here). Leavis’s fundamental enactivism, - his greatest and most all-embracing critical recognition, surpassing almost any other critic in this! - whilst he could easily play it off against the didacticism of Samuel Johnson, the author of Irene and Preface to Shakespeare, remains more didactically moralistic then he assumes. And if he had allowed it to more fully or emphatically enter the play of opposites or antagonistic principles, which he accepts when writing about Benthem and Coleridge - well, he would have had to have become a different, whether or not a greater, critic. But for us post-Leavisians these questions, which he partly closed off, have to be wrestled with, and to wrestle with them is not at all an easy way out. In fact, to circle the wagons, and to attempt to close the Leavisian circle, as if there is no outside, may actually be the opt out, and I believe Richard Stotesbury is in danger of such a position. 

‘Yes, Yes…. But, But…… ???’      


‘Having reduced his view to a simple-minded primitivism via Sturt, the editorial loftily dismisses it, in an incredible display of obtuse condescension, with ‘far be it from me to belittle what we ourselves can derive from the San Bushmen, and other aboriginal peoples, including the Cro-Magnon, or to denigrate their part in the march of civilisation’.’
2 'By contrast, the literary endeavours of the splinter group led by Mason and the ‘core-members’ of the Trust have yielded a barren harvest. How could it be otherwise, seeing that whatever of value they possessed came from their Leavisian past? They were and remain a renegade movement, whose early promise was squandered in self-destructive efforts to trample on the magnificent literary heritage that was their by rights. It is saddening to think of so much waste.’ (‘A Waste of Spirit’: Review of The Cambridge Quarterly Leavis Special Issue, Vol. 25 No 4 1996, published in Leavis. Dr Mackillop and ‘The Cambridge Quarterly’ (Brynmill 1998). )'
3 In referring to 'the Death of God', I am not simplistically assuming any particular theistic or anti-theistic view; it is a matter which both secularists and persons of faith can deal with in their own ways. It remains a very useful shorthand to reflect a profound change in consciousness, which Nietzsche was one of the earliest to grasp, and one of the most radical in his mode of grasping.