Leaving Out Leavis

The critic F.R. Leavis deserves better

As some readers have pointed out, notably on the Standpoint website, F. R. Leavis deserves better treatment than I gave him in “Time to revisit The Two Cultures” (Critique, March). Of course it is true that much science deals with the inhuman, that the humanities must be the core of our culture, and that Leavis’s values were humane and sensitive.

There were two main reasons why his attack on C.P. Snow backfired. First, the lecture was read by many as personal. If the lecture was a “classic”, as he declared, the genre was invective. There was nothing in it of the living creative expression which he demanded from writing of the first rank, and the ad hominem tactic distracted from his arguments. Leavis wanted above all, it seemed, to take Snow down.

The second, more profound reason is that Leavis had argued, in analysing the 17th century, that the old organic culture of England had been fractured by the Civil War, and that Newtonian science had split the nation’s culture into the learned and scientific type led by the Royal Society, and the old culture of the poets, storytellers and other makers of Britain. Artistic creativity suffered. This view was also roughly that of T. S. Eliot and became commonplace. So he was angry at a civilisation in which science had won. In other words, as scholars such as Guy Ortolano have pointed out, he inadvertently backed Snow’s argument that there were two divided cultures and that the literary camp was often arrogantly dismissive of the upstart. (Leavis claimed, incidentally, to have no objections to the pursuit of science itself — an interesting paradox which he failed to explore.)

For Leavis and his tradition, the dominance of the scientific-materialist approach impoverished life and manners, dulled moral sensitivities, flattened the language, and gravely impaired the organic growth of communities. As many do, he looked back at a past he found superior despite its lack of technical sophistication; and although radical in some of his criticism and in his almost fanatical campaign for universities centred on English studies, he was in other ways highly conservative and something of a pessimist.

As for Snow, it was not that knowing the laws of physics was more important to him than a good foundation in the humanities — he was, after all, a novelist; but that the literary culture ought to pay more respect to the scientific (as Aldous Huxley does, for example, in Brave New World). Interested readers might consult the excellent scholarly editions of both essays by Stefan Collini.

My own point of view is that a greater number of mainstream creative writers should make the effort to understand more about science, not that they should learn to love it or to praise technocracy; and that this effort could and should be an important part of attempts to find ways of influencing, perhaps bonding, what is undeniably a sadly fragmented culture.

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