November 11, 2008
I looked at a book called Literature and the Sixth Sense, by Philip Rahv, expecting to find a discussion of literature and the occult. But when Rahv says “sixth sense,” he’s referring to Nietzsche’s comment that the modern sense of history is a sixth sense; Rahv isn’t discussing the occult. As I glanced through the book, I realized that Rahv is an excellent writer, a major critic, a serious student of literature. I realized that, a few decades ago, Americans like Rahv took literature seriously, the U.S. had a literary culture. Where did it go? Will it return?
Like Lionel Trilling, Rahv was part of the first generation of “New York Intellectuals.” Rahv came to the U.S. from Russia when he was 14. He co-founded Partisan Review in 1933, when he was 25. He published Literature and the Sixth Sense in 1969, three years before his death; he was then a professor at Brandeis. The writer who interested him most may have been Dostoyevsky and, at the time of his death, he seems to have been planning to publish a volume of his Dostoyevsky essays.
In Literature and the Sixth Sense, Rahv expresses his admiration for T. S. Eliot. Rahv was an Eliot fan in the 1930s, when many left-leaning intellectuals viewed Eliot as a quasi-Fascist with anti-Semitic tendencies. Rahv speaks of “the enormous influence exerted on Eliot by Charles Maurras and the Action Franšaise movement.”1 But Rahv says we should separate Eliot’s criticism from his ideology, and Rahv says that Eliot is as good a critic as Johnson, Coleridge, or Arnold.2 Rahv calls Eliot “the finest literary critic of this century in the English language. His only possible rival is Edmund Wilson.”
Rahv notes that Eliot took a dim view of “pure poetry [la poÚsie pure],” which Verlaine and others championed. “Poetry is only poetry,” wrote Eliot, “so long as it preserves some ‘impurity’ in this sense: that is to say, so long as the subject matter is valued for its own sake.”3 Eliot suggests that “the extreme awareness of and concern for language which we can find in ValÚry, is something which must ultimately break down.”
A literary critic, Eliot argued, must be concerned with more than literary matters: “The greatness of literature cannot be determined solely on literary grounds.”4 What a writer says matters, as well as how he says it. Rahv says that Eliot was a great critic because he didn’t have a method: “The only method is to be very, very intelligent... In the words of Henry James, ‘the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer.’”5
Eliot had reservations about D. H. Lawrence, accusing him of being egotistical, cruel, and humorless. Perhaps Lawrence would have found favor with Eliot if his philosophy, his worldview, had been closer to Eliot’s own.
Rahv rails against the younger generation of critics who judge literature on purely aesthetic grounds. He agrees with Eliot’s remark that it’s impossible “to fence off literary criticism from criticism on other grounds.”6 Rahv, an aging prophet, fulminates against the culture of the Sixties: “The true function of criticism [is] more frequently to resist the Zeitgeist rather than acquiesce in its now rampant aberrations.”7
Rahv concludes his discussion of Eliot thus: “Eliot is dead, and we will not soon see his like again. He was one of the principal educators of the imaginative life of his age, a uniquely great shaping influence both as poet and critic.”
While Rahv’s admiration for Eliot is unqualified, his admiration for the critic F. R. Leavis is mixed with blame. Leavis is one of the giants of 20th-century literary criticism. While earlier critics like Johnson and Coleridge were often men-of-letters who wrote criticism as a kind of “second job,” Leavis was a “pure critic.” According to Wikipedia, Leavis was “well known for his decisive and often provocative judgments.” For Leavis, English literature was serious business.
Leavis spent his career teaching at Cambridge. In 1924, at the age of 29, Leavis presented a Ph.D. thesis on “The Relationship of Journalism to Literature”; in this thesis, Leavis discussed how a periodical can influence culture. Leavis himself edited an influential periodical, Scrutiny. Leavis published several volumes of critical essays, essays that had originally appeared in Scrutiny; one of the best-known of these essay-collections is The Common Pursuit. One of the contributors to Scrutiny was Leavis’ wife, Q. D. Leavis, with whom he wrote a book called Dickens, the Novelist. One of Leavis’ favorite novelists was D. H. Lawrence; Leavis published a book called D. H. Lawrence, Novelist.
Leavis began his career with a book called New Bearings in English Poetry, in which he praised contemporary poets like Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and Gerard Manley Hopkins; this book helped to build the reputations of Eliot and Pound. Next he published a book called Revaluation, in which he discusses older poets like Milton and The Romantics. Following Eliot, Leavis criticized Victorian poets for trying to be poetic, and for separating thought and feeling, art and life (Eliot termed this separation “dissociation of sensibility”; Eliot praised the Metaphysical Poets for unifying thought and feeling, for their “unified sensibility”). Leavis used Eliot’s insights to “revalue” the whole history of English literature.
After these two volumes of poetry-criticism, Leavis turned to fiction-criticism, publishing a study of the English novel called The Great Tradition. “Leavis’s main tenet stated that great novelists show an intense moral interest in life.... Leavis refused to separate art from life, or the aesthetic or formal from the moral.”8 As Leavis put it,
In his discussion of economics, Ruskin said, “There is no wealth but life.” What Leavis seems to be saying is, “There is no literary beauty but life.” In Leavis’ view, literature should have “life-enhancing elements.”10 Great writers have a “marked moral intensity”11 (I’m reminded of the intensity of Conrad’s moral judgment about Donkin, in The Nigger of the Narcissus.) A great writer’s concern with form is accompanied by a concern with people, with life — “imaginative sympathy, moral discrimination and judgment of relative value.”12
Rahv criticizes Leavis for being too serious, for “provincial moralism,” for “protestant narrowness of sensibility,” for “unjustified rejection” of Joyce and others, etc. But Rahv’s attitude toward Leavis isn’t entirely negative: “What I chiefly like about Leavis’ work are its Johnsonian qualities: the robustness, the firmness, the downrightness.”13 Rahv said that Leavis’ criticism was “among the more heroic efforts in English of this century.”14
Rahv says that Leavis towers over today’s critics, who are “swinging reviewers rather than critics in any proper sense of the term.”15 Rahv says that “the currently modish idea that morality has nothing to do with literature is a sheer perversion, an accommodation to the indulgence of degeneracy that marks the arts in our age.”16 Rahv thunders against “the promoters of a phony avant-gardism”17 and their show of “worldly sophistication.”18 Rahv concludes his review of the literary scene by saying, “no wonder that the more intelligent young people are turning away from literature to politics.”19 (In an earlier issue, I discussed how the later generations of New York Intellectuals abandoned literature in favor of politics.)
Leavis never tired of lambasting The Bloomsbury Group, perhaps because they overlooked moral considerations, in favor of purely aesthetic considerations; according to Wikipedia, Leavis accused Bloomsburies of “dilettante elitism.” Rahv says that Leavis’ hostility toward Bloomsburies is “a symptom of class ressentiment,”20 and Rahv says that class feelings were behind Leavis’ admiration for Lawrence (Leavis’ father ran a music store, Lawrence’s was a miner). If English culture was split between Roundheads and Cavaliers, Leavis sided with the Roundheads, Bloomsbury with the Cavaliers. While Leavis was critical of Bloomsbury, he spoke “very respectfully” of my old favorite, E. M. Forster.21
If Nietzsche had been English, he probably would have sided with the Cavaliers; Nietzsche was always a champion of aristocratic culture. He admired playful, witty writers like Petronius and Sterne (Leavis omitted Sterne from The Great Tradition), and he took a dim view of moralizing culture.
According to Leavis, the chief function of criticism is evaluation — who’s bad, who’s good, who’s best. The critic should make literature a “living reality”22 that molds public taste. In Leavis’ view, a periodical like Scrutiny should publicize important new work, and review old classics. Leavis championed the literary/humanistic tradition against the scientific tendency that he found in Bentham (in earlier times) and in C. P. Snow (in his own time). Leavis launched a violent attack on Snow’s “Two Cultures” argument.
In his later work, Leavis moved beyond literary criticism, and dealt with broader questions of education and society. This late work is generally considered inferior to his literary criticism.
One of Leavis’ students at Cambridge, Norman Podhoretz, wrote an essay about him for The New Criterion (“F. R. Leavis: A Revaluation,” later published in a book called The Bloody Crossroads). Podhoretz remembers Leavis thus:
Podhoretz says that Leavis hated the word “aesthetic,”24 and Podhoretz contrasts Leavis with Pater. Doubtless Leavis was scornful of The Aesthetic Movement (Pater, Wilde, etc.). The moral intensity Leavis brought to literature reminds one of the moral intensity Ruskin brought to visual art; one suspects that Leavis was a Ruskin fan.
Podhoretz has a special fondness for Leavis’ poetry-criticism. Podhoretz recommends a piece by Leavis called “Judgement and Analysis,” which is part of a book called The Living Principle. In this piece, Leavis compares poems by Wordsworth, Hardy, Lawrence, Eliot, etc. Podhoretz calls it “a dazzling demonstration of what used to be called ‘practical criticism.’”25
Podhoretz says that Leavis was dogmatic and narrow, but Podhoretz insists that this was a virtue in Leavis, that it stemmed from “a willingness to commit himself clearly.”26 Podhoretz quotes the opening sentence of The Great Tradition as an example of Leavis’ dogmatic tone: “The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad — to stop for the moment at that comparatively safe point in history.”27 According to Podhoretz, Leavis makes an “incomparable case for the importance of literature.”28
According to Leavis, the main current of English literature moved, in the 19th century, from poetry to prose (like a river changing its course). The 19th century novelists, not the poets, were the successors of Shakespeare, the keepers of the flame. As for 20th century writers, Leavis admires Eliot (among poets) and Lawrence (among novelists). After Eliot and Lawrence, “both lines dry up, leaving a literary landscape littered with the corpses of talented writers cut off for lack of proper nourishment, if not for lack of praise and influence.”29 Leavis was scornful of Auden; Auden was popular, Leavis said, because his poetry was “flatteringly modern and sophisticated... a modish Leftishness.”
Leavis believed, says Podhoretz, that literature was threatened by science and technology. Leavis didn’t realize that the real threat to literature came from within the literary world itself. “Several prominent literary critics...” Podhoretz writes, “made their own contribution to the denigration of literature.”30 Podhoretz mentions Leslie Fiedler writing about comics, Richard Poirier writing about The Beatles, etc. Perhaps these critics, and many academics, wrote about pop culture because “higher culture” seemed to be moribund, and because they didn’t have anything new to say about the old classics.
Podhoretz laments that our literary heritage is forgotten, wasted, or misused — even Leavis, “with all his desperate forebodings,” couldn’t have imagined how far we would fall. As for criticism of contemporary literature, “such once vital American centers of serious criticism as Partisan Review and Kenyon Review have long since given up.”31 All that’s left, says Podhoretz, is the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books, which are “devoted to the making and breaking of literary reputations in accordance with cliquish ‘currency-values’ far more debased than the original Bloomsbury’s ever were.”32
Leavis had this to say about George Eliot: “For us in these days... she is a peculiarly fortifying and wholesome author, and a suggestive one.”33 Podhoretz says that, in the 1980s, these words apply to Leavis himself. And perhaps we can say, in 2008, that these words apply to Podhoretz himself. Podhoretz is the last of the New York Intellectuals, the last of the line that began with Rahv, Trilling, etc.
The Philosophy of Today, by uniting head and heart, thought and feeling, avoids the “dissociation of sensibility” that affected earlier eras. The Philosophy of Today sees the universe as an organic whole, sees nature and man as united by synchronicity. The Philosophy of Today opens new regions for imaginative literature — including the myth-and-archetype region of Jung and Campbell, the mystical-Zennish region of Eastern philosophy, and the vast region of the occult. The Philosophy of Today points to a “revaluation” of literature that will have more respect for Zennish writers like Forster and Basho, and more respect for occult writers like Melville and Yeats. The Philosophy of Today can inspire critics to draw a new map of the literary tradition, as Eliot inspired Leavis to draw a new map.
Lawrence was born in 1885, and died in 1930. During his short life, he produced a large body of work — novels, novellas, stories, plays, poems, translations, critical studies, travel narratives, books about psychoanalysis, countless letters, and even a history of Europe. Perhaps one reason he wrote so much is that he depended on his writings for a livelihood. The main theme of his work is that we should listen to our body (perhaps this explains his interest in psychoanalysis):
If this is the “positive theme” of his work, the negative theme was an attack on modern, industrial society, which Lawrence accused of stifling human nature. Leavis shared Lawrence’s Luddite tendencies, and this is one reason (according to Podhoretz) that Leavis revered Lawrence. “[Lawrence] elicited from Leavis an attitude so reverential that the prose of D. H. Lawrence: Novelist sometimes sounds more like prayer than criticism.”35 Perhaps there is an element of “class ressentiment” in Lawrence’s attack on the status quo; one might say that Lawrence played Roundhead to Forster’s Cavalier.
Rahv says that Lawrence represents a reaction against strait-laced Victorian morality:
If Lawrence was a lone rebel against his society, perhaps he prefigured the larger rebellion of the 1960s — the counterculture movement, with its talk of “free love,” “back to nature,” etc. Since Podhoretz was an avowed enemy of the counterculture movement, he takes a dim view of Lawrence. Like Rahv, Podhoretz says that Lawrence’s fiction is often propaganda, and his characters are often mouthpieces for philosophical positions, rather than three-dimensional people.37
But Leavis, Forster and others regarded Lawrence as the best English novelist of his time. Furthermore, “Lawrence is widely recognized [according to Wikipedia] as one of the finest travel writers in the English language.” Lawrence’s study of American literature was described by Edmund Wilson as “one of the few first-rate books that have ever been written on the subject.”38 In an earlier issue, I discussed Lawrence’s penetrating remarks on paganism and Christianity.39 Even Rahv admits “Lawrence was a unique and original writer, perhaps the most ‘natural’ writer in English literature by virtue of his innate gift of fluidity and spontaneous free flow of expression.”40
Like Whitman, Lawrence saw himself as a prophet, the preacher of a new gospel. Rahv says, “Lawrence did not primarily conceive of himself as an artist but as a leader and prophet.... He went so far as to assert that ‘even art is utterly dependent on philosophy: or, if you prefer, on a metaphysics.’”41
Lawrence was receptive to the occult; according to Wikipedia, “Lawrence was a forerunner of the growing interest in the occult that occurred in the 20th century.”42 Given his dim view of conscious thought, it isn’t surprising that Lawrence was receptive to the occult.
According to Wikipedia,
In Lawrence’s personality, there seems to have been a marked feminine element, and perhaps a homo-erotic element. As a child, Lawrence was probably unable to identify with his father. “I was born hating my father,” Lawrence wrote, “as early as ever I can remember, I shivered with horror when he touched me.”43 One of Lawrence’s classmates recalled him as a sissy who always played with the girls.44
The working-class world of Sons and Lovers is said to reflect Lawrence’s own early life. The relationship between a working-class man and an upper-class woman that we find in Lady Chatterley’s Lover is said to reflect the relationship between Lawrence and his upper-class wife, Frieda von Richthofen. Both Forster and Rahv say that Sons and Lovers is Lawrence’s best novel. But Lawrence said that The Plumed Serpent, which deals with a pre-Christian religion in Mexico, was “my most important thing so far.”45 If you want to try a shorter work by Lawrence, consider his novella The Fox, which Rahv says is “beautifully articulated and rendered in convincing detail.”46
One of the key events in Lawrence’s life was eloping with Frieda when he was 27, and she was 33, married with three young children. Frieda abandoned her children to live with Lawrence, and stayed with him until his death about twenty years later. In England, Lawrence’s work was lambasted and suppressed as pornographic. He and Frieda spent most of their time abroad; Lawrence spoke of his ‘savage pilgrimage.’
Lawrence and Frieda honeymooned in southern Germany, and then walked over the Alps to Italy; this trip was the basis for Lawrence’s first travel book, Twilight in Italy. Later they lived in and around Sicily, where Lawrence wrote a travel book called Sea and Sardinia. Then they left Europe, stopping in Sri Lanka and Australia before settling in Taos, New Mexico. (You can visit the Lawrence ranch/museum in Taos, and you can see some of his paintings at the La Fonda Hotel in Taos.) After some visits to Mexico, Lawrence wrote Mornings in Mexico. Health problems prompted Lawrence to return to Italy, where he wrote his last travel book, Sketches of Etruscan Places.
Lawrence’s relationship with Frieda was stormy. “Lawrence would sometimes lash out, and hit her in rage.”47 On his deathbed, he asked her, “Why, oh why, did we quarrel so much?” She answered: “Such as we were, violent creatures, how could we help it?”48 After Lawrence’s death, Frieda looked back on their years together in a memoir called Not I, but the Wind.
One might compare Lawrence to Rousseau, who championed feeling in an age of rational philosophy and neo-classical taste, and who opposed the established order. Or one might compare Lawrence to Whitman, who championed instinct and the body against social convention. Or one might compare Lawrence to Thomas Wolfe, whose powerful personality dominates his pages. “Our interest in [Lawrence] as an artist,” writes Rahv, “is primarily called forth precisely by his personality. All the people who knew him, whether friend or enemy, invariably recalled ‘the strange and marvelous radiance’ emanating from him, the ‘spritelike, electric, elemental’ quality.”49
Like Eliot, Pound, and Yeats, Lawrence had right-wing, anti-democratic tendencies.50 Rahv speaks of “his hostility to the democratic process and rant against the ‘mob-spirit’ and ‘democratic mongrelism,’ his acclaim of power, of mastery and lordship, as a marvelous life-giving ‘mystery,’ and his urging us to surrender to ‘the natural power of the superior individual, the hero.’”51
Lawrence’s political views remind one of Nietzsche, and so do his remarks on women.
Let’s conclude these comments on Lawrence with a quote from one who knew him, Catherine Carswell:
|1.|| “An Open Secret,” p. 441 back|
|2.|| “T. S. Eliot in his Posthumous Essays,” p. 432 back|
|3.|| Ibid, p. 435 back|
|4.|| “Religion and Literature,” quoted in Rahv, p. 433 back|
|5.|| P. 436. Quoting Rahv, not Eliot. back|
|6.|| Ibid, p. 433 back|
|7.|| Ibid, p. 433. Another American critic, from the same generation as Rahv, is R. P. Blackmur. Blackmur grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and was expelled from high school at age 14. He educated himself, working at a bookstore, and attending lectures at Harvard without enrolling. He published several volumes of criticism, and several volumes of poetry. He taught at Princeton from 1940 to 1965. R. P. Blackmur died in 1965, at the age of 61. back|
|8.|| Wikipedia back|
|9.|| “On F. R. Leavis and D. H. Lawrence,” p. 290 back|
|10.|| Ibid, p. 304 back|
|11.|| Quoted in Norman Podhoretz, The Bloody Crossroads, “F. R. Leavis: A Revaluation,” p. 83 back|
|12.|| ibid back|
|13.|| ibid back|
|14.|| Ibid, p. 305 back|
|15.|| ibid back|
|16.|| ibid back|
|17.|| ibid back|
|18.|| Ibid, p. 306. Leavis described the literary establishment as “conceit casing itself safely in a confirmed sense of high sophistication.”(Podhoretz, p. 81) back|
|19.|| Ibid, p. 306 back|
|20.|| “On F. R. Leavis and D. H. Lawrence,” p. 291 back|
|21.|| Quoted in Norman Podhoretz, The Bloody Crossroads, “F. R. Leavis: A Revaluation,” p. 81 back|
|22.|| Wikipedia back|
|23.|| Norman Podhoretz, The Bloody Crossroads, “F. R. Leavis: A Revaluation,” pp. 74, 75. When I e-mailed Podhoretz about his Leavis essay, he responded, “I wrote that article on Leavis about twenty-five years ago, and I’m afraid that the interest I then felt in contemporary literature has by now faded so completely that I no longer pay any attention to or think about it at all.” back|
|24.|| Ibid, p. 78 back|
|25.|| P. 75 back|
|26.|| ibid back|
|27.|| Ibid, p. 72 back|
|28.|| Ibid, p. 92 back|
|29.|| Ibid, p. 79. This is a quote from Podhoretz, describing Leavis’ views. back|
|30.|| Ibid, p. 91 back|
|31.|| Ibid, p. 92 back|
|32.|| ibid back|
|33.|| Ibid, p. 93 back|
|34.|| Quoted in Rahv, p. 298 back|
|35.|| Podhoretz, p. 87 back|
|36.|| “On F. R. Leavis and D. H. Lawrence,” p. 298. The word “historically” reminds us that Rahv likes to view literary questions from a historical perspective. Rahv was opposed to criticism that emphasized myth and symbol. back|
|37.|| “Lawrence bullies his characters...” Podhoretz writes, “into the service of his own Luddite ideas about the contemporary world... Lawrence thereby sins against the impersonality without which the novelistic art is perverted into preaching.” But why must a novelist be ‘impersonal’? Haven’t some of the best novelists drawn on their personal experiences and feelings? Isn’t Tolstoy’s Levin (in Anna Karenina) a reflection of his own spiritual struggle? Isn’t Proust’s narrator an autobiographical character? Critics can’t accept subjective writers like Thomas Wolfe (Rahv never tires of bashing Wolfe). We should remember what Henry James said: “The deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer.” If writers like Wolfe, Lawrence and Shelley show us their own mind, let’s accept them for what they are, and try to appreciate their virtues, instead of complaining that they should be impersonal. back|
|38.|| Lawrence contributed to the revival of Melville’s reputation in the 1920s. back|
|39.|| Lawrence’s aspersions on the character of Hamlet agree with Knight’s view of Hamlet. back|
|40.|| P. 300 back|
|41.|| P. 444 back|
|42.|| For more on this topic, you might try The Psychoanalytic Study of Society, IX. 1981: Placing the Body in Creativity: D. H. Lawrence and the Occult. Daniel Dervin. Pp. 181-220. back|
|43.|| See http://www.lawrenceseastwood.co.uk back|
|44.|| ibid back|
|45.|| Norman Podhoretz, The Bloody Crossroads, “F. R. Leavis: A Revaluation,” p. 89 back|
|46.|| P. 302. Rahv goes on to say that The Fox is “spoiled in the last few pages when the young protagonist, having won the girl March after the willed death of her friend Jill, suddenly steps out of his role in order to assume as his own some of Lawrence’s dogmatic notions.” back|
|47.|| “In a Time magazine article, “D.H.L. - Last Word,” published Monday, October 8th, 1934, Frieda admits...” (http://redravine.wordpress.com/2008/03/16/frieda-lawrence-til-death-do-we-part/) back|
|48.|| See http://redravine.wordpress.com/2008/03/16/frieda-lawrence-til-death-do-we-part back|
|49.|| P. 301. Rahv’s remarks on Lawrence also apply to Wolfe: “his innate gift of fluidity and spontaneous free flow of expression.” back|
|50.|| See Rahv’s essay “An Open Secret,” which reviews a book by John R. Harrison called The Reactionaries: Yeats, [Wyndham] Lewis, Pound, Eliot, Lawrence back|
|51.|| Rahv, “An Open Secret,” p. 439 back|
|52.|| Rahv, p. 303 back|
|53.|| Wikipedia. Lawrence was often moved by paintings. “All my life I have gone back to painting,” Lawrence said, “because it gave me a form of delight that words can never give.” One painting that moved him deeply was An Idyll, by Maurice Greiffenhagen. This painting inspired Lawrence’s first novel, The White Peacock.
An Idyll, by Maurice Greiffenhagen