A letter to the Editor, Ferdinand Mount, in regard to the article concerning F.R. Leavis “The critic as hero” by Stefan Collini which appeared in the TLS of 8 September 2000. (Acknowledged but not published.)
The Times Literary Supplement,
66-68 East Smithfield,
London E1W 1BX,
Rome, 15 September 2000
though by no means an expert in these topics, or perhaps precisely because I am not one, I must express my perplexity at some of the suggestions and claims advanced by Stefan Collini in his article “How the critic came to be king” (September 8). I hope both you and he will forgive any belletristic latitudes that may colour my layman’s contribution.
Collini appears to accept at face value Bernard Bergonzi’s statement to the effect that “For a few years, there was a climate in both England and America in which literary criticism could make claims for intellectual centrality” and to take for granted that the right to make such claims is subject to climatic changes. In the second paragraph, he ventures a first image of his own and states that during the Age of Criticism (the end of the fifties) critics came to be thought of as “the great proconsuls of far-flung intellectual empires”; this then leads him, in the next paragraph, to refer to F.R. Leavis as “one of the most noted imperialists”.
The tone of these and other remarks by Collini made me rush to the bookshelf and peruse the “Polemical Introduction” to Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957), from which I would like to quote a few brief passages: “The basis of critical apologetics … has to be the actual experience of art, and for those concerned with literature, the first question to answer is not ‘What use is the study of literature?’ but, ‘What follows from the fact that it is possible?’ … Everyone who has seriously studied literature knows that the mental process involved is as coherent and progressive as the study of science. A precisely similar training of the mind takes place, and a similar sense of the unity of the subject is built up. … In the study of literary scholarship the student becomes aware of an undertow carrying him away from literature. He finds that literature is the central division in the humanities, flanked on one side by history and on the other by philosophy. As literature is not itself an organized structure of knowledge, the critic has to turn to the conceptual framework of the historian for events, and to that of the philosopher for ideas.”
Surely it is because of rather straightforward considerations such as these that criticism first advanced the claims to “cultural centrality” which Collini considers so “bizarre”. That an intellectual activity that has become conscious of its centrality should then venture to formulate such further claims about itself as that of being “the privileged arbiter of social thought” is not, by my reckoning, so difficult to understand. What to me appears less clear is why anyone would rather pay heed to such obscurantist notions as that of a so-called “cultural capital” which allegedly accrues only thanks to the “difficulty” involved in the scrutiny of “complex form”, or of the expansion of the teaching of literature as but an attempt to falsely reconcile or to mask class conflicts – notions that, plainly, might as well have been specially tailored by opportunists for fools to lend credence to. Fortunately for us and for the democratic memory of F.R. Leavis, in any case, responsible critics will enjoy “power of veto” in the imperium of the imagination for as long as they – even in ways that perhaps could never be described as heroic – simply continue about their business.