Am I a Leavisite? A Disconnected Ramble Through Interpretation
Posted 7 April 2008 in Writing by Catriona
Nick and I, via a discussion of how much fun it is when comment threads build up on this blog, got to the point of wondering whether I am actually a Leavisite (which relates to possibly my favourite title for an academic work, John Docker’s “How I Became a Teenage Leavisite and Lived to Tell the Tale,” from his In a Critical Condition: Reading Australian Literature.
I’m not sure that I can be considered a Leavisite (to be fair, the suggestion was, perhaps tongue in cheek, that I demonstrated Leavisite tendencies, but let’s stick to absolutes for argument’s sake), not least because Leavis’s excoriation of mass culture is something with which, manifestly, I have no sympathy.
(Nick, wandering in, has just suggested “Well, I don’t think Terry Eagleton would find much to be displeased about in your writing . . . although you may talk a bit too much about women.” I think that might be the nicest compliment I’ve ever received.)
I’m not even certain that, as a student of the mid- to late-1990s, I’ve even read any of Leavis’s work. I’ve certainly read Q. D. Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public, which I found thought-provoking but frustrating; if I’m not forgetting my reactions—it’s been a couple of years since I read it—I found myself frustrated by a sensation underlying the text that working-class readers were helpless dupes of a publishing industry whose permutations they could barely grasp.
But I can’t recall ever reading one of Leavis’s books.
I’m certainly not in sympathy with Leavis’s canonical bent. I’m not denying the significance, value, or quality of canonical works. But the works that I’ve spent the majority of my effort on—for my M.Phil. and for my Ph.D.—have never been included in any canon, not even the revisionist ones.
But my problem with potential Leavisite tendencies arises with Leavis’s emphasis on textual criticism, divorced—to an extent—from the socio-economic and political connotations of the text’s production. The latter aspect is easier for me to avoid: I don’t identify as a strict Marxist, but my critical interests—and my political bent—are certainly left leaning.
(Incidentally, nearly a decade ago in my first share house—at the beginning of my postgraduate career, when my self-identification was more dogmatic and less nuanced—I did identify as a Marxist, as well as a feminist. This led, in a circuitous fashion, to a friend of one of my flatmates bursting into my room at midnight, while I was reading a Harry Potter novel in bed, to demand that I lend him my lipstick, so that he and my flatmate could draw warpaint on themselves and then wrestle. When I refused—on, I felt, the very sensible grounds that my solitary, very flattering, lipstick was an American brand not available here—he harangued me on the inappropriateness of Marxist feminists wearing lipstick at all, and then slammed the door. I think that’s one of the strangest things that’s ever happened to me.)
But I do value what close textual reading can tell us, and I do privilege textual analysis in my own work. I can’t personally encompass the idea of a critical approach—any critical approach—that completely divorces a text from the process of its mechanical production. Regardless of whether we wish to emphasise the value of writing or the value of reading in the construction of textual meaning, at some point an author placed those words in that order.
But the problem with that, I suppose, is that the intentionality of the author is unrecoverable. Even where it is recoverable, there is an element of speculation. We can argue, for example, that the reading list that Mary Shelley included in her diary has an element of veracity. Where reading lists can be a matter of personal representation, which implies a manipulation of the contents to show the writer as a different kind of reader, the private nature of the genre in this case helps negate that point: is there any need for Shelley to manipulate her presentation of her reading in a private document?
Then again, I remember an example from a Dorothy L. Sayers novel—I can’t remember which one it is, now, and I can’t find the reference. The instance is one in which Lord Peter is drinking a sadly dead Victorian port with his lawyer, who discusses the man who passed it on to him: a man who, a lonely bachelor for life, was discovered after his death to have had a rich fantasy life in which he married and lived with his true love, a life that he only expressed in his diary.
This is a fictional example, but that diary, too, is a private document. Had it been discovered in isolation—with no supporting testimony from friends and families—how would a reader have been able to judge its veracity?
I’m not intending to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions from what I’ve legitimately called a ramble. I’m not even entirely certain that I’ve isolated a critical perspective that absolutely works for me, rather than still being a state of flux.
But I am fairly certain that my work will always retain an interest in authorship: not as a work isolated from socio-economic status and historical placement, but certainly the work as the technologised output of individuals.
So perhaps there are shades of the Leavisite in me, after all.