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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Prof. Wellek, Prof. Leavis, and Prof. de Man


The exchange between René Wellek and F. R. Leavis nearly eighty years ago on the role of philosophy in literary criticism prefigured to some extent the discussions of the role of “theory” (or even, for both enthusiasts and opponents “Theory”) in more recent polemics. The comparison of the earlier dispute with its later form reveals dramatically the shifting of the parameters of the issue. To many more modern practitioners Wellek himself was far from sufficiently theoretical; indeed he and Leavis would be placed in the same camp by more recent post-structuralists. On the other hand, Wellek and Leavis would doubtless join in regarding deconstruction, for instance, as an unrewarding method. A review of the old contention, juxtaposed then with the ideas of Paul de Man in “The Resistance to Theory” (1982), clarifies the issues involved and suggests a curious similarity between the two critics of the three who would seem most at odds.

F. R. Leavis was known for pugnacity in his professional life, but it remains slightly startling to encounter his aggressive assertion of what amounts to impressionistic autonomy in his essay “Literary Criticism and Philosophy.” [1] Writing in response René Wellek’s generally positive review of his Revaluation, Leavis, who regularly claimed that evaluation was the principal end of criticism, insists on his own judgments accompanied by no evidence beyond his magisterial voice.

Their exchange came at a pivotal time for literary criticism. When they exchanged views in 1937 most writing about literature was historical, textual, or narrowly philological. Both journalistic and scholarly value judgments tended to be either unapologetically impressionistic or based on vague concepts like “universality” or the simple assertion of formal beauty if not on tradition alone. By the middle of the twentieth century New Criticism with its rigorous close readings already implied dissent from unsubstantiated “taste” or impressionism. Wellek and Warren as well as William Empson, I. A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, Northrup Frye, the Southern Agrarians, and others had set out a variety of proposals for defensible ways to view literature as literature.

Even apart from the merits of new critical theories, many had come to realize that every critical enterprise implies general ideas about all literature. As Wellek mildly pointed out, Leavis, and indeed all critics who have produced a sufficient body of judgment to allow generalizations, does have a theory. The most insidious theory is that of which the practitioner is honestly unaware, because it is then neither acknowledged nor explicit, but rather in masquerade as “common sense” or in some other way “given.” [2] Of course these assumptions will by no means be the focus of every literary essay, but they will form the foundation for every act of practical criticism.

Wellek sketched out what seemed to him Leavis’ theoretical base in carefully chosen, if casual, phrases. For Leavis, he said, poetry must “have a firm grasp of the actual, of the object, it must be in relation to life . . . it should not be personal in the sense of indulging in personal dreams and fantasies, there should be no emotion for its own sake in it . . .but a sharp, concrete realization, a sensuous particularity. The language of your poetry must not be cut off from speech, should not flatter the singing voice, should not be merely mellifluous.” Wellek sees in Leavis a rejection of the “merely” affective and aesthetic and the privileging of the impersonal and the concrete. [3]

From Leavis’ response one might hardly guess that Wellek had said he read Revaluation “with admiration and much profit,” and found it to be teeming “with acute critical observations and brilliant interpretations of texts.” Leavis replied only to Wellek’s request that he “defend this position more abstractly and to become conscious that large ethical, philosophical, and, of course, ultimately, also aesthetic choices are involved.“


Leavis indignantly answers that Wellek seeks such a theoretical basis because he is a philosopher and that Leavis, being instead a literary critic, has no need to provide them. He here elides the distinction between a philosopher who presumably treats questions of epistemology, logic, and the like that apply to all of human experience and the critic who might legitimately suggest generalizations true only of the single field of literature (or the broader one of art in the case of critics who do not confine themselves to the written word).

In spite of the unbroken tradition that literature bears some relation to lived experience, though always a mediated, refracted, or otherwise complicated one, Leavis cheerfully discards all thematic comment as extra-literary, a sort of “queering one discipline with the habits of another” [4] Leavis is quite satisfied with a sort of assertive obscurantism, noting, for instance, that “the reading demanded by poetry is of a very different kind from that demanded by philosophy. I should not find it easy to define the difference, but Dr Wellek knows what it is.” The reader is equally in the dark about Prof. Leavis’s position after his account of what to him constitutes an adequate literary reading. It occurs, he says , when a new text settles into the tradition in the critic’s mind, “when things that have found their bearings with regard to one another.” It is unclear how this happens so automatically among the jostling “things” in the mind, yet to Leavis such a reading is ever so much better than a philosophic one; it is a ‘fuller-bodied response” arising from “completer responsiveness;” indeed, “the critic’s aim is to realize as sensitively and completely as possible this or that which claims his attention.” It sounds suspiciously like a magician “realizing” a rabbit in a hat. While on the other shore of mystification it is also unclear In just what way this realization differs from more mundane realizations by scientists and salesmen is left unexplained.

The giveaway to Leavis’s vulnerability is his ill-temper and his use of insults. To him Wellek’s reading of his views is “clumsy,” then, again, “clumsy and inadequate,” while he himself is by contrast “precise.” [5] Repeatedly he claims that Wellek, rather than in fact disagreeing, must have misunderstood him. Poets with whom he is on the outs fare no better. Shelley is “repetitive, vaporous, monotonously self-regarding and often emotionally cheap, and so, in the long run, boring.” [6]

Leavis’ arrogant refusal to account for his judgments is irresponsible and adds nothing to knowledge of literature, [7] though his individual comments and analyses are very often highly useful, opening a wide variety of texts in new ways. Wellek was in fact bushwhacking his own way in literary theory. He was not far from wrong when he said in the 1940s that students are “offered no wider choice than between the ‘historical method’ (not the same as literary history) and dilettantism.” [8] He, a Prague Structuralist, and Warren a self-described “old New Critic,” made enormous strides in laying a foundation and setting forth some likely issues while acknowledging “we are only beginning to learn how to analyse a work of art in its integrity.” Yet the results are sometimes little more compelling than Leavis’s sidestepping. Their conclusion on the role of art, for instance, is “its prime and chief function is fidelity to its own nature.” While applauding the groundbreaking contribution of their book, one cannot help but agree that it betrays its origins very close to the origin of modern thinking about literary theory.

A good deal had changed by the time Paul de Man’s essay on “The Resistance to Theory” was published in 1982. By this time I was enrolled in a Comparative Literature program dominated by Derrida, de Man, and those associated with them. In the loftier realms of Cambridge where Leavis had taught, a young student had, a few years earlier, found the “dead Leavisites” replaced by “the Parisian post-structuralists and their caravanserai.” [10] De Man echoes Wellek in his sensible declaration that “even the most intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature [make] use of a minimal set of concepts (tone, organic form, allusion, tradition, historical situation, etc. ) of at least some general import,” but he could not resist the habitual tic he made his signature by declaring the opposite as well, quoting Schlegel to the effect that “it is equally fatal to have a system or not to have one at all.”

Reveling in hermetic paradox, de Man considers literary theory to be no aid to a rich and coherent reading of a text but rather as “resistance to reading.” Furthermore “resistance to theory is resistance to language.” The primary focus of literary theory in his account is “the impossibility of its definition.” Its pursuit “must end in confusion.” Whether the discipline he describes is in any sense real, it seems hardly likely to convey information about literature in the way that study of entomology provides knowledge about insects.

Leavis was quite right that the literary critic should be confined to conclusions about literature and need make no pronouncements about philosophy. The greatest problem for de Man is that literature itself is for him “epistemologically highly suspect” and not a “source of information about anything but its own language.” To him literature is not susceptible to “truth and falsehood, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, or pleasure and pain.” [11] This he claims as an advantage, a “freedom from referential restraint.”

If literature’s very capacity to bear any meaning at all is so highly problematized, why then does appear in all human societies? Does the written word as a whole form an enormous self-dissolving knot concerned only with the question its own existence? The sole positive value de Man mentions apart from raising the question of its own existence is the “unmasking of ideological aberrations,” though how this can be when it can mean nothing beyond “its own language” is obscure.

The error that de Man makes is similar to Leavis’s failure to distinguish between generalizations about literature (constituting literary theory) and those about reality as a whole (philosophy). De Man so doubts the existence of literature itself that he keeps eliding his inquiry into a focus on language as a whole, saying theory is “wholly linguistic.” Literary theory is neither philosophy nor linguistics and must be built from observations about literary texts just as botany is built from observations of plants. All literature is constituted from language so any generalization about language itself would affect literature, but only by making the same observations in every case, and therefore offering no useful information about an individual work distinct from all others or even about the category of the literary as opposed to the non-literary. Indeed, this lack of specificity is precisely what one sees in de Man’s work. In Blindness and Insight, for instance, his acuity and ingenuity allow him to offer many valuable observations along the way, but his final point is virtually the same for all the critics under discussion, thus vitiating the project as literary criticism and, incidentally, rendering the essays more boring even than Leavis’s idea of Shelley.

De Man like Leavis uses vituperation to mask his arguments’ weaknesses. He sounds grandiose when he says that the “most important attribute” of the schools of the 60s was resistance to theory. He pathologizes his intellectual opponents, claiming that they (whom he calls in this very aggressive attack “the aggressors”) suffer from “anxiety” (this word is repeated a number of times); they feel “threatened.” Those who disagree offer only “crude” misunderstandings and suffer from “systematic non-understanding and misrepresentation.” (This error is then conflated with mortality!)

A final similarity between Leavis and de Man is their propensity to offer simple impressions as reasoned judgments. Ironically, de Man takes a whack at Leavis’ ideal, T. S. Eliot, saying his appeal was based only on his “ambivalent decorum” which offered certain “complacencies and seductions.” So Eliot’s admirers are in a wholly unsubstantiated phrase, condemned as complacent fall guys.

A review of the controversy from the 1930s, placed alongside de Man’s essay from the 80s, at least proves the passion with which critics debated these fundamental issues. The sometimes belligerent tone of Leavis and de Man not only enlivens the prose; more significantly, it suggests that the issues really have meaning. With their varieties of high-spirited engagement all three authors have earned the reader’s attention more than a great many academic scholars. And each makes a contribution. Wellek was a pioneer in seeking a more solid base for literary studies; Leavis cares passionately about his texts and makes many insightful and stimulating observations about individual works; de Man offers a philosophic challenge to language itself which those engaged with literature must confront.

The central issue is the propriety of literary theory. Leavis resists Wellek’s desire for a theory of literature which defines the field and orders the facts concerning it, refusing to admit his own biases and assumptions. Theory’s champion de Man depicts himself as the investigator of fundamental theoretical questions from which others flee from in fear, but which must be examined before any other comment is possible, yet Both Leavis and de Man support their polemics with a false dilemma. To Leavis any theoretical statement makes one a philosopher and not a critic at all and to de Man those who disagree with him must reject therefore theory altogether. Neither is correct. Theory must finally be judged just as it is in the science: by the adequacy of its accounting for known data and by the degree to which it opens routes to further knowledge, in the case of literature, to richer readings of specific texts.

It is no means the truth, that one must choose between no theory at all or an extreme, indeed paralyzing, theory that claims total hegemony. Every critic operates from theoretical base whether or not it is disclosed. It is little wonder that many competent critics prior to Leavis had written useful work while consciously ignoring general questions. Yet de Man’s sort of theory which may set forth provocative possibilities about language as a whole, disables fruitful analysis of texts even while emphasizing the rhetorical and literary qualities of literature. If one restricts theory to theory of literature, it can be the basis of more productive practical criticism. The anti-theoretician Leavis who rejected of theory out of hand and the arch-theoretician de Man who insisted on one particular theory end in similar culs-de-sac. While recognizing the substantial contributions of Leavis and de Man to discussions of the role of theory, it is Wellek in the end whose route proved more productive.



1. First published in Scrutiny 5 (June 1937), 375–83., reprinted in The Common Pursuit.

2. Similarly political activists in the 60s were skeptical of “objectivity,” considering that there is no way to step out of history. One who takes no action to oppose the Vietnam War is a de facto supporter of it. Thoreau had said the same a hundred years earlier.

3. I will confine my own objections to this approach to this note. First, if the text is purely imitation of lived reality, there is no need for literature. As Plato said long ago, why bother about what is a mere imitation, and a dangerous one at that? Further, to me the use of “sensuous” to qualify “particularity” accepts pleasure as an end of poetry and is thus inconsistent with the rejection of melody a few words later.

4. This peculiar expression hints of homosexuality and miscegenation. Is a physicist who presents experimental results with the ordinary theoretical assumptions of science about cause and effect, reproducibility, and the like similarly “queering”?


5. One can tell that this is a highly positive term because we find that Blake also is “precise.” He clearly believes the opposite of the view he attributes to philosophers and proceeds to ridicule: that poets put loosely what philosophers formulate with precision.

6. To condemn a poem as boring might seem to suggest assent to the ancient and commonsensical notion that pleasure is a necessary end of poetry.


7. Oddly, Denis Donoghue says that he “never met” anyone who thought Wellek was right! See “The Use and Abuse of Theory” in The Modern Language Review, vol. 87, no. 4 (Oct., 1992), pp. xxix-xxxviii.

8. From Chapter 20 “The Study of Literature in the Graduate School” which was omitted from editions later than 1949.


9. Published in Yale French Studies no. 63, The Pedagogical Imperative: Teaching as a Literary Genre (1982), pp. 3-20. With typical perversity, de Man, when asked to provide an essay on theory for the MLA Introduction to Scholarship in the Modern Languages and Literatures, produced instead an essay about people’s not liking theory. As it happens Theory has since conquered academia. For a dissenting voice, see James Seaton's Literary Criticism from Plato to Post-Modernism.

10. See Stephen Fry, The Fry Chronicles (2010). He recalls considering Leavis “a sanctimonious prick.”


11. In the same vein he says that “literariness” is neither aesthetic nor mimetic, that is, contra Keats concerned neither with truth nor beauty. Of course de Man would allow for the existence of tropes of verisimilitude that mimic truth and perhaps also of beauty, mimicking pleasure. He does allow in some ill-defined sense for referentiality.

2 comments:

  1. More of Pops' cogitations intended for the betterment of humanity.

    Astonishing !

    ReplyDelete