The function of criticism: to be ‘a trifle temperamental’.

This has been a rather disruptive few weeks as building and repairs were carried out on the house. As a consequence a couple of pieces I’ve been pondering for blogposts have had to be put on ice, including one on a volume of stories by Cees Nooteboom which I recently finished reading. So here are a few literary morsels which I hope will whet the appetite for more substantial fare in the near future…

With the painters and plasterers working indoors I had to stash most of my books away in boxes, limiting what was accessible to me to a few random texts. The other day, having finished the Nooteboom, I could find nothing that took my fancy from the few titles still on my last available little shelf, except for an old paperback Peregrine copy of F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit, and Italo Calvino’s essays in a collection called The Literature Machine, first published in Italian in the early 80s, and published by Vintage in paperback in 1997.

N Curry Jul 14 025My literary training in the 70s, first at A level then as an undergraduate, was very much in the Leavisite ‘close reading’ tradition – those who’ve read any of these posts may well recognise the approach. I know it’s no longer fashionable, but it’s the one I’m comfortable with. When I carried out postgrad research into medieval hagiography at Leavis’s old college, Emmanuel, in Cambridge in the 80s the structuralists were in the ascendancy, and I found some aspects of their work of interest, as we shall see when I turn to Calvino in a future post.

This battered old Peregrine book was first published by Penguin in 1962 (but the essays in it first appeared in Leavis’s review, Scrutiny, a decade or so earlier; this edition is dated 1969). I first encountered it at Bristol University in the early 70s, when required to read the seminal essays on Milton, Swift, Pope and Shakespeare (among others scrutinised in the volume).

What caught my attention as I started re-reading it last week, not having looked into this text for several years, was the preface, where Leavis explains the source of its title: it’s taken from T.S. Eliot, The Function of Criticism, and his passage about the ‘quiet corroborative labour’ which the serious and objective critic should strive for in debate with colleagues and ‘fellows’ in ‘the common pursuit of true judgement’. Unfashionable, maybe, but those words still resonate for me.

The other passages I’d like to reproduce here remind me that FRL’s reputation as being a humourless curmudgeon is unmerited. His epigraphs include this from Robert Graves’s autobiography, Goodbye to All That:

At the end of my first term’s work I attended the usual college board to give an account of myself. The spokesman coughed and said a little stiffly: ‘I understand, Mr Graves, that the essays that you write for your English tutor are, shall I say, a trifle temperamental. It appears, indeed, that you prefer some authors to others.’


In one of two epigraphs Leavis includes from the letters of Henry James there’s this, to WD Howells:

From the website of The Leavis Society

From the website of The Leavis Society

They are, in general, a sort of plea for Criticism, for Discrimination, for Appreciation on other than infantile lines – as against the so almost universal Anglo-Saxon absence of these things; which tends so, in our general trade, it seems to me, to break the heart.

If ‘our general trade’ – those of us who have the temerity to offer our critical judgements in places like this blog, and those who read and comment on them – is Discrimination and Appreciation applied to our careful readings of literary texts, then gods stand up for bastards, as Edmund so succinctly puts it in King Lear. Why shouldn’t lit crit be ‘practical’? What’s so terrible about being discriminating, provided it’s done in a spirit of probing, honest scrutinising corroboration with one’s fellow critics and readers?




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6 thoughts on “The function of criticism: to be ‘a trifle temperamental’.

  1. Re: ‘the common pursuit of true judgement’

    Thanks for the essay, Simon. I also love seeing the pictures of the books from your shelf, in all their uniqueness (and tape). The idea of “true judgement” reminded me of something in “The New Lifetime Reading Plan,” in which Clifton Fadiman, comparing art to science noted that “There has been ‘progress’ in the latter; there is none n the former. All imaginative artists, but only if they are great enough, seem contemporaries”

    In the context of popular music, the Warhol-produced Velvet Underground album and Nico’s Marble Index also come to mind; these records are still radical.

    Best regards, Maureen M.

    • Glad you like the book pics, Maureen. The Leavis one with tape was from the library of the last college I taught at: they were moving buildings (and libraries) and announced they were binning most of their stock – staff and students were invited to help themselves to save the books from destruction. Must be a metaphor there somewhere. Don’t know the Fadiman reference: must look him up. I loved the Warhol-VU album; still have it on cd – which seems somehow wrong.

  2. Hi Simon,

    By coincidence, a new “record” store just opened up in Georgetown (the last 20 years were a move in the closing direction), which will even have an old fashioned “listening room”. There is a move now towards “companion” records in vinyl (to CD), complete with all the crackle and physical placement of the needle, versus the sterility of the CD. Another idea is that so many people now buy one song at a time, and that sitting down to actually listen to an album in the order set out by the artist is a different experience.

    • We were in Georgetown last summer, strangely enough. Got soaked in a rainstorm in DC, walking from the Capitol to the White House. Our son is a dj and has thousands of vinyl records: he hates CD. As for the ‘shuffle’ function on iPhones…

  3. One more thought. I just loved the recent film “Her,” and one of the many things I admired was Spike Jonz’s brilliant imagination of a “slightly distant future.” While technology is highly advanced, there is an appreciation for “hand-written” letters and paper books, as well as high-water pants on young men!

    A great touch was the main character sending (receiving?) a book publishing some of the love letters he had created for other people, sent to him wrapped in brown paper and string. Totally unnecessary, since it could have been instantly sent to him as a perfect electronic document. I was actually inspired by that image in creating Senator Tutwiller’s Civil War “assignment” (by which President Lincoln got rid of him to Europe after he accidentally invaded Baltimore, Maryland) as Special Envoy for Brown Paper and String!

    I guess something in the human spirit longs for the physical and tactile.


    Maureen M.

    • I’ve not seen the film, but like the notion of old tech writing. I also love the idea of ‘accidentally’ invading anywhere! Good to hear from you again, Maureen.

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