Criticism



F. R. LEAVIS AND QUESTIONS OF VALUE

One cannot discuss criticism, its function within society, its essential aims and nature, without reference to the work of F. R. Leavis (1895–1978), perhaps the most important critic in the English language in any medium since the mid-twentieth century. Although his work today is extremely unpopular (insofar as it is even read), and despite the fact that he showed no interest in the cinema whatever, anyone who aspires to be a critic of any of the arts should be familiar with his work, which entails also being familiar with the major figures of English literature.

Leavis belonged to a somewhat different world from ours, which the "standards" he continued to the end to maintain would certainly reject. Leavis grew up in Victorian and Edwardian England and was fully formed as a critic and lecturer by the 1930s. He would have responded with horror to the "sexual revolution," though he was able to celebrate, somewhat obsessively, D. H. Lawrence, whose novels were once so shocking as to be banned (and who today is beginning to appear quaintly old-fashioned).

Leavis was repeatedly rebuked for what was in fact his greatest strength: his consistent refusal to define a clear theoretical basis for his work. What he meant by "critical standards" could not, by their very nature, be tied to some specific theory of literature or art. The critic must above all be open to new experiences and new perceptions, and critical standards were not and could not be some cut-and-dried set of rules that one applied to all manifestations of genius. The critic must be free and flexible, the standards arising naturally out of constant comparison, setting this work beside that. If an ultimate value exists, to which appeal can be made, it is also indefinable beyond a certain point: "life," the quality of life, intelligence about life, about human society, human intercourse. A value judgment cannot, by its very nature, be proved scientifically. Hence Leavis's famous definition of the ideal critical debate, an ongoing process with no final answer: "This is so, isn't it?" "Yes, but …" It is this very strength of Leavis's discourse that has resulted, today, in his neglect, even within academia. Everything now must be supported by a firm theoretical basis, even though that basis (largely a matter of fashion) changes every few years. Criticism, as Leavis understood it (inT. S. Eliot's famous definition, "the common pursuit of true judgment"), is rarely practiced in universities today. Instead, it has been replaced by the apparent security of "theory," the latest theory applied across the board, supplying one with a means of pigeonholing each new work one encounters.

It is not possible, today, to be a faithful "Leavisian" critic (certainly not of film, the demands of which are in many ways quite different from those of literature). Crucial to Leavis's work was his vision of the university as a "creative center of civilization." The modern university has been allowed to degenerate, under the auspices of "advanced" capitalism, into a career training institution. There is no "creative center of civilization" anymore. Only small, struggling, dispersed groups, each with its own agenda, attempt to battle the seemingly irreversible degeneration of Western culture. From the perspective of our position amid this decline, and with film in mind, Leavis's principles reveal three important weaknesses or gaps:

  1. The wholesale rejection of popular culture . Leavis held, quite correctly, that popular culture was thoroughly contaminated by capitalism, its productions primarily concerned with making money, and then more money. However, film criticism and theory have been firmly rooted in classical Hollywood, which today one can perceive as a period of extraordinary richness but which to Leavis was a total blank. He was able to appreciate the popular culture of the past, in periods when major artists worked in complete harmony with their public (the Elizabethan drama centered on Shakespeare, the Victorian novel on Dickens) but was quite unable to see that the pre-1960s Hollywood cinema represented, however compromised, a communal art, comparable in many ways to Renaissance Italy, the Elizabethan drama, the Vienna of Mozart and Haydn. It was a period in which artists worked together, influencing each other, borrowing from each other, evolving a whole rich complex of conventions and genres, with no sense whatever of alienation from the general public: the kind of art (the richest kind) that today barely exists. Vestiges of it can perhaps be found in rock music, compromised by its relatively limited range of expression and human emotion, the restriction of its pleasures to the "youth" audience, and its tendency to expendability.

    Hollywood cinema was also compromised from the outset by the simple fact that the production of a film requires vastly more money than the writing of a novel or play, the composing of a symphony, or the painting of a picture. Yet—as with Shakespeare, Haydn, or Leonardo da Vinci—filmmakers like Howard Hawks (1896–1977), John Ford (1894–1973), Leo McCarey (1898–1969), and Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) were able to remain in touch with their audiences, to "give them what they wanted," without seriously compromising themselves. They could make the films they wanted to make, and enjoyed making, while retaining their popular following. Today, intelligent critical interest in films that goes beyond the "diagnostic" has had to shift to "art-house" cinema or move outside Western cinema altogether, to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Iran, Africa, and Thailand.

  2. Political engagement . Although he acknowledged the urgent need for drastic social change, Leavis never analyzed literature from an explicitly political viewpoint. In his earlier days he showed an interest in Marxism yet recognized that the development of a strong and vital culture centered on the arts (and especially literature) was not high on its agenda. He saw great literature as concerned with "life," a term he never defined precisely but which clearly included self-realization, psychic health, the development of positive and vital relationships, fulfillment, generosity, humanity. "Intelligence about life" is a recurring phrase in his analyses.

    He was fully aware of the degeneration of modern Western culture. His later works show an increasing desperation, resulting in an obsessive repetitiveness that can be wearying. One has the feeling that he was reduced to forcing himself to believe, against all the evidence, that his ideals were still realizable. Although it seems essential to keep in mind, in our dealings with art, "life" in the full Leavisian sense, the responsible critic (of film or anything else) is also committed to fighting for our mere survival, by defending or attacking films from a political viewpoint. Anything else is fiddling while Rome burns.

  3. The problem of intentionality . Leavis showed no interest whatever in Freud or the development of psychoanalytical theory. When he analyzes a poem or a novel, the underlying assumption is always that the author knew exactly what he or she was doing. Today we seem to have swung, somewhat dangerously, to the other extreme: we analyze films in terms of "subtexts" that may (in some cases must) have emerged from the unconscious, well below the level of intention.

This is fascinating and seductive, but also dangerous, territory. Where does one draw the line? The question arises predominantly in the discussion of minor works within the "entertainment" syndrome, where the filmmakers are working within generic conventions. It would be largely a waste of time searching for "unconscious" subtexts in the films of, say, Michael Haneke (b. 1942), Hou Hsiao-Hsien (b. 1947), or Abbas Kiarostami (b.1940), major artists in full consciousness of their subject matter. But in any case critics should exercise a certain caution: they may be finding meanings that they are planting there themselves. The discovery of an arguably unconscious meaning is justified if it uncovers a coherent subtext that can be traced throughout the work. Even Freud, after all, admitted that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"—the validity of reading one as a phallic symbol will depend on its context (the character smoking it, the situation within which it is smoked, its connection to imagery elsewhere in the film). The director George Romero expressed surprise at the suggestion that Night of the Living Dead (the original 1968 version) is about tensions, frustrations, and repression within the patriarchal nuclear family; but the entire film, from the opening scene on, with its entire cast of characters, seems to demand this reading.

Why, then, should Leavis still concern us? We need, in general, his example and the qualities that form and vivify it: his deep seriousness, commitment, intransigence, the profundity of his concerns, his sense of value in a world where all values seem rapidly becoming debased into the values of the marketplace. Leavis's detractors have parodied his notion that great art is "intelligent about life," but the force of this assumption becomes clear from its practical application to film as to literature, as a few examples, negative and positive, illustrate. Take a film honored with Academy Awards ® , including one for Best Picture. Rob Marshall's Chicago (2002) is essentially a celebration of duplicity, cynicism, one-upmanship, and mean-spiritedness: intelligent about life? The honors bestowed on it tell us a great deal about the current state of civilization and its standards. At the other extreme one might also use Leavis's dictum to raise certain doubts about a film long and widely regarded by many as the greatest ever made, Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles (1915–1985). No one, I think, will deny the film its brilliance, its power, its status as a landmark in the evolution of cinema. But is that very brilliance slightly suspect? Is Welles's undeniable intelligence, his astonishing grasp of his chosen medium, too much employed as a celebration of himself and his own genius, the dazzling magician of cinema? To raise such questions, to challenge the accepted wisdom, is a way to open debate, and essentially a debate about human values. Certain other films, far less insistent on their own greatness, might be adduced as exemplifying "intelligence about life": examples that spring to mind (remaining within the bounds of classical Hollywood) include Tabu (F. W. Murnau, 1931), Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959), Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, 1937), Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948), and Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)—all films in which the filmmaker seems totally dedicated to the realization of the thematic material rather than to self-aggrandizement.

There are of course whole areas of valid critical practice that Leavis's approach leaves untouched: the evolution of a Hollywood genre or cycle (western, musical, horror film, screwball comedy), and its social implications. But the question of standards, of value, and the critical judgments that result should remain and be of ultimate importance. One might discuss at length (with numerous examples) how and why film noir flourished during and in the years immediately following World War II, its dark and pessimistic view of America developing side by side, like its dark shadow, with the patriotic and idealistic war movie. But the true critic will also want to debate the different inflections and relative value of, say, The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), The Big Sleep (Hawks,1946), and Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947). Or, to move outside Hollywood and forward in time, how one reads and values the films of, for example, the German director Michael Haneke should be a matter of intense critical debate and of great importance to the individual. A value judgment, one must remember, by its very nature cannot be proven—it can only be argued. The debate will be ongoing, and agreement may never be reached; even where there is a consensus, it may be overturned in the next generation. But this is the strength of true critical debate, not its weakness; it is what sets criticism above theory, which should be its servant. A work of any importance and complexity is not a fact that can be proven and pigeon-holed. The purpose of critical debate is the development and refinement of personal judgment, the evolution of the individual sensibility. Such debates go beyond the valuation of a given film, forcing one to question, modify, develop, refine one's own value system. It is a sign of the degeneration of our culture that they seem rarely to take place.



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