Leavis and Butthead, or The Wrong Sort of Snow (Part 1: Intro)

My F R Leavis response to ‘The Two Cultures’ has come.  I expect this is something I ought to have read years ago but never mind, here it is.  I don’t expect to be edified, I expect to be pontificated at: Leavis seems to speak ex cathedra more often than the Pope (especially this current Pope) but I shall try to approach it with an open mind.

Incidentally this reminds me of a ‘joke’ in the Readers’ Digest.  My grandparents used to get this bizarre monthly magazine and you found back issues piled up in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms.  I never bothered with the articles but scrolled through reading the cartoons and so-called jokes: the humour in the RD was of such a subdued and conventional kind that I always imagined a retired colonel somewhere in Sussex chortling mirthlessly over his poached egg.  Where was I?  Oh yes, the joke (this is getting more and more like one of Ronnie Corbett’s rambling monologues) – the joke, or perhaps it was intended as an aphorism, was: ‘Some open minds should be closed for repairs.’  I read that forty years ago and I still have no idea what it means (if anything) but I imagine the Colonel harrumphing in approval as he cuts into his poached egg.

Incidentally, does anyone still have poached eggs?  I’ve not had one for years; the only time you see them is in hotels at the breakfast bar.

I started this post last week, since when I have re-read Snow’s original lecture and Leavis’s response.  I am formulating a number of complicated thoughts on this which may take some time and even when they are formulated I don’t suppose there will be space for them all here.  But it’s jolly stimulating.  Basically what I think we’re looking at is a clash of two other kinds of culture; the elitist and the meritocratic.  Snow, high priest of the meritocracy, represents the future and Leavis, pontiff of elitist tradition, knows it – which explains why he reacts as he does.  Basically Leavis is fighting for his life.

But more on this anon when I’ve got all my ducks in a row.  In the meantime I’ve also gone and ordered Leavis’s ‘The Great Tradition’ (get all your books from Alibris and give Amazon the finger; they’re cheap and reliable and they pay their taxes) which I read years ago and have mostly forgotten.  (I started to read it online but I’m no good at reading from a screen.)  He chooses six authors worthy of this Great Tradition, and while the gender balance isn’t too bad (Jane Austen and George Eliot make the cut) his criteria of greatness are so narrow and elitist that one is tempted to paraphrase Elizabeth Bennett and say, ‘I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six great writers; I rather wonder at your knowing any.’

More on this when it comes.

Kirk out