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Morality and Art:
The Claims of F.R. Leavis

Trevor Pateman

Abstract: Introduces a discussion of the large topic of Morality and Art through a close reading of some passages in F R Leavis's book, "The Great Tradition"

It is immediately clear as one reads the opening chapter of 'The Great Tradition (first published in 1948) that F.R. Leavis does not think there can be great (literary) art without serious moral purpose. So Flaubert and Turgenev, for example, are not the equal of George Eliot as writers because they lack her moral seriousness, and there was less that Henry James could, in consequence, learn from them than from her. Likewise, Dickens does not enter the Great Tradition of the novel in English - defined by the line from Jane Austen through George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad to D.H. Lawrence - because his genius was merely that of `a great entertainer' . Except in Hard Times, says Leavis, he assumes for the most part `no profounder responsibility as a creative artist than this description suggests'.

For Leavis, if a work of art is to alter the tradition to which it belongs, reshaping and giving a new meaning to the past from which it emerges (see the essay `Tradition and Creativity' on this website), then it must possess qualities of `Form' or `Style' which mark it out as `technically' original. But it can only have these if its content is informed by serious purpose. So of Jane Austen, Leavis says that `without her intense moral preoccupation she wouldn't have been a great novelist' , and goes on, `when we examine the formal perfection of Emma, we find that it can be appreciated only in terms of the moral preoccupations that characterize the novelist's peculiar interest in life' . Of course, though Leavis asserts that it is a necessary condition of artistic greatness that the art be informed by `a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity' , he does not assert that it is a sufficient condition. There are evidently morally intense authors who have written dreadful novels. D.H. Lawrence did write Lady Chatterley's Lover, a book which in any reckoning of his work ought to be held against him.

Leavis's approach invites comparison with his near contemporary, Gyorgy Lukacs (1885-1971). In works which appal Roger Scruton `not only for their horrifying bigotry but also for their total lack of grace, charm, irony or percipience', Lukacs sorts novelists and their novels according to whether they are able to penetrate beneath superficial appearances to the real structures of social reality. The possibility of formal achievement is made dependent on the quasi-scientific abilities of the writer. In other words Lukacs pins onto social scientific acumen the burden which Leavis hangs on moral sensibility. Both end up, for example, with a negative evaluation of James Joyce. For Lukacs, Joyce compares unfavourably to Thomas Mann. For Leavis, Joyce fails when compared to D.H. Lawrence. Leavis makes his comparison in terms - including the hostile use of the word `cosmopolitan' - with most of which Lukacs would have heartily agreed. It is worth quoting at some length:

It is this spirit, by virtue of which he [Lawrence] can truly say that what he writes must be written from the depth of his religious experience, that makes him, in my opinion, so much more significant in relation to the past and future, so much more truly creative as a technical inventor, an innovator, a master of language, than James Joyce . . . there is no organic principle determining, informing and controlling into a vital whole, the elaborate analogical structure, the extraordinary variety of technical devices, the attempts at an exhaustive rendering of consciousness, for which Ulysses is remarkable, and which got it accepted by a cosmopolitan literary world as a new start. It is rather, I think, a dead end, or at least a pointer to disintegration ....

Two questions then occur to me regarding Leavis (and Lukacs).

Is he just a moral policeman (or a political commissar), or does he really have something to say about the preconditions of greatness in art? Can what is said about Morality and Art in the novel be said generally not just for poetry and drama, but for painting, dance and music?

In relation to the first question, I suppose that someone who has nothing to say is unlikely to say it well. There is obviously a correlation between shaping a vision and having a vision to shape. But Leavis's idea of an art enhancing vision is extremely limited, and in particular he allows no place for the comic, the grotesque (the carnivalesque). Indeed, except in moderation, the carnivalesque repels him. So Dickens can be accommodated as an entertainer, but Sterne is merely an `irresponsible' and `nasty' trifler. In always giving preference to the straight- faced and straight- laced, Leavis certainly misses the possibility that a `serious' vision is appropriately expressed in the carnivalesque, by which I mean something which apparently `does dirt' on conceptions of life which may, despite their self-proclamations, actually be life-denying. The carnivalesque is exemplified in such works as Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel; in Joyce's Ulysses (which ends with a life-affirming `Yes'), and - to give some contemporary point of reference - in, let's say, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus. The relevant theoretical reference point here is Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World. Interestingly, Bakhtin's inspiration comes in part from religion, from such sources as the Russian Orthodox church's notion of the Holy Fool. (For relevant discussion, see Stallybrass and White's The Politics and Poetics of Transgression.). One might also usefully compare Leavis on the supposedly life-affirming Great Tradition with what has been found in it by feminists, like Kate Millet in Sexual Politics and in Angela Carter's fun essay on the representation of female sexuality in literature, `Alison's Giggle'.

One may also get Leavis into perspective by considering whether there is such a thing as moral seriousness in music, and whether it is a precondition of musical greatness. No one doubts the seriousness of Bach or Beethoven; but what about Mozart? I suppose that Leavis, prompted by R. G. Collingwood (see The Principles of Art), would sit down to The Magic Flute and end up declaring `Genius, but the genius of an entertainer.' Yet The Magic Flute contains passages of as transcendent beauty and sublimity as one could wish, created out of (at least apparent) playful irresponsibility. From music one could go on to painting, where Picasso might be taken as a challenge to Leavis. Yes, Picasso is `open to life', but for Leavis one suspects, too damned open. [ Note added 2005: When this essay was first published in book form, the educational publishers to whom it was entrusted removed the word "damned" from the previous sentence, which confirms my suspicion that moral seriousness is often confused with moral primness].

This essay has introduced the word-search challenging topic of Morality and Art through the narrow focus of a few passages in F.R. Leavis's major work. Leavis's attraction for teachers in the United Kingdom, over several decades, was in large measure connected to the fact that any arts teacher is likely to believe that the arts can help children (and adults) develop, and development is an ethical notion insofar as we have a normative (standard-setting) conception of what it is to be a (developed) person. The easy mistake here is to suppose that it is moralising that makes us moral. In reality, it's more likely to send us to sleep.


Bakhtin, M (1968) Rabelais and his World MIT Press

Carter, A. (1983) 'Alison's Giggle', in E. PHILLIPS (Ed.), The Left and the Erotic, London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Collingwood, R G (1938) The Principles of Art, Oxford University Press

Leavis, F R (1948) The Great Tradition, London: Chatto and Windus

Millet, K (1971) Sexual Politics, London: Rupert Hart-Davis

Stallybrass, P and White, A (1986) The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, London: Methuen

Website version first published 2005. Revised from the essay appearing under the title "Morality and Art" in Trevor Pateman, Key Concepts in Aesthetics, Criticism and the Arts in Education (London: Falmer Press 1991)