Commentary Magazine


A Critical Exchange

To the Editor:

I cannot see that Mr. Greenberg has the right to feel aggrieved [see exchange of letters in June issue] because in replying to his challenge (and if he hadn’t brought in my name—and in that apparently considered and calculated way—I should have written no comment on his essay), I accepted the answer so obviously proposed by the essay itself [“The Jewishness of Frank Kafka,” April 1955] for the question it faced me with: Why is Mr. Greenberg’s valuation of Kafka’s work so defiantly at odds with his account of it? To charge him with bad taste—that would indeed have been gratuitously discourteous; it would have been nothing to the point, and it didn’t occur to me: one would hardly at any time, I imagine, find it to the point to talk about “bad taste” in discussing an over-estimate of Kafka.

That Kafka had a striking originality and something in the nature of genius I explicitly recognized. That the originality comes out in a remarkable and idiosyncratic prose I could hardly fail to be aware. For, in spite of Mr. Greenberg’s hint at my lack of first-hand acquaintance, I was familiar with Kafka before he could be said to have, in England, a reputation. I don’t claim to be a critic of German literature, but, perceiving the interest of Kafka, I took the trouble to obtain him in German, and I remember (perhaps I may record by way of making my point) discussing the characteristics of the prose with Professor René Wellek—then much nearer to Prague, and to the Kreis about which he can talk so enlighteningly—twenty years ago.

Mr. Greenberg’s admonition to me to read Kafka “without consulting my critical principles” conveys an unfounded imputation. What I bring to Kafka is what I bring to Lawrence, and what, it seems to me, anyone interested in literature must bring to any writer: the question, “How am I to take this, and what is the nature of the interest it offers?” In the case of Kafka one cannot give an intelligent answer to the second part of the question without dealing very largely in limiting judgments. How essentially this is so Mr. Greenberg’s essay illustrates. It was his account of Kafka that I summarized in my reply to the challenge, and he hasn’t told us what it is in Kafka that, missed by me in my impercipience, justifies the high estimate of him as a creative power. He merely asserts that, “in his own way,” Kafka “transcends his fragmentariness and his ‘imprisonment’”; except for an unenlightening reference to “humor,” he doesn’t tell us how.

What Mr. Greenberg means by Lawrence’s “obsessions” I don’t know, but I certainly cannot grant that there is any disability in Lawrence to set against Kafka’s neurosis. As for “unevennesses,” what voluminous author is not uneven? But instead of fragmentariness, monotony and tautology (Mr. Greenberg’s words for Kafka) I find in Lawrence an immense body of perfect and incomparably varied work in the short story and tale, and a massive and profoundly original creative achievement in the novel that makes him one of the greatest of all writers. I have given the grounds for my valuation in a detailed analysis of the work—analysis that essentially is an exemplification of the approach to literature that leads me to disagree with Mr. Greenberg about Kafka.

Mr. Greenberg says: “I am surprised that Dr. Leavis is not aware of how conclusively, and how often, the fallacies in his position have been demonstrated.” That again is only a form of mere assertion—and the form suggests that Mr. Greenberg doesn’t know how the conclusive demonstration would be done, and doesn’t at bottom believe that it could be. How could he, being himself interested in literature and committed to criticism (in spite of his odd intimation that he is content to rest in a vaguely heightened “sense”—“sense” of the possibilities of life that is produced in him by literature)? His offer to prove my position untenable seems to me curiously naive: “Lawrence’s assumption [about the relation of life to art], followed to its logical consequence, would make good taste in art a sign of wisdom and of the capacity for wise action.” One may readily grant that good taste in art (Mr. Greenberg chooses his phrase cannily) is not necessarily a sign of securely attained wisdom and a consequent capacity for wise action; but it remains true that intelligence about (say) Kafka and Lawrence is intelligence about life. When, in determining how we take this, that and the other work of literature, we settle into our essential determinations and discriminations of sympathetic response, the perceptions, readjustments and implicit decisions entailed have—if the experience strikes us as new and significant—direct bearings on our future personal living. And this remains true, even if habit is potent and change difficult, and “bearings on” do not become at once “consequences for.” Taking a tip from Mr. Greenberg, I might say that his denial of this assumption I have outlined, followed to its logical consequence, would lead to a doctrine of aestheticism and Pure Art Value. But this way of putting things might be taken to suggest that such a doctrine could of itself be consistently and logically held. That, however, I don’t believe; the muddle and confusion that theoretical adhesion to it must portend mean, I think, that no one seriously interested in literature has ever readily held it.

F. R. Leavis
Downing College
Cambridge, England

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Mr. Greenberg writes:

I brought Dr. Leavis’s name in because I felt it was the one that had to be mentioned if I had room for only one name. As much as I may disagree with him theoretically and practically, I happen to think Dr. Leavis the greatest, and truest, living literary critic (especially now that T. S. Eliot is in decline). I am glad that he has given me this opportunity to say so.

Also, he has me dead to rights. I do hold with art for art’s sake: that is, nothing else can do for us what art does. If I agreed with Dr. Leavis, I would have to conclude that art was a practical substitute for life and experience.

In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment Kant demonstrated that one cannot prove an aesthetic judgment in discourse. Let Dr. Leavis see whether he can, in practice or theory, refute Kant’s arguments. For what he is claiming in effect is that one can so adequately exhibit in words one’s grounds for an aesthetic judgment that agreement with it is compelled by the rules of evidence and logic. Kant holds that one can appeal only to the other person’s taste as exercised through experience of the work of art under discussion.

As for one’s “essential determinations and discriminations of sympathetic response”: these are excluded in many works that Dr. Leavis would, I feel sure, agree are masterpieces of literature. Oedipus Rex and King Lear are among them. Morality is built into the mind, and works of art have to respect the limitations that morality imposes on fancied action; otherwise the reader’s or observer’s interest cannot be held, whether in high-or lowbrow literature. But this does not mean that we have to learn from literature in order to enjoy it properly, or that those who do not learn from it are in no position to judge it. Art, in my view, explains to us what we already feel, but it does not do so discursively or rationally; rather, it acts out an explanation in the sense of working on our feelings at a remove sufficient to protect us from the consequences of the decisions made by our feelings in response to the work of art. Thus it relieves us of the pressure of feeling. I agree with Aristotle that art is catharsis, but the catharsis leaves us no wiser than before.

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