Thursday, July 30, 2015


Humiliating Self-Exposures

David Ellis, Memoirs of a Leavisite: The decline and fall of Cambridge English (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), pp. 23-24:
By the time of my first year with [F.R.] Leavis, his sheets of anonymous texts for analysis and dating included quite a lot of prose. Very early on, I can remember being confronted with a passage of what seemed to me lively polemical writing. After some analysis of its qualities, he asked us to suggest who might have been its author. To this day I have no idea how I managed to come up with the name of Cobbett or in what context I had stumbled upon the Rural Rides, which is still the only text of his I have ever read. Yes, said Leavis, after some hesitation, I can see why you might think that, and he went on to talk at some length about colloquial vigour before revealing that the author of the passage in question was Thomas Nashe. Nashe's best known work appeared in 1592 and Rural Rides was published in 1830 so that, if I had been looking for comfort, I could have said that, as far as dating was concerned, I was only 238 years out.

One method I have for dividing people is to imagine that there are those who, as they look back on their life, remember it chiefly in terms of the happy moments when they were congratulated, received an award, or said some something to which the response was peculiarly gratifying. Set against these are those whose progress is remembered as a series of humiliating self-exposures, occasions when they did or said the wrong thing. As an instance of saying the wrong thing in a public context, my 'Cobbett' must rank pretty high. There is a story told by Stanley Cavell about the time he attended the music theory class given by Ernst Bloch at Berkeley. Bloch would apparently play a piece by Bach, 'with one note altered by a half a step from Bach's rendering', and then play the piece as it was written. After repeating this process, he would challenge the students to hear the difference, tell them that if they could not hear it they could not call themselves musicians, and then remind them that there were after all many 'honourable trades. Shoe-making, for example.' It would have been reasonable of Leavis to suggest that anyone who could not tell the difference between Cobbett and Nashe ought to be thinking of something other than the study of English literature. The enormity of my mistake became more painful with the passage of time as I gained more familiarity with Elizabethan prose writing, its often strange vocabulary and loose grammatical structures trailing off God knows where. The consolation was that at the time I made the error I had no idea how serious it was. There is another consolation which comes from those Proustian moments when a word pronounced in a special way, a chance glimpse of certain features, or the atmosphere in a room suddenly brings back an episode when we behaved in a particularly foolish manner. It strikes me then that the number of humiliating episodes which we remember, and which constitute our private store of psychological pain or discomfort, is as nothing compared to those we have either forgotten or were not even aware of at the time, and that Nature can sometimes be kind after all.

The way Leavis dealt with my mistake was a model for me later when I had to respond to similarly foolish suggestions. The technique is no doubt common as well as considerate, but I once witnessed an uncomfortable reductio of it at a lecture by [H.A.] Mason, whose Oxford classics degree was often adduced as the reason for his being the most urbane of all the Leavisites. At the lecture was someone from my year who had suffered a breakdown and whose behaviour had become mildly psychotic. When Mason had finished speaking he was asked by this student a whole series of increasingly mad questions to each of which he replied with the usual 'I can see why you might say that', 'that would be one way of looking at it' etc. until every other member of the audience was in an agony of embarrassment and silently begging him to cut their pain short with, 'No, I'm afraid what you have just said is complete rubbish'.
Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

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