Book of the week: The Task of the Critic

Willy Maley salutes a live-wire intellect, part terrier, part trickster

March 25, 2010

Matthew Beaumont took on a tusk of a task in trying to extract two inches from Terry Eagleton’s mammoth memories of a life in the ivory tower. In a series of discussions with Eagleton over a nine-month period in 2008-09, Beaumont covered everything from his subject’s birth to his new lease of life, and even afterlife, as the former altar boy took on the unbelievers in the shape of the two-headed beast, “Ditchkins” (Richard Dawkins and Christo­pher Hitchens). If, for Mark Twain, William Shake­speare was “a Brontosaur: nine bones and 600 barrels of plaster of Paris”, then Eagleton is a tyrannosaurus: nine barrels of blarney and 600 bones to pick.

In his short autobiography The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (2001), Eagleton traversed some of the ground measured out in more detail in these interviews, which are more personal than that text. Beaumont, citing Peter Osborne, concedes they are “care­ful fictions, conjuring the promise of the actual from the signs of the present”. Walter Benjamin, who gives this text its title from an unpublished fragment of a project to “recreate criticism as a genre”, inspired what Beaumont considers to be Eagleton’s best book, Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981).

Beaumont quotes from Benjamin’s “The Task of the Critic” a comment that goes to the heart of Eagleton’s sig­nifi­cance: “Instead of giving his own opinion, a great critic enables others to form their opinion on the basis of his critical analysis… What we should know about a critic is what he stands for.” This fits Eagleton beautifully. He is tribune rather than bureaucrat.

In his own collection of inter­views, Points...Interviews, 1974- 1994 (1995), Jacques Derrida, with typical hyperbole, describes the model of the engaged public intellectual after Jean-Paul Sartre as “cata­­strophic”, but at a time when the new managerialism threatens to destroy the rich intellectual traditions upon which Eagleton based his career, his energy, urgency, strident resistance and informed critique are salutary.

Literary Theory: An Intro­duction (1983), the million-seller for which he is best known, sums up Eagleton’s democratic intellect, his capacity to communicate complex ideas in sparkling prose. Nobody exemplifies more clearly theory’s transformative potential. Eagleton resembles John Milton, his notable polemical reserves mobilised in debates where he is compelled to immerse himself in oppositional writing. Prince Charles, the future Charles III, calls him “that dreadful Terry Eagleton” in the same way Charles I and II may have seen “that dreadful John Milton”.

Eagleton’s Catholicism survived his encounter with the University of Cambridge and Karl Marx. His recent spats with “Ditchkins” are less a return to religion than the continuation of the holy class war by other means. Unlike Friedrich Engels, who broke with his faith through tear-dimmed eyes, then wrote a history of early Christ­ianity in his final year depicting the nascent Christian communities as primitive commu­nists, Eagleton underwent no return trip to Damascus. He tackled Graham Greene in Exiles and Émigrés (1970), but I’d love to hear his opinion of another Catholic writer, Muriel Spark, as Eagleton’s radical theology comes close to hers, and both have a nice line on Marxist nuns.

One goes to Eagleton for clarity, colour and the craic, not consistency. He used to deride Derrida’s acolytes without naming names. Likewise in The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996), Eagle­ton admits he “didn’t want to go through particular authors, like Baudrillard and Lyotard, in serial order. I wanted to capture a general intellectual ambience.” Yet this is precisely what he criticises Dawkins for doing in The God Delusion (2006).

Eagleton’s input into literary theory, Irish studies and creative writing is substantial. Although no textual Marxist in the French tradition, he subscribes to the “open Marxism” endorsed by Derrida, and his recent writings on faith and reason dovetail with Derrida’s later work. Yet by the mere act of declaring himself a Marxist, Eagleton – like his early mentor, Raymond Williams – offered a rallying point for class-conscious criticism. A scholar who spent the greatest part of his working life in Oxbridge, and began his career writing books on the Brontës and Shakespeare, may seem a surprising figure to stand as a beacon for Leftist criticism.

The interview form suits Eagleton. If at times his writing appears more journalistic than analytic, then the Q&A format is tailor-made for his verbal energy and kaleidoscopic thought patterns. “Dialogue” is stretching it, though: there’s more motor-mouthing monologue here than genuine exchange. This is not to suggest that Beaumont’s questions are not as elegant and elevated as his name suggests, merely that Eagleton’s answers do not just pick up the ball and run with it, but score spectacular goals followed by lengthy corner-flag celebrations.

Unlike other Premier League theorists, Eagleton has established no school of criticism. Yet to conclude that he is merely a brilliant summariser of competing critical traditions is to ignore the sui generis quality of his sampling and synthesising. He has left his mark and continues to spark debate. When Beaumont speaks of “the post-structuralists’ enticing promise to transpose the insurrectionary energies of the soixante-huitards from the street to the sentence”, this is pure Eagleton, not least because it performs the very thing it reports.

In the preface to William Shakespeare (1986), Eagleton likened his task in discussing the Bard’s major works in such a slender volume to the “Summarise Proust” contest featured in a Monty Python sketch, conducted in 20 seconds, first in bathing costume, then in evening dress. Like those other Terrys, Gilliam and Jones, Eagleton is, as his 2007 guide The Meaning of Life indicates, and as he himself admits, “more Monty Python than Merleau-Ponty”.

There is in Eagleton’s trajectory a sense of circling around partic­u­lar preoccupations. His early work on Slant magazine is echoed by his scepticism towards the premature expulsion of religion from the new republic of letters; his book on the Brontës morphs into Heathcliff and the Great Hunger (1995); and the work on Shakespeare develops into a compelling account of tragedy.

Two key moments in Eagleton’s life involve education: the first, securing a place at grammar school; the second, passing the Cambridge entrance exam, an event overshadowed by his father’s death. As the education system’s door closes once more in the face of the poor, it is fascinating to hear Eagleton’s tale of advancement.

If as an Irish critic his style owes more to Flann O’Brien than Conor Cruise, and his Marxism is more Groucho than Karl, this testifies to his Wildean wit and wordplay, his socialism with soul. Eagleton once charged Derrida with a “portentous poeticizing” susceptible to parody, a charge Derrida threw back in his face. After Derrida’s death, Eagleton defended him valiantly, much as Derrida defended Marx and Marx Hegel. It is one thing to take issue with a thinker one finds challenging and another to discount his contribution to criticism.

Eagleton is a “player” in every sense, and The Task of the Critic shows him as an eagle-eyed trickster. Prolific and profound, the last of a generation, this egalitarian terrier is still chewing at the leash. After a lifetime of commitment he remains a live wire, the most readable literary critic we have: one whose task is never done, his playfulness and stylistic verve masking consider­able theoretical sophistication.

The author

Terry Eagleton is distinguished professor of English literature at Lancaster University. From Catholic working-class roots, he attended Trinity College, Cambridge, where he came under the tutelage of the left-wing literary critic, Raymond Williams.

A Marxist, Eagleton is a former member of the fore­runner to the Socialist Workers Party. As he told The Guardian in 2002, he moved from “Catholicism to Marxism without having to pass through liberal­ism”.

“The path from the tridentine creed to Trotskyism is shorter than it seems,” he said.

“Catholicism was a world that combined rigorous thought with sensuous symbolism… so it was probably no accident that I became a literary theorist.”

He moved to the University of Manchester as pro­fessor of cultural theory in 2001 and was forced to retire from that post in 2008.

The Task of the Critic: Terry Eagleton in Dialogue

By Terry Eagleton
Edited by Matthew Beaumont
Verso, 224pp, £60.00 and £17.99
ISBN 9781844673407 and 3391
Published 1 March 2010

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