The Event of Literature

May 3, 2012

This guidebook, which steers us confidently through some of the thickets of literary theory, is of the companionable and clever variety that we have become accustomed to expect from Terry Eagleton. It's the sort of book whose covers, if it were paperback, would lend themselves to gentle curvature, rolled up in a way so as to slip into the pocket of your jacket, ready to be yanked out at the next opportune moment at which you have a drink to hand and a footstool upon which to swing your feet. That is not to say this is an easy-reading book - it's not remotely "light" - but the skill of the writing is its cultivation of a kind of companionability, the relaxed but alert mood of an intelligence at ease into which Eagleton lulls you. His thinking is flexible but sure, speculative but precise, unforgiving of dogmatism without itself being doctrinaire, and at moments there is a flashing, reaching, humane sensibility that makes you want to put the book down so that you might better clutch at the Eagleton who often feels as though he is at your side and never quite is.

In short, Eagleton makes for good company - challenging, curious, garrulous and occasionally grumpy - in this series of extended discussions about the nature of literature and the contours given it by literary theory. This is an evidently academic book, although it might also read as a broad guide for a literate audience, credited with a general philosophical knowledge. It declares its novelty early on, melding "literary theory" with the "philosophy of literature", in a breaching of the old continental and analytic philosophy divide. It's a strategy that makes for some unusual conjunctions (Duns Scotus and Jacques Derrida?), and indeed, part of Eagleton's project seems to be to indicate the convergences of the two seemingly antagonistic fields. There's such an impressive sense of Eagleton's learning here that it feels churlish to demur that there might yet be something in the distinction of these fields of analysis - differences of emphasis, tone and mode - that is lost in conflation and that doesn't withstand the kind of transposition Eagleton gamely offers.

It is perhaps unsurprising, though, that the figure to whom we are returned most often in the book, with approbation and interest, is Ludwig Wittgenstein, equally claimed as he is by continentals and analytics alike. Eagleton is rather elegantly in love with Wittgenstein in this book, and most persuasive in his meditations on Wittgenstein's "forms of life", recognising in him a kind of pragmatism that is not without magic, an empiricism that is not without romance. "Literature," Eagleton reflects carefully, "like any other language assimilates the world into itself, but it does so with a special kind of self-consciousness, allowing us to grasp the nature of our form of life and language games, more vigilantly than usual."

As ever with Eagleton, there are pithy discussions of formalism and intentionality, usefully concise and naughtily reductive. Thomas Aquinas, J.L. Austin, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Alain Badiou all surface in the prose in unalarmingly conversational ways, and Eagleton's breezy brio makes fairly light and lightly fair work of them. Too light perhaps for those who might rebuke the condensation of complexity, but there's an agility and intellectual deftness here to admire too. Most remarkable is the extraordinarily extended acts of synthesis in this book, the fluency with which Eagleton maps the Scholastics against Stanley Fish, for example. (Indeed, the mild exasperation with which Eagleton rebukes Fish's particularly New York Times-ish brand of theory disavowal is deeply gratifying.)

There is something admirable, too, in the ability to faintly damn without cruelty, a winking intelligence without belligerence that seems well removed from the ugliness of literary infighting. There is something diligently democratic about Eagleton's Socratic gadflying, a sensibly truthful kind of pestering, conscientiously critical, equally alert to the moral asymmetry of Leftist accusations of dogmatism as to the false worldliness of aestheticians who claim superior understanding.

Certainly there are some arguments one might want to have with this book (the hurried treatment of psychoanalysis, the diagnosis of deconstruction's "loss of political nerve") but it would be a lesser book if it didn't provoke that impulse to contest. What emerges most strongly though is a sense of Eagleton's desirous curiosity, an unabated inquisitiveness that allows him to reinvigorate tired formulations. At the end of the first chapter, musing over the problem of essentialism, he wonders, almost apropos of nothing, "What if the 'essence' of a human being were whatever it is one loves about them?" What if, indeed?

The Event of Literature

By Terry Eagleton. Yale University Press. 264pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780300178814. Published 26 April 2012

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