Why Terry's all gold

The Eagleton Reader

March 27, 1998

I have reason to be grateful to Terry Eagleton. I was an undergraduate at Essex in the mid-1970s and, like many studying English at that time and place, was held to be beyond redemption if I could not immediately divine the importance of Louis Althusser or Pierre Macherey. Luckily, I came across Eagleton's Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976) whose clear summaries of those thinkers gave my essays a spurious air of expertise. On the strength of this I felt able to attend what Stephen Regan, the editor of this reader, calls Essex's "now legendary '1848 Sociology of Literature' conference". This is the first time in my life that I can say of something "I was there"; but while the birth of a revolution, even if it was only a theoretical one, may have been bliss for some, to me and many others it was a rather intimidating affair. The gathered luminaries, including a very long-haired Eagleton, paraded the latest Paris fashions and I was suitably awestruck.

Things have changed a bit since then and Eagleton has been at the heart of it. This collection, ranging from an early study on D. H. Lawrence to his latest expose of post-modern follies, charts his contribution to the evolution of English studies. His undoubted achievement has been to insist on the continuing relevance of literature to the Marxist project of emancipation at a time when few believe in either literature or Marxism. In part, he is able to do this because he writes within a tradition, whose main 20th-century exponents include F. R. Leavis and Raymond Williams, that brings literature into a critical relation with society. In class and regional terms all three are marginal figures but, perhaps because of this, they have had a major influence on the shape of English studies. From Leavis, Eagleton inherits a respect for close reading, a concern with felt particulars and a fascination with Wittgenstein. He differs from him chiefly in having a sense of humour, a trait which also distinguishes him from those joke-loving theorists who defer so long they forget to deliver the punchline. Eagleton's debt to Williams is more obvious; the early criticism draws heavily on Williams's notion of a "structure of feeling" and he also retains his mentor's habit of making forays into different disciplines out of a sense of intellectual responsibility to the whole social order. Fundamentally Eagleton, like both Leavis and Williams, believes in the centrality of what the latter called "meanings and values". This is in contrast to theory that deals only with meanings, the multiplication of which, as Eagleton often reminds us, can appear rather absurd. He takes issue with those who proclaim that difference and plurality are good in themselves by wittily complaining that Britain lacks "a ceaselessly varied, robustly proliferating fascist scene".

What the more irresponsible aspects of theory ignore, of course, are the social and political contexts that are always at the forefront of Eagleton's criticism. He does not forget that the upheavals of history "have been in one sense mere variations on a consistent theme of exploitation and oppression". No radical reading of the past by self-styled subversives is ever going to redeem the death of a single child in a Victorian factory. In some sense, theory renders itself incapable of responding to the wretched of history because it has dissolved subjectivity into various drives and discursive functions. Its characteristic abstractions mirror those of a dehumanising bureaucracy which reduces human significance to a matter of statistics. To this extent theory, for all its trumpeting about how radical it is, does nothing more than underwrite the existing order. For Eagleton the celebration of a "fragmentary, eclectic, cosmopolitan culture" is "offensively elitist" and "aloofly academic" because it ignores how such a culture, "for ordinary men and women, has meant homelessness and unemployment rather than random libidinal intensities and which, globally speaking, means war as well as cosmopolitan cuisine".

As befits a Marxist, Eagleton's criticism is essentially dialectical, showing how literature both reproduces and resists the social formation. Crucial to this process is the body; it is the site where ideology becomes lived experience but it is also the realm of fantasy and desire. Eagleton traces this tension in Richardson and Tennyson noting that "a polyvalent flux of desire" has to be "stabilised in a symbolic exchange of reified characteristics". Unfortunately, his historical sense deserts him here for, in equating Clarissa with "The Princess", Eagleton conflates the very different types of class struggle of the two periods. Nevertheless, Eagleton's belief that sexuality is the medium of class conflict at least links the personal and the political in a manner that "the new somatics" does not.

Around the mid-1980s, Eagleton moves away from literature per se to consider the crisis of English studies. He points out that the study of English was partly about legitimising national origins and partly a defensive reaction to mass culture. Cosmopolitanism, ethnicity, feminism, multiculturalism and the growing gap between capitalism's professions of culture and its degraded practices have all combined to throw "English" into what appears to be a terminal decline. Eagleton's response is to study writing in English rather than English literature but this volume gives little clue as to what form that may take. One possibility is the materialist rereading of the culture of which literary works are a part, focusing on how they are produced, circulated, received and institutionalised thereby "carrying materialism directly into a culture which was constructed as idealist in the first place". I cannot quarrel with that but I do take issue with him over the claim that we do not need another materialist reading of Titus Andronicus. Says who? As Eagleton himself notes, it is the task of socialist intellectuals "to preserve precious traditions." To cut ourselves from that "tangle of crimes and blunders" is potentially progressive, but it is also to sunder us from "what is potentially alive and politically subversive in that lineage". Besides, Marxists are supposed to oppose the forces of capitalism, not aid them in the "reduction of our common history to the eternal now of consumerist desire". Toss out literature, part of whose value lies in it being a problematic category, and we jettison a way of debating issues of truth, justice and happiness.

I began this review by acknowledging my debt to Eagleton. Every student of English will also be thankful to Regan for assembling this reader. It has its peculiarities; can the editor really distinguish between Eagleton's literary and Marxist criticism? It would have been better to organise the material chronologically rather than thematically, since this would have given a more coherent sense of the development of Eagleton's thought. Nevertheless, useful essays frame each section and the collection as a whole serves as a splendid introduction to Eagleton's work. His delightful wit and debunking similes make reading him fun, as well as necessary.

Gary Day is subject leader of English and cultural studies, De Montfort University.

The Eagleton Reader

Editor - Stephen Regan
ISBN - 0631 20248 X and 20249 8
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £50.00 and £13.99
Pages - 454

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