Interview: Terry Eagleton

The literary theorist talks about his 50-year career, the importance of low-minded virtues and the double act of Christianity and communism

January 8, 2015

Source: Rex Features

I have to write. It sometimes doesn’t matter what I write. I feel supremely confident and in control when I am writing, as I don’t in ordinary life

It has been 50 years since Terry Eagleton, at the age of just 21, became the youngest junior research fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge since the 18th century, thereby embarking on a career that, as early as the 1980s, made him one of the world’s best-known literary critics and left-wing public intellectuals. Given his political reputation, it was perhaps surprising that he went on to become the Thomas Wharton professor of English literature at the University of Oxford, although perhaps less surprising that he was, reputedly, once described by Prince Charles as “that dreadful Terry Eagleton”.

When we meet at Lancaster University, where he is now a distinguished professor, to talk about his half-century – years that Eagleton had suggested we might call the “disaster years” – I begin by asking, as if to double-check his literary credentials, for his favourite novelist and poet, respectively. Proust, he says, and Wallace Stevens. And music? “Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major,” he replies, “and Teddy Bears’ Picnic, though not necessarily in that order.”

Proust, Mozart and Oxford might seem, I suggest, a long way from his childhood in Salford. He agrees, recalling that “they used to say of the river there that not even canned fish could survive in it”. He is quick to mention his father, himself a socialist – “a highly intelligent man, a deeply intelligent man”, says Eagleton. “I doubt he ever read a book in his life.” Eagleton has no idea where he himself got the strange idea of reading books, but recalls that “about the age of eight, I was seized by the idea that I had to read the classics. I didn’t know what the classics were, or whether they were three books or 300, and so dragged my poor mother to a second-hand bookshop in the middle of Manchester, and there was a row of Dickens novels. I said to the man, ‘Is that the classics?’ And he said, ‘Well, yes, part of the classics.’ So my mother put down five shillings and paid the rest off in instalments of two-and-six. I read my way doggedly and uncomprehendingly through quite a few of them.”

Eagleton has not yet mentioned the Irish Catholicism of his parents, but it was not something he left behind in Salford: “When I arrived in Cambridge,” he says, “I became a part of a movement based there called the Catholic Left. I was lucky, you see, to encounter a version of Christianity that was radical, which meant something in human terms.” I ask what it actually “felt like” to be a Catholic in Cambridge in the 1960s, from the inside as it were; or was his early Catholicism, as he suggests in The Task of the Critic, primarily objective or liturgical?

He doesn’t really respond to this, if only because he’s eager to stress how “astonishingly exciting” he found the Cambridge Faculty of English; he fires off a list of names including not only his mentor, the Welsh socialist Raymond Williams, but also those with whom politically he had less in common: F. R. Leavis, L. C. Knights, George Steiner, Denis Donoghue.

“Literature mattered there,” he enthuses. “Though there were some for whom literature mattered too much.”

Unlike, then, the Oxford that he moved to in 1969? He nods. “I had moved from one bastion”, he confesses, “to another – in this case to a bastion of right-wing medievalist whimsy. Occasionally, I’d see members of the faculty quite literally crossing the road to avoid meeting me. I thought at the time this was because I was a communist; but I think now it was because I came from Cambridge.”

He explains that he prefers, these days, the word “communist” to “Marxist”: “‘Marxist’ is true but ‘communist’ is more a kind of practical term.” I mean to quiz him on this, but he is already describing the heady days of the radicalised 1970s academy, and it is too good to interrupt. “I was invited”, he recalls, “to speak at a university in Denmark which made Essex look like a tea party and was greeted by two shame-faced young academics, one of them carrying a small tape recorder. ‘Our students’, they said, ‘believe that lecturing is a form of violence, so you can’t lecture here. Would you mind speaking into this?’ So I gave the whole lecture into the tape recorder, and they nodded, took it away, and that was that.”

These were days when it was thought by many, including Eagleton, that literary criticism had the potential to play a politically revolutionary role. This is hard now to imagine, a point I put to Eagleton who seems almost to share this retrospective bemusement, which surprises me. Perhaps I am in danger of making the Cambridge mistake. Besides, it has been many years since Eagleton was, in his own words, “an earnest, high-minded, grim-lipped intellectual”. He explains that it was feminism that, around 1980, helped him out of that phase, with his work thereafter marked by all sorts of “low-minded” virtues such as bathos, irony and indeed comedy.

I ask him about this, the comedy, quoting a line from his novel Saints and Scholars (1987): “Your revolution will not succeed because you have not yet learnt to be frivolous.” So what is it about comedy? Why so important? “It is”, he says, “because comedy can be a form of friendship, solidarity. I mean, one of the difficulties of being a radical is always being against or outside things. Radicals want to come in from the cold as much as anybody else.” For Eagleton, it seems, the cold is part of the radical life – he is now both thinking of Bertolt Brecht and quoting him: “‘We who wanted to prepare the ground for friendship could not ourselves be friendly.’ ”

John Schad and Terry Eagleton

We’re living through an absolutely historic moment - namely the effective end of universities as centres of humane critique

Eagleton remarks that he once wrote a play about Brecht for the Edinburgh Fringe that “never saw the dead light of day again”. If he had not been an academic, he adds, he would almost certainly have been an actor. He then moves, paradoxically perhaps, to his conviction that each of us is driven by “inner necessity, by the undeviating law of our being”. Could he give an example? “Writing,” he says. “I have to write. In fact, you know, it sometimes doesn’t matter what I write. I feel supremely confident and in control when I am writing, as I don’t in ordinary life.”

He doesn’t appear particularly short of confidence when he’s speaking, a point I am about to make but he is already off into deeper waters – out into the cold, as it were: “Inner necessity; it’s a kind of tragedy when somebody confronts what they can’t walk away from. Part of the grandeur of Oedipus is that he doesn’t and can’t and won’t walk away from the horror of the real.” Eagleton is now serious, dead serious, and reaches for James Joyce’s famous line that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken”. Then, in an instant, he is suddenly back in from the cold with, “And it was Woody Allen who said ‘History is a nightmare through which I am trying to get some sleep.’” Boom! For Eagleton, tragedy and comedy are, it seems, inseparable. But, for now, I want to know more about the tragedy, its everydayness, and so remind Eagleton of his claim that “every word I’ve written has been in the name of my father and people like him”. I am hoping he’ll say something about his father but instead he stresses how, historically, it was perhaps “women who had been most acutely aware of the everydayness of tragedy, the banality of tragedy”.

This banality is not to be confused with triviality or indeed secularity – for talk of tragedy quickly prompts Eagleton to talk of the crucifixion, which seems, as he speaks, to work so well for him as a picture of tragedy because of its connection to “the possibility of new life”, a possibility that has, he adds, “the political name of revolution”.

There was a time, mainly in the 1980s, when Catholicism was all but invisible in Eagleton’s writing. For some time now, it has been very evident; nevertheless, to date, Christianity has seemed to be primarily a language for Eagleton’s Marxism, or communism, with the crucifixion being a way of unearthing what Eagleton seemed to think of as a tragic vision otherwise buried within communism. However, what I am hearing now, as he speaks, is not so much communism-via-Christianity but rather communism-and-Christianity, a genuinely double act.

Is Eagleton, then, back where he was 50 years ago when he would often refer to himself as a Christian? I am tempted to ask this rather dumb, card-carrying question but resist. I do, though, summon the stupidity to ask the “afterlife” question, the heaven question. Given that he makes so much of the crucifixion, what, I ask, should we make of the biblical account of resurrection? What, if anything, is its significance and does that in any sense include an afterlife? “No,” he says, “the after-life is not a Judaeo-Christian belief. As Wittgenstein says somewhere, ‘How strange that people believe that when you die eternity starts.’ The Christian belief is in an eternity that is here and now.” “But,” I ask, “is eternity limited to here and now?” To which he replies that “eternity does not mean we will live on and on – that would be hell”.

I am tempted to ask my eternity question again, but time is running out and besides we both, he and I, work for a university not a church. Or is that the question? My final question? The what-is-a-university question? The question of to whom I owe my allegiance as a critic, an academic? Is it to truth, knowledge and enquiry, or is to my line manager, the research excellence framework and the taxpayer or student or whoever it is that’s paying me? God or Caesar, if you like.

And so I ask: who calls the tune? “History,” he replies, apologising for the upper-case “H”. “History sets the tasks for the critics.” But what if history is against us, or rather against truth, thought, the real? I am tempted to ask this, but there is no need since he is already on to this one: “What I would say about the university today,” he says, “is that we’re living through an absolutely historic moment – namely the effective end of universities as centres of humane critique, an almost complete capitulation to the philistine and sometimes barbaric values of neo-capitalism.”

This sounds rather like tragedy – if, that is, we really stare at the abyss. If so, is there the possibility of new life? Is there yet hope for the university? Eagleton smiles and quotes Kafka: “‘Yes, there is an infinity of hope, but not for us.’” With that we have to finish, there being no more time; though perhaps somewhere, somewhere else, there is still hope.

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