More craic, less Spivak

November 19, 1999

Terry Eagleton tells Jennifer Wallace why he is tired of all this dislocated postmodern talk and why he is happy with a concept called 'home' in a place called 'Ireland'

The Irish are not necessarily more genial than the English, but they have been on the whole more congenial," according to Terry Eagleton. In an essay called "The Good-Natured Gael", published in his recent book Crazy John and the Bishop, he argues that Irish and Scottish cultures are more sociable and more community-oriented than English culture.

"Can it be that Gaels are more affectionate, genial and intuitive, than the emotionally inhibited English?" he asks. "It's not a question of the convivial yet melancholic Celt, one hand wrapped around the ale-jug and the other thrust out in affable welcome to a stranger. It's the way in which, in family-based agrarian communities, personal and social relationships are less easily separable than they are in the marketplaces of modernity."

Although Eagleton is the Thomas Warton professor of English at Oxford University, he actually lives in Dublin. When we set up the interview, we agree to meet, suitably enough, in what the Time Out guide to Dublin describes as a traditional bar made in heaven, the "cathedral of booze". I arrive late and Eagleton is already there with his wife, not quite with one hand wrapped around the ale-jug, but certainly welcoming me affably.

He has just finished a trilogy of books about Ireland. Beginning with Heathcliff and the Great Hunger in 1995 and going on to Crazy John last year, the third book, Scholars and Rebels, will be published next week. After years of writing hard-nosed Marxist criticism, Eagleton has rediscovered his Irish roots. Ireland, he thinks, has always offered the English an alternative history and a different type of literature. His recent books show the previously unsuspected Irish roots of certain literary works -famously, that the wild hero Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights could be Irish. "Whereas in Britain you have to argue the need for the relations between culture and politics, there is a sense in which you can over here take that for granted because culture has always been politicised."

He began getting interested in Ireland in the early 1980s. "There was a period of high Thatcherism when one would rather be anything than English," he recalls. Being English involved being associated with events like the Falklands war and a new strident nationalism and many intellectuals from the left tried to find alternative identities. Eagleton's great mentor, Raymond Williams, turned to Wales. Eagleton moved to Dublin three years ago.

But looking back now, Eagleton realises that his Irishness always had a latent pull on his consciousness. His grandparents were all from Ireland, his father's parents from Tipperary, his mother's parents Catholics from Ulster. He was brought up in Salford and educated by Christian brothers "whose job it was to beat any residual Irishness out of us, to get kids out of the bog and introduce us to English culture and get us to Cambridge", he reflects. But once in Cambridge, he felt that he did not entirely belong - "I've never felt at ease with the English middle class" - and spent much time thinking about his Catholicism particularly. Together with a few other Cambridge English students and some Dominican priests, he formed the Catholic Left and started the quarterly radical Catholic magazine, Slant. Aged 22 he published The New Left Church, which caused controversy, both among Catholics and among Marxists. "The good thing about being a Catholic, like being a Jew, is that you are part of a culture," he says.

In fact, Eagleton has always had mixed feelings about belonging to anything. "I think belonging is very valuable to a generation like mine who were left-wing people and were always kind of displaced. They got their jobs in a set-up that they could never quite bring themselves to believe in. They tried to create their own corporate identity on the left but it didn't really succeed." But it is for this reason that he feels he has finally found a place, in Ireland, where he does feel at home.

Critics accuse Eagleton of being incurably sentimental about the Irish, of replacing hard Marxism with a dewy-eyed romanticism about his new home. He is very conscious of the criticism and is keen to rebuff it. "Ireland is not at all about comfortable corporatism. It's much more ferocious. It's a small, claustrophobic, incestuous, quarrelsome, combative, envious and deeply fascinating and rich culture." His relationship with the Irish is actually quite complex. As Denys Turner, author of Marxism and Christianity and former theology lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin, comments: "He is obviously deeply in love with the Irish, since he spends so much time writing about them, but he is also unsentimental about them. His book The Truth about the Irish (to be published next year) is a debunking book."

The cause of the disagreement perhaps lies in the fact that, according to Eagleton, we have become increasingly embarrassed about admitting where we come from, where we belong, where we feel at home. "There is a certain emotional blackmailing going on that makes people feel guilty about feeling affectionate about the people they came from." This is coming chiefly from new postmodern or postcolonial thinking, with which Eagleton is conducting a lengthy debate.

Last summer he launched a blistering attack on leading postcolonial critic Gayatri Spivak in the London Review of Books, and he published a book, The Illusions of Postmodernism, three years ago about the collusion of postmodernism with global capitalism.

"It's OK for high-flying (literally) intellectuals to talk about mixing and mingling identities (in a global world); they can do it," he says. "Most people have to live where they are. People live in a particular place in time. Most of them can't afford to travel at all." What worries him most about postmodernism is that it has given up on broad class politics and it denies the importance of material conditions from which one can organise resistance. The word socialism, for example, does not figure in postmodernist discourse. "It is of enormous value to talk about the dislocated, migrating identities of the modern world. One has to accept that people still value a sense of relatively stable identity. They shouldn't be afraid to name themselves as part of a particular group. Being able to do that is often the prelude to emancipation."

So what about Irish politics, I ask Eagleton. Does he get involved? When he was still a member of the Labour Party (before the days of Tony Blair) he says he was on the Labour Committee on Ireland, a pressure group and think-tank on Northern Ireland. He is guardedly optimistic about the peace process. "Because the forces that have pushed all this to the fore in the North are really quite deep-seated - the take-off of the Republic, the industrial decline of the North - I think unionism is a historically doomed formation."

Of course, crucial for the political outcome in the North is the way in which the Republic of Ireland develops. It is going through a very interesting period politically and historically at the moment, Eagleton believes. "Ireland has to get used to being a fully paid-up member of Europe and becoming much like anywhere else. Is that a gain or is that not a gain?" The nationalists are wrong to stress the greatness of Irish history and to refuse to see any faults, but wrong too are the revisionists who want to forget or deny the past in the interests of building the future. "I just ask people not to be any more sentimental about modernity than about tradition," Eagleton says. "That's not turning one's back on modernity. It's just not thinking that utopia is when everywhere looks like Switzerland. Sometimes seeing the contradiction, trying to live the contradiction, is all you can do."

After a couple of hours of conversation, I notice that Terry Eagleton has his suitcase beside him in the pub. I had caught a taxi straight from the airport to the pub; Eagleton has booked a taxi to take him straight from the pub to the airport. He is travelling back to Oxford for a university meeting the next morning. His traditional, congenial afternoon has not lasted long.

How does he cope with his two lives? Is he happy? He seems to be. "There's some advantage in being a semi-outsider. "Nothing is more pathetic than when people pretend to be insiders when they are not. I don't know what to answer when I'm asked if I am English or Irish, but more importantly I don't care. One of the few joys of not being in one's twenties is that one does not have to worry about who one is."

Jennifer Wallace is director of studies in English, Peterhouse, Cambridge University.

Books, page 24

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