- The Function of Criticism: From the ‘Spectator’ to Post-Structuralism by Terry Eagleton
Verso, 133 pp, £15.00, September 1984, ISBN 0 86091 091 1
Terry Eagleton’s books have been getting shorter recently. It is eight years since he offered to re-situate literary criticism on the ‘alternative terrain of scientific knowledge’; three since, self-canonised, he included his name in a list of major Marxist theoreticians of the 20th century. The Function of Criticism is a history of three centuries of English criticism in little more than a hundred pages. Its conceptual basis seems (not for the first time) to have been hastily borrowed for the occasion. The scholarship is cobbled together from the works of others. Since he makes great play with the split between the professional and amateur pretensions of literary critics, it would be tempting to adapt his own style and portray him as the helpless victim of contradictory impulses. Yet in many ways he thrives on contradiction. His struggle against ‘bourgeois’ criticism has the agility, the opportunism and the sniping provocativeness of a guerrilla campaign. Though his books have grand titles, he has lately abandoned any pretence of working towards a Grand Theory. His recent work has consisted of critical introductions, essays, and theoretical pamphlets like the present one.
Eagleton’s reputation as Britain’s leading Marxist critic owes little to any philosophical consistency. Politically, it is true, he has held steady while former comrades ‘sank into disillusion, veered to ultra-leftism, or collapsed ignominiously into the arms of the bourgeoisie’, as he once colourfully put it. His intellectual veerings and careerings have not affected his socialism. Much of the impact of his work has been due to the adventurism of a critic swiftly assimilating, and memorably responding to, wave after wave of neo-Marxist theory. As major influences, Sartre, Williams, Lukacs, Goldmann, Anderson, Althusser, Macherey, Benjamin, Derrida and the feminist movement have followed one another in quick succession. The Function of Criticism, hard on the heels of The Rape of Clarissa and Literary Theory: An Introduction, marks if anything an intensification of this fleet-footed pamphleteer’s progress.
Eagleton’s launching-pad was the magazine Slant, a Catholic Existentialist journal which he helped to found as a Cambridge undergraduate. He was a pupil of Raymond Williams, and his first book The New Left Church (1966) was an amalgam of Williams’s socialism, of Eliot’s and Leavis’s literary criticism, and of Catholic apology. (‘Papal encyclicals on social themes,’ he confided, ‘are often full of large rhetorical generalizations ... which it is sometimes difficult to relate to any lived, complex reality.’) Eagleton’s own rhetoric leaned very heavily on the concept of ‘community’, which was offered as a standard of godliness (‘the reality of the world since Christ’) and of a cultural politics based on Williams’s thoroughly secular study of Culture and Society.
In From Culture to Revolution (1968) Eagleton and Brian Wicker introduced a Slant symposium devoted to Williams and his ‘richly creative tradition of socialist humanism’. But at some point in the early Seventies Eagleton became a convert to the materialist Marxism of Louis Althusser, another former Catholic (though to what extent Eagleton has actually renounced the Church it is hard to say – he has preserved a diplomatic silence on the issue). As an Althusserian, Eagleton found it necessary to cast off the ‘petty-bourgeois moralism’ of his old teacher. Criticism and Ideology (1976), which begins with an attack on Williams, is perhaps best read as a belated result of the student revolution at what Althusserians call the ‘level of theory’. Literary criticism was now to be scuttled in favour of an anti-humanist ‘science of the text’ in which the production of art was dialectically reduced to a series of complex quadratic equations. Yet if Eagleton had transvalued his reading of Williams, Eliot and Leavis, he did not manage to purge himself wholly of their influence. The literary history offered in Criticism and Ideology was a tacit rewriting of Leavis’s ‘great tradition’. The Victorian and modern ‘major authors’ were all to be found in their accustomed places – Joyce, conventionally enough, was the one addition to the strict Leavisite canon – and Eagleton’s contribution was to show them, not as great literary mentors, but as crippled and distorted ideological freaks.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.