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Kettles boil, classes struggle

Terry Eagleton: Lukács recants, 20 February 2003

A Defence of ‘History and Class Consciousness’: Tailism and the Dialectic 
by Georg Lukács, translated by Esther Leslie.
Verso, 182 pp., £10, June 2002, 1 85984 370 0
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... Changing the world involves a curious kind of doublethink. If we are to act effectively, the mind must buckle itself austerely to the actual, in the belief that knowing the situation for what it is is the source of all moral and political wisdom. The only trouble is that such knowledge is also desperately hard to come by, and perhaps unattainable in any complete sense ...

In the Company of Confreres

Terry Eagleton: ‘Modern British Fiction’, 12 December 2002

On Modern British Fiction 
edited by Zachary Leader.
Oxford, 328 pp., £14.99, October 2002, 0 19 924932 6
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... During the half-century since 1950, Lindsay Duguid writes in an essay in this collection, ‘the lady novelist turned into the woman writer,’ the historical novel became respectable once again, crime fiction became respectable for the first time, and the English novel was reborn as the British novel. Indian novelists revealed a ‘fondness for identical twins’, while angels, giants, babies and women who pass as men grew curiously fashionable ...

Spooky

Terry Eagleton, 7 July 1994

The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats. Vol. III: 1901-1904 
edited by John Kelly and Ronald Schuchard.
Oxford, 781 pp., £35, May 1994, 0 19 812683 2
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Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders 
by Vivian Mercier.
Oxford, 381 pp., £30, April 1994, 0 19 812074 5
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... I dreamed last night I was hanged,’ W.B.Yeats once announced, ‘but was the life and soul of the party.’ It is impossible with such oracular Yeatsian pronouncements to separate mask from reality, the poseur from the sincere eccentric. Auden called Yeats ‘silly like us’, but he was really just being polite: this table-rapping, spirit-summoning Rosicrucian was a lot sillier than most of us ...

In the Twilight Zone

Terry Eagleton, 12 May 1994

The Frankfurt School 
by Rolf Wiggershaus, translated by Michael Robertson.
Polity, 787 pp., £45, January 1994, 0 7456 0534 6
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... There was once a king who was troubled by all the misery he observed about him. So he summoned his wise men and commanded them to inquire into its causes. The wise men duly looked into the matter, and reported back to the king that the cause of all the misery was him. So runs Bertolt Brecht’s parable of the founding in 1923 of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, a centre for Marxist studies endowed by a wealthy German capitalist ...

The Estate Agent

Terry Eagleton: Stanley Fish, 2 March 2000

The Trouble with Principle 
by Stanley Fish.
Harvard, 328 pp., £15.50, December 1999, 0 674 91012 5
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... It is one of the minor symptoms of the mental decline of the United States that Stanley Fish is thought to be on the Left. By some of his compatriots, anyway, and no doubt by himself. In a nation so politically addled that ‘liberal’ can mean ‘state interventionist’ and ‘libertarianism’ letting the poor die on the streets, this is perhaps not wholly unpredictable ...

For the hell of it

Terry Eagleton: Norberto Bobbio, 22 February 2001

In Praise of Meekness: Essays on Ethics and Politics 
by Norberto Bobbio, translated by Teresa Chataway.
Polity, 186 pp., £50, October 2000, 0 7456 2309 3
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... The political Left has always had trouble with ethics, in theory as well as in practice. The practical problems hardly need recounting. It was one of the great tragedies of the 20th century that socialism proved least possible where it was most necessary. A vision of human emancipation which presupposed for its success all the precious fruits of modernity – material wealth, liberal traditions, a flourishing civic society, an educated populace – became instead the guiding light by which wretchedly impoverished nations bereft of such benefits sought to throw off their chains ...

Hasped and Hooped and Hirpling

Terry Eagleton: Beowulf, 11 November 1999

Beowulf 
translated by Seamus Heaney.
Faber, 104 pp., £14.99, October 1999, 9780571201136
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... Writing in 1887 of the proposal to establish an Anglo-Saxon-based school of English at Oxford, the moral philosopher Thomas Case protested that ‘an English School will grow up, nourishing our language not from the humanity of the Greeks and Romans, but from the savagery of the Goths and Anglo-Saxons. We are about to reverse the Renaissance.’ Not for the first time, an Oxford don had mistaken his university for the spiritual heart of humanity ...

Pork Chops and Pineapples

Terry Eagleton: The Realism of Erich Auerbach, 23 October 2003

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature 
by Erich Auerbach.
Princeton, 579 pp., £13.95, May 2003, 9780691113364
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... Realism is one of the most elusive of artistic terms. ‘Unrealistic’, for example, is not necessarily the same as ‘non-realist’. You can have a work of art which is non-realist in the sense of being non-representational, yet which paints a convincing picture of the world. Conversely, Jeffrey Archer’s novels are representational but unconvincing ...

Having one’s Kant and eating it

Terry Eagleton: Northrop Frye, 19 April 2001

Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks 1982-90: Volume One 
edited by Robert Denham.
Toronto, 418 pp., £45, September 2000, 0 8020 4751 3
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Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks 1982-90: Volume Two 
edited by Robert Denham.
Toronto, 531 pp., £45, September 2000, 0 8020 4752 1
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... If someone were to ask why art and culture have proved so vital to the modern age, one might do worse than reply: to compensate for the decline of religion. It is certainly a more convincing response than claiming that modern society finds art particularly valuable, as opposed to richly profitable. What modernity finds precious is less works of art, which are just one more commodity in its marketplace, than the idea of the aesthetic ...

Qui s’accuse, s’excuse

Terry Eagleton: In confessional mode, 1 June 2000

Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature 
by Peter Brooks.
Chicago, 207 pp., £17, May 2000, 0 226 07585 0
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... In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, some progressively minded Catholics began to reintroduce into the Mass the ancient practice of public confession. Individuals would rise from their pews and accuse themselves in comfortably imprecise terms of various moral lapses, begging forgiveness of their brethren. At one such Mass, a young woman rose and proclaimed to the piously suppressed excitement of the congregation that she had committed adultery ...

A Spot of Firm Government

Terry Eagleton: Claude Rawson, 23 August 2001

God, Gulliver and Genocide: Barbarism and the European Imagination 1492-1945 
by Claude Rawson.
Oxford, 401 pp., £25, June 2001, 0 19 818425 5
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... It is remarkable how many literary studies of so-called barbarians have appeared over the past couple of decades. Representations of Gypsies, cannibals, Aboriginals, wolfboys, noble savages: these, along with reflections on monsters, Mormons, cross-dressers and hairy Irish ape-men, have all flowed from Post-Modernism’s enduring love-affair with otherness ...

Lend me a fiver

Terry Eagleton: The grand narrative of experience, 23 June 2005

Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme 
by Martin Jay.
California, 431 pp., £22, January 2005, 0 520 24272 6
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... Oscar Wilde called experience the name one gives to one’s mistakes, while for Samuel Johnson it was what hope triumphed over for those who married a second time. Emerson thought all experience was valuable, an opinion not shared by the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay. Plato and Spinoza saw it as a realm of illusion, to be contrasted with the pure light of reason ...

Spiritual Rock Star

Terry Eagleton: The failings of Pope John Paul II, 3 February 2005

The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy 
by John Cornwell.
Viking, 329 pp., £20, February 2005, 0 670 91572 6
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... There’s a sexist joke, popular among theologians, in which God, a woman, is in the act of creating the world: ‘And darkness was upon the face of the deep. And God said “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God said “Er – could I just see the darkness again?”’ If this is not Pope John Paul II’s kind of God, it’s as much because of the hesitancy as the gender ...

Pretty Much like Ourselves

Terry Eagleton, 4 September 1997

Modern British Utopias 1700-1850 
by Gregory Claeys.
Pickering & Chatto, 4128 pp., £550, March 1997, 1 85196 319 7
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... Utopia is the most self-undermining of literary forms. If an ideal society can be portrayed only in the language of the present, it risks being betrayed as soon as we speak of it. Anything we can speak of must fall short of the otherness we desire. Utopias rebel against the unimaginativeness of the present, and in doing so find themselves simply reproducing it ...

Biogspeak

Terry Eagleton, 21 September 1995

George Eliot: A Biography 
by Frederick Karl.
HarperCollins, 708 pp., £25, July 1995, 0 00 255574 3
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... Writers are broadly classified as intellectuals, though many poets and novelists feel uncomfortable enough with the title. The split between analysis and imagination, the critical and the creative, is one of the deadliest of Romantic legacies, born of an antagonism to particular forms of bloodless cerebration (Enlightenment rationalism, Utilitarianism) and then recklessly generalised to abstract thought as such ...

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