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Darwin Won’t Help

Terry Eagleton: Evocriticism, 24 September 2009

On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction 
by Brian Boyd.
Harvard, 540 pp., £25.95, May 2009, 978 0 674 03357 3
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... In pre-Romantic times, a treatise on the mollusc or the optic nerve would have been considered part of literature. In the post-Romantic era, literature has looked on science with a much more sceptical eye. Once the arts come to achieve a monopoly on the imagination, so that ‘imaginative literature’ means poetry and drama rather than history or psychology, scientists like Heisenberg or Schrödinger can be dismissed as dull, uncreative souls ...

Wallpaper and Barricades

Terry Eagleton, 23 February 1995

William Morris: A Life for Our Time 
by Fiona MacCarthy.
Faber, 780 pp., £25, November 1994, 0 571 14250 8
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... The Left has always been uneasy with aesthetics. The very word suggests privilege, preciousness, a remoteness from the real. Even when radicals respect culture, they assign it, quite properly, a secondary place to social utility. If it’s a choice between snatching from the flames the Holbein or the hippie, the radical is a mite less agonised than the aesthete ...

Overdoing the Synge-song

Terry Eagleton: Sebastian Barry, 22 September 2011

On Canaan’s Side 
by Sebastian Barry.
Faber, 256 pp., £16.99, August 2011, 978 0 571 22653 5
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... In the great lineage of classical realism from Stendhal to Tolstoy, a whole history is summarised in the fortunes of a particular family or set of characters. Individuals are portrayed in all their idiosyncrasy, but are made to represent more than themselves. Things are at once unique and exemplary. A belatedly flowering example of the species is The Leopard, in which the slow decay of a Sicilian nobleman coincides with the clamorous rise of bourgeois Italy ...

Moll’s Footwear

Terry Eagleton: Defoe, 3 November 2011

Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth 
by Katherine Frank.
Bodley Head, 338 pp., £20, June 2011, 978 0 224 07309 7
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Moll: The Life and Times of Moll Flanders 
by Siân Rees.
Chatto, 224 pp., £18.99, July 2011, 978 0 7011 8507 7
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... It is said that Robinson Crusoe has been translated into every written language, including Latin, Coptic, Inuit, Maori and Esperanto. There is a version for children entitled Robinson Crusoe in Words of One Syllable, as well as a female Crusoe, a Catholic Crusoe and a dog Crusoe. There is a science fiction remake, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and a mass of film, cartoon and TV adaptations ...

Shaved, Rouged and Chignoned

Terry Eagleton: Fanny and Stella, 7 March 2013

Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England 
by Neil McKenna.
Faber, 396 pp., £16.99, February 2013, 978 0 571 23190 4
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... Beneath their capacious skirts, Fanny and Stella were Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, two young cross-dressers who were put on trial in Westminster Hall in 1871. Cross-dressing was not a criminal offence, so the men were charged instead with outraging public decency. On the slightest of pretexts, the prosecution also threw in ‘the abominable crime of buggery’, along with conspiracy to incite others to do the same ...

What you see is what you get

Terry Eagleton: Bishop Berkeley, 25 April 2013

The Correspondence of George Berkeley 
edited by Marc Hight.
Cambridge, 674 pp., £75, November 2012, 978 1 107 00074 2
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... George Berkeley’s claim that things exist only when they are being perceived has a lot to do with his Irishness. There are Irish people nowadays who cross the street when they see a priest approaching; but Ireland has traditionally been an intensely religious nation, and much of its thought, right down to questions of epistemology or political economy, has been influenced by this ...

Not Just Anybody

Terry Eagleton: ‘The Limits of Critique’, 5 January 2017

The Limits of Critique 
by Rita Felski.
Chicago, 238 pp., £17, October 2015, 978 0 226 29403 2
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... The title​ of this book has an odd ring to it, since in Kantian philosophy the notion of critique is closely bound up with the setting of limits, distinguishing what a form of inquiry may legitimately address from what is off-bounds to it. Rita Felski’s bold, stylish new study, however, is about critique in the less specialised sense of critical analysis ...

In an Ocean of Elizabeths

Terry Eagleton: Rochester, 23 October 2014

Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester 
by Alexander Larman.
Head of Zeus, 387 pp., £25, July 2014, 978 1 78185 109 8
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... The English​ have always had an affection for wayward, idiosyncratic types, men and women who, like Dickens’s eccentrics, acknowledge no law beyond themselves. This is one reason they love a lord, since aristocrats are natural anarchists. Those who set the rules see no reason to be bound by them. They combine the glamour of rank with the chutzpah of not giving a damn ...

A Long Way from Galilee

Terry Eagleton: Kierkegaard, 1 August 2019

Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard 
by Clare Carlisle.
Allen Lane, 368 pp., £25, April 2019, 978 0 241 28358 5
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... There are​ a number of modern thinkers who might be described as anti-philosophers. Anti-philosophers aren’t simply people who don’t reckon much to philosophy, but thinkers who are dissatisfied with the dominant style of philosophising of their time, and feel this way for philosophically interesting reasons. A number of them have come from peripheral nations: Kierkegaard from Denmark, Derrida and Cixous from Algeria, Kristeva from Bulgaria ...

Antigone on Your Knee

Terry Eagleton, 6 February 2020

A Cultural History of Tragedy: Vols I-VI 
edited by Rebecca Bushnell.
Bloomsbury Academic, 1302 pp., £395, November 2019, 978 1 4742 8814 9
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... When​ we were students, a friend of mine discovered that he could trump anything anybody else said by using the word ‘tragic’. If someone said he needed a new pair of glasses or was thinking of joining the civil service, the two terse, dismissive syllables were enough to bring the conversation to a halt. ‘Tragic’ is a powerful, semi-sacred word, and the artform it names, like all sacred phenomena, is hedged about with prohibitions ...

The Marxist and the Messiah

Terry Eagleton: Snapshots of Benjamin, 9 September 2021

The Benjamin Files 
by Fredric Jameson.
Verso, 262 pp., £20, November 2020, 978 1 78478 398 3
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... Fredric​ Jameson points out in this study that Walter Benjamin never wrote a book, or not of a traditional kind. His account of German baroque theatre, translated into English as The Origin of German Tragic Drama, was written in the early 1920s as an academic thesis, though it was later published as a book. Since the examiners couldn’t understand a word of this stunningly original work, Benjamin withdrew it, putting paid to his hopes of a university career ...

Living as Little as Possible

Terry Eagleton: Lodge’s James, 23 September 2004

Author, Author: A Novel 
by David Lodge.
Secker, 389 pp., £16.99, September 2004, 0 436 20527 0
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... a well-bred English woman in the interval asking her companion: ‘Was Wilde really Irish, or is Eagleton making that up?’ A lot of tedious spadework there, as a character in P.G. Wodehouse remarks when his interlocutor seems not to grasp the meaning of the word ‘pig’. This incident apart, the only other similarity between Henry James and myself is ...

A Row of Shaws

Terry Eagleton: That Bastard Shaw, 21 June 2018

Judging Shaw 
by Fintan O’Toole.
Royal Irish Academy, 381 pp., £28, October 2017, 978 1 908997 15 9
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... he joined an honourable lineage of Irish licensed jesters from Oliver Goldsmith to Brendan Behan (Terry Wogan and Graham Norton are minor offshoots), men who punctured English pomposity and found moral earnestness irresistibly comic, yet whose capacity to amuse rendered them more or less acceptable. It was a perilous role to play, as Shaw’s friend and ...

Good dinners pass away, so do tyrants and toothache

Terry Eagleton: Death, Desire and so forth, 16 April 1998

Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture 
by Jonathan Dollimore.
Allen Lane, 380 pp., £25, April 1998, 0 7139 9125 9
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... Literary theory is in love with failure. It looks with distaste on whatever is integral, self-identical, smugly replete, and is fascinated by lack, belatedness, deadlock, self-undoing. Works of literature catch its attention once they begin to come unstuck or contradict themselves, when they unravel at the edges or betray an eloquent silence at their heart ...

Newsreel History

Terry Eagleton: Modern Times, Modern Places by Peter Conrad, 12 November 1998

Modern Times, Modern Places 
by Peter Conrad.
Thames and Hudson, 752 pp., £24.95, October 1998, 0 500 01877 4
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... Of all historical periods, modernity is the only one to designate itself, vacuously, in terms of its up-to-dateness. Does this imply that the Renaissance lagged behind the times, or that classical antiquity (from where, ironically, we derive the word ‘modern’) could never quite catch up with itself? The fact is, of course, that in their own eyes the Stuarts were quite as modern as the Spice Girls, but labels like ‘Modernism’ and ‘modernity’ tend to obscure this fact ...

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