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 guarantor of a scientific criticism,’ he wrote, ‘is a science of ideological formations.’ It was ‘only by the assurance of a knowledge of ideology’ that a knowledge of literary texts could be claimed. So far from providing such knowledge, the English tradition of literary criticism had simply mystified the texts it claimed to interpret. The worst mystification of all, of course, was a ‘common-sense’ reading. ‘The function of criticism,’ Eagleton proclaimed, ‘is to refuse the spontaneous presence of the work.’ (Needless to say, he has now found a rather different function for it.) But there were cracks in the armoured surface of Criticism and Ideology through which a more impressionable sensibility could be glimpsed. An English Marxist literary theorist, Eagleton complained, was ‘acutely bereft of a tradition ... a tolerated house-guest of Europe, a precocious but parasitic alien’. What could be more grotesque than an Althusserian literary scientist sounding just like J. Alfred Prufrock?
Eagleton soon disowned the more ludicrous pseudo-scientific pretensions of Criticism and Ideology – though he stopped short of a full-scale recantation. Walter Benjamin: or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981) was as far removed from a ‘science of the text’ as one could possibly imagine. The ‘revolutionary criticism’ was riddling, allusive, post-Derridean, and steeped in Benjamin’s baroque and vaguely sinister metaphors. The revolution (or was it the millennium?) would ‘blast history apart’; and Eagleton’s rather too successful aim was to ‘blast Benjamin’s work out of its historical continuum’. The book ended with a weird rhetorical mixture of terrorism and shamefaced neo-humanism. There was a poem, ‘Homage to Walter Benjamin’, and the affirmation that Benjamin’s anti-historicism might be ‘quite literally the warrant of our survival’. It was Matthew Arnold who wrote that currency and supremacy were assured to good literature by the ‘instinct of self-preservation in humanity’; I.A. Richards had echoed him in describing poetry as being ‘capable of saving us’. Eagleton’s new book ends on the same note of orthodox Eng Lit revivalism. Criticism, he says once more, ‘might contribute in a modest way to our very survival’.
A fairly constant feature of Eagleton’s work in these years was his habit of referring to earlier English critics in exasperated, contemptuous terms. In Walter Benjamin, he compares Eliot’s notion of tradition to a ‘large, bulbous amoeba’ and a ‘grazing cow’. The English sections of Literary Theory (1983) were written in a similar knockabout spirit. Eagleton’s account of the growth of English studies leans heavily on research done by Chris Baldick and published as The Social Mission of English Criticism. Indisputably his own, however, are such jeux d’esprit as the descriptions of the Scrutiny project as ‘at once hair-raisingly radical and really rather absurd’, and of the founders of Cambridge English (seen as carrying on the First World War at the level of theory) as, ‘on the whole, individuals who could be absolved from the crime and guilt of having led working-class Englishmen over the top’. The Function of Criticism adopts a very different tactic. Literary Theory, billed as an introduction to its subject, ended by pronouncing its epitaph. The Function of Criticism ends, not with fancies of bomb-blasts or funeral orations, but with a sentence likely to astonish even the most inveterate Eagleton-watcher: ‘The point of the present essay is to recall criticism to its traditional role, not to invent some fashionable new function for it.’ We needn’t have worried, however: he doesn’t really mean it.
The Function of Criticism is a polemical history, not of criticism as such, but of the ‘critical institution’ within which it acquired what Eagleton recognises as social significance. He knows, really, that criticism is an ancient discipline beginning with Aristotle and Classical rhetoric, and concentrating its expertise on the techniques of literature, drama and oratory. (At least, he knew it when he wrote Walter Benjamin.) But here he must pretend that criticism in England began with the Enlightenment and the rise of journalism, and converted itself into a ‘species of technological expertise’ some time in the early 20th century. In The Function of Criticism the relations between criticism and the production and consumption of imaginative writing are either ignored, or, where they are not ignored, treated with the utmost banality: thus we are reminded that Dickens required no middleman between himself and his public, and that romantic poetry offered a general social critique. Eagleton’s ‘critical institution’ is a continuum stretching from Addison’s Spectator through the Victorian higher journalism and Scrutiny to the present lucubrations of literary theory.
‘In the times when art was abundant and healthy,’ William Morris once wrote, ‘all men were more or less artists.’ Modern criticism, Eagleton maintains, came into existence with the establishment of a bourgeois ‘public sphere’ in which all members of the propertied classes were more or less critics. The concept of a ‘public sphere’ is derived from Jürgen Habermas, and has been elaborated in Peter Hohendahl’s The Institution of Criticism, a book from which Eagleton quotes repeatedly. Within the ‘public sphere’ reasoned debate and informed value-judgment can take place in relative detachment from the imperatives of rank, sect and party. Set up by the bourgeoisie in opposition to the absolutist state, the ‘public sphere’ slowly disintegrates as its beneficiaries are put on the defensive by the emergence of new social classes. Eagleton admits that this is not a wholly satisfactory concept, but he prefers to deploy it ‘flexibly and opportunistically’, rather than subject it to a rigorous critique.
The decline or disintegration of the bourgeois ‘public sphere’ inevitably entails the notion of a classical period, or golden age. In this respect, Eagleton’s version of the age of Addison is strictly comparable to Leavis’s ‘organic society’, Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’ and other expressions of literary nostalgia, including the medievalism of William Morris. And since – as with Morris’s medievalism – the ‘public sphere’ is also an intimation of the socialist future, it bears a striking resemblance to the ideas of a common culture and of spiritual ‘community’ which Eagleton abandoned in the early Seventies.
The notion that a healthy society depends upon a current of criticism emerged in the 19th century. In Carlyle’s essay on the ‘State of German Literature’ (1827) we can witness the idea that criticism has a social mission being imported from Germany to England. Since the word ‘criticism’, or Kritik, features in famous titles by Arnold and Marx, it is not surprising that Eagleton’s essay should centre on the Victorian period. Yet the Victorians’ self-consciousness about the critical function indicates a criticism already in crisis. The golden age, therefore, must be found somewhat earlier. Where better than the place in which influential Victorians themselves located it – the Spectator with its model of a timeless discourse based on the reality of Augustan clubs and coffee-houses?
The evidence Eagleton offers for this ‘reality’ is, basically, a series of quotes from a venerable collection of Whig historians: Macaulay, Stephen, Beljame, and Legouis and Cazamian. Curiously, he deals only in the most general terms with Addison’s writing; the main concern of his discussion of the bourgeois ‘public sphere’ is to define the paradigmatic ‘speech act’ performed in the coffeehouses – doubtless a proper concern of the critical theorist. Following Hohendahl, he describes this ‘ideal discursive sphere’ as one in which ‘authoritarian, aristocratic art judgments were replaced by a discourse among educated laymen.’ This means, first, that a pretty formidable part must have been played in the literary culture of pre-Restoration England by ‘authoritarian, aristocratic art judgments’: but it is not a point which the author condescends to argue with us. Secondly, the critical discourse of the coffee-houses was, within limits, egalitarian (Eagleton seems rather more anxious than Addison himself was to show that poets and writers played their part in it). Among the features of an ‘ideal discursive sphere’, one assumes, are that no voice dominated the others, no one was put down or frozen out of the circle, and nobody had to pay for more than his share of the coffee.
What this theory conceals is that the contemporary testimony as to the quality of coffee-house criticism is often extremely hostile. Where the theoretician perceives an ‘ideal discursive sphere’, the historian can turn up endless tales of claques and cliques. If this is an egalitarian society, it is one in which the air is thick with accusations of petty dictatorship. Pope’s Atticus is accustomed to
give his little Senate laws,
And sit attentive to his own applause;
Johnson’s Dick Minim occupies the ‘chair of criticism’ in a ‘society elected by himself, where he is heard without contradiction’. Johnson’s life of Addison portrays its subject, without any quibbling, as a critical ‘instructor’. In Johnson’s writing the ‘public sphere’ is a marketplace in which the different contenders, by fair means and foul, must vie for dominance. A serious historian would have mentioned these scarcely recondite texts, and would have tried to settle the argument between contending myths. Despite his (renewed) professions of admiration for Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, Eagleton has not learned from them what it means to be a serious historian.
Beside the Augustan, the three other ‘moments’ covered in his whistle-stop tour of the critical institution are the Early Victorian and the middle and late 20th century. Eagleton has interesting things to say about the Victorian period, though not, oddly enough, about the Romantics. Throughout, criticism is viewed in relation to the class struggles of the bourgeoisie, and one of his more curious omissions is its religious dimension. Carlyle’s sagelike stance is dismissed as specious transcendentalism, and the devotional concerns never far below the surface in Addison (whose famous Spectator papers on Paradise Lost were meant to be read on Sundays), and in Johnson, Coleridge and Arnold, are not (I think) mentioned.
With the 20th century, Eagleton returns to the onslaught on Yale deconstructionism which he began, with considerable verve, in Walter Benjamin. Deconstruction ‘is able to outflank every existing knowledge to absolutely no effect’, he points out. (Much the same could have been said, however, of the Althusserian fantasy of a ‘science of the texts’.) But before this, the scene has been suddenly changed from Victorian journalism to the growth of academic English, and the subsequent fortunes of the ‘public sphere’ are viewed entirely through the optic of Leavis and Scrutiny. Once again, we seem to be faced with history as myth. For what is it but the Marxist Left’s obsession with a principled anti-Marxism which has kept the ‘Scrutiny project’ and Leavis’s social thought at the top of the agenda? It is the tribute of a belated avant-garde to a more powerful, more authoritarian predecessor. Doubtless some future Marxist intellectuals will look back with an equivalent mixture of scorn and nostalgia to the ‘project’ of Sir Keith Joseph and Mrs Thatcher.
In Eagleton’s latest account of Scrutiny (for it is not exactly a fresh topic for him) the morass of problems, dilemmas, sutures and contradictions afflicting bourgeois criticism is so agitated as to become a maelstrom. What cannot be concealed, however, is that the Scrutineers failed to be sucked under. In successive sentences we find them running ‘headlong into an impasse’, and then managing ‘this incipient contradiction’ with ‘some aplomb’. One minute it is the Charge of the Light Brigade, the next a successful exercise in forward planning. But in a final chapter Eagleton returns to the theme of Raymond Williams’s career, and it is like the Lone Ranger riding off into the sunset at the end of a hectic Western.
Williams and his socialist contemporaries, we are told, have addressed themselves to an ‘absent counterpublic sphere’, based on institutions of popular culture and education which failed to materialise under the 1945 Labour Government. The pathos of Williams’s isolation is thrown into relief by the successful realisation of a ‘counterpublic sphere’ in today’s feminist movement. Eagleton develops a bizarre parallel between Williams and Wordsworth (both Cambridge men, it seems, who ‘returned finally to rural environments’, which in Williams’s case means a weekend cottage). Of course, if Williams is Wordsworth, this has the convenient result that his vivacious, mercurial and Oxonian pupil must be Matthew Arnold (see the latter’s ‘Memorial Verses’). Hence The Function of Criticism?
One reason for Williams’s isolation, apparently, is the lack of a popular socialist newspaper in Britain. But as a young man Williams’s affiliations were with Eliot and Leavis: had they not been, he could presumably have written for Tribune, the Daily Herald or the Daily Worker. Eagleton’s version of Williams’s career, in fact, is sheer undergraduate fantasy. (Can it be a coincidence, by the way, that when Eagleton was an undergraduate the New Left used to meet in a Soho coffee-bar?) What is most telling about it is that Eagleton presents ‘isolation’ and ‘withdrawal’ in entirely negative terms. For, to the extent that Williams has undergone such enforced experiences, he has retrodden the path of virtually every major Marxist intellectual. Marxist theory as we know it is largely the product of intellectuals subjected to exile, internal exile or even imprisonment. Beginning with Marx himself, these thinkers offer noble and sometimes tragic examples of the faith that sustains writers through years of isolation. Eagleton, it seems, has little conception of this. For him, faith means submergence in a believing community. When the ‘public’ or ‘counterpublic sphere’ is the model of such a community, it can lead the critic into the position of an intellectual Beau Nash or Beau Brummell, at once the arbiter and the prisoner of fashion.
In Walter Benjamin Eagleton wrote that the ‘primary task of the “Marxist critic” is to actively participate in and help direct the cultural emancipation of the masses’. In The Function of Criticism his ideal for present-day criticism is not the common pursuit of true judgment but the common pursuit of the overthrow of the bourgeois state. Eliot’s not wholly despicable alternative to the ‘common pursuit’, in his essay on ‘The Function of Criticism’, was a ‘Sunday park of contending orators’. One does not go to Eagleton’s works for true judgment, by and large, and it is hard to know what contribution he has made to the emancipation of the masses. The best that can be said is that he remains one of the most spectacular orators in the park, and English criticism would be a good deal less entertaining without his pamphlets.