In 1978 Terry Eagleton wrote an essay on John Bayley in the New Left Review. It is a ritual excoriation of that most tactful of ‘liberal humanist’ critics, punctuated with predictable sneers about ‘a view of life from the Oxford senior common room window’ and how Bayley’s criticism prizes a liberal disorder that depends on a conservative order ‘within which the gentleman may wear his art and opinions lightly’. But it opens with great generosity, even warmth. I begin with its opening passage, having changed a word here and there, in order to suggest that Oxford has its continuities:
Few English literary theorists command more respect than Terry Eagleton, Warton Professor of English Literature in the University of Oxford. The author of about twenty books, as well as of numerous articles and reviews, Eagleton has not only become established as a renowned figure within the literary academic world; he has also become an influential force within ‘metropolitan’ literary culture, controlled as that apparatus largely is by Oxford English graduates. That Eagleton should be honoured as an authoritative, almost patriarchal figure within literary circles is in one sense unsurprising. In a university faculty undistinguished for its critical vigour, stubbornly pre-Leavisian in ideology, timorously enclosed in traditional literary scholarship, Eagleton’s work stands out for its theoretical bravura. In an English critical milieu still strikingly parochial in its interests – the residue of that militant patriotism which helped to give birth to ‘English’ as an academic discipline – his close familiarity with Russian, French, German and American theory is particularly impressive.
But in another sense, of course, Eagleton’s ascent into Bayley’s Chair is very surprising indeed. A university and a faculty widely regarded as the most conservative in the country have elevated a self-proclaimed Marxist.
Some, no doubt, will quip that Marxism is the latest of the lost causes to find a last home in Oxford. One newspaper columnist has implied that it must be the end of civilisation as we know it when one of the two or three most prestigious Chairs of Literature in the land is occupied by a man who has published a ‘Ballad of English Literature’ (to the tune of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’) which begins:
Chaucer was a class traitor
Shakespeare hated the mob
Donne sold out a bit later
Sidney was a nob.
Stephen Greenblatt, living proof that one may share Eagleton’s scepticism towards the institutions of established power but still relish the nuances of literary texts as Bayley does, would doubtless see the election as yet another example of how authority leaves room for subversion only to absorb it.
An alternative possibility is that the infiltration is that, not of Marxism, but of Cambridge. ‘Pre-Leavisian’ is the word that stands out in Eagleton’s caricature of his Oxford colleagues. Where Oxford still has a combination of textual editing and the wine-tasting school of criticism, Eagleton’s Sixties Cambridge had the moral fervour of Leavis and the political consciousness of Raymond Williams. There is some plausibility in the view that Eagleton is still a Cambridge man: in his essay ‘The Terry Eagleton Story’, Bernard Bergonzi pointed to the end of Literary Theory: An Introduction, with its expressed preference for ‘specific, living and practical democracy’ over the abstractions of the ballot box (‘specific’ and ‘living’, those Leavisite shibboleths), and the ‘moral organicism’ which wants literary criticism and social struggle to be part of a single unified process. But I am not so sure – not least because there is a wit and a mischievousness about our Terry which we never find in the styles of Leavis and Williams, rooted as they were in a dour nonconformity.
I once met the Warton Professor-elect and he said two things that struck me as funny but interestingly contradictory. One was that people had been complaining that his books were getting shorter and shorter – he had recently taken on The Function of Criticism from Addison to the present in a hundred and thirty pages – so he was at work on a six hundred-page manuscript about ideology (this must have become The Ideology of the Aesthetic). The other was that he felt he needed to take a contrascriptive. What intrigued me was the combination of prodigality and guilt. Is Terry Eagleton a Prodigal Son who is wondering whether it is time to return? Alternatively, where is his home and has he ever really been away from it? And what is he guilty about?
The contrived parapraxis offers a clue. Eagleton clearly relishes his joke: he made it again in an interview published in The Significance of Theory (1990). Why should he return to a play on ‘contraceptive’? Freud has taught us that jokes may represent the return of the repressed. Could it be that this one is a manifestation of some anxiety about contraception deep in the Eagletonian unconscious?
Armed with this hint, we may turn to the development of our subject’s critical career. Eagleton himself divides it into two phases: the first’s characterised by a fairly rigorous Marxism, born of les événements and codified in Criticism and Ideology (1976); the second, inaugurated by Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981), is still firmly Marxist at base, but has a more flexible superstructure shaped by various brands of Post-Structuralism, most notably Deconstruction, feminism and, latterly, the carnivalesque of Bakhtin. But in fact there are three phases, roughly divisible according to decade, and the first of these, which Eagleton has persistently suppressed in interviews and in biographies on book jackets, may explain the riddle of the contrascriptive. The incarnations are as follows: in the Sixties there was Terence the Existential Catholic, in the Seventies Terry the Althusserian Apparatchik, in the Eighties Eagleton the Ludic Eclectic.
Terence Eagleton’s first book, published in 1966 when the author was 23, is called The New Left Church. It is an attempt to hold together Roman Catholicism, cultural value and left-wing politics. At one level there is a Christianised Leavisism: ‘If the Christian responds to the Spirit in a great novel he is responding to what is centrally human in it.’ ‘Centrally human’ marks out the author as a card-carrying Scrutineer, but one with the idiosyncratic view that the Holy Spirit is a real presence in the novels of Leavis’s Great Tradition. ‘As Christians,’ Terence writes, ‘we are committed to the idea of intensity, we live as potential martyrs, and yet we are also claiming to have something to contribute to the problem of how men should commonly live in society.’ Here a Leavisite principle (‘intensity’) slides into a Catholic image (‘martyrs’) and on into the language of socialism. It is, the author admits, an unusual collocation, ‘one going against the grain of modern experience’. Catholics in England since the Reformation have always had to live ‘against the grain’ and this is what causes Terence to define himself as an oppositional figure. Later, the phrase will be rediscovered in a secular context: Walter Benjamin’s brushing of history ‘against the grain’ will become Eagleton’s motto in the Eighties.
But already there is a wind blowing across to Cambridge from Paris. What really drives The New Left Church is a form of Existentialism. Terence identifies himself with ‘Thom Gunn’s existentialist ton-up boys’ and works to transform the acte gratuit from its nihilistic form in Sartre and Camus into a ‘celebration of the value of human energy’. Thus a Christian acte gratuit would be to give a man your cloak as well when he asks for your coat or to go two miles when he asks you to go one.
The influence of existentialism is at its strongest in Terence’s first strictly literary critical book, Shakespeare and Society (1967). The Leavisite inflection is still there as Shakespeare is read in terms of the tensions that result from society’s tendency to ‘stunt and distort personal spontaneous life’. But the real quest is for ‘personal authenticity’, the Existentialist’s authenticité. In Terence’s hands, Troilus and Cressida becomes a version of Les Mains Sales and Macbeth of La Nausée, while Hamlet grapples with the pour soi and the en soi. The analysis is boringly reductive – ‘Measure for Measure is about the need to make law personally authentic’; ‘Coriolanus is about the conflict of authentic life and social responsibility’ – and there is not a single reference to the actual forms and practices of the society in which the plays were written. But, as in many of the later books, there is a movement towards redemption. Here it occurs with the ‘Last Comedies’, in which social and personal selves are fused by God’s Grace.
Tacked onto the end of Shakespeare and Society is a misfit of a chapter about ‘the tension between spontaneity and society’ in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Terence has moved into Raymond Williams territory. The chapter has a solidity that the rest of the book lacks (it has footnotes, which the rest also lacks); it also dwells at some length on a non-canonical figure, Edward Carpenter. And the Christian Existentialism seems to be disappearing. It is, in short, part of a very different project – namely, the Cambridge PhD dissertation submitted in 1968, ‘Nature and Spirit: A Study of Edward Carpenter in his Intellectual Context’. In this unpublished work, the Eagletonian method of compounding ‘isms’ is given an early outing: ‘Carpenter takes from a Carlylean version of Hegelianism the notion of a determining world-spirit immanent in history, and weds this structure to a vitalist view of Lamarckianism as the progressive self-realisation of a single, immaterial life-drive sustaining and unifying the whole of creation.’
Carpenter must have been an attractive but also a troubling role model for the Christian who was beginning to come under the spell of Raymond Williams. After studying at Trinity Hall (Terence went next door to Trinity), Carpenter became curate to F.D. Maurice at St Edward’s, the church over the road from his college. But his politics led him to relinquish his fellowship, resign his holy orders and join the staff of the University Extension department. He lectured to adults in industrial towns in the North of England, but became disillusioned since the students did not prove to be as working-class as he had hoped. So he took to the open air, to a not unduly strict practice of vegetarianism and teetotalism, to a cottage life of ardent pamphleteering and market-gardening. He was influenced by Marx, by a range of socialist thinkers (Morris, of course) and by anarchism (Kropotkin, pre-eminently). He collected ‘chants of labour’ and set them to music (there is a parallel here with the Eagleton of ‘The Ballad of English Literature’). Carpenter perhaps showed the graduate student that it might be necessary to leave Mother Church and, if not also leave the university, then at least do some Extension lecturing.
The Body as Language (1970) was a brief transitional work, holding Catholicism and Marxism in a precarious balance. But with Exiles and Emigrés (also 1970), a series of essays on major 20th-century writers, the criticism took a strongly secular turn: in this book, Evelyn Waugh is read as an ‘upper-class’ novelist, not a Roman Catholic one, and the anguished Catholic Graham Greene is said to be ‘more deeply influenced by the pressures and limits of a particular social world than the novels would have us believe’.
Louis Althusser’s essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ appeared in English in 1971. It provided our author – now Terry and now, in a somewhat unlikely move, translated to Oxford – with the framework for the three books he published five years later: a student primer, Marxism and Literary Criticism, a case-study, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës, and a work of heavy-duty theory, Criticism and Ideology. Where Terence had agonised about the authenticity of the individual self, Terry sets out to purge literature of the subject. Even the work of Raymond Williams is flawed by ‘ “humanism” and idealism’; a new science of the text must be developed whereby what Terence called ‘good poems’ and ‘great novels’ are broken down into such constituent elements as General Mode of Production (GMP), Literary Mode of Production (LMP), General Ideology (GI), Authorial Ideology (AuI) and Aesthetic Ideology (AI). The chemist can then get to work: ‘A double-articulation GMP/GIGI/AI/LMP is, for example, possible, whereby a GI category, when transformed by AI into an ideological component of an LMP, may then enter into conflict with the GMP social relations it exists to reproduce.’ This sort of thing established Terry’s reputation as the country’s leading Marxist literary theorist.
But he himself has come to see that there was something arid about it, and to apologise for the slur on Raymond Williams. Althusser had turned out to be a false messiah. What is of the essence here is style. In Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), which represents Eagleton at his roistering best, literary criticism is said to be ‘rather like a laboratory in which some of the staff are seated in white coats at control panels, while others are throwing sticks in the air or spinning coins’. Merely by using the simile – with its throwaway formulation, ‘rather like’ – Eagleton defines himself as the second kind of critic and implicitly detaches himself from the white-coated author of Criticism and Ideology. This is partly a function of his Englishness: to be a successful literary man in a white coat you really have to be French or German. It is revealing in this respect that Einführung in die Literaturtheorie (1988), the German translation of Literary Theory, is leaden-footed in comparison with the original: most of the jokes fall flat and some of the best of them (such as the one about how a Californian would interpret the British sign ‘Way Out’) are cut.
Eagleton’s books since Walter Benjamin have never lacked verve and wit. As the title of his inaugural lecture as Warton Professor, he might consider re-using that of his excellent essay on Empson in Against the Grain, ‘The Critic as Clown’. Through the Eighties a succession of possible messiahs appeared in place of Althusser – first Benjamin, later Habermas in The Function of Criticism (1984), to some extent Bakhtin in William Shakespeare (1986) – but stylistically it became increasingly apparent that Eagleton’s true Penelope was Oscar Wilde: ‘Several of the characteristics that make him appear most typically upper-class English – the scorn for bourgeois normality, the flamboyant self-display, the verbal brio and iconoclasm – are also, interestingly enough, where one might claim he is most distinctively Irish; and pondering this odd paradox was one point of origin of this play.’ This is the preface to the play for field Day, Saint Oscar (1989), and it sounds remarkably like a self-portrait.
Eagleton goes on to acknowledge that writing about ‘the Irish Oxfordian socialist proto-deconstructionist Oscar Wilde’ was a way of writing about himself, an unavoidable stage in his own self-exploration. The self and its particular circumstances, so ruthlessly expunged in the Seventies, have returned with a vengeance. In his novel, Saints and Scholars (1987), Eagleton follows Wittgenstein and Bakhtin’s brother to a cottage under the Connemara mountains at the time of the Easter Rising in 1916. One strongly suspects that, but for the Warton Chair, within a few years he would in Carpenteresque fashion have resigned his fellowship and retreated to a cottage in the West of Ireland himself, in order to rediscover his roots (I assume that one or both of his parents came from there – he was born and raised in Salford).
But it has to be said that he has as yet been less than fully honest in confronting the most important of his roots. There is an epithet missing in the characterisation of Wilde: while he was at Oxford, the Irish socialist proto-deconstructionist wanted to enter the Catholic Church but was prevented by his father; on his deathbed, however, he received the last rites of that Church. Eagleton’s play does not openly admit this, but it gestures towards it when the chorus sing the Dies Irae, and in some of the lines given to Oscar, such as ‘To come to God through his negation; to run to him by running away’. Both the novel and the play are about the making of Irish martyrs; each reveals but does not acknowledge the author’s need to think in terms of sainthood.
I suspect that Eagleton has in fact been running back to God for some time. All the work since 1980 has in common not only a playfulness and an eclecticism in its theorising, but also a rhetoric and indeed a mentalité that are much closer to the Terence of the Sixties than the Terry of the Seventies. An interview given to Diacritics in June 1980 registers doubts about Althusser’s treatment of the Church as part of the ideological state apparatus. A passage in Walter Benjamin reveals a mind still controlled by the imagery of Roman Catholicism: ‘Capitalism gives birth to its own grave-digger, nurturing the acolyte who will one day stab the high priest in the back.’ The appropriation for radical purposes of canonical writers (Samuel Richardson in The Rape of Clarissa of 1982, Shakespeare in the series of revisionary readings of the canon which Eagleton edits for Blackwell) mirrors the attempt of Terence and his fellow authors of The Slant Manifesto (1966) to radicalise the authoritarian Church.
Eagleton is one of the many recent theorists who have proposed that criticism’s ‘task is to show the text as it cannot know itself, to manifest those conditions of its making (inscribed in its very letter) about which it is necessarily silent’. He is also one of the many who believe that ‘low’ artistic forms are just as lisible as ‘high’ ones. An Eagletonian reading of the opening stanza of ‘The Ballad of English Literature’ is therefore called for. It would point out that the condition of the ballad’s making about which it is necessarily silent is the anger of the Irish Catholic. Thus ‘Donne sold out a bit later’ has nothing to do with politics: what Donne sold out on was his Catholicism. And ‘Sidney was a nob’ really means ‘Sidney was a radical Protestant, dedicated to the international Reformation.’ A proper deconstruction of the ‘Ballad’ would reveal that the key to it is the suppression of the third major poet of the Elizabethan age. Inscribed beneath the text is the line ‘Spenser was a Prod’ – we all know what he did in Ireland.
In his recent work on ideology, Eagleton goes further than before down the prodigal’s road home. In The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), Walter Benjamin’s ‘Messianic reading of history’, though it is Judaic rather than Christian, gives him the opportunity to ‘restore to language its occluded symbolic riches, rescue it from its lapses into the impoverishment of cognition so that the word may dance once again, like those angels whose bodies are one burning flame of praise before God’. Such passages as this represent a return to Terences’s discourse, which had a richly sacramental view of language; the eucharistic real presence, so shatteringly destroyed by first Marx’s materialism and then Derrida’s assault on the metaphysics of presence, has been reestablished.
Ideology: An Introduction is an attack on contemporary ‘end-of-ideology’ theorists, most notably the Post-Modern Baudrillard in France and the pragmatist Fish in America. The book is the usual kind of Eagletonian sandwich, its introduction and conclusion offering direct polemic with the meat in the middle consisting of a potted history – in this instance, of the meanings of the term ‘ideology’. Once again the reader munches through the by now familiar canon – Marx and Engels, Lukács, Gramsci, Adorno, Althusser – occasionally slowing down to savour some new spicing (there are good pages on Antoine Destutt de Tracy, the man who has the honour of actually having coined the dreaded word). And once again there is an intriguing spiritual and moral subtext. The examples chosen to support some of the arguments are arresting: ‘I may mistake Madonna [a popular singer and lapsed Catholic, m’lud] for a minor deity, but can I be mistaken about the feelings of awe this inspires in me?’; ‘I still believe that profanity is a sin, even though my conversation is blue with it much of the time.’ And there is what might be termed an ‘ordinary faith’ philosophy: ‘to believe that immense numbers of people would live and sometimes die in the name of ideas which were absolutely vacuous and absurd is to take up an unpleasantly demeaning attitude towards ordinary men and women.’
Ultimately the quarrel with Post-Modernism and pragmatism rests on moral ground. Stanley Fish’s rhetoric of ‘doing what comes naturally’ is described as a ‘drastic homogenising of different modes and degrees of belief’ which has the effect of ‘naturalising beliefs such as “Women should be treated as servants” to the status of “beliefs” like: “Vienna is the capital of Austria.” ’ Eagleton reveals himself as a moral realist: you can only refute a Fish if you have a scale of values, if you believe that ‘there are “moral facts” as well as physical ones, about which our judgments can be said to be either true or false.’ Our author has more time for the radical church in Latin America than for ‘His Holiness the Pope’ (Eagleton’s capitals), but such faith in moral facts is the mark of a true believer.
Perhaps the most extraordinary profession of faith in the recent work occurs in the chapter on Kierkegaard, father of Christian Existentialism, in The Ideology of the Aesthetic. At several points it is impossible to tell whether the author is paraphrasing Kierkegaard or stating his own beliefs, and in the end the reader can only conclude that he must be doing both. The chapter ends with a claim for Kierkegaard’s relevance ‘to the present age, trapped as it is between the “bad” infinity of deconstructive irony and certain too closed, overtotalising theories of the political subject’. By ‘the present age’, Eagleton clearly means himself, trapped between Derrida and Althusser. In it the author of Saint Oscar has produced something approaching the credo of Saint Terence:
The subject of faith, abandoning the solace of an idealist ethics, aware of itself as radically homeless and decentred, turns its horror-stricken face to its own guilty implication in the crime of history, and in that crisis of revolutionary repentence [sic] or metanoia is freed to seize upon certain transformative possibilities for the future. Gripped by a one-sided commitment scandalous to liberal pluralism, yet living also in the fear and trembling of irresolvable ambiguity, it is forced to acknowledge otherness and difference, the whole realm of the unmasterably particular, at the very instant that it seeks strenuously to remake itself in some fundamental, exclusive orientation of its being. At once dependent and self-determining, it appropriates its own ‘nothingness’ and becomes in that act, but always precariously and provisionally, an historically determinate being. If the subject lives in intense seriousness it is also necessarily comic and ironic, knowing us own revolutionary option to be mere foolishness in the world’s eyes and secretly delighting in that incongruity while maintaining the gravest of public miens.
It is a vertiginous passage. Marx is there with the determination of being, Derrida with the decentring. More energisingly, Benjamin contributes the horror-stricken face recognising its own guilty implication in the crime of history and Kierkegaard the combination of irony with fear and trembling. But at the core is the leap of faith. The author may not yet be quite ready to go back into the confessional, but he sounds very close. If there is a Cambridge man behind this, it is not Leavis or Williams but Erasmus, institutional iconoclast, praiser of folly, rhetorician, committed Catholic. The Warton professor-elect is ultimately an inheritor of the early 16th-century Christian Humanism from which the educational project of his predecessor’s much-derided ‘liberal humanism’ descends.