Saint Terence

Jonathan Bate

  • Ideology: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton
    Verso, 242 pp, £32.50, May 1991, ISBN 0 86091 319 8

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.

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