I am not, I freely acknowledge, a literary scholar, nor a literary man of any sort. I abandoned any thought of becoming an “English major,” when my first-year undergraduate professor asked me “what the poet meant when he said … such and such.” The question struck me as absurd. The poet, I thought, meant pretty much what he said, and he certainly said it better than I could. For me to attempt a précis much less an improvement would be, I thought, presumptuous folly. I declined to respond. I was promptly informed that I was not cut out for aesthetic reflection, and I have never darkened the door of an English Department again.
Some years later, however, I was guided to a slim volume by D. H. Lawrence entitled Studies in Classic American Literature. It stood as a robust critique of American politics and society from the perspective of a man whose views I did not find especially congenial, but whose manner of expression I admired. Shortly afterward, I was introduced to the voluminous work of the American critic Kenneth Burke. Books like Attitudes toward History and essays such as “Literature as Equipment for Living,” impressed me mightily. Though I never again embarrassed myself by seeking instruction in any sort of aesthetic or literary inquiry—formal or informal, new criticism or old—I became convinced that literary commentaries could actually be about something, that they could matter.
Then, along came Terry Eagleton to fulfill my conviction and more. I was almost forty when I read his newly published Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) and, when his sequel, After Theory, came out in 2003, I worked up the courage to review it in the Socialist Studies Bulletin. In between, I familiarized myself not only with the largely continental theories to which his two books provided an initiation and a critique, but also with some of his own substantive pieces—notably Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture (1995). The work was formidable. No more than a neophyte and barely a rude amateur in reading and thinking about literature and literary criticism, it nonetheless became clear to me that Eagleton was both a prodigious scholar and commentator of the first rank. His merits as a critic of literature were confirmed not only by the opinion of people I respected, but also by his capacity to rise above belles letters and address the relevance of fictional writing to matters of general importance to culture and society.
Eagleton’s singular talent was displayed through the dual prisms of a Roman Catholic upbringing and the studious Marxism that shaped his adult and academic life. Handled properly, each encourages a certain intellectual rigor combined with a profound preoccupation with justice—historically contingent, or transcendent and eternal. Moreover, leavened with great wit and occasionally caustic humour, Eagleton’s vast range of reading and knowledge became even more seductive.
Terry Eagleton, of course, is a subject of great controversy and an object of wide criticism himself. Christian scholars persistently sense within his writings an errant man of the faith. They wait patiently for him to return to the fold. He will, they hope, rediscover “that revolution is indissoluble from resurrection.” Conversely, some Marxists of a particular stripe look at him askance and wonder in print whether his enormous success doesn’t belie his proletarian pretensions. To some, he is a “spitting cobra,” while others chide him by saying that anyone “who owns three homes shouldn’t be preaching self-sacrifice.” He has been criticized for his blatant careerism and, contrarily, for his obstinacy in holding firm to opinions which could (and have) cost him his job. In the end, he has shown himself to be as much his own man as can reasonably be expected of anyone, and the fact the he is one of the few literary critics to have sold literally millions of books attests to the fact that not everyone dislikes him.
In The Task of the Critic, Terry Eagleton answers his detractors in a way that might seem strange to readers who are used to a more familiar and predictable indirectly autobiographical narrative. Eagleton’s impressive oeuvre of over thirty-five books (and counting) plus innumerable other substantial publications is daunting enough, but to cover his work and attempt to analyze and assess it in what amounts to a collage of original conversations, excerpts from earlier interviews, helpful additions and useful revisions is an especially risky venture. The result could easily have been merely a self-serving apologia by Eagleton, mixed with a touch of hagiography from his “Boswell,” Matthew Beaumont; but, it is not.
Instead, this book succeeds in presenting a thorough and exceptionally skillful intellectual account of the man who is arguably the principal literary critic of his generation, and who has few peers in recollectable history. Well organized, despite its diversity, and rendered in a language and format that immediately and easily engages the reader, it allows Terry Eagleton to display himself openly, but without relentless self-indulgence, excessive vanity or authorial conceit.
Eagleton’s somewhat leftish fans will be pleased to know that he continues his generous scepticism regarding the complex catalogue of largely continental conceptualizers from Althusser to Žižek who have brought structuralism, deconstructionism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, feminism and queer theory into the lexicon not only of students of literature, but also to at least the margins of the humanities and social sciences. In After Theory, he respected their contributions, though with sometimes sly and wry good humour, but without accepting their excesses and eccentricities. He can be respectful without pandering and sharp when the occasion arises. Nothing has changed on that score.
Eagleton’s further leftist acolytes will also be relieved to know that he still resists the temptation to return to the Mother Church (his latest book is entitled Why Marx Was Right); but, he brings unorthodox Marxian theory to the understanding and interpretation of literature and everything else. Moreover, he has recently undertaken a defence of tradition, religion and metaphysics in response to the aggressive atheism of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. In Eagleton’s view, “religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology.” This, however, is no excuse to offer or to suffer puerile rants as serious criticism. Before taking religion or any other serious matter to task, Eagleton insists, critics have a moral duty to familiarize themselves with the object of their criticism and not to do their work on the cheap. Withering in his criticism of “ignorant atheists,” he also accuses his old comrade Hitchens of being “suave, bright, fearless, loquacious, self-admiring and grotesquely ambitious … a man who made Uriah Heep look like Little Nell.” (I cannot believe that Eagleton isn’t aware that others have said something the same about him.) Yet, no matter how sharp his blade, his constancy, consistency and courage are all intact, even as he remains feared and despised by what can only be called an overzealous and transparently jealous literary and academic establishment.
Terry Eagleton is not a set piece. Like any adventuresome and imaginative scholar, his thinking has evolved even as he has remained true to first principles. Among these are a generosity of spirit toward those who do not think as he does and yet a combative and sometimes withering sarcasm when it comes to those who argue ardently for positions with which he is in deep disagreement—not least the “smugness and self-satisfaction” of those who indulge in openly racist attacks on Islam during this time of Western preoccupation with the evils of terrorism or, indeed, those who are conducting an all-out assault on religion in general. This deference to tolerance is not just an abstract question of politics, but also of personal principle, and it was his willingness to stand up against Martin Amis and his belligerence against Islam that cost Eagleton his job at the University of Manchester in 2007.
Writing in the New Statesman, Scott McLemee called Eagleton an “incendiary writer and public speaker, full of verbal energy, witty, playful, partisan and polemical in tone, while at the same time displaying enormous theoretical sophistication.” Eagleton is quoted in the same piece as saying that he enjoys popularization, considers using journalistic platforms to be an academic’s duty, wants to expand the role of the public intellectual, and admits to being “a kind of performer manqué [who comes] from a long line of failed actors.” From great minds, great actions are expected; and, to an educator, the greatest of these occur when great thoughts are celebrated and shared with as many others as their time and talents allow.
Of the many reasons to admire Terry Eagleton is his choice to make himself not just a theorist with a working-class base, but his desire to speak to the working class itself. After decades of enduring polysyllabic indulgences in almost impenetrable prose among Marxists, neo-Marxists and post-Marxists, I find Eagleton’s voice more than refreshing; it is exhilarating and liberating. Like the best of popularizers, whether in the sciences or the humanities, he is capable of speaking directly to the intelligent laity, without once speaking down to us. What’s more, he expresses clearly what his ideas are without surrendering the depth and complexity of his theories and observations. He demonstrates regularly that it is only possible to be a genuine public intellectual by refusing to insult the intelligence of the attentive public, but by engaging it. This is a skill that unfortunately eludes many writers—especially on the left where the disappointment with the absence of the long-promised proletarian revolutions seems to elicit nothing but a vengeful refusal of Marxian scholars to speak in terms that working people (or anyone else including many of their equally ambitious colleagues) can understand.
Anyone unfamiliar with Terry Eagleton should find The Task of the Critic to be an excellent introduction to the man and his work. Thus grounded, it is an easy step back toward his varied scholarly past, with the two books on literary theory being among my personal favourites, especially as these, in their way, are yet another introduction to his always revealing discussions of specific works and genres. Willy Malley, commenting on the book under review, wrote: “Eagleton is a ‘player’ in every sense, and The Task of the Critic shows him as an eagle-eyed trickster. Prolific and profound, the last of a generation, this egalitarian terrier is still chewing at the leash. After a lifetime of commitment he remains a live wire, the most readable literary critic we have.”
Eagleton is also a democrat, who uses his facility with language and his appreciation of creative writing to get the better of critics who write illegibly, perhaps in order to keep their genius in the family, so to speak, but perhaps to disguise their fear that there is remarkably little genius to husband. Either way, arcane academic argot is repugnant to Terry Eagleton. To write unnecessarily incomprehensible prose is, to him, a “scandalous” activity. Simplicity or, as we are compelled to call it these days, “accessibility” is no self-evident virtue either. Democracy, Eagleton believes, is not the race to the bottom that is encouraged in colleges where the curriculum is there to be simplified, eviscerated and denatured in order to meet minimalist student expectations and keep our “customers” happy. Eagleton himself insists: “to say that one shouldn’t write in a deliberate and wilfully obscure way isn’t of course to say that one should always be easy to read.
The Task of the Critictells us precisely what it is that a literary critic ought to be doing, and simultaneously presents an excellent example of what that is.
Howard A. Doughty, teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com