This review of Terry Eagleton’s The Event of Literature appeared recently in the Irish Times.
ALMOST 30 YEARS AGO, when the “theory wars” that had convulsed US English departments were at last waking British academics from their humanist slumbers, Terry Eagleton published a slim volume called Literary Theory: An Introduction. The title was a canny sleight. The book was only in part a helpful precis of the major movements in 20th-century criticism, from formalisms of Russian and American stripe to the variants of feminism, semiotics and poststructuralism then current and hotly controversial.
For sure, Eagleton’s bestselling primer was a gateway for many students (myself included) to the rigours and pleasures of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva. But it was also a polemic aimed squarely at its author’s Oxford milieu: an avowedly Marxist dismantling of the gentlemanly edifice of Eng lit, spiked with Eagleton’s metaphysical and demotic wit.
Perhaps it was as much the boisterousness of Literary Theory as its sometimes brutal forcing of continental thought through a scrim of local controversy that made some of us turn against it later. Certainly, by the time I was a postgrad tutor at a UK English department in the mid-1990s, colleagues were flatly refusing to set Eagleton’s opinionated screed as required reading, preferring more neutral (that is, deathly dull) accounts of the field.
Eagleton, meanwhile, seemed – and still seems – oddly conflicted, if not confused, about the kind of critic he wanted to be.
On the one hand he shrank in subsequent books from the perceived nihilism of postmodernism and the rise of identity politics. (These are subjects that still rankle with him, though it would be more accurate to say today that English departments have devolved into a soft study of historical “background”, and it might be thrilling to read Eagleton on the consequent forgetting of the aesthetic.) On the other hand, he has courted a role as scurrilous and frequently hilarious essayist – in recent years skewering the likes of Martin Amis and Richard Dawkins for certain ill-thought pronouncements – that is in some ways closer to the provocateur of the 1980s.
It seems important to rehearse this history in light of Eagleton’s latest book, because The Event of Literature promises much in terms of a substantial return to fundamental questions about literature, and delivers a curious melange that is by turns combative and flat, briefly suggestive of polemics to come and then dispiritingly thin or dutiful.
The book’s starting point is Eagleton’s observation that while critics and theorists may labour away at problems of form, representation and politics, they are strangely reluctant to ask basic questions about what literature actually is. While philosophers of an analytic bent, working assuredly at some remove from the intricacies of literary texts themselves, are more apt to wonder what, for example, labelling a piece of writing as “fiction” really means. This is a pretty schematic opposition historically speaking, but it yields a potentially fascinating task. Eagleton quizzes both sides for a workable definition – a definition not so much of literary objects as of literature as “praxis”: a way at once of thinking and making and being together.
At times this project makes for acute judgments of the pretences and limitations of the thinkers in question. Eagleton is especially good on the oddities of the analytic (mostly Anglo-American) approach to literature, wherein it is quite acceptable to expend thought and energy on conjectures about whether Sherlock Holmes has a brain and a liver. (Or, as I once had the misfortune to witness, to preface a lecture on Dostoevsky with the proviso that the philosopher will treat the novelist’s characters as “real people”.) The mistake here is to think that works of literature are like the logical games or conundrums this kind of philosophy deploys all the time: thought experiments from which ambiguity and imagination have been weirdly banished.
In the long run, however, Eagleton’s book reads a lot like a survey of theories of literature – mostly theories of fiction – in the last century. And worse: like such a survey written, well, 30 years ago – apart from a glancing reference to the modish philosophy of Alain Badiou (whose work is also hinted at in the book’s title), this is really a story about the 20th century. Time and again the major critical movements of the past are invited on stage and swiftly, or not so swiftly, dispatched with a stab of Eagleton’s prop dagger.
The Russian formalists such as Viktor Shklovsky, who argued that literary language was different from ordinary language by virtue of its power of estrangement, are dismissed because after all not all literature makes the world seem strange or uses especially heightened language. The likes of Barthes and Derrida are similarly arraigned for inflating the extent to which literature is autonomous or self-referential – such talk leads only to the “excesses” of postmodernism.
I don’t want to say that Eagleton is simply mistaken in such judgments, nor that he’s wrong to argue quite reasonably in conclusion for the “strategic” nature of literature: its status as both performance and dialogue, agon and invention, communication and provocation. But quite a lot gets lost among the retreads of familiar concepts, not least the notion that some writers might actually share the partial or overreaching ideas to which he takes exception. That extremity might be precisely the point. I’m not sure the Eagleton of 1983 would have shied away from that.