Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction

Literary Theory: An IntroductionLiterary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strange the books one fails to read. The very fact that you are supposed to have read certain books makes you feel like you have already read them long before you read them, so you do not in fact ever read them. There is the oft-cited scene in the campus novel I can’t remember the name of where the English Renaissance scholar confesses he’s never read Hamlet. Luckily, I have read Hamlet—about 10 or 11 times, in fact—but I somehow escaped all of graduate school in literature without ever reading from cover to cover the once-inescapable, then-outdated, and now-classic 1983 primer on literary theory by Britain’s most renowned Marxist critic.

No time like the present. So how is old Literary Theory? Like everything I’ve ever read or perused by Eagleton—save Criticism and Ideology, that execrable and impenetrable excursus into Althusserian pseudo-scientism—it is addictive, hilarious, and infuriating. The Catholic leftist Eagleton is the Chesterton of Marxism, and not only because their names scan similarly, but because he, like the author of Orthodoxy, disseminates his apologetics in a paradox-besotted style of wittily uncommon common sense. Some sample (non-consecutive) sentences:

There is something a little disturbing about [Barthes’s] self-indulgent avant-garde hedonism in a world where others lack not only books but food.

[Structuralist criticism] is rather like killing a person in order to examine more conveniently the circulation of the blood.

But [traditional socialists] had overlooked the possibility that the erotic frissons of reading, or even work confined to those labelled criminally insane, were an adequate solution, and so had the guerrilla fighters of Guatemala.

Note the rhetorical tactics on display: the visual-verbal parallel of the posited antithesis books/food in the first quotation that is meant to puncture delectation in the former with guilty awareness of the necessity announced by the latter; the dry “rather like” that introduces the extreme simile reducing structuralism to absurdity; and the guttural alliteration of guerrilla/Guatemala that drives home such insurgents’ moral and material superiority to mere sibilant perverts and aesthetes.

Eagleton wields this rhetorical arsenal to blow holes in the facade of any Romanticism or aestheticism, to roll back the entire multifarious attempt, from Shelley to Leavis to Derrida, to render the imagination, literature, or language as self-sufficient realms apart from material real-world struggle. Eagleton allows that almost all these attempts were made in protest against a reductive or exploitative world of capitalist rationality, but because they do not seek to transform this world here and now, they can only be irrationalist evasions or technocratic travesties—flowers on the chain of oppression or opiates in the place of remedies, to borrow some Marxian tropes. The book should really be subtitled not An Introduction but An Attack.

Like all polemics, Eagleton’s gets a bit repetitive. He begins with an introduction that argues against the concept of “literature.” This is a concept, he claims, with no intrinsic meaning; literature is just what a complex set of social practices designates as literature, usually because the texts so designated serve the ruling interests of society. With that demystification established, Eagleton begins his survey of literary theory.

“Literature” as we know it began in the Romantic era, when writers set poetry and art apart: they became devoted not to entertainment or moral instruction, their prior tasks, but realms of imaginative plentitude unbesmirched by the dark satanic mills of the industrial age. This aestheticism was eventually institutionalized in England and America when English displaced classics in the university curriculum as the discipline meant to humanize the educated populace, where “humanization” implies quiescence before the status quo in the name of national or cultural unity. At best, literature is compensation for what capitalism robs from us; at worst, it is the alibi of the ruling classes.

The chaos and destruction of the 20th century in Europe, meanwhile, led its thinkers on their own quest for certitude amid devastation. Hence the Cartesian need to prove that oneself and the world exist and are explicable to which phenomenology and structuralism testify. Unfortunately, these both lead in Eagleton’s view to idealism, to a vision of the mind or the structures it apprehends rotating in some Platonic space above the heads of real people who exist in social conflict and comity.

Poststructuralism and psychoanalysis, with their insistence on the fissures in both psyche and speech, are improvements on structuralism and phenomenology because of their ability to disrupt the smooth functioning of an ideology that bids us submit to our pre-established social roles; but they are finally too fixated on recondite textual matters to really shake the powers that be.

Eagleton’s strategy, then, is to explicate each theory more or less in its own terms before showing it to be a kind of belated Romantic pastoral, an imaginary solution to real problems, to use the Althusserean formulation he several times deploys. This is similar to the “immanent critique” championed by the Frankfurt School, wherein the critic shows a theory or philosophy to be unable to realize its own goals on its own terms, usually because it makes no provision for its universal and material realization. In other words, Marxism, the sole science of utopia’s actualizing, is the one true theory because, if I may use Eagleton’s own method of inversion, it is the one theory that can come true.

Eagleton thus ends his book not with a chapter on Marxism, which would, he says, imply that Marxism is just one theory among others. Rather, he ends with a call to reform the teaching of literature so that it serves, pluralistically, the ends of an equal society:

Any method or theory which will contribute to the strategic goal of human emancipation, the production of ‘better people’ through the socialist transformation of society, is acceptable.

That settles that. “Better people” is in quotation marks, by the way, because Eagleton, after inveighing for 180 pages against an ill-defined or undefined straw-man he calls “liberal humanism” concedes that liberal humanism’s partisans are in fact correct when they say that we should read literature because it “makes us better people.” The problem is that we can only become better people in a better society, so the study of literature should be politically rather than morally improving, should improve the relations of production and not just the individual soul.

How to reform literary study toward that progressive end? By replacing it with cultural studies: down with literature, except where it may prove tactically emancipatory (for instance, Eagleton says that cultural studies should be taught to underprivileged children but also concedes that “it may also be valuable to use literature to foster in them a sense of linguistic potential denied to them by their social conditions”); and up with the whole world of human discourse, from textbooks to TV, from Machiavelli to Madonna, from sati to Star Trek (I alliterate in appreciation of the master), evaluated according to its political designs on the reader/viewer.

In another bout of Chestertonian inversion, Eagleton pronounces his theory not revolutionary but reactionary (“Like all the best radical positions, then, mine is a thoroughly traditionalist one”) because it is only a return to the critical discipline that reigned in the western world from antiquity to the Augustan age and which was unjustly supplanted by Romantic aestheticism and its sequelae: the study of rhetoric.

Eagleton has appended forewords and afterwords to subsequent editions of this book; largely they rue the collapse of the political task he prophesied for cultural studies even as cultural studies itself triumphed in academe. Feminism, multiculturalism and postcolonialism, he complains, became too liberal, too focused on identity politics and not enough on class struggle. He does not notably allow this development to convince him that his theory itself, his call to abandon the very idea of the aesthetic, was wrong, though. Yet it was and remains wrong, and the fact that at least one version of it triumphed while everything else in the English department and in society at large got worse and worse should make its wrongness obvious.

The unequal distribution of the aesthetic should not be used as a warrant for its general abolition, as if to say that since the poor can’t afford healthy food, no one else should be able to eat it. The left used to believe in lifting everyone up; since the failure of its ’60s dreams, though, which Eagleton rightly identifies as the context for poststructuralist omni-skepticism, it has been so consumed with resentment and with apocalyptic visions that it has only wanted to drag everyone down to the same debased level and call that equality.

Nowhere is this leveling-down left more evident than in the progressive intelligentsia’s hatred of the very concept of art, sometimes expressed as a blasé shrug (“Who am I to judge?”) and sometimes as a militant threat (“Down with bourgeois aesthetics!”). My complaint is not that elements of popular or fringe culture are being studied in place of the classics, because some of that work is excellent and because many of the classics were themselves originally popular and fringe culture; still less is my complaint about the demotion of dead white men. Regular readers will recall that I have myself championed both Grant Morrison and Toni Morrison at great length.

But even if the most complex aesthetic objects, whatever their origins, will not make you more moral, their contemplation will make you more intelligent, your mind more subtle and multifarious. Therefore, the most complex objects are the appropriate objects of a liberal education, and not only for what they can tell us about ideology but for how they can teach us to hold any ideology in the utmost possible of humility and peace. Politics is no panacea: every modern ideology that has actually been implemented has slaughtered its way across the last two centuries, and Eagleton’s bromides about “human emancipation” have served as an alibi for communist atrocities just as liberal humanist rhetoric was the fig leaf on imperialist oppression and certain high-theory concepts have fascist origins.

I believe in separating art from politics because if there is nothing outside of politics there will be no place from which to launch a protest when politics grows murderous. The belief that politics supervenes upon aesthetics and ethics leads only to bad art and bad behavior, both beatified as somehow progressive.

Eagleton can snidely smirk all he likes about “liberal humanism” and Matthew Arnold and all the rest of the ritually desecrated names of the theory era, but the fact is that the Romantics were right: in a brutal reductionist world, we need art to show us expansive thinking and beautiful living. It is the latter two values, not lessons in political activism or commercials for the pabulum of the corporate monopolies, that we should advocate in the schools. Ironically, a Marxism that denies the claims of the aesthetic serves no one’s interests but those of the money-men.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!