The Events of Eagleton

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Book Review: The Event of Literature, Terry Eagleton (Yale University Press, 2012)

I imagine Eagleton writes books like one of those grandmasters at a chess tournament, playing half a dozen games simultaneously, judiciously completing a decisive move before moving on to another table and another competitor who dares to try and tax his intellectual dexterity. What impresses is not just the speed with which his latest new book rolls off the printing press — usually at least one a year since Heathcliff and the Great Hunger appeared in 1996 (and many more before then but in that year he not so much moved up a gear as changed to fully automatic and dispensed with a brake pedal) — but his fluent familiarity with just about every work of Western literature and cultural theory and most literary studies of any consequence. It beggars belief how he finds the time to brush his teeth in the morning as he devours Brecht and Badiou over breakfast, Lacan for lunch and Derrida at dinner with a carafe of Kierkegaard. While the rest of us are watching television or sorting out a load for the washing machine, Eagleton is writing the final paragraph of a book, dashing off a few reviews and articles, finishing the first chapter of another tome, working out the chapter divisions for another and checking the final proofs of his last volume.

What has come to characterize a number of his recent books, like Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic and Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics is his ability to offer thumbnail sketches that deftly summarise the ur-ideas of a wide range of thinkers. His latest book begins in this way with a discussion of nominalism and realism, pitting Duns Scotus and William of Ockham against Aquinas as they argue for and against universals (there is something called redness that your blood and London buses have in common) and particulars (everything is uniquely what it is and universals are just names). This debate between medieval scholars becomes for Eagleton the starting point for a far-reaching probe into what we count as real. Strip away all universals, reduce everything to the utterly empirical and, before we know it, abstract ideas and notions of the sacramental are thrown out the window with the chintz. We are left with pure instrumentality and, we are led to believe by some, only through art can the sensuous transcend the coldly empirical. In such a world there is no need for theory, least of all literary theory, but Eagleton ripostes by calling for a renewal of theory and universals, albeit with a materialist history woven into them.

There is a need, then, to rescue the idea that the works we call literature – crime thrillers and books of philosophy as well as Petrarchan sonnets — have something in common. Much of the first half of Eagleton’s study is taken up with concise and critical accounts of what recent literary theorists have thought is the common factor, and finding them all wanting for one good reason or another. Literature as a moral, humanizing force is one such theory and a very popular one with schoolteachers of the subject. The reader, afflicted with what Eagleton calls the empathetic fallacy, is invited to share the consciousness of characters in a story and thus, through this imaginative identity, become a better person. This helps explain the existence of an obnoxious breed: the middle-class reader who is so pleased with their beautiful soul, delicately  nurtured as it has been by the literary fiction they so sensitively engage with. Morality, though, is a matter of how you act towards others not how nuanced your fine feelings are towards them. Readers who congratulate themselves for their exquisitely tuned feelings may be emotionally concerned over the dire predicament of a character in a novel but, when the book is finished, remain the selfish person they always were and secretly continue to wish there were more prisons for working-class miscreants. Morality can for some be a matter of aesthetics not equality.

Rather a lot – too much, perhaps – of  The Event of Literature is spent summarising and then qualifying or undermining other thinkers’ ideas about what they take to be the essence of literature. Pages are devoted to critics and the books they have written but if we are to believe Eagleton most of what they say is so open to doubt and disagreement as to make the reader feel it is not worth the bother of reading them. It tends to be only in the second half of his book that Eagleton dwells on critics and modes of thought with a more positive intent and then the ground being covered begins to stir interest. Literature as a category, argues Eagleton, is best considered a job description and not as something always inherently precious: ‘It is better to treat the word ‘literature’ like the word ‘intellectual’. ‘Intellectual’ does not mean ‘frightfully clever’. If that were so there would be no dim-witted intellectuals, which is far from the case’. Nor is literature inherently subversive, necessarily disrupting ideology and familiar norms, as Mansfield Park shows. Nor too, as with Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, is it always fiction. What does give Eagleton some traction is the idea of literature as a form of a speech-act, a rhetorical use of language peculiar to itself and its act of enunciation, an event of a performative kind that cannot be measured against empirical reality or, for that matter, the author’s intentions. Literature is something we do, not something explainable in terms of a correspondence between language and reality. Neither though, he says, is it explainable with the notion that language constitutes our world and he turns to one of his favourite philosophers,Wittgenstein, to support his contention that language isn’t about making up or reflecting reality. Instead, asserts Eagleton, language ‘provides us with the criteria for determining what kinds of things there are and how we are to speak of them’. This is not another way of saying language does indeed constitute our world. Wittgenstein’s aphorism about not being able to understand a lion if it spoke to us was not a warning about the severe lack of lion translators but a statement about the difference between a lion’s  world and ours, an unbridgeable difference that translation could not cross.

What makes a lion’s world different to ours comes down to the nature of bodies and the distinctive nature of the human body. Eagleton outlines the way the human body acts instrumentally but at the same time organizes itself for an end in itself, just for the sake of self-realization, but overstates the case by implying this does not apply to animals. But animals also seek to realize and fulfil themselves in ways that are not purely utilitarian (maybe not ants, admittedly, but dogs, dolphins and their like?) and thinking otherwise is what helps us to think there is nothing wrong with butchering and eating them. Anyway, the point he is making is that art, like the body, is a form of praxis that performatively combines the instrumental with the pleasurable, ‘the savouring is inseparable from the strategy’, and the idea of strategy should not be reduced to its business-world sense. Acting strategically to attain self-delight is not the same as buying shares in Ryanair; the former opens the door on the soul while the latter closes it. At the same time, the body remains a material object and while it strives to make meaningful the non-utilitarian it cannot do so divorced from its natural, material existence. A familiar classical notion of art, Eagleton reminds us, would unify meaning and materiality but modernism has laid to rest this utopian lie.

The struggle between the semiotic and the somatic is the ground for psychoanalysis and Eagleton’s book draws to a close with an insightful comparison between the analyst and the artist. The body can never be at home in its striving for meaning and the tragic struggle is played out at the level of language:

Language hollows our being into desire and pitches us into temporality shattering the imaginary unity for which we continue to hanker. And the Real – the place where desire, the vengeful Law and the death drive knot together to constitute the monstrously alien core of the self – is as far beyond the reach of the signifier as the taste of peaches.

This is Eagleton putting Lacan into everyday English and he goes on to draw an illuminating analogy between Freud’s account of the ‘dream work’ and the strategies of a work of literature, tying it up with Frederic Jameson’s idea of a ‘political unconscious’.

The first and last chapters of The Event of Literature are the most rewarding and there are luminous passages like the one where he applies the way Wittgenstein speaks of a  grammar to different literary genres as strategies for working on the world, a world that contains what is also, symbolically, transforming it:

Elegy and tragedy inquire into how we are to make sense of our mortality, and even wrest some value from it, while pastoral puzzles over how we are to stay faithful to the humble sources of our sophisticated lives without losing what is most precious about that hard-won civility. Comedy poses an abundance of questions, such as why there is something so uproariously funny about our frailty. Realism is among other things a response to the problem of how to respect the roughness of the empirical world while discerning in it a significant design.

This is Eagleton at his best, stimulating  the reader into thinking anew about what is going on when we read some of the very different kinds of texts that are works of literature. One wishes dearly that he would continue in this vein and look more closely at particular literary texts. He did so in an earlier book he wrote, How to Read a Poem, and it was an intelligent  pleasure to read from the first to last page. Rather than continue in grandmaster mode, where we are restricted to momentary glimpses of Eagleton’s talent as a literary critic, let us hope his next book is just one big event with a title along the lines of How to Read Literature.

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2 Responses

  1. William Wall

    May 18, 2012 7:55 pm

    ‘Acting strategically to attain self-delight is not the same as buying shares in Ryanair; the former opens the door on the soul while the latter closes it.’ Great review. I think I’ll skip the book. It might be closer to the Ryanair experience …

  2. B. Rand

    May 19, 2012 11:23 am

    Agree with sentiments in the reviewer’s concluding paragraph. How to get the best out of a poem/novel/play – yes, that’s the sort of (short) book, in accessible language, that I’d like literary critics to write. Leave semiotics, Lacanian psychology, deconstructionism, poststructutal analysis and all that to the ivory tower confraternity, who delight in writing esoteric monographs for each other.Such titles are subsidised by academic foundations and would sink in the commercial book market.

    What you get out of a novel also depends on what you put into it. Each new reader, and each new generation, must engage critically with the book. Of course many individuals who have been moved by Dickens’s Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, The Old Curiosity Shop and Hard Times have gone on to carve out careers in the Tory Party and the lucrative professions; but even tories have subconciously imbibed sympathetic attitudes towards social welfare from their childhood readings. And forgotten them in times like these.

    I’m wary of a brilliant churner-out of books like Terry Eagleton. Individually he seems all books and no action; too many ideas in his head and not in his daily life. He’s done u-turns over the years too.