[ilds] Should he?

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Tue May 29 13:55:25 PDT 2007

>-----Original Message-----
>>From: william godshalk <godshawl at email.uc.edu>
>>If Eagleton writes as an academic, then he should follow our basic 
>>procedures of honest reviewing. If he writes as a hack, then he 
>>should not be held to academic standards -- should he?

>>On 5/29/2007 2:58 PM, Bruce Redwine wrote:
>Yes, as a matter of personal integrity.  I don't believe in multiple standards and personalities.
An interesting question.  The answer would need to be "yes" if we 
recognize the clout that Eagleton's name still carries in Anglo-American 
academic circles and the prestige that he enjoys now, in his second 
career, as someone who has grown tired of the theory game. 

        *Shelving culture. The effect of Terry Eagleton on two
        generations of English students has been disastrous, argues
        Bryan Appleyard. *
        *But now the old Marxist appears to be mellowing*
        *Bryan Appleyard*

        *17 April 2000*

        *The Idea of Culture*
        *Terry Eagleton Blackwell, 156pp, £12.99*
        *ISBN 0631219668*

When Eagleton reviews a biography of Lawrence Durrell, what he says will 
matter and will influence because first and foremost he is Terry 
Eagleton.  Anyone who has passed through graduate programs in the last 
two decades knows that Eagleton has shaped a great deal of the 
conversation in literary studies.  A selective list from his 
bibliography could easily be taken as required academic reading:, 
whatever the specialization

        *Marxism and Literary Criticism*   Methuen, 1976
        *Literary Theory: An Introduction*   (revised 1996)   Blackwell,
        *The Significance of Theory*   Blackwell, 1989
        *The Ideology of the Aesthetic*   Blackwell, 1990

There is little doubt that Eagleton's failure to engage with Durrell's 
biography and writings and the dismissals that he delivers have a 
wide-ranging influence.

So I give three "yes" answers.  *

    * *Yes*, it mattered that Eagleton assumed wrongly that he could
      rely on the clout of his name and his wits and his anecdotes from
      his university days to carry him through the review of Ian
      MacNiven's biography.  He failed in that assumption.  (I think
      that I can admit that I do "hold a candle" not only for Durrell
      but for Ian, who has given me much in friendship and in an
      education about Durrell.  "My friends and other prejudices.")  
    * *Yes*, I think that given Eagleton's stature in literary culture
      the Durrell School did well to invite Eagleton to speak.  An open,
      honest engagement with an avowedly suspicious critic can teach us
    * And *yes*, I think it is a damned shame that Eagleton doubled his
      dishonor by giving less than his best attention to the writings of
      Lawrence Durrell after having been invited to Corfu.  An
      opportunity missed./ Caveat emptor/.

Surely some people who heard Eagleton speak on Corfu and who conversed 
with him should speak up?  Richard has indicated that the performance 
was a disappointment--was it a total wash, Richard?  Where can we learn 
more?  Does anyone else have testimony?


Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

*Shelving culture. The effect of Terry Eagleton on two generations of English students has been disastrous, argues Bryan Appleyard. But now the old Marxist appears to be mellowing

Bryan Appleyard

Published 17 April 2000

The Idea of Culture
Terry Eagleton Blackwell, 156pp, £12.99
ISBN 0631219668
Culture, concludes Terry Eagleton, has grown "immodest and overweening" and so "it is time, while acknowledging its significance, to put it back in its place". What! After 131 dense pages of Eagletonism - brilliance and posturing in equal measure - I had expected a little more than this. But no, Oxford's Thomas Wharton Professor of English Literature just wants to put culture back in its place and, er, that's it.

I should have known better. I am just the sort of person Eagleton exists to infuriate. Years ago, I read his book Literary Theory. At first, I took it to be a joke, but later decided that it was an attempt to explain to certain people why they hated reading. The effect of that work - and numerous others - on English teaching has been disastrous. The sensuous and intellectual grasp of writing has been replaced by various drab sociologies, and two generations of English students have emerged from universities unable to read but superbly placed to become bad journalists.

And here he is, at it again. At one low point in his new book, The Idea of Culture, Eagleton suddenly refers to "those churls on the English department corridor who study line endings in Milton". Leaving aside the oddity of this firebrand of the academic left using a word that means "peasant" as a term of abuse, what, actually, is wrong with studying Milton's line endings? Would Eagleton object to the technical study of Mozart's music or Titian's painting? We do these things to understand and preserve certain forms of excellence and, indirectly, to keep professors of English in useful employment. But Eagleton's gaze is always focused on the big picture; actual art seldom gets a look-in.

Well, it does occasionally. This book has some good, though arguable, stuff on King Lear, and it has a quotation from Seamus Heaney taken from an interview. Heaney says that justice, freedom, beauty and love are coterminous with our artistic and literary culture and, heaven be praised, Eagleton agrees. But he goes on to criticise Heaney for not mentioning the wicked underside of European civilisation and for giving "the impression that moral culture stops at St Petersburg". This was an interview, for God's sake, and Heaney's quotation neither denied the significance of European evil nor gave that St Petersburg impression. But there's nothing like a straw man to break the ice at parties.

OK, one more moan and then I'll say why Eagleton is, in fact, rather good. "The concept of culture", he writes, "thus gains in specificity what it loses in critical capacity, rather as the constructivist rocking chair is a more sociable art form that the high modernist artwork, but only at the cost of its critical edge."

Whenever an academic uses phrases such as "rather as", "it seems to me" or "a form of", it means he is about to show off. In this case, there's no "rather as" about it. The whole sentence is superfluous - the point had already been made - so that rocking chair stuff is doubly superfluous, as well as being a laughable example of culture-babble. Entire passages in this book - notably the claustrophobic, inwardly spiralling "Culture Wars" chapter - are rendered pointless by such smug elaborations.

And yet, and yet. Eagleton can be superb. His assault on American culture, for example, is apposite and economical. "If people of truly surreal fatness", he writes, "complacently patrol its streets, it is partly because they have no idea that this is not happening everywhere else." This is the most profound line I've ever read - and there have been many - on the subject of American fatness. It precisely captures the way America has conquered the world by, in effect, ignoring it; by universalising its own eccentric domesticity. Eagleton even bemoans the collapse of private speech in the new American demotic. "Like he was all 'uh-uh' and I was like kinda 'hey!' but he was like 'no way' or 'whatever'" is the rather fine example he offers.

In fact, editing out the posturing, the book as a whole is an important meditation on where we are now. Eagleton's history of the word "culture" identifies three phases: culture as romanticism's anti-capitalist critique, as anthropological description of a whole way of life and, finally and most narrowly, as shorthand for the arts in general. In the context of postmodernism, this third phase has, in effect, blossomed into a fourth - as an inflated but empty and incoherent totality. It is this phase that inspires Eagleton's lame conclusion: we need "an enlightened political context" and less culture.

On the way, he elegantly undermines the confusions of multiculturalism. "It is those who fetishise cultural differences who are the reactionaries here. It was by belonging to their own cultural history, not by putting it temporarily on ice, that those societies were able to go beyond it. I do not understand you by ceasing to be myself, since there would be nobody to do the understanding."

Exactly. And he is astute about the real world implications of academic, pragmatic, "sassy and streetwise" postmodernism. "Such pragmatism leaves the west disarmed in the face of those fundamentalisms, both within and without, which are not too perturbed by other people's anti-metaphysical eagerness to scupper their own foundations." I couldn't put it better myself. (I have often put it rather worse.)

Both the above arguments, you may notice, have a distinctively conservative flavour. In truth, there is nothing about this book that really needs Eagleton's socialism. This was not true of much of his earlier work, which was structurally dependent on an extreme leftist position. So the big question is: are we seeing the mellowing of Tel?

I hope so, because his politics have long distracted his agile and impressive mind from a task whose urgency, if I read this book correctly, he is coming round to accepting. That task is the defence of English literature, not as an imperial power play, but as a key constitutive element of our humanity. Eagleton is never better than when he is assaulting the destructive fundamentalisms - biological or cultural - of our time. And he could do nothing more valuable than demonstrating that the balance and complexity of art embody the possibility, if not the actuality, of our liberation from those dangerous illusions.

Bryan Appleyard's most recent book is Brave New Worlds: genetics and the human experience (HarperCollins, £8.99)

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