The Task of the Critic

A new book presents literary theorist Terry Eagleton in conversation. Scott McLemee eavesdrops with enthusiasm.

December 30, 2009

Going to MLA for the ideas these days is like attending a funeral for the food. You can’t fault the appetite, but it’s inappropriate given the ambiance, no matter how good the hors d’oeuvres. All the more so this time, given the imploding job market. And the job market, after all, is the real reason for the season.

This year, for the first time in a long while, I decided to stay home and order delivery instead. It arrived in the form of a compulsively readable book of interviews, The Task of the Critic: Terry Eagleton in Dialogue, due out from Verso in February, which I can’t recommend enthusiastically enough.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to having awaited this book for a long time, with growing impatience. A volume called "Conversations with Terry Eagleton" was announced as forthcoming from Polity Press at least five years ago, but at some point it went into limbo.

Evidently the spirit then transmigrated to Verso -- which seemed appropriate given that the press has lately reprinted Eagleton's Criticism and Ideology (1976), a work of cultural theory that loomed large over my own initiation into literary study in the early 1980s. I also recall feeling some awe when Eagleton published The Rape of Clarissa (1982), if only because it was so hard to imagine actually reading all of Samuel Richardson’s fiction and still having the energy to write a book. He somehow then produced Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) -- a sly but sturdy work of basic orientation that explains and evaluates various approaches to criticism. Currently in its third edition, it has sold something in the neighborhood of a million copies.

Success at that level never goes unpunished. Someone who cribs sophistication from Eagleton as an undergraduate will usually learn to dismiss him as a "mere popularizer" in short order. This is unfair in more ways than one. He has published dozens of books that include a series of studies devoted to aesthetics, ideology, and tragedy. He's also written fiction and plays, which I haven’t read, along with The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (2001), which is amazing. It is so carefully observed and brilliantly written -- not to mention funny -- that I sometimes stop people and read passages from it aloud to them, in hopes of spreading the appreciation.

Eagleton comes from the Irish Catholic immigrant stratum of the British working class. He ended up as an Oxford don. That is the kind of social mobility that generates a certain amount of rage on the way up. Eagleton managed to sublimate much of it into wit -- some, if by no means all of it, at his own expense. But this never turns into cynicism. One chapter of The Gatekeeper recalls his experience as a member of a small Marxist group that distributed leaflets at the gates of an auto factory in Oxford and struggled to keep from getting itself thrown out of the Labour Party. (Hardly the sort of thing his faculty peers were doing.) His account of the group is wry at times, but without a trace of bitterness.

The Gatekeeper is a memoir but not an intellectual autobiography. We have the latter now in The Task of the Critic, which is based on transcripts of extensive discussions with Matthew Beaumont, a senior lecturer in English literature at University College London, who proves to be the ideal interlocutor. He is thoroughly grounded in Eagleton’s work (which is no small task, since this now runs to dozens of books and hundreds of articles) but not uncritical of it. He is knowledgeable enough about the academic and political context of Eagleton's career to ask questions that put the whole of it into perspective.

Eagleton’s first books, published in his early twenties, reflected his involvement in the New Left current within the Catholic Church -- a product of the combined impact of Vatican II and the campaign to end nuclear proliferation. He also came very much under the influence of Raymond Williams – not simply his books, important as they were, but his living example as a working-class “scholarship boy” who carved out an embattled position for himself at Cambridge.

Over the past decade or so, Eagleton’s work has undertaken a complicated rapproachment with Catholic theology. During that same period, he has been writing about the genre of tragedy -- one of Williams’s interests as a critic. But someone who knew Eagleton primarily through his books of the 1970s and ‘80s (as I did until recently) might never suspect that he had ever been anything but a secular radical – and one who upheld a much stricter sense of historical materialism than Williams, with his relatively untheoretical temperament, ever did.

So it seems natural to think of Eagleton’s career as having a certain arc. Departure and return: his early affinities and affiliations are repudiated, then recapitulated. In fact, I don’t really see any way around framing his work this way. But Eagleton, for his part, insists on the continuities running throughout his work. The interviewer is able to parry with that claim in ways that add something to one’s reading of Eagleton’s work.

Because I want to frame this week's column as a recommendation (rather than as a review) it seems best not to go off on any of the essayistic tangents that the book invites. Instead, it might be appropriate to end quoting a passage from The Task of the Critic that stands out as fitting, just now. It's something that people heading home from MLA might want to take back to the work place with them.

“I am sometimes horrified," he says, "by the implicit acquiescence in academicism maintained by even supposedly quite radical thinkers and writers. This is particularly objectionable in the case of literary theory, because I believe that -- contrary to all appearances -- it is a genuinely democratic activity. Genuinely democratic in the sense that what it sets out to replace is a kind of criticism that says: ‘Look, in order to be intelligent, you have to have a certain kind of intuition, one bred into you by a certain sort of culture.’ It’s a matter of blood and breeding. Literary theory stands out against this and says, ‘Anybody can join in this activity if they are prepared to learn certain languages.’ ”

Eagleton calls it “particularly scandalous that people engaged in what is basically a democratic enterprise should write in such an obscurantist way. But to say that one shouldn’t write in a deliberate and willfully obscure way isn’t of course to say that one should always be easy to read.”

Nobody expects an engineering textbook to require anything but diligent attention. This is not a matter of the intrinsic elitism of engineers. “And just as in engineering, there is a specific set of skills and languages to be learnt in literary theory in order to understand it. What I’m saying is that populism need not be the only opposition to elitism.”

A good point, and a fine one. The complexity of the situation is there, right out in the open, but Eagleton evokes it in terms that, while simple, do not understate what is at stake. That tends to be much harder than it looks.

Something worth adding to the list of new year’s resolutions: “Read more Terry Eagleton.”


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top