The continued relevance of Professor Terry Eagleton’s writing is outlined by Stephen Regan in The Eagleton Reader (1998):
‘To call Terry Eagleton the most gifted Marxist thinker of his generation is only a slender acknowledgement of his critical and creative achievements. There is simply no other cultural critic writing today who can match his popularity or his prolific output. His work has made an impact on the teaching of literary and cultural studies throughout Europe, and in almost every part of the world including China, Japan, India, Russia, Australia, Canada and the United States.’
In The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (2001), Eagleton discusses his large output of work with humour and self-effacement. He tells of how he enjoys writing and explains that some fellow academics see this as being as much of a problem as ‘having too much money or being ravishingly handsome’. He is also one of the few in his profession to go on to be a bestseller and his Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) has now sold almost a million copies.
In the preface to Literary Theory, he explains that he has tried to ‘popularize, rather than vulgarize, the subject’ of literary theory and this goes some way to clarifying how this book has had such widespread appeal. He demonstrates an element of scepticism of the theories he covers, such as structuralism, poststructuralism and psychoanalysis, but also challenges the literary scholars that have been hostile without recognising that this angst is tied to their ideological positions: ‘Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people’s theories and an oblivion of one’s own. One purpose of this book is to lift that repression and allow us to remember.’ As he points out, the claim to being an objective reader is misguided to say the least and this is made apparent when he argues that value-judgements ‘have a close relation to social ideologies’ and this connection is embedded in all of our reading practices (including Eagleton’s).
He also gives an overview of English literature studies and spells out how the pleasure in reading is often diluted in the bid to have this confirmed as a serious discipline: ‘As we saw earlier in this book, the fact that reading literature is generally an enjoyable pursuit posed a serious problem for those who first established it as an academic “discipline”: it was necessary to make the whole affair rather more intimidating and dispiriting, if “English” was to earn its keep as a reputable cousin of Classics. Meanwhile, in the world outside, people carried on devouring romances, thrillers and historical novels without the faintest idea that the halls of academia were beset by these anxieties.’ He not only makes difficult concepts more accessible, but also demonstrates that it is possible to keep a sense of humour despite a lifetime working for the institutions that he has been critical of politically.
This critical position is evident in The Gatekeeper and a review by Adam Mars-Jones for The Observer argues that Eagleton barely gives himself away in this work but does deliver a critique of Oxbridge, which is where he studied and taught for over 30 years: ‘Eagleton makes little attempt to recreate his own emotions, at 10 or any other age. He refuses to inhabit his past self, using it instead as a flesh peg on which to hang passages of analysis. It is the institution that stands revealed, not the person who passed through it’ (6 January 2002). Eagleton makes several allusions to his working-class childhood in Salford and the difficult transition to university, but he avoids giving away more than the barest of personal information. The memoir begins with a description of his duties as an altar boy and gatekeeper at a convent and introduces the Catholic Church as the first of many influential institutions that he has ‘passed through’. He has never entirely relinquished his faith and his review of The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins for The London Review of Books puts the case for the Christian defence (19 October 2006). He refers to Dawkins as ‘theologically illiterate’ and argues that this work is bigoted against religion: ‘There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice. For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.’ As a critic and reviewer, Eagleton appears to welcome the chance of debate here and elsewhere and depending on one’s perspective he may be seen to enjoy freedom of expression and/or the opportunity to court controversy.
Of his many other works, After Theory (2003) is significant in that it appears to allow the more traditional literary critics, who had felt threatened by the rise of literary theory, to breathe a huge sigh of relief. The argument is more complex, though, as Eagleton argues: ‘There can be no going back to an age when it was enough to pronounce Keats delectable or Milton a doughty spirit.’ He adds that the tenets associated with the high theorists lives on, although the main players such as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault are now dead: ‘If theory means a reasonably systematic reflection on our guiding assumptions, it remains as indispensable as ever.’
When looking back over Eagleton’s work, it is possible to see that his methodology, which is influenced by Marxist thinking, increasingly questions the political disengagement that he sees as intrinsic to postmodernism. This is apparent in After Theory when he points out the narcissism that he believes has come to dominate literary and cultural studies: ‘Socialism has lost out to sado-masochism. Among students of culture, the body is an immensely fashionable topic, but it is usually the erotic body, not the famished one.’ He has also turned to fiction, having written Saint Oscar and Other Plays (1997) and the script for the Derek Jarman film, Wittgenstein (1993), but in the main has been concerned with literary criticisms. Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës (1975); Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976); and Ideology: An Introduction (1991) are some of his other notable texts.
Dr Julie Ellam, 2008
Terry EagletonFBA (born February 22, 1943) is a British literary theorist, critic and philosopher, who is regarded as one of the United Kingdom's most influential living literary critics. Eagleton is currently Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, and as a former Visiting Professor at the National University of Ireland.
- Deconstruction... insists not that truth is illusory but that it is institutional.
- Frère Jacques: The Politics of Deconstruction, ch. 6, Against the Grain (1984)
- Postmodernism is among other things a sick joke at the expense of... revolutionary avant-gardism.
- Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism, ch. 9 (1985)
Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983)
- Literature transforms and intensifies ordinary language, deviates systematically from everyday speech. If you approach me at a bus stop and murmur "Thou still unravished bride of quietness," then I am instantly aware that I am in the presence of the literary.
- Introduction: What is Literature?, p. 2
- If the masses are not thrown a few novels, they may react by throwing up a few barricades.
- All consciousness is consciousness of something: in thinking I am aware that my thought is 'pointing towards' some object.
- The present is only understandable through the past, with which it forms a living continuity; and the past is always grasped from our own partial viewpoint within the present.
- Literary texts do not exist on bookshelves: they are processes of signification materialized only in the practice of reading. For literature to happen, the reader is quite as vital as the author.
- Reading is not a straightforward linear movement, a merely cumulative affair: our initial speculations generate a frame of reference within which to interpret what comes next, but what comes next may retrospectively transform our original understanding, highlighting some features of it and backgrounding others.
- What was needed was a literary theory which, while preserving the formalist bent of New Criticism, its dogged attention to literature as aesthetic object rather than social practice, would make something a good deal more systematic and 'scientific' out of all this. The answer arrived in 1957, in the shape of the Canadian Northrop Fryes mighty 'totalization' of all literary genres, Anatomy of Criticism.
- Reading a text is more like tracing this process of constant flickering than it is like counting the beads on a necklace.
- Writing seems to rob me of my being: it is a second hand mode of communication, a pallid, mechanical transcript of speech, and so always at one remove from my consciousness.
- It is difficult to think of an origin without wanting to go back beyond it.
- It is language which speaks in literature, in all its swarming 'polysemic' plurality, not the author himself.
- If we were not called upon to work in order to survive, we might simply lie around all day doing nothing.
- Schizophrenic language has in this sense an interesting resemblance to poetry.
- All desire springs from a lack, which it strives continually to fill.
- Language always pre-exists us: it is always already 'in place', waiting to assign us our places within it.
- We live in a society which on the one hand pressurizes us into the pursuit of instant gratification, and the other hand imposes on whole sectors of the population and endless deferment of fulfillment.
- Any attempt to define literary theory in terms of a distinctive method is doomed to failure.
- Conclusion: political Criticism, p. 172
- The truth is that liberal humanism is at once largely ineffectual, and the best ideology of the 'human' that present bourgeois society can muster.
- Conclusion: political Criticism, p. 174
- Understanding is always in some sense retrospective, which is what Hegel meant by remarking that the owl of Minerva flies only at night.
- If history moves forward, knowledge of it travels backwards, so that in writing of our own recent past we are continually meeting ourselves coming the other way.
Against The Grain (1986)
- Chaucer was a class traitor
Shakespeare hated the mob
Donne sold out a bit later
Sidney was a nob.
- Ch. 14, The Ballad of English Literature
- All propaganda or popularization involves a putting of the complex into the simple, but such a move is instantly deconstructive. For if the complex can be put into the simple, then it cannot be as complex as it seemed in the first place; and if the simple can be an adequate medium of such complexity, then it cannot after all be as simple as all that.
- Ch. 10, The Critic as Clown
- Readers are less and less seen as mere non-writers, the subhuman “other” or flawed derivative of the author; the lack of a pen is no longer a shameful mark of secondary status but a positively enabling space, just as within every writer can be seen to lurk, as a repressed but contaminating antithesis, a reader.
- Ch. 13, The Revolt of the Reader
- It is silly to call fat people “gravitationally challenged”, a self-righteous fetishism of language which is no more than a symptom of political frustration.
- Guardian (October 27, 1992)
- Post-structuralism is among other things a kind of theoretical hangover from the failed uprising of ‘68, a way of keeping the revolution warm at the level of language, blending the euphoric libertarianism of that moment with the stoical melancholia of its aftermath.
- Guardian (October 27, 1992)
- Ideology is present to such an extent in all the agents' activities that it becomes indistinguishable from their lived experience.
- Ideology ... is therefore necessarily false; its social function is not to give agents a true knowledge of the social structure but simply to insert them as it were into their practical activities.
- At the level of experience the social whole remains opaque to the agents.
- As opposed to science ideology has the precise function of hiding the real contradictions and of reconstituting on an imaginary level a relatively coherent discourse which serves as the horizon of agents' experience.
- What persuades men and women to mistake each other from time to time for gods or vermin is ideology. One can understand well enough how human beings may struggle and murder for good material reasons—reasons connected, for instance, with their physical survival. It is much harder to grasp how they may come to do so in the name of something as apparently abstract as ideas. Yet ideas are what men and women live by, and will occasionally die for.
- It is important to see that, in the critique of ideology, only those interventions will work which make sense to the mystified subject itself.
- I do not know whether to be delighted or outraged by the fact that Literary Theory: An Introduction was the subject of a study by a well known U.S. business school, which was intrigued to discover how an academic text could become a best-seller.
- New Preface to Literary Theory: An Introduction, Anniversary Edition, (2008)
Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition Marxism and Literary Theory (2002)
- "What perished in the Soviet Union was Marxist only in the sense that the Inquisition was Christian"
After Theory (2003)
- "Cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver. It has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity and disinterestedness. This, on any estimate, is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on. It is also, as we have suggested before, rather an awkward moment in history to find oneself with little or nothing to say about such fundamental questions."
- "In some traditionalist universities not long ago, you could not research on authors who were still alive. This was a great incentive to slip a knife between their ribs one foggy evening, or a remarkable test of patience if your chosen novelist was in rude health and only 34".
- In conscious life, we achieve some sense of ourselves as reasonably unified, coherent selves, and without this action would be impossible. But all this is merely at the ‘imaginary’ level of the ego, which is no more than the tip of the iceberg of the human subject known to psychoanalysis. The ego is function or effect of a subject which is always dispersed, never identical with itself, strung out along the chains of the discourses which constitute it.
- (2011) Literary Theory: An Introduction. p. 147
Why Marx Was Right (2011)
- You can tell that the capitalist system is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism.
- After all, if you do not resist the apparently inevitable, you will never know how inevitable the inevitable was.
- We face a probable future of nuclear-armed states warring over a scarcity of resources; and that scarcity is largely the consequence of capitalism itself. For the first time in history, our prevailing form of life has the power not simply to breed racism and spread cultural cretinism, drive us into war or herd us into labour camps, but to wipe us from the planet. Capitalism will behave antisocially if it is profitable for it to do so, and that can now mean human devastation on an unimaginable scale. What used to be apocalyptic fantasy is today no more than sober realism. The traditional leftist slogan ‘‘Socialism or barbarism’’ was never more grimly apposite.
- Modern capitalist nations are the fruit of a history of slavery, genocide, violence and exploitation every bit as abhorrent as Mao's China or Stalin's Soviet Union.
- History works itself out by an inevitable internal logic.
- It is capitalism, not Marxism, that trades in futures.
- The truth is that the past exists no more than the future, even though it feels as though it does.
- There seems to be something in humanity which will not bow meekly to the insolence of power.
- The most compelling confirmation of Marx's theory of history is late capitalist society. There is a sense in which this case is becoming truer as time passes.
- Ivory towers are as rare as bowling alleys in tribal cultures.
- When it comes to who exactly should be exploited, the system is admirably egalitarian.
- Capitalism cannot survive without a working class, while the working class can flourish a lot more freely without capitalism.
- The liberal state is neutral between capitalism and its critics until the critics look like they are winning.
- Socialism is the completion of democracy, not the negation of it.
- Capitalism is the sorcerer's apprentice: it has summoned up powers which have spun wildly out of control and now threaten to destroy us.The task of socialism is not to spur on those powers but to bring them under rational human control.
Quotes about Eagleton
- Like most academic Marxists, Professor Eagleton knows that, put baldly, the doctrine of economic determinism is patently absurd. So he employs various gambits to soften or conceal the absurdity, without ever really denying the basic model of economic determinism. This is not to say that he is completely free of "vulgar Marxist" rhetoric; indeed, he sometimes sounds like nothing so much as a soapbox Marxist, railing (for example) against "a petty bourgeois liberal humanism, academically dispossessed and subordinated yet in intellectual terms increasingly hegemonic, [which] occupied the bastions of reactionary criticism from within as a dissentient bloc."
Yet Professor Eagleton also takes great pains to distance himself from "vulgar Marxism"—the phrase occurs often in his works, always in his beloved scare quotes. The vulgar Marxist is a frank economic determinist and holds that the "superstructure" is a more or less direct reflection of economic processes. The sophisticated Marxist, well schooled in the writings of the Frankfurt School Marxists, allows that the superstructure is "relatively autonomous"—except when he wants to claim economic determination for some phenomenon of his own choosing. The "vulgar Marxist" is frankly Utopian and looks forward to the revolution and the establishment of a workers' paradise; a sophisticated Marxist like Professor Eagleton dandifies his utopianism with lots of high-flown rhetoric. "Once emancipated from material scarcity, liberated from labour," he writes in a typically starry-eyed passage, "[men] will live in the play of the mutual significations, move in the ceaseless 'excess' of freedom." Professor Eagleton's primary weapons against the charge of vulgar Marxism are words like "hegemony," "ideology," and "aesthetic," all of which in his hands have the wonderful property of meaning any of about six different and conflicting things.
- Roger Kimball (1990), "The Contradictions of Terry Eagleton", New Criterion September 1990
- Perhaps you thought that George Eliot was the author of Middlemarch. No: according to Professor Eagleton, the phrase “George Eliot” signifies nothing more than the insertion of certain specific ideological determinations -- Evangelical Christianity, rural organicism, incipient feminism, petty-bourgeois moralism–into a hegemonic ideological formation which is partly supported, partly embarrassed by their presence.
Similarly, he tells us that Henry James, like Joseph Conrad, “is . . . no more than a particular name for . . . an aspect of the crisis of nineteenth-century realism.” The idea is to downgrade the notion of individual genius, as if George Eliot’s personal contribution to the writing of Middlemarch were somehow accidental, the more important thing being the “specific ideological determinations” she embodied. The main point of all this is that nothing is what it seems; or, as Professor Eagleton puts it in Criticism and Ideology, “there is no ‘immanent’ value”: everything in the realm of culture is determined by something outside culture–namely (catch that whiff of vulgarity?) the oppressive economic relations of capitalism.
- Terry Eagleton is a deft, witty summarizer of other people's ideas. Applied Marxism is, oddly, his weakest point. He also goes limply soft on academic feminism, whose bourgeois prudery, moralism, and Protestant word-fetishism he does not see. Eagleton'e thought-provoking arguments against the [literary] canon are unfortunately vitiated by the fact that he seems to have little feeling for art. Is education to be gutted merely because Terry Eagleton wandered into a profession for which he discovered too late that he had minimal talent? Like Foucault, Eagleton continues to push into one new field after another, restlessly searching for success in something.
- Camille Paglia (1992) Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays, NY: Vintage, p. 246
- I think that the favorable expository literature on Žižek deepens his isolation [in refusing to answer or recognize criticism]. Consider the way Terry Eagleton quotes Žižek [in a passage from the latter's Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?] in discussing how the idea of “destiny” can trivialize the understanding of tragedy: “Does not the term ‘tragedy,’ Žižek asks, “at least in its classical sense, still imply the logic of Fate, which is rendered ridiculous apropos the Holocaust? To say that the annihilation of the Jews obeyed a hidden Necessity of Fate is already to gentrify it.” Eagleton then adds, “Žižek is mistaken to assume that tragedy, even classical tragedy, invariably involves fate; but he is right to see that the notion can actually sanitize suffering, and Euripides is unlikely to have demurred.” Why credit Žižek with an insight at all, if one admits that he is wrong in his claim? Who has ever seriously tried to “gentrify” the Holocaust by saying that it probably has to do with one of the gods “More truth in . . . appearance than in . . . reality.” being offended and that it goes to show that we should not try to evade the words of the oracle? [Eagleton's] [g]iving Žižek credit for victory over a straw man prevents engagement with the actual content of his words.
- David Pickus (2008) "Did Somebody Evade Totalitarianism? On the Intellectual Escapism of Slavoj Žižek." Humanitas Volume XXI, Nos. 1 and 2, pp. 146-167; quoting Eagleton's, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), p. 126; ellipses are Pickus's