08/12/2006

eagleton's great tradition

Terry Eagleton, The English Novel: an Introduction

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It was over a decade ago that Terry Eagleton published Literary Theory: an Introduction and brought the arcana of Foucault and Lacan to a lay audience - students, but not only students - for whom these figures and their work had always seemed as grotesquely inhuman as the alien gods of H.P. Lovecraft. Eagleton wrote as demystifier and impresario, and his guide, a revised, updated edition issued in 1996, has long since earned its reputation as the portal into a world inimical to common sense and clarity. Eagleton entitled his recent memoir The Gatekeeper - and it's precisely in this role that, with Literary Theory, he very successfully cast himself.

Of late Eagleton has produced a substantial critical rehabilitation of Tragedy (Sweet Violence) and a 'sequel' of sorts to Literary Theory. Less systematic exposition than, and certainly no repudiation of its predecessor, After Theory (2003) foregoes the marxisante stridencies of all those middle-aged political thinkers vexed to distraction by the refusal of the twenty-first century world to fit their ideas. Indeed, Eagleton has significantly modified his critical stance, which has become infinitely more hospitable to categories of experience - the numinous, chiefly, but compassion and joy too - he'd have dismissed two decades ago as symptoms of false consciousness. He finds the retrograde inflexibility of his confreres troubling and downright unhelpful; as Eagleton intimates at the close of Sweet Violence:

...Lacan's 'Do not give up on your desire!' becomes a political injunction. It means 'Be steadfast for death': don't be fulled by 'life' as we have it, refuse to make do with the bogus and the second-best, don't settle for that set of shabby fantasies known as reality, but cling to your faith that the deathly emptiness of dispossessed is the only source from which a more jubilant, self-delighting existence can ultimately spring. And for that, the left needs a discourse rather more searching than pluralism or pragmatism. There can be no falling back on metaphysical dogmatism or foundationalist complacency. But if the language of critique is to match the depth and urgency of our political situation, neither can the left be content to remain caught within the repetitive round of its present cultural concerns.


At times Eagleton, in After Theory, appears more the inheritor of the Ruskin of Fors Clavigera than the scion of a tradition springing from Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson: Ruskin, a visionary socialist where the other two were career academics first and foremost. Eagleton is keenly conscious of writing in a state of cultural emergency, and it is the permeability of the barrier between critical study (Sweet Violence) and moral philosophy (After Theory) that makes it worth regarding the two books in terms of a revisionist portmanteau. We can no longer afford, he seems to be saying, to waste another word on inconsequential blather.

The English Novel: an Introduction, by comparison, is a rather low intensity affair - but loses nothing in charm for it. Indeed, it's almost cosily unprovocative - not least in Eagleton's restricting himself to the Canon - an abstraction, chiefly invented by bored Cambridge dons to pass the time at high table (novelists and poets sharply divided between U and non-U, as though Nancy Mitford had a hand in forming the native literary tradition), and a concept long since thought to have discredited itself. F.R. Leavis would have found its contents, superficially at least, uncontroversial. But he might have raised a patrician eyebrow at the ideas that Eagleton sneaks into the gaps between plot summaries; for the peculiar cast of the earlier two books remains - softened, but implacably there. The novel is "one of the great revolutionary cultural forms of human history" - an artefact than enacts freedom itself. "As the novelist conjures a new world into existence, in a profane parody of God's creation, so each individual shapes his or her inimitable life-history." Eagleton admires and exalts this quality of the novel, it resourcefulness in pinning down 'the Real' even while licensing novelist and reader jointly to interrogate the very notion of reality. Historically a cultural offspring of the ascendant middle-classes, under the hands of such socially heterodox figures as Swift, Sterne and Joyce, it became by far the most capacious medium for the scrutiny of fact and value, freedom and necessity.

Admittedly Eagleton plays it straight through most of this book, after the polemical alarums of the earlier two. The old contention between formalism and historicism is duly played out. Only in the afterword does Eagleton finally begin to betray his exasperation at the failure of the postwar novel - and, indeed, the post-Cold War novel - to fashion itself into a literary form primed to cope with the convulsions of modern geopolitics. As he has it, "the contemporary English novel is doing dismally little to disturb the reigning orthodoxies." The baroque fantasias of an A.S. Byatt seem scarcely bothered by the advent on the global scene of a political death cult.

As an ordnance survey of the English novel Eagleton's latest work is more than adequate. The cross-grained forthrightness of the Marxist firebrand of old still adheres to his prose. The high-mindedness survives intact, as does the tart wit and severe moral urgency. The undergraduate will find it indispensable for its comprehensiveness, and will perhaps even thank Eagleton for goading her into uncharacteristically original thought. The non-academic non-specialist will simply enjoy the assurance and seasoned authority with which Eagleton dispenses his readings of familiar novels. In some ways a slight work, The English Novel: an Introduction could quite profitably be read alongside its recent stable-mates, as Eagleton amplifies further the critical programme he began to elaborate in Sweet Violence. Whatever their apparent subject-matter, each of these books urge us to march into the near-future under the banner: Allons travailler.

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