"YOU WON'T believe what happened last night!" Terry Eagleton announces, with a twinkly smile that is clearly something of a trademark. He had, it turns out, been walking along the Strand, after seeing Michael Frayn's new play, Democracy, when he was stopped by a young man with a Yorkshire accent. "Where's that David Blunkett?" the youth demanded. Eagleton suggested politely that he try the Home Office."No, no," insisted the youth, "the one in the glass cage."
It is a strangely surreal scenario, but somehow not surprising: the former Thomas Warton Professor of English at Oxford being asked for directions to the weirdest show in town, the sort of narcissistic, navel-gazing enterprise, in fact, that has been one of the triggers for his new book. After Theory (Allen Lane, pounds 18.99) is an explosive follow-up to Literary Theory, the book that changed the intellectual lives, and curricula, of a generation of undergraduates. At a time (the early 1980s) when students of English literature were either battling with Beowulf or ploughing through swathes of opaque prose by literary theorists announcing the Death of the Author and the pre-eminence of the Text, Eagleton took the literary theoretical bull by the horns and, well, deconstructed it. With him as their down-to-earth and witty guide, thousands of students suddenly saw the postmodernist light. If all was not clear exactly, at least they knew why.
There was no such thing as clarity, only the "seething multiplicity of the text", hitherto obscured by one's hidden, and simplistic, assumptions. The advantage of this view, as he helpfully points out in the chapter on post-structuralism, "is that it allows you to drive a coach and horses through everybody else's beliefs while not saddling you with the inconvenience of having to adopt any yourself".
More than 20 years on, After Theory is not, of course, an attempt to redress the balance (a woolly liberal concept that Eagleton would hate) but a response to a crisis. The jacket bears the silhouette of a plane, a motif that could imply the book is yet another knee-jerk response to September 11 and the rise of fundamentalism. That is part of it, Eagleton admits, but the general issue is very much wider. Students today, he asserts, are engaging neither with history nor with post-structuralism. "What is sexy instead is sex," he announces, in the first chapter, on "The Politics of Amnesia": "Quietly spoken middle-class students huddle diligently in libraries, at work on sensationalist subjects like vampirism and eye- gouging, cyborgs and porno movies." Cast adrift in the stormy currents of postmodernism, they prefer to focus their energy on "the history of pubic hair" or the evolution of Friends, a trend that Eagleton regards as "politically catastrophic".
But isn't this a trend of his own making? The elusive pleasures of Barthes, Derrida, Foucault et al would surely have remained safely obscured from the masses if Eagleton's passionate primer hadn't burst on to student bookshelves and into their brains. "Well, I don't think I've ever been on that particular bandwagon," says Eagleton, breathtakingly. "Inevitably," he adds, more convincingly, "those ideas grow out of or are developments of ideas that I've been involved in. Postmodernism grew out of Marxism and so on, so, to the extent that I've been involved in that whole game, I'm responsible. Of course," he continues, with a huge grin, "I would say that I've been ill-served by my acolytes."
We are sitting in a minuscule office on the eighth floor at Penguin, surrounded by leaning piles of Penguin Classics. We'd been promised panoramic views over the Thames but the posh meeting rooms on the 10th floor have all, today, been colonised by Pearson. Our conversation in this cramped corner is, in more ways than one, a consequence of the Triumph of Capitalism. The entire building, with its vast, …