A Prophet Wrongly Honored: Alan Jacobs Explains Why Terry Eagleton Is Wrong about Why Marx Was Right
Jacobs, Alan, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
Terry Eagleton made his name in the 1980s by demonstrating that it is possible to write wittily and even elegantly about literary theory. At the time this was something of a revelation. Theory was almost synonymous with what its advocates might have called a "problematizing" style--things are more complicated than they seem, and language must embody that complication--and with what its opponents might have called sheer obfuscation. Eagleton himself, in his earlier writing, had not scaled the heights of opacity but had not been the most stylish of stylists.
In his 1976 book Marxism and Literary Criticism, Eagleton wrote many sentences like this one about Dickens' Dombey and Son: "The ideological basis of this ambiguity is that the novel is divided between a conventional bourgeois admiration of industrial progress and a petty-bourgeois anxiety about its inevitably disruptive effects." Clear enough, in the earnest and wooden way characteristic of much Marxist criticism, and with an undertone, if you listen carefully, of tanks rumbling through the streets of Prague.
But then the University of Minnesota Press commissioned Eagleton to write an accessible overview of literary theory--a decision that proved more rewarding than the press could have imagined. Literary Theory: An Introduction became an academic bestseller: It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since its first publication in 1983, largely because Terry Eagleton, it turns out, has remarkable gifts of clear exposition, narrative urgency (about ideas!), and mordant wit.
About the belief, proclaimed with zeal by the English scholar F. R. Leavis in his journal Scrutiny, that reading great literature makes you a better person, Eagleton notes: "When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps some years after the founding of Scrutiny, to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do." And on a later development: "Such deconstruction is a power game, a mirror image of orthodox academic competition. It is just that now, in a religious twist to the old ideology, victory is achieved by kenosis or self-emptying: The winner is the one who has managed to get rid of all his cards and sit with empty hands."
Clarity and wit, yes; but there's something else at work here: not just a narrative urgency but also a moral one. Eagleton's wit has a barb to it, and that barb is for people--whether traditional humanists or radical post-humanists--whose thought takes no real cognizance of injustice. His implicit critique of both the humanists and the devotees of deconstruction is that they are morally frivolous.
Eagleton comes by this moral impulse in two ways: through his Marxism and through his allegiance to a form of Catholic Christianity grounded in the pursuit of social justice. Few of Eagleton's readers know that his early career focused more on theology than on literary criticism, although the merger of the two was his self-professed goal. In 1964 the twenty-one-year-old Eagleton was a founding editor of Slant, a journal "devoted to a Catholic exploration of ... radical politics." In the preface to his first book, The New Left Church--published in 1966, when he was just twenty-three--he wrote, "The essays in this book are concerned with the church, literature, and politics."
At that time, Eagleton would later write, "I was a socialist, to be sure, but I was anxious to know how far to the left a Catholic could go without falling off the edge." After consulting with clerical and theological friends, he got his answer: "It seemed there was no edge after all." Eagleton means this politically--that is, he learned that you can't be too far left to be a Christian--but it appears that the Catholicism he came to know in Cambridge didn't have many other edges, either. This perhaps helps to explain why, a few years later, he crossed the Church off his professional list, leaving himself with literature and politics. …