Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Event of Literature

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Event of Literature

Article excerpt

The Event of Literature. By Terry Eagleton. Yale University Press. 264pp, Pounds 18.99. ISBN 9780300178814. Published 26 April 2012

This guidebook, which steers us confidently through some of the thickets of literary theory, is of the companionable and clever variety that we have become accustomed to expect from Terry Eagleton. It's the sort of book whose covers, if it were paperback, would lend themselves to gentle curvature, rolled up in a way so as to slip into the pocket of your jacket, ready to be yanked out at the next opportune moment at which you have a drink to hand and a footstool upon which to swing your feet. That is not to say this is an easy-reading book - it's not remotely "light" - but the skill of the writing is its cultivation of a kind of companionability, the relaxed but alert mood of an intelligence at ease into which Eagleton lulls you. His thinking is flexible but sure, speculative but precise, unforgiving of dogmatism without itself being doctrinaire, and at moments there is a flashing, reaching, humane sensibility that makes you want to put the book down so that you might better clutch at the Eagleton who often feels as though he is at your side and never quite is.

In short, Eagleton makes for good company - challenging, curious, garrulous and occasionally grumpy - in this series of extended discussions about the nature of literature and the contours given it by literary theory. This is an evidently academic book, although it might also read as a broad guide for a literate audience, credited with a general philosophical knowledge. It declares its novelty early on, melding "literary theory" with the "philosophy of literature", in a breaching of the old continental and analytic philosophy divide. It's a strategy that makes for some unusual conjunctions (Duns Scotus and Jacques Derrida?), and indeed, part of Eagleton's project seems to be to indicate the convergences of the two seemingly antagonistic fields. There's such an impressive sense of Eagleton's learning here that it feels churlish to demur that there might yet be something in the distinction of these fields of analysis - differences of emphasis, tone and mode - that is lost in conflation and that doesn't withstand the kind of transposition Eagleton gamely offers.

It is perhaps unsurprising, though, that the figure to whom we are returned most often in the book, with approbation and interest, is Ludwig Wittgenstein, equally claimed as he is by continentals and analytics alike. Eagleton is rather elegantly in love with Wittgenstein in this book, and most persuasive in his meditations on Wittgenstein's "forms of life", recognising in him a kind of pragmatism that is not without magic, an empiricism that is not without romance. …

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