Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton’s Critical Revolutionaries will appear in April.

FredricJameson points out in this study that Walter Benjamin never wrote a book, or not of a traditional kind. His account of German baroque theatre, translated into English as The Origin of German Tragic Drama, was written in the early 1920s as an academic thesis, though it was later published as a book. Since the examiners couldn’t understand a word of this stunningly original...

Antigone on Your Knee

Terry Eagleton, 6 February 2020

When​ we were students, a friend of mine discovered that he could trump anything anybody else said by using the word ‘tragic’. If someone said he needed a new pair of glasses or was thinking of joining the civil service, the two terse, dismissive syllables were enough to bring the conversation to a halt. ‘Tragic’ is a powerful, semi-sacred word, and the artform it...

A Long Way from Galilee: Kierkegaard

Terry Eagleton, 1 August 2019

There are​ a number of modern thinkers who might be described as anti-philosophers. Anti-philosophers aren’t simply people who don’t reckon much to philosophy, but thinkers who are dissatisfied with the dominant style of philosophising of their time, and feel this way for philosophically interesting reasons. A number of them have come from peripheral nations: Kierkegaard from...

A Row of Shaws: That Bastard Shaw

Terry Eagleton, 21 June 2018

It is​ no surprise that Irish studies has become something of a heavy industry in academia. Ireland is a small nation – ‘an afterthought of Europe’, as James Joyce put it – and marginality is much in vogue at the moment. Yet it is also home to a magnificent body of literature, much of it written with wonderful convenience in the world’s premier language, and so...

The title​ of this book has an odd ring to it, since in Kantian philosophy the notion of critique is closely bound up with the setting of limits, distinguishing what a form of inquiry may legitimately address from what is off-bounds to it. Rita Felski’s bold, stylish new study, however, is about critique in the less specialised sense of critical analysis. It is not a work about the...

Jack in the Belfry

Terry Eagleton, 8 September 2016

The Earl of Portsmouth’s long-suffering domestic staff were desperate to escape his childish pranks: if the earl wanted to play hide and seek, they would pretend not to know where he was hiding. He liked his manservant to rap the pig-tail of his wig against his neck like a knocker, shouting: ‘Is anybody at home?’ It was a pertinent inquiry.

A Toast at the Trocadero: D.J. Taylor

Terry Eagleton, 18 February 2016

D.J. Taylor​ is the most charitable of critics. However absurd, third-rate or pretentious the authors he examines, he can always find something to say in their favour. In this latest study, he even puts in a good word for the preposterous Sitwell family, having first given them a roasting for their insufferable self-importance, on the grounds that Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell were at least...

Dr Vlad: Edna O’Brien

Terry Eagleton, 22 October 2015

Like many​ marginal nations, Ireland has leapt from being a largely agricultural society to one of high-tech finance capitalism, information technology and the service industries. Rural drama has given way to Riverdance, and Lady Gregory to Martin McDonagh. The passage from the premodern to the postmodern, partly eclipsing modernity proper, was smoothed by the fact that Ireland had no...

Small Hearts: Anne Enright

Terry Eagleton, 4 June 2015

Hegel​ believed that happiness was largely confined to the private life, a view that would scarcely survive a reading of the modern novel. A lot of fiction since the early 20th century takes it for granted that families will be dysfunctional, individual lives unfulfilled and relationships cockpits of gladiatorial combat. Almost all the characters in Anne Enright’s superb new novel are...

In an Ocean of Elizabeths: Rochester

Terry Eagleton, 23 October 2014

The English​ have always had an affection for wayward, idiosyncratic types, men and women who, like Dickens’s eccentrics, acknowledge no law beyond themselves. This is one reason they love a lord, since aristocrats are natural anarchists. Those who set the rules see no reason to be bound by them. They combine the glamour of rank with the chutzpah of not giving a damn. Aristocrats have...

Disappearing Acts: Aquinas

Terry Eagleton, 5 December 2013

Born around 1225 near the small southern Italian town of Aquino, Thomas Aquinas attended the University of Naples, and while in the city entered the Dominican Order. He then went north to pursue his studies under Albert the Great, also a Dominican, in Paris and Cologne. He was appointed lecturer and then professor at the University of Paris, but returned to Naples to organise the Dominican...

Early modern Europe was awash with cases of demonic possession. Thousands of men, women and children conversed in languages of which they had no knowledge, tore at their own flesh and uttered blasphemies and profanities. They vomited vast quantities of nails, pins, blood, feathers, stones, coins, coal, dung, meat, cloth and hair, and grunted and barked like animals. Some of them writhed in...

George Berkeley’s claim that things exist only when they are being perceived has a lot to do with his Irishness. There are Irish people nowadays who cross the street when they see a priest approaching; but Ireland has traditionally been an intensely religious nation, and much of its thought, right down to questions of epistemology or political economy, has been influenced by this....

Beneath their capacious skirts, Fanny and Stella were Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, two young cross-dressers who were put on trial in Westminster Hall in 1871. Cross-dressing was not a criminal offence, so the men were charged instead with outraging public decency. On the slightest of pretexts, the prosecution also threw in ‘the abominable crime of buggery’, along with...

Even Uglier: Music Hall

Terry Eagleton, 20 December 2012

It was the 19th-century Irish statesman Daniel O’Connell who first turned politics into mass entertainment. His so-called Monster Meetings were carnivals as much as demonstrations, and mark the beginning of mass politics in the modern age. When he wasn’t haranguing thousands of small farmers about Catholic emancipation or the repeal of the Union, O’Connell practised as a...

Grub Street Snob: ‘Fanny Hill’

Terry Eagleton, 13 September 2012

Sex began in academia a decade later than it did for Philip Larkin. From the rise of the women’s movement to the postmodern cult of the perverse, few themes have been more persistent in literature departments than sexuality. For most people, writing about multiple orgasms is known as pornography; in academia, it can win you a chair.

Sexuality is not to be confused with sex. Sex is what...

Enrique Vila-Matas’s new novel centres on Bloomsday, the annual celebration in Dublin of the day on which Joyce’s Ulysses is set. Many nations celebrate mythical events, but Ireland commemorates a fictional one. It is as if Britain were to dedicate a feast day to Falstaff or to the Artful Dodger. For some in Ireland, Bloomsday is a useful alternative to memorialising the Easter...

Moll’s Footwear: Defoe

Terry Eagleton, 3 November 2011

It is said that Robinson Crusoe has been translated into every written language, including Latin, Coptic, Inuit, Maori and Esperanto. There is a version for children entitled Robinson Crusoe in Words of One Syllable, as well as a female Crusoe, a Catholic Crusoe and a dog Crusoe. There is a science fiction remake, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and a mass of film, cartoon and TV adaptations. A...

Overdoing the Synge-song: Sebastian Barry

Terry Eagleton, 22 September 2011

In the great lineage of classical realism from Stendhal to Tolstoy, a whole history is summarised in the fortunes of a particular family or set of characters. Individuals are portrayed in all their idiosyncrasy, but are made to represent more than themselves. Things are at once unique and exemplary. A belatedly flowering example of the species is The Leopard, in which the slow decay of a...

An Octopus at the Window: Dermot Healy

Terry Eagleton, 19 May 2011

After publishing a prize-winning volume of short stories and an accomplished early novel, Dermot Healy won the plaudits of the literary world with A Goat’s Song, one of the most powerful pieces of fiction to emerge from Ireland in the past few decades. It was published in 1994, just as the Celtic Tiger was starting to roar, but belonged in spirit to an earlier, less well-heeled and...

Indomitable: Marx and Hobsbawm

Terry Eagleton, 3 March 2011

In 1976, a good many people in the West thought that Marxism had a reasonable case to argue. By 1986, most of them no longer felt that way. What had happened in the meanwhile? Were these people now buried under a pile of toddlers? Had Marxism been unmasked as bogus by some world-shaking new research? Had someone stumbled on a lost manuscript by Marx confessing that it was all a joke?

Nothing Nice about Them: The Brontës

Terry Eagleton, 4 November 2010

Many authors begin writing in childhood, but that the Brontës did so seems peculiarly apt. There is something childlike about their sensibility, with its merging of fantasy and reality, its mixture of rebelliousness and awe at authority, its blending of submission and self-assertion. Like the Brontës, children can be passionate and impulsive, but they also crave a certain discipline...

Washed in Milk: Cardinal Newman

Terry Eagleton, 5 August 2010

I once met a young priest in the west of Ireland who told me that he was to be sent on the missions the following day. ‘Where are you being posted?’ I asked. ‘Birmingham,’ he replied. The Irish Catholic church has always scattered its clergy abroad, and there has been a lay branch of this pastoral exodus as well – nurses, for example. There is a sense in which the Dubliners Bono and Bob Geldof are self-advertising versions of Irish missionaries. The English and Scottish Catholic churches have always relied heavily on Irish priests to minister to parishioners who were themselves perhaps only a generation or two away from the farm in Mayo or Meath.

Count the Commas: Craig Raine’s novel

Terry Eagleton, 24 June 2010

There is plenty of stuff to keep Pseuds’ Corner busy for a fair few months: ‘Francesca’s fanny was a glorious irrepressible Afro pompon (“to go with my Botswana bottom”)’ might do for a start. A woman’s breasts move as she walks in a pattern ‘simple but somehow contradictory. As a drop of water fattens, stretches, shrinks: undecided in the suspense of its own elastic eternity.’ As with many Raine conceits, it is the voulu, blatantly unfelt quality of this that leaps from the page, the way it keeps a proud eye on its own verbal pirouetting.

Darwin Won’t Help: Evocriticism

Terry Eagleton, 24 September 2009

In pre-Romantic times, a treatise on the mollusc or the optic nerve would have been considered part of literature. In the post-Romantic era, literature has looked on science with a much more sceptical eye. Once the arts come to achieve a monopoly on the imagination, so that ‘imaginative literature’ means poetry and drama rather than history or psychology, scientists like...

David Hume once remarked that the English had the least national character of any people in the universe. Perhaps this was a cunning Scottish put-down, since character is just what the English pride themselves on. They may not bestride the world in intellect, cuisine or emotional intimacy, but these fancy pursuits can be left to foreigners, and don’t count for much compared to their own...

Does a donkey have to bray? The Reality Effect

Terry Eagleton, 25 September 2008

It would be surprising if millions of ordinary people turned out to be familiar with the Platonic Forms or Spinoza’s doctrine of nature, yet millions of waiters, nurses and truck drivers have a working knowledge of Aristotle’s distinction between substance and accident. This is because they are Roman Catholics, and the Council of Trent drew on Aristotle’s teaching to account...

Determinacy Kills: Theodor Adorno

Terry Eagleton, 19 June 2008

One of the many things that Adorno admired about Beckett’s writing was its ‘scrupulous meanness’, to borrow Joyce’s description of his own literary style in Dubliners. Beckett’s works take a few sparse elements and permutate them with Irish-scholastic ingenuity into slightly altered patterns. Complete dramas are conjured out of reshuffled arrangements of the same...

Unhoused: anonymity

Terry Eagleton, 22 May 2008

All literary works are anonymous, but some are more anonymous than others. It is in the nature of a piece of writing that it is able to stand free of its begetter, and can dispense with his or her physical presence. In this sense, writing is more like an adolescent than a toddler. I might pass you a note at a meeting, but a note is only a note if it can function in my absence. Writing, unlike speech, is meaning that has come adrift from its source. Some bits of writing – theatre tickets or notes to the milkman, for example – are more closely tied to their original contexts than Paradise Lost or War and Peace.

Coruscating on Thin Ice: The Divine Spark

Terry Eagleton, 24 January 2008

Most aesthetic concepts are theological ones in disguise. The Romantics saw works of art as mysteriously autonomous, conjuring themselves up from their own unfathomable depths. They were self-originating, self-determining, carrying their ends and raisons d’être within themselves. As such, art was a secular version of the Almighty. Both God and art belonged to that rare category of objects which existed entirely for their own sake, free of the vulgar taint of utility. The third member of this category was the human being. In their freedom, independence and glorious pointlessness, works of art were images of men and women – or at least of what they could become under transformed political conditions. In this sense, art was a politics all of its own, pointing to a future society in which human beings would be treated as ends in themselves. It was a foretaste of utopia in its very uselessness.

For the past three decades, Mikhail Bakhtin has been more of an industry than an individual. Not only an industry, in fact, but a flourishing transnational corporation, complete with jet-setting chief executives, global conventions and its own in-house journal. In the field of cultural theory, this victim of Stalinism is now big business. Most of the mouth-filling terms he coined – dialogism, double-voicedness, chronotope, heteroglossia, multi-accentuality – have passed into the lexicon of contemporary criticism. A cosmopolitan coterie of scholars, some of whom have devoted a lifetime to his texts, have long since struggled to appropriate him for their own agendas.

If the authors of this book sound like a firm of estate agents, it’s because they have virtuously repressed their first names as a protest against gender stereotyping. But one wonders if they have failed to carry this resistance far enough. There are, after all, several million Ewens knocking around the globe, and this particular pair might fear that their unique personalities are...

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

Eat it: Marcel Mauss

Terry Eagleton, 8 June 2006

Hegel thought it a mark of the modern age that philosophy had taken over from art and religion as the custodian of truth. The World Spirit had come to self-consciousness in his own head, rendering any less rational form of knowledge outmoded. Yet religion has retained its capacity to spark riots and launch civil wars, while art has survived as a refined version of religion for the...

Walter Benjamin once remarked that what drove men and women to revolt was not dreams of liberated grandchildren but memories of oppressed ancestors. Visions of future happiness are all very well; but happiness is a feeble, holiday-camp kind of word, resonant of manic grins and multicoloured jackets, not least when compared with the kind of past which, as Marx commented, weighs like a...

Oscar Wilde called experience the name one gives to one’s mistakes, while for Samuel Johnson it was what hope triumphed over for those who married a second time. Emerson thought all experience was valuable, an opinion not shared by the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay. Plato and Spinoza saw it as a realm of illusion, to be contrasted with the pure light of reason. Jacques Derrida deeply...

There’s a sexist joke, popular among theologians, in which God, a woman, is in the act of creating the world: ‘And darkness was upon the face of the deep. And God said “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God said “Er – could I just see the darkness again?”’ If this is not Pope John Paul II’s kind of God, it’s as much...

Ireland has less of a tradition of literary realism than England, though for an English critic to say so may require a degree of diplomacy. It may sound like saying that Ireland is deficient in realism in the same way that a nation might be deficient in hospitality or human rights. This is because realism is one of those terms which can be both normative and descriptive, like...

Living as Little as Possible: Lodge’s James

Terry Eagleton, 23 September 2004

Since the Modernist revolution, writing has been seen as an intensely private activity, a view which might have come as something of a surprise to Chaucer or Pope. For liberals such as Henry James and David Lodge, it represents a venture into individual consciousness of unique worth – so valuable, in fact, that in this new novel Lodge suspects it may be the summum bonum....

James Joyce valued the everyday, but only if it could be grist to the mill of his highly formal art. Yeats endured ‘the baptism of the gutter’, descending into the profane world only to gather it into the artifice of poetic eternity, and Joyce’s aesthetic was similarly redemptive. He would grub among the odds and ends of secular history so as to salvage them for an art which...

Anti-Humanism: Lawrence Sanitised

Terry Eagleton, 5 February 2004

One of the most tenacious of all academic myths is that literary theorists don’t go in for close reading. Whereas non-theoretical critics are faithful to the words on the page, theorists see only what their pet doctrines allow them to see. Like the belief that Edmund Burke was a reactionary or that an extraordinary number of male Australians are called Bruce, this is now such a received...

“Isn’t it bad enough that everyday existence is bounded by laws and conventions, without art feeling that it has to follow suit? Isn’t part of the point of art to give those tiresome restrictions the slip, creating things such as the Gorgon, or a grin without a cat, which do not exist in nature? Realism is meant to be a riposte to magic and mystery, but it may well be a prime example of them.”

“Like D.H. Lawrence, Orwell divides his readership down the middle. In Lawrence’s case, either you feel that he has a depth and intensity which puts every other writer in the shade, or his male supremacism and mystical ravings make you want to throw up. It is not surprising that similar ferocious contentions have surrounded a man who was at once traditionally English and politically revolutionary, rather as there would be unavoidable controversy over an animal which had the rib-cage of a hippo and the snout of a badger.”

Changing the world involves a curious kind of doublethink. If we are to act effectively, the mind must buckle itself austerely to the actual, in the belief that knowing the situation for what it is is the source of all moral and political wisdom. The only trouble is that such knowledge is also desperately hard to come by, and perhaps unattainable in any complete sense. The difficulty is not...

During the half-century since 1950, Lindsay Duguid writes in an essay in this collection, ‘the lady novelist turned into the woman writer,’ the historical novel became respectable once again, crime fiction became respectable for the first time, and the English novel was reborn as the British novel. Indian novelists revealed a ‘fondness for identical twins’, while...

Nudge-Winking: T.S. Eliot’s Politics

Terry Eagleton, 19 September 2002

Fascism is statist rather than royalist, revolutionary rather than traditionalist, petty-bourgeois rather than patrician, pagan rather than Christian . . . In its brutal cult of power and contempt for pedigree and civility, it has little in common with Eliot’s benignly landowning, regionalist, Morris-dancing, church-centred social ideal. Even so . . .

Maybe he made it up: Faking It

Terry Eagleton, 6 June 2002

Postmodernism awards high marks for non-originality. All literary works are made up of recycled bits and pieces of other works, so that, in the words of Harold Bloom, ‘the meaning of a poem is another poem.’ This doctrine of intertextuality is not to be confused with good old-fashioned literary influence. Such influences are mostly conscious and generally sporadic, whereas for...

Of all the great 20th-century critics, I.A. Richards is perhaps the most neglected. There is a crankish, hobbyhorsical quality to his work, an air of taxonomies and technical agendas which befits the son of a chemical engineer. His transatlantic counterpart in this respect is Kenneth Burke. Some of Richards’s work smacks of the laboratory, and isn’t helped by his charmless,...

Larry kept his mouth shut: gallows speeches

Terry Eagleton, 18 October 2001

The story is told of an Irishman who appeared on Mastermind and took as his special subject modern Irish history. Who was the first female President of Ireland? he is asked. ‘Pass,’ he replies instantly. Which neighbouring island once had sovereignty over the whole country? ‘Pass,’ he responds unhesitatingly. Which crop failed in the Great Famine? ‘Pass,’...

A Spot of Firm Government: Claude Rawson

Terry Eagleton, 23 August 2001

It is remarkable how many literary studies of so-called barbarians have appeared over the past couple of decades. Representations of Gypsies, cannibals, Aboriginals, wolfboys, noble savages: these, along with reflections on monsters, Mormons, cross-dressers and hairy Irish ape-men, have all flowed from Post-Modernism’s enduring love-affair with otherness. One wonders what the Tuareg...

If someone were to ask why art and culture have proved so vital to the modern age, one might do worse than reply: to compensate for the decline of religion. It is certainly a more convincing response than claiming that modern society finds art particularly valuable, as opposed to richly profitable. What modernity finds precious is less works of art, which are just one more commodity in its...

For the hell of it: Norberto Bobbio

Terry Eagleton, 22 February 2001

The political Left has always had trouble with ethics, in theory as well as in practice. The practical problems hardly need recounting. It was one of the great tragedies of the 20th century that socialism proved least possible where it was most necessary. A vision of human emancipation which presupposed for its success all the precious fruits of modernity – material wealth, liberal...

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, some progressively minded Catholics began to reintroduce into the Mass the ancient practice of public confession. Individuals would rise from their pews and accuse themselves in comfortably imprecise terms of various moral lapses, begging forgiveness of their brethren. At one such Mass, a young woman rose and proclaimed to the piously suppressed excitement of the congregation that she had committed adultery. ‘With that man over there,’ she added, pointing a finger at a young man with a baby on his lap who was turning a slow crimson. Then she added, ‘In thought,’ and sat down again.‘

The Estate Agent: Stanley Fish

Terry Eagleton, 2 March 2000

It is one of the minor symptoms of the mental decline of the United States that Stanley Fish is thought to be on the Left. By some of his compatriots, anyway, and no doubt by himself. In a nation so politically addled that ‘liberal’ can mean ‘state interventionist’ and ‘libertarianism’ letting the poor die on the streets, this is perhaps not wholly unpredictable.‘

Hasped and Hooped and Hirpling: Beowulf

Terry Eagleton, 11 November 1999

Writing in 1887 of the proposal to establish an Anglo-Saxon-based school of English at Oxford, the moral philosopher Thomas Case protested that ‘an English School will grow up, nourishing our language not from the humanity of the Greeks and Romans, but from the savagery of the Goths and Anglo-Saxons. We are about to reverse the Renaissance.’ Not for the first time, an Oxford don had mistaken his university for the spiritual heart of humanity. A century later, a move against Old English in Oxford provoked one apocalyptically minded medievalist to warn of the ‘worldwide demoralisation’ that would inevitably ensue.‘

‘You know, in my family,’ remarks a gay Irish architect in Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship, ‘my brothers and sisters – even the married ones – still haven’t told my parents that they are heterosexual.’ It is a neat Wildean inversion, one of the few good jokes in this harrowing, deeply unfunny novel, and a flash of wit with wider implications. For this is a novel about Aids which is not a ‘gay’ novel, or indeed much about sexuality at all. It is about mothering; and this is a gay issue in the book only because those most proficient at the craft turn out to be a couple of homosexual men. Larry the architect goes on to suggest that his mother would probably rather find out he was a Provo than gay: at least that would be something ‘normal’ they could talk about. Revealing or not revealing what you are is a way of trying to make contact with a mother, not a condition in itself.’‘

There must exist somewhere a secret handbook for post-colonial critics, the first rule of which reads: ‘Begin by rejecting the whole notion of post-colonialism.’ It is remarkable how hard it is to find an unabashed enthusiast for the concept among those who promote it: as hard as it was in the Sixties or Seventies to find anyone who owned up to being a structuralist. The idea of the post-colonial has taken such a battering from post-colonial theorists that to use the word unreservedly of oneself would be rather like calling oneself Fatso, or confessing to a furtive interest in coprophilia. Gayatri Spivak remarks with some justification in this book that a good deal of US post-colonial theory is ‘bogus’, but this gesture is de rigueur when it comes to one post-colonial critic writing about the rest. Besides, for a ‘Third World’ theorist to break this news to her American colleagues is in one sense deeply unwelcome, and in another sense exactly what they want to hear. Nothing is more voguish in guilt-ridden US academia than to point to the inevitable bad faith of one’s position. It is the nearest a Post-Modernist can come to authenticity.‘

Allergic to Depths: gothic

Terry Eagleton, 18 March 1999

All over the world, postgraduate students of English who might once have written on Wordsworth or Mrs Gaskell are now turning out theses on vampires, monsters, sado-masochism and mutilation. Most of this can be put down to Post-Modern faddishness, though vampires have a more venerable pedigree, as Richard Davenport-Hines notes in his agreeable romp through Gothic art from Salvator Rosa to Damien Hirst. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, now translated into over forty languages, has exerted an enduring fascination since its publication in 1897, with Dracula himself the most filmed fictional character after Sherlock Holmes. An English film, made in 1962, was responsible for five thousand fainting cases in cinemas, 75 per cent of them male. Women presumably see more blood than men, and men no doubt saw even less of it before they were allowed to be present at births. The late Romanian dictator Ceausescu decreed one of Dracula’s prototypes, Vlad the Impaler, a national hero, while 27 per cent of respondents to an American survey confessed to believing in vampires. There is a Santa Cruz Vampires Motor-Cycle and Scooter Club, and US vampires communicate by e-mail.

Of all historical periods, modernity is the only one to designate itself, vacuously, in terms of its up-to-dateness. Does this imply that the Renaissance lagged behind the times, or that classical antiquity (from where, ironically, we derive the word ‘modern’) could never quite catch up with itself? The fact is, of course, that in their own eyes the Stuarts were quite as modern as the Spice Girls, but labels like ‘Modernism’ and ‘modernity’ tend to obscure this fact. Every epoch suffers from the disability of being contemporaneous with itself, and of having no idea where it might lead. In some ways, we know a good deal more about the doctrine of divine right than the Stuarts did, not least that it failed to survive them for very long.‘

Literary theory is in love with failure. It looks with distaste on whatever is integral, self-identical, smugly replete, and is fascinated by lack, belatedness, deadlock, self-undoing. Works of literature catch its attention once they begin to come unstuck or contradict themselves, when they unravel at the edges or betray an eloquent silence at their heart. Like some remorseless therapist, the theorist is bent on exposing just how spiritually dishevelled such texts really are, despite their pathetic attempts to appear plausible and coherent. Literary theory is an aesthetics of the underdog, championing the humble particular which plays havoc with the structure of an epic or the intentions of a novelist.


Terry Eagleton, 27 November 1997

Schopenhauer saw us all as permanently pregnant with monsters, bearing at the very core of our being something implacably alien to it. He called this the Will, which was the stuff out of which we were made and yet was utterly indifferent to us, lending us an illusion of purpose but itself aimless and senseless. Freud, who was much taken with Schopenhauer, offered us a non-metaphysical version of this monstrosity in the notion of desire, a profoundly inhuman process which is deaf to meaning, which has its own sweet way with us and secretly cares for nothing but itself. Desire is nothing personal: it is an affliction that was lying in wait for us from the outset, a perversion in which we get involuntarily swept up, a refractory medium into which we are plunged at birth. For Freud, what makes us human subjects is this foreign body lodged inside us, which invades our flesh like a lethal virus and yet, like the Almighty for Thomas Aquinas, is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Pretty Much like Ourselves

Terry Eagleton, 4 September 1997

Utopia is the most self-undermining of literary forms. If an ideal society can be portrayed only in the language of the present, it risks being betrayed as soon as we speak of it. Anything we can speak of must fall short of the otherness we desire. Utopias rebel against the unimaginativeness of the present, and in doing so find themselves simply reproducing it. All utopian writing is also dystopian, since, like Kant’s sublime, it cannot help reminding us of our mental limits in the act of striving to go beyond them.

Spaced Out

Terry Eagleton, 24 April 1997

From the Romantics to the Modernists, time was a fertile concept and space a sterile one. Space was static, empty, what you had between your ears or needed to eradicate by bridging; time – or perhaps history – was fluid, burgeoning, open-ended. For a Modernist writer like Bertolt Brecht change in itself is a good, just as for Samuel Johnson change was in itself an evil. Bad things were reified products; good things were dynamically evolving processes.


Terry Eagleton, 20 June 1996

In the days of F.R. Leavis, English literary criticism was wary of overseas, a place saddled with effete, Latinate languages without pith or vigour. Proust is relegated to a lofty footnote in Leavis’s The Great Tradition; one of the few foreign writers approved by the Scrutineers, apart from those like James and Conrad who had had the decency to settle in the Home Counties, was Tolstoy, who could be read as a kind of D.H. Lawrence without the sex and the mines.

The Hippest

Terry Eagleton, 7 March 1996

Anyone writing a novel about the British intellectual Left, who began by looking around for some exemplary fictional figure to link its various trends and phases, would find themselves spontaneously reinventing Stuart Hall. Since he arrived in Britain from Jamaica in 1951, Hall has been the sort of radical they might have despatched from Central Casting. Charming, charismatic, formidably bright and probably the most electrifying public speaker in the country, he is a kind of walking chronicle of everything from the New Left to New Times, Leavis to Lyotard, Aldermaston to ethnicity. He is also a Marxian version of Dorian Gray, a preternaturally youthful character whose personal style evokes a range of faded American epithets: hip, neat, cool, right-on.

Love thy neighbourhood

Terry Eagleton, 16 November 1995

Most astrophysicists could write a bad novel, whereas few novelists could rise to being even poor astrophysicists. Those who live in the world of letters have to suffer the humiliation of knowing that, like courting or clog dancing, writing fiction is something that almost anyone can do indifferently. There is a nasty piece of work inside most of us. The author of a study of Durkheim would not seem the most obvious candidate for literary creation, but Steven Lukes’s novel is as enjoyable as it is because, not in spite of, the fact that he is a political philosopher. Political theorists, after all, concern themselves with human conduct, as astrophysicists do not; and Anglo-Saxon philosophers are notable for their penchant for jokes, satiric gibes, homespun examples, dotty anecdotes, as German Neo-Hegelians on the whole are not. One would not rush to open a novel by Jürgen Habermas, but Richard Rorty no doubt has a few suave short stories inside him. There are philosophical idioms which are inherently anti-fictional – positivism, for instance – and those which lend themselves naturally to literature. It is no accident that Sartre, whose philosophical thought turns on angst and nausea, should have been the novelist and playwright that one suspects Frege or Husserl could never have been. For many Anglo-Saxon philosophers, this is more or less equivalent to confessing that Sartre wasn’t doing philosophy at all, even though one of the texts they most revere, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, is a ragbag of fictional devices. The style of philosophising of the Investigations is that of a man who valued art above philosophy, and who dreamed of writing a philosophical treatise consisting of nothing but jokes.’


Terry Eagleton, 21 September 1995

Writers are broadly classified as intellectuals, though many poets and novelists feel uncomfortable enough with the title. The split between analysis and imagination, the critical and the creative, is one of the deadliest of Romantic legacies, born of an antagonism to particular forms of bloodless cerebration (Enlightenment rationalism, Utilitarianism) and then recklessly generalised to abstract thought as such. By the mid-19th century in England, poetry had come to figure as the opposite of rational discourse, a move which would have come as a mighty surprise to Samuel Johnson, while the boldest scientific ventures were being jealously denied the epithet ‘creative’. Post-Modernism has begun to undo this dichotomy, aware that critical language is itself a form of rhetoric and that the Modernist or Post-Modernist artwork secretes a tacit theoretical critique of itself; but it is still an imprudent theorist who would venture into a coven of poets without leaving a contact number. Literary theory seems something of an oxymoron; how can you theorise a discourse whose whole raison d’être is to defeat the concept? A science of the concrete, as Schopenhauer remarked, is a contradiction in terms; the sensuous particularities of the aesthetic, like the structure of the world for the early Wittgenstein, can be shown but not spoken of.

Wallpaper and Barricades

Terry Eagleton, 23 February 1995

The Left has always been uneasy with aesthetics. The very word suggests privilege, preciousness, a remoteness from the real. Even when radicals respect culture, they assign it, quite properly, a secondary place to social utility. If it’s a choice between snatching from the flames the Holbein or the hippie, the radical is a mite less agonised than the aesthete. Almost everyone agrees that a museum is not as fine a thing as an orphanage; what differentiates Left from Right is just the degree of mental reservation you feel about the proposition.

Deadly Fetishes

Terry Eagleton, 6 October 1994

Magic realism is usually thought of as a Third World genre, appropriate to a place where the supernatural is still taken seriously, where fable and folk-tale still flourish and where fantasy can provide some pleasurable relief from a harsh social reality. But the genre is equally at home in a West for which fantasy is a major industry, where reality – or what tattered remnants of it we have left – seems endlessly pliable, where fact is shot through with fiction and where, for technology or consumerist ideology, all things seem equally possible. The comma between ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Salman Rushdie’s title thus forms a bridge as well as marking a gap, as we move within the book – itself divided into three sections (‘East’, ‘West’ and ‘East, West’) – from an Eastern to a Western way of dividing up the real.’


Terry Eagleton, 7 July 1994

‘I dreamed last night I was hanged,’ W.B.Yeats once announced, ‘but was the life and soul of the party.’ It is impossible with such oracular Yeatsian pronouncements to separate mask from reality, the poseur from the sincere eccentric. Auden called Yeats ‘silly like us’, but he was really just being polite: this table-rapping, spirit-summoning Rosicrucian was a lot sillier than most of us. Few major modern writers have been, in terms of their intellectual interests, so completely off the wall. But Yeats was one of the last great self-fashioners, and it is never quite possible to know how far he credited his own scrupulously cultivated absurdities, or even what ‘credited’ there would actually mean. On the one hand, there was the Celtic visionary who when he lived in Oxford couldn’t cross Broad Street without taking his life in his hands. On the other hand, there was the hard-headed Protestant with (as his father told him) the virtues of an analytic mind, the crafty operator who could launch a theatre and help organise a political rally. Writing of the way leprechauns spin on their pointed hats, he inserts the scholarly reservation: ‘but only in the north-eastern counties’. Is Yeats here sending up the reader, the folklorists, or mocking his own relentlessly mythopoeic mind? Or is he sending up nobody at all? A poet who literally lives in one of his own symbols, a half-ruined tower in County Galway, is either peculiarly self-mythologising or unusually self-ironising, and the question with this posturing, passionate man is sometimes undecidable.

In the Twilight Zone

Terry Eagleton, 12 May 1994

There was once a king who was troubled by all the misery he observed about him. So he summoned his wise men and commanded them to inquire into its causes. The wise men duly looked into the matter, and reported back to the king that the cause of all the misery was him. So runs Bertolt Brecht’s parable of the founding in 1923 of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, a centre for Marxist studies endowed by a wealthy German capitalist. The English are on the whole rather hostile to schools of thought, which they feel can be left to the over-conceptual Continentals. It is one of the wearier clichés of English cultural commentary that any particular school represents more a mood than a coherent doctrine, an assortment of diverse individuals rather than a unified belief system. The Frankfurt School, as it would come to be called, was certainly diverse in its interests, ranging from Schoenberg to surplus value, psychosis to the laws of capitalism, Baudelaire to bourgeois rationality. But it was united by a revisionist brand of Marxism known as Critical Theory; and from its birth in the Weimar Republic to its later flight to New York and post-war return to Frankfurt, it sustained a tenacious if turbulent institutional existence through the advent of Fascism, the defeat of socialism, the Second World War and the ideological freeze-over which followed on its heels.


Terry Eagleton, 28 April 1994

Gothic horror tale, detective mystery, autobiography, political history: Jonathan Coe’s appealingly ambitious new novel involves a promiscuous intermingling of literary genres, as a potted social history of Thatcherism is tucked inside some meta-textual high jinks. An anatomy of the appalling Winshaw family, Thatcherite predators of one ilk or another, provides the lens for a scabrous critique of Tory Britain; but at the source of the family’s history lies a mysterious murder, so that the text simultaneously yields us a camped-up whodunnit. Flamboyant crimes and scandalous secrets marked the Thatcher epoch, just as they do the life of the novel’s voyeuristic, emotionally autistic narrator Michael Owen, whose finger hovers constantly by the freeze-frame button as he drools over videos. The Thatcherite Eighties were all about emotionally retarded men excitedly glued to screens, manipulating signs to conjure fortunes into being as arbitrarily as the literary artist (Owen is a minor novelist) dreams up character and event.


Terry Eagleton, 6 January 1994

In Neil Jordan’s film The Crying Game, a renegade IRA man ends up in the arms of a male cross-dresser. It is a typical Post-Modern drift – from politics to perversity, revolution to transgression, the transformation of society to the reinvention of the self. Revolutions are made in the name of wealth, freedom, fullness of life; but those who make them are the worst possible image of the world they hope to fashion. Because asceticism, self-sacrifice, ruthless utility are among the essential revolutionary virtues, there will be no place for the founding fathers in a truly transformed state. Indeed, their redundancy will be an index of its success. There will, however, be a place for the mothers and daughters; for their role, in a certain feminist conception, is to remind us here and now of the sensuous fulfilment their grim-faced menfolk must necessarily defer. If the women practise a utopia of the present, the men must forego that privilege in seeking to create the conditions in which it will become available for everyone. It is an antithesis ripe for deconstruction, if one thinks of the great women revolutionaries; but to relax the tension it outlines is either to lose grip on the values one is fighting for, or to indulge in a purely selfish prefiguring of the political future. That other Irish transgressor, Oscar Wilde, understood that his own indolence dimly portended the New Jerusalem in which nobody else would have to work either: just lounge on the couch all day and be your own communist society. But he had to pay a heavy price for this prolepsis, in guilt and morbid narcissism; and the transgressive heroine of Aisling Foster’s accomplished first novel must also reckon the political cost.’

First-Class Fellow Traveller

Terry Eagleton, 2 December 1993

Stalinist, alcoholic, sexually ambivalent, Patrick Hamilton had all the prerequisites of a successful Thirties writer. That his success was uneven would seem simply another sign of the times, the mark of an epoch grimly wedded to failure. His work was praised by Greene, Priestley, Lessing, Powell; but If he survives today it is for a couple of memorably macabre dramas – Rope and Gaslight – which Hamilton himself scorned as callow sensationalism. Rope, a savage homo-erotic farce by Orton out of Wilde, made his name and fortune, and was filmed without cuts by Hitchcock in a celebrated cinematic experiment. Gaslight, first performed in 1939, is a spooky tale of patriarchal paranoia which the sexual politicians of our time have yet to catch up with. But though several of Hamilton’s sub-Dickensian novels sold widely at the time, only a meagre clutch them (Hangover Square, Slaves of Solitude, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse) have survived in contemporary editions; and by the Fifties their author was hurtling towards spiritual skid-row, plagued by the dipsomania which killed him in 1962.’

Angry ’Un

Terry Eagleton, 8 July 1993

In August 1845, Branwell Brontë, ill-starred drug-addict brother of the celebrated trio, took a trip from the Haworth family home to Liverpool. It was on the very eve of the Irish famine, and the city was soon to be thronged with its hungry victims. Many of them would have been Irish speakers, since it was the Irish-speaking poorer classes that the famine hit hardest. As Winifred Gerin comments in her biography of Emily Brontë: ‘Their image, and especially that of the children, was unforgettably depicted in the Illustrated London News – starving scarecrows with a few rags on them and an animal growth of black hair almost obscuring their features.’ A few months after Branwell’s visit to Liverpool, Emily began writing Wuthering Heights – a novel whose male protagonist, Heathcliff, is picked up starving off the streets of Liverpool by old Earnshaw. Earnshaw unwraps his greatcoat to reveal to his family a ‘dirty, ragged, black-haired child’ who speaks a kind of ‘gibberish’, and who will later be variously labelled beast, savage, demon and lunatic. It’s clear that this little Caliban has a nature on which nurture will never stick; and that’s merely an English way of saying that he’s quite possibly Irish.’

There will soon be more bodies in contemporary criticism than on the fields of Waterloo. Mangled members, tormented torsos, bodies emblazoned or incarcerated, disciplined or desirous: it is becoming harder, given this fashionable turn to the somatic, to distinguish the literary theory section of the local bookshop from the soft porn shelves, sort out the latest Jackie Collins from the later Roland Barthes. Many an eager masturbator must have borne away some sexy-looking tome only to find himself reading up on the floating signifier.


Terry Eagleton, 8 April 1993

There are no ex-Catholics, only lapsed ones. A lapse, as the light little monosyllable suggests, is a mere temporary aberration, an ephemeral error which can always be retrieved; and even the more ominous sounding ‘excommunication’ can always be undone by a quick bout of repentance. Leaving the Catholic church is as difficult as resigning from the Mafia; for the Church in its wisdom has artfully anticipated such renegacy and created within its ranks the special category of ‘lapsed’, wedged somewhere between saints and clergy. Like every authoritarian institution, the church incorporates its own outside into itself, so that to lapse is to enjoy a privileged relationship with it, to be counted among an honourable company of ruined Jesuits, inverted metaphysicians, loose-living Dubliners and Latino leftists. Indeed if religious devotion survives anywhere in these secular times, it is in the negative theology of these Oedipal offspring of Mother Church, who hammer their fists on her bosom with all the passionate intensity of the true believer.


Faculty at War

17 June 1982

SIR: Gabriel Josipovici’s high-minded objections to popular introductions such as Melhuen’s ‘New Accents’ series are not only self-contradictory (first he assaults them indiscriminately, then he warily acknowledges they can be of value) but thoroughly disingenuous too. Josipovici should not disguise as a disinterested defence of true culture what is in fact – see his Introduction...

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