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Review: The Event of Literature by Terry Eagleton

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Conor Kostick reviews The Event of Literature (Yale University Press) by Terry Eagleton



If The Matrix were a film about Literary Criticism, then Terry Eagleton would have been cast in the role of Morpheus. It’s easy to picture him, secure in a space of his own choosing, smiling and beckoning with a flick of his hand that his opponents should come and do their worst. And in the film version of The Event of Literature, every person seeking enlightenment by a different path than Eagleton’s would be sent sprawling by a good-natured clout to the head.

The Event of Literature might be a little less action-filled than The Matrix, but it has almost non-stop polemical confrontations to enjoy, even by readers, like myself, unfamiliar with the literary theorists addressed in the book. This is because Eagleton’s main concern here is to tackle the subject at a philosophical level and thus his comments typically have a relevance to all aesthetics, not just literary ones.

My friends over at the Association of Musical Marxists, for example, might take note of Eagleton’s passing observations on Adorno. Those who see the new as valuable in itself and the normative as inherently ossified easily fall into two errors, a blindness towards avant-garde forms that are sterile and a too-insensitive dismissal of all practices arising from well established norms.

While on the subject of the AMM, I once (a very long time ago) read an essay by one of its founders, Andy Wilson, on the compatibility of Wittgenstein’s epistemology with that of Marx. Evidence of such compatibility can be found in the writings of Terry Eagleton, which show that he has evolved a wonderful synthesis of the ideas of Marx and Wittgenstein.

An aspect of Wittgenstein’s work that is deeply appreciated by Eagleton is the sense that when reading the philosopher’s work, one is engaging with a mind in playful, ironic dialogue with itself, lucid in expression, but enigmatic in content (to quote from The Gatekeeper). It would not be right to say that Eagleton is enigmatic, most of the time his meaning could not be clearer if it were a slogan being chanted by thousands of demonstrators, but often Eagleton too writes in a playful and self-ironic mode. This is especially true when he approaches complex and multi-sided subjects; at these points a brusque, no-nonsense formulation would do as much harm as good.

As a case study of his methodology, Eagleton’s discussion of Realism versus Nominalism, with which he opens the book, serves well. Are general or universal categories in some sense real, à la Plato? Or – the Nominalist position - are abstract categories only ever the constructions of human minds? For the Nominalists, the real has to be particular. Comprehending the ideas of other writers and recasting them with brevity is one of Eagleton’s particular strengths and in this section he proceeds by examining the thoughts of Western philosophers through the ages, placing them on the Realist – Nominalist spectrum. Those philosophers who veer towards the extremes of either position, Eagleton takes to task.

So deft are Eagleton’s blows to the Realist tradition that at least one reviewer of The Event of Literature thought that he was here advocating a Nominalist point of view. But Eagleton metes out equally strong rebuttals to the one-sided Nominalists he discusses. Which leaves the reader where he wants us, thinking that universality and individuality cannot be antithetical. That this is Eagleton’s goal is evident from his approval of Marx’s writings on human beings in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. There Marx asserts that individual humans are distinct from one another, precisely because such individuation is a consequence of our ‘species-being’. One of the universal powers of homo sapiens is that of forming individuals.

This methodology, a series of zig-zagging critiques of first one side then the other, is crucial for Eagleton’s subsequent arguments concerning literature. The main body of the book is taken up with entertaining explorations of the limits of the – extraordinarily many – various schools of literary theory. His approach allows Eagleton to show that in many cases a theory founded on a mistaken definition of literature (definitions echoing the Realist – Nominalist debate), will collapse the living, multi-dimensional phenomenon that is literature into a (often dull) linear channel.

Now a lot of traditional Marxist aesthetics – say the meetings on art held at the UK SWP’s annual Marxism event (I was just now listening to the recording of John Molyneux’s talk on the subject) – understand art as in some way being a reflection of an historical moment. This, for Eagleton, is too simple-minded a dichotomy. A literary work is not a reflection of a history external to it but a ‘strategic’ labour, one that ‘paradoxically … projects out of its own innards the very historical and ideological subtext to which it is a strategic reply.’ (page 170) Trying to explain a person’s dream in terms of the state of global capitalism might yield an insight or two, but to ask what questions does the dream pose and address for the particular individual, and what does it reveal about his or her unconscious concerns, is immensely more fruitful.

Strategy is the key concept of The Event of Literature. Not in the sense of Napoleon’s generalship, but in defining a literary text as being a work whose efforts articulate a response to a particular historical or ideological subtext, a subtext that the work itself has fashioned and that does not exist ‘externally’. The strategic labour of a literary work is the way it sets to work on a reality that is contained within it. This sounds rather circular and perhaps those attuned to the dangers of post-modernism will now be hearing alarms, despite the fact that Eagleton is amongst the most militant opponents of post-modernism.

The circularity, however, is of the fecund, rather than sterile sort. The literary text is able to be something more than a resident in a closed world, due to the fact that it has simultaneously internalised something real and creatively reacted to this reality, to some extent forging a new one. It is possible, and seemingly easier (if it did not obscure matters at another level), to grasp at either side of this paradox by insisting that there is nothing beyond the text, or that the text is a direct reflection of an external world. In regard to the latter view, Eagleton quotes Jameson approvingly, ‘in order to act on the real, the text cannot simply allow reality to persevere in its being outside of itself, inertly, at a distance; it must draw the real into its own texture.’ Or, in his own words, ‘bodies and texts are self-determining, which is not to say they exist in a void. On the contrary, this self-determining activity is inseparable from the way they go to work on their surroundings.’ (page 209).

In the concept of literature as strategy, Eagleton believes he has a conceptual approach that allows us to see that some of the best insights of various literary schools, e.g. structuralism, semiotics, Freudianism, Formalism, etc are in fact related. Whilst they might not use the term strategy, each, when they are at their most insightful, approaches a similarly active understanding of literature. By elucidating this isomorphism and naming it – strategy – Eagleton has achieved something extraordinary, the equivalent of unifying quantum theory with gravitational theory, namely discovering a unifying literary theory.

Since he does not suffer from false modesty, this achievement is blown, like a triumphant fanfare of horns, by Eagleton himself at a number of points towards the end of the book. One might even call such a seminal book, if one were being playful, The Event of Literature. And why not? After all, despite his own repeated emphasis on what he himself sees as being the most important conclusion of his book, hardly any other review of The Event of Literature seems to have noticed what a major development of literary theory this is.

Eagleton’s potential allies on the Marxist left seem to have been in too much of a hurry to force the book into tired and decades-old formula. In Socialist Review, for example, we read that: ‘[Eagleton] berates those writers for whom theory is only about understanding the world, not changing it. Eagleton argues instead that literature is closely bound to its historical context …’ One can almost hear the repeated banging of a forehead against a table somewhere in Dublin.

This is not an easy work, but then books concerned with the philosophy of aesthetics are always going to be slow reads. And at least here the reader is in the hands of someone who writes with verve and wit. This book makes a huge contribution to literary theory and does so from a standpoint that we can gladly call our own.