The Books Interview: Terry Eagleton

There's a good deal of nostalgia in your new book, The Task of the Critic, for the "socialist culture" of the Seventies.
What's wrong with a bit of nostalgia between friends? I think nostalgia sometimes gets too much of a bad press. One of Walter Benjamin's extraordinary achievements, for example, was to make a kind of revolutionary virtue out of a certain concept of looking back, or nostalgia. As a tutor at Oxford during that period, I could see all kinds of energies that simply had no outlet - all kinds of radical impulses that were rather inchoate, but certainly present. So I think nostalgia is justified to some extent.

There was at least one outlet for those energies, though: the Marxism seminar you ran at Wadham College, which you describe as a "hostel for battered leftists". The left took even more of a battering in the intervening 30-odd years, didn't it?
I think the Gramsci formula about pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will gets at something. But I was struck, when I spoke recently at King's College London, by the extraordinarily diverse number of militant projects and campaigns that were being either conducted or planned. It was like being back in the Seventies, or the late Sixties.

One of the leftist Oxford students from the earlier period whom you mention by name in the book is Christopher Hitchens. What do you make of his political trajectory?
I just turned down the offer of a public debate with him in the States. I've said what I want to say, and we wouldn't have got anywhere - it would only have been a sort of bloodsport.

Even then, Christopher was mesmerised by the idea of America. He always wanted a bigger scene.

What was definitive for him, politically, was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989. I think that was the turning point. The deep Islamophobic impulse he has stems from that. But he's still an idiosyncratic mixture of various political attitudes that don't always go together.

And I wouldn't for a moment underestimate his formidable eloquence and intellectual resources. I think he is a superb writer. But I think that the radical was always at war with the public school boy who wanted to succeed.

Two years ago, you had a very public disagreement with Hitchens's close friend Martin Amis.
For a long time, they were quite divergent politically: Hitchens was still some kind of socialist and Amis was vehemently anti-communist in an uninteresting, cold war kind of way. But they've since converged. And now they're old cronies backing each other up - instant responses to attacks on the other.

I'm interested in the way a whole stratum of the liberal literati (Rushdie, to some extent Ian McEwan, A C Grayling, obviously Amis and Hitchens) - the very people you'd have expected to be guardians of the liberal flame of tolerance and understanding - have, at the very first assault, rushed into these caricatured postures driven by panic. I'm very struck by how those who are making ugly, illiberal, supremacist noises about the superiority of the west are precisely the sort of literary and liberal characters from whom you'd expect more imagination, openness and sensitivity.

Do you still read those writers?
I liked early Amis a lot, but I stopped reading him some time ago. I admire Hitchens on literary topics - I think he is very astute. McEwan, I read a bit. But I suppose it's more the ideological phenomenon that they represent together that interests me.

Your book Literary Theory (1983) has sold almost a million copies. Do you enjoy writing for lay audiences?
I enjoy popularisation and I think I'm reasonably good at it. I also think it's a duty. It's just so pedagogically stupid to forget how difficult one found these ideas oneself to begin with. And I think it's dismaying how small a patch there is for public intellectuals - particularly public intellectuals of the left. I value journalistic platforms as a way of extending beyond academia. You've got to have a sense of different audiences. I'm a kind of performer manqué - I come from a long line of failed actors!

“The Task of the Critic: Terry Eagleton in Dialogue", by Terry Eagleton and Matthew Beaumont, is published by Verso (£17.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide