Shelving culture. The effect of Terry Eagleton on two generations of English students has been disastrous, argues Bryan Appleyard. But now the old Marxist appears to be mellowing

The Idea of Culture

Terry Eagleton <em>Blackwell, 156pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0631219668

Culture, concludes Terry Eagleton, has grown "immodest and overweening" and so "it is time, while acknowledging its significance, to put it back in its place". What! After 131 dense pages of Eagletonism - brilliance and posturing in equal measure - I had expected a little more than this. But no, Oxford's Thomas Wharton Professor of English Literature just wants to put culture back in its place and, er, that's it.

I should have known better. I am just the sort of person Eagleton exists to infuriate. Years ago, I read his book Literary Theory. At first, I took it to be a joke, but later decided that it was an attempt to explain to certain people why they hated reading. The effect of that work - and numerous others - on English teaching has been disastrous. The sensuous and intellectual grasp of writing has been replaced by various drab sociologies, and two generations of English students have emerged from universities unable to read but superbly placed to become bad journalists.

And here he is, at it again. At one low point in his new book, The Idea of Culture, Eagleton suddenly refers to "those churls on the English department corridor who study line endings in Milton". Leaving aside the oddity of this firebrand of the academic left using a word that means "peasant" as a term of abuse, what, actually, is wrong with studying Milton's line endings? Would Eagleton object to the technical study of Mozart's music or Titian's painting? We do these things to understand and preserve certain forms of excellence and, indirectly, to keep professors of English in useful employment. But Eagleton's gaze is always focused on the big picture; actual art seldom gets a look-in.

Well, it does occasionally. This book has some good, though arguable, stuff on King Lear, and it has a quotation from Seamus Heaney taken from an interview. Heaney says that justice, freedom, beauty and love are coterminous with our artistic and literary culture and, heaven be praised, Eagleton agrees. But he goes on to criticise Heaney for not mentioning the wicked underside of European civilisation and for giving "the impression that moral culture stops at St Petersburg". This was an interview, for God's sake, and Heaney's quotation neither denied the significance of European evil nor gave that St Petersburg impression. But there's nothing like a straw man to break the ice at parties.

OK, one more moan and then I'll say why Eagleton is, in fact, rather good. "The concept of culture", he writes, "thus gains in specificity what it loses in critical capacity, rather as the constructivist rocking chair is a more sociable art form that the high modernist artwork, but only at the cost of its critical edge."

Whenever an academic uses phrases such as "rather as", "it seems to me" or "a form of", it means he is about to show off. In this case, there's no "rather as" about it. The whole sentence is superfluous - the point had already been made - so that rocking chair stuff is doubly superfluous, as well as being a laughable example of culture-babble. Entire passages in this book - notably the claustrophobic, inwardly spiralling "Culture Wars" chapter - are rendered pointless by such smug elaborations.

And yet, and yet. Eagleton can be superb. His assault on American culture, for example, is apposite and economical. "If people of truly surreal fatness", he writes, "complacently patrol its streets, it is partly because they have no idea that this is not happening everywhere else." This is the most profound line I've ever read - and there have been many - on the subject of American fatness. It precisely captures the way America has conquered the world by, in effect, ignoring it; by universalising its own eccentric domesticity. Eagleton even bemoans the collapse of private speech in the new American demotic. "Like he was all 'uh-uh' and I was like kinda 'hey!' but he was like 'no way' or 'whatever'" is the rather fine example he offers.

In fact, editing out the posturing, the book as a whole is an important meditation on where we are now. Eagleton's history of the word "culture" identifies three phases: culture as romanticism's anti-capitalist critique, as anthropological description of a whole way of life and, finally and most narrowly, as shorthand for the arts in general. In the context of postmodernism, this third phase has, in effect, blossomed into a fourth - as an inflated but empty and incoherent totality. It is this phase that inspires Eagleton's lame conclusion: we need "an enlightened political context" and less culture.

On the way, he elegantly undermines the confusions of multiculturalism. "It is those who fetishise cultural differences who are the reactionaries here. It was by belonging to their own cultural history, not by putting it temporarily on ice, that those societies were able to go beyond it. I do not understand you by ceasing to be myself, since there would be nobody to do the understanding."

Exactly. And he is astute about the real world implications of academic, pragmatic, "sassy and streetwise" postmodernism. "Such pragmatism leaves the west disarmed in the face of those fundamentalisms, both within and without, which are not too perturbed by other people's anti-metaphysical eagerness to scupper their own foundations." I couldn't put it better myself. (I have often put it rather worse.)

Both the above arguments, you may notice, have a distinctively conservative flavour. In truth, there is nothing about this book that really needs Eagleton's socialism. This was not true of much of his earlier work, which was structurally dependent on an extreme leftist position. So the big question is: are we seeing the mellowing of Tel?

I hope so, because his politics have long distracted his agile and impressive mind from a task whose urgency, if I read this book correctly, he is coming round to accepting. That task is the defence of English literature, not as an imperial power play, but as a key constitutive element of our humanity. Eagleton is never better than when he is assaulting the destructive fundamentalisms - biological or cultural - of our time. And he could do nothing more valuable than demonstrating that the balance and complexity of art embody the possibility, if not the actuality, of our liberation from those dangerous illusions.

Bryan Appleyard's most recent book is Brave New Worlds: genetics and the human experience (HarperCollins, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy