Literary theory has largely lost its cachet in English departments and so, presumably, has Literary Theory, the manual by Terry Eagleton that served several generations of undergraduates as an introduction to the subject. That book’s popularity was mostly pernicious, not because there is anything wrong with exposing students to theory but because of its tone of deflationary condescension. As Eagleton, from his position of Marxist enlightenment, showed up each school of literary thought from New Criticism to post-structuralism as a species of false consciousness, the effect was to suggest to inexperienced readers that they had seen through complex bodies of thought that they had not even encountered.
Today, as Eagleton writes in the preface to his latest book, The Event of Literature, such exposés would not even seem worth undertaking, simply because the movements in “high” theory – “semiotics, post-structuralism, Marxism, psychoanalysis and the like” – have “become for the most part foreign languages to students”. Rather than insist on the continued relevance of literary theories for which he never really had much respect in the first place, Eagleton turns in this book to a different way of discussing texts – to the philosophy of literature. “Literary theorists have often cold-shouldered this kind of discourse,” he writes, for both political and cultural reasons: if literary theory is Continental and radically critical, philosophy of literature comes across as Anglo-Saxon and coolly technical.
Yet here, as in much of his recent work, Eagleton insists that the old intellectual traditions – above all, those of Aristotle and the scholastics – can be recuperated for the radical politics that remains the core of his inspiration. Indeed, before The Event of Literature even descends to the discussion of literature, Eagleton opens with a chapter in defence of that postmodern anathema, “essentialism”. After all, to ask what literature is – the question at the heart of the book – is to ask about its nature, its essence; and several generations of radical thinkers have identified such questions as illegitimate, “logocentric” and implicitly reactionary.
But Eagleton argues that “not all universals or general categories need be oppressive, any more than all difference and specificity are on the side of the angels”. Harking back to medieval theology, he poses the debate about essentials as one between the heirs of “realists” such as Thomas Aquinas, who believed that God endowed the world with inherent properties and meanings, and the heirs of “nominalists” such as Duns Scotus, who saw any such essences as impermissible limitations on God’s arbitrary will and absolute power.
In this way, Eagleton casts anti-essentialism not as a liberating tradition but as a menacing one, leading via Protestantism to individualism and its “modernist terminus in the Nietzschean will-to-power”. Realism, on the other hand, is associated for Eagleton with the Catholic, the communal and the concrete, forces that he believes are essential to the emancipatory struggle against the modern capitalist order, since “the movement towards modernity represents one long catastrophe”.
Oddly, however, after this ringing defence of essences, Eagleton goes on to define literature in much more empirical and pragmatic terms. Invoking Wittgenstein, he suggests that literature is best understood not by its essence but by the “family resemblances” that unite its various manifestations:
My own sense is that when people at the moment call a piece of writing literary, they generally have one of five things in mind, or some combination of them. They mean by “literary” a work which is fictional, or which yields significant insight into human experience as opposed to reporting empirical truths, or which uses language in a peculiarly heightened, figurative or self-conscious way, or which is not practical in the sense that shopping lists are, or which is highly valued as a piece of writing.
Eagleton does not seem bothered that these “empirical categories” and “everyday judgements” run counter to the defence of essentialism with which the book begins. Indeed, most of the ensuing two chapters – both entitled “What Is Literature?” – consists of Eagleton’s disdainful summaries of the work of other theorists who have attempted to offer a more essentialist definition of literature. He even acknowledges that his own criteria are not “peculiar to what people call literature”: jokes or dreams might also be heightened, fictional and insightful uses of language. (Though they would be easy to exclude if Eagleton included in his definition of literature what to most people would come first – that it is written down.)
Many of the fights Eagleton picks will be of interest only to other literary theorists – those familiar with the work of Bennison Gray, Peter Lamarque and their peers. A somewhat larger target is Stanley Fish, who infuriates Eagleton less for his universal scepticism than for his complacent affect. If, as Fish argues, “readers are just the obedient agents of their interpretative communities”, it is hard to see how any immanent critique is possible: “Readers, and human beings more generally, are the product of a single set of ways of doing things, which means that you cannot fundamentally challenge these conventions as long as you belong to them. According to what conventions would you do so?” As Eagleton correctly points out, the history of literature is full of – is perhaps made by – writers challenging received definitions of what constitutes the literary. Just think of Wordsworth’s contemporaries scoffing at the unliterary simplicity of Peter Bell, or T S Eliot’s goggling at the unliterary difficulty of The Waste Land.
At the same time, Eagleton takes up the cudgels against some liberal pieties about the benevolent effects of literary complexity. Against the formalists, he doubts that language is only literary when it “estrang[es] the commonplace until it becomes well-nigh unrecognisable”. This strikes him as both elitist – since it implies that “everyday experience is necessarily bankrupt” – and defeatist, since it is the product of a historical situation in which literature has lost its audience and its social function. “There is a hermeneutic of solidarity as a well
as suspicion,” Eagleton insists.
Meanwhile, against Martha Nussbaum (and, in the distant background, Lionel Trilling), he denies that literature’s prime virtue is to cultivate the virtues of sympathy and complexity. This he regards as “a paradigm less of morality than of liberal morality” and, like generations of left-wing critics before him, Eagleton finds an emblem of this finicky spirit in Henry James – “that doyen of exquisitely agonised liberals”. Historically, he points out, it is just not true that the greatest literary works are devoted to ambiguity and self-scepticism: “Are Dante and Spenser notable for . . . their finely ambiguous judgements, their sense of certain irresolvable clashes of value, their preference for the provisional and exploratory over assured and immutable truths? And are they any the worse for not being so?”
Yet Eagleton passes too quickly over this problem, in part because his method in this book leaves almost no room for encounters with actual literary works. It is true that when we read Dante, we are not necessarily “troubled” by his understanding of sin and punishment, in the sense that it doesn’t stop us from admiring him. But that is only because, here as in so many of our dealings with the past, we benefit from an ingrained historicism that prevents us from ever seeing Dante’s morality as something on which we must render a personal judgement. The “preference for the provisional and exploratory” is not Dante’s but ours as readers; that is, we provisionally imagine ourselves into Dante’s world-view, which we can do only because we are free to imagine ourselves back out again.
In this sense, the liberal understanding of literature is much more powerful than Eagleton gives it credit for. “The claim that doctrinal commitment is always and everywhere the ruin of art is hollow liberal piety,” he asserts, but this is only so because the liberal – that is, sympathetic, complex, self-distrusting – imagination of the reader can entertain things in a work of art that would be intolerable in real life.
In this sense, the success of the illiberal artist is a tribute to the breadth of the liberalism of the reader. Elsewhere in The Event of Literature, Eagleton approaches such a judgement himself. “The forms and techniques of fiction are autonomous of reality in the sense that if they did not stand at a distance from it, they could not carve the stuff up in so many different ways. Fiction is testimony to the fact that the world does not force us to depict it in a single way,” he writes in a chapter on “the nature of fiction”.
The question that divides a liberal from a radical understanding of literature, perhaps, is whether this freedom of fiction ought to be taken as a compensation for the unfreedom of life, or as a model for its liberation. “It may also be . . . that historically speaking, the pragmatic (or realm of necessity) must be overtaken by the non-pragmatic (or domain of freedom). This, in a word, is the hope of Marxism,” Eagleton writes.
But this hope is only tenable if the conditions of the literary work’s production are forgotten. “Politically speaking, the work of art resembles a republic more than it does an authoritarian state,” Eagleton argues, because “republicanism means collective self-determination, which is also true of the co-operative commonwealth known as the work of art.”
Yet, seen from another angle, the work of art is more like a despotism, because it is ruthlessly tyrannised over by its author; only if the author is forgotten can the work seem to be its own free creation. Perhaps it is because writers know this so well that they are more often liberals than radicals and have very little use for literary theory.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Why Trilling Matters” (Yale University Press, £20)