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 executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

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