The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

Professor Terry Eagleton, The Event of Literature

with Nour Dakkak, Rachel Holland and Chloe Buckley


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Review of Terry Eagleton’s lectures and seminars, at Lancaster University, 2013.

by Nour Dakkak, Lancaster University

Captivating and manipulative are the words to describe the two remarkable open seminars for MA students and faculty members delivered by Terry Eagleton, the distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. The seminars included interesting discussions of literary figures and cultural theory; a great way to begin Lent Term at Lancaster.

The first seminar was dedicated to Oscar Wilde and his doubleness. Eagleton led a journey of discovery through the life and works of Wilde with a glimpse of the duality in his identity and approach to life. His doubleness, Eagleton clarifies, is derived from the fact that he was a member of the Anglo-Irish community in England, who were an insecure class of people who have never revealed their real identity to others. Such internal duality, Eagleton claims, is a major producer of great art. He explains this concept more deeply with the effect of modernism in mind, and its association with other Irish writers like Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.

The doubleness in Oscar Wilde does not only lie in his name and his origins, but also in his gender, his works, and his class. As an Irish modernist artist, Eagleton demonstrates, Wilde, like other Irish artists, used his instability and duality for his advantage, to produce great art.  The discussion then progresses to understand art and life in Wilde's point of view and the importance of originality to him. He believes that art, and everything else should be seen as a subject matter by itself. Wilde insists that everything in life should be done for its own sake. For instance, he does not see sexuality as means of reproduction. However, he seeks it for delight and self-fulfilment. Utility is a term Wilde does not believe in. Things in life should be appreciated for their own sake.

The other lecture, Sacrifice and Subversion, paves the way for Terry Eagleton's coming book, Politics of Sacrifice, in which he explains the meaning of forgiveness in theological and cultural context by referring to sacrifice, death, love, feelings, eventually exploring it in the light of Henry James's novel, The Wings of the Dove. The lecture starts by defining sacrifice and differentiating between both its archaic meaning and the way the modern world views it as a kind of deprivation. Eagleton claims that the highest sacrifice that can be given is the one that involves giving up the body, and that entails being a martyr. In order to be martyr, for Eagleton, life must be so precious. He draws a distinction between martyrs and those whose life does not really matter and explains how the act of giving up their body would be considered a suicide. The discussion turns afterwards into more philosophical terms which emphasize the connections between love, death, and giving. Eagleton draws a parallel between love and death seeing that both expressions involve giving. The body in both cases is given away, but in death, it also means 'yielding the source of giving'. Many philosophers, Eagleton claims, do not see that there is a connection between living and death. 'Life is a rehearsal to death' when you are giving yourself away before dying. Life is loaded with richness for those who are able to give, but absolutely terrifying for those who are not. This argument was supported by the Christian teachings about poverty. Not being loaded with materialistic baggage makes people let go of things easier, be able to sacrifice, and accept dying and giving.

The discussion swells to include another important aspect, forgiveness and its ambiguous meaning. Eagleton describes forgiveness as a kind of sacrifice, because it includes giving something very pleasurable, revenge. It is also seen as a way of breaking the endless circle of retribution.  Forgiveness, Eagleton explains, does not mean that you forget or behave like you have forgotten. Confronting the past is vital to move forward in life.

Eagleton ends his discussion by emphasizing that forgiveness does not mean feeling good about the offender. It is an act that has nothing to do with feeling. Just like love, as Wittgenstein suggests, is not a feeling. Love is not about loving friends, it is about loving strangers. 'It is a state of create in action, that something comes out of nothing, like God's creation, it is a gift not a necessity'.


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Interview with Terry Eagleton

with Rachel Holland and Chloe Buckley, Lancaster University

Terry Eagleton is Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster, and on his Lent Term visit he agreed to give an interview to The Luminary. Rachel Holland and Chloe Buckley posed questions based on issues raised by his most recent book, The Event of Literature, published this year by Yale University Press. In The Event of Literature Eagleton attempts to develop a theory that can account for what we mean when we discuss texts in terms of them being literary – a question that, for him, was left unsatisfactorily resolved with the decline of ‘high’ theory in the late 1980s. Eagleton suggests that the literary work operates in a paradoxical space between ‘structure’ and ‘event’, wherein the structure is fixed and unchangeable, yet also dynamic in the sense that it must constantly respond to the challenges it creates for itself during the dialectical process in which it shapes an ever-present external reality for its own purposes. It is in the unpredictability, both of this process and the fluctuations in reader response, that the ‘event’ of literature consists.        

RH: Your most recent book – The Event of Literature – is something of a return to a kind of ‘pure’ theory that might not be recognizable to many postgraduate researchers today. How would you respond to the suggestion that this change in direction involves a kind of de-politicizing of criticism? What prompted your return to the big questions of theory?

TE: I’ve written somewhere that the history of theory goes hand in hand with the period when the left was briefly on the ascendency, so that in that whole period theory and politics were closely related. In that sense I don’t see a return to theory as depoliticizing, although it’s true that the questions I’m asking in the book, ‘what is literature?’ and so on, are not directly political, that’s for sure. I’m not asking particularly about the political effects or implications of literature, but I do think that theory itself, and an ability to think theoretically and generally abstractly, is actually quite important for radical politics. The political right on the whole is somewhat uneasy with abstract thought; it prefers something that’s a little closer to the bone. I think that there’s a danger that thinking in that way might be on the wane and that certain political advantages of thinking in that way will also slip by too. On the other hand, I take the point that what happened after the epoch of high theory, things like postcolonialism and postmodernism and so on, actually was in a certain sense a coming closer to the ground, to concrete issues, and that’s fine; but I do think that in some way that needs to be combined with a theoretical perspective, and the danger is that that might be lost.

CB: Do you feel, then, that meta-critical, high theory has fallen out of fashion in the academy? If so, do you have any thoughts on why this is the case?

TE: I think the answer is yes, but why is trickier, and not immediately obvious. I remember in Oxford, when I was a member of the English Faculty, we had a big fight to get a theory paper on the syllabus. And we did, and it was riding high, and all the bright kids were taking it. And then there came a point, suddenly, when they weren’t taking it any more. I think that had some connection with the political downturn, in however indirect a way. By the 1990s with the advent of a strong postmodernist current and so on, theory was no longer so sexy – it was certainly no longer so glamorous. Maybe it was partly, as theory itself argues, that things began to get stale and they needed to be estranged again, so maybe theory itself suffered that kind of fate. But I suppose also the return to a general political climate of conservative pragmatism obviously militated against theory quite a lot, and was partly responsible for it. It’s not as though I’m hoping for an enormous theory revival, you know that my book will spearhead a global ‘theory among the masses’, but I do think that a lot of questions were left unresolved as theory began to wane, so I’ve in a sense tried to raise them again, that’s partly what I’m doing.

RH: For many your work is still associated with a particular political project. Do you think that the events of the past few years, including those in the Middle East, and the occupy movement in Wall Street and other Western cities, are part of an increased political mobilisation, but possibly of a different kind?

TE: I’ve argued before elsewhere that just at the moment when grand narratives were off the agenda, suddenly a couple of aircraft slammed into the world trade centre and an enormous grand narrative opened again that we’re still living in the middle of: the whole radical Islamic project. Hard on the heels of that, of course, came an almighty crisis of capitalism, and, as I’ve said before, suddenly a few years ago capitalists were using the word ‘capitalism’, which is not allowed, you know, you don’t do that. So, in a certain sense they reinstated some of these issues that they had previously swept under the carpet. They were now asking anxious questions about the nature of the system, because, again as I’ve said before, one of the effects of a crisis is to render the system perceptible as a system, which is not good for a system – it denaturalizes it in a sense. On the other hand, out of that, as you say, have come new kinds of movements all the way from Occupy to the Arab Spring, so it just reminds you of how very rash and dangerous it is to say that the left is dead and defeated. In my view, socialism is such a brilliant idea that it would be very hard for it to be quashed altogether; whatever setbacks it’s endured, whatever monstrous defamations it’s suffered, I do think that there are certain impulses towards justice and community which are perennial. And they do, as you suggest, take different forms.
 On the other hand, I think you would be madly triumphalist – I don’t know anybody on the left who holds this view that what we’re seeing is a massive resurgence of the left. The problem is not that, it’s really that a crisis is always an opportunity for the left, but the forces that produced this particular crisis of the system were also the forces that rolled the left back in the years before. The result of that is that when the crisis finally arrived the left was on the back foot, and it was the same system that had done these two things. One obviously doesn’t want to have any kind of victorious feeling here at all, but it’s useful to have a reminder that issues that we’ve been plugging on about are suddenly back on the agenda and visible, whatever happens about them.

CB: Do you think that’s reflected in the literary production of the past, say five years? Do you think we’re getting literary texts that are interrogating rather than accepting those narratives?

TE: Possibly. Yeah… maybe. Although it seems to me that literature in this country at least is in the stranglehold of a kind of metropolitan literati (at least if you’re thinking of someone like Amis who’s a very typical example of that) whose reactions to the world trade centre event and Islamic radicalism are really quite disgraceful, and I had a rather famous spat with him as you may know. He’s never apologized for the disgraceful remarks he made about ordinary Muslims – saying they should be hounded and harassed – he’s never apologized for that, he said it was made in the spur of the moment, fair enough it was, but he should apologize. I think that the reaction of the, as it were, official literary world has been pretty poor. The official literary world is no more enamoured of the far left than it is of the far right, and therefore it’s always rather boringly predictable in its responses to these things. So if I think of the Ian McEwans and the David Lodges of this world I’m not particularly cheered. I also wrote a piece a few years ago in the Guardian I think, saying how striking it was that so little theatre had actually engaged with some of these issues.

RH: I wonder if what we’re seeing more of is voices from minorities speaking about these issues, rather than the established literary tradition?

TE: Yes, I think so. I think that’s probably more the case.

CB: I wonder as well if it’s to do with the way literary production can now happen? For example there’s the fact that people can now self publish through new media in ways that can bypass the literary establishment – and perhaps that means those voices are more diffuse.

TE: Yes, technology changes. Don’t forget you’re talking to someone who’s never used the internet [laughs]. But at the same time technologically it’s changed, but ideologically it may remain within the same ambit. The two things don’t necessarily go together.

RH: What do you think criticism’s role is, if any, in responding to social and economic events?

TE: Well, criticism is all part of the crisis really isn’t it? First of all, taking criticism in a rather wider sense than simply literary criticism, but instead as critique, we’re living at a momentous point in the development of the West where a long tradition of universities as centres of critique is almost coming to an end, and that is a dramatic event. A cataclysmic event. I was in South Korea not long ago and I was being shown around what was proudly presented to me as the biggest and finest university in South Asia I think, by the Vice Chancellor who was pointing to his various pet projects and buildings and so on, and I said ‘what kind of critical studies are you involved in?’ and he looked at me as though I had said ‘do you do PhDs in lap dancing?’ or something  – he had no conception of what I was talking about. That really is a dramatic moment, isn’t it, in that at least for all their remoteness and ineffectualness, universities traditionally provided a centre of critical studies. If that’s now being managerialized out of existence, then there is a real problem about criticism in the wider sense.  In the narrower sense of literary criticism, I think that’s in trouble too,  I mean partly, as I’ve argued elsewhere, habits of close analysis have suffered from the kind of technological culture we live in. Language itself has suffered – do you know my favourite example of Steve Jobs’s last words? Hamlet’s dying words of course were ‘Absent thee from felicity awhile, /And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, / To tell my story ‘, Steve Jobs’s last words were ‘Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow’. This master of communication, you know. Something’s gone wrong. It’s not just with criticism, it’s not just with literature, those things are dependent on a broader linguistic context, and obviously a visual or technological culture will take its toll eventually. So in terms of the general shift we’ve been discussing, it wasn’t only a shift from theory to other cultural trends, to a certain extent it was a shift from criticism as understood in a certain way, a certain focussed analysis,

CB: Close reading, those types of skills?

TE: Yes, I think it was a shift away from that as well. 

CB: This links to our next question really, we wanted to ask you about a comment you made in the Guardian a few years ago now about the ‘death of universities as the centres of critique’. From your answer, then, it seems that you do feel that the humanities are still struggling within the academy to have their vital role recognised.

TE: Yes. I wouldn’t be too defeatist about it, I wouldn’t say that we should give up or that we have been defeated, but it’s an eleventh hour situation. It’s the old point that anything which to some extent exists for its own sake, for its own delight, its own enjoyment, is a scandal to a utilitarian society that can see nothing valuable in anything that doesn’t have an immediate function or end. So it’s a very old story, really.

RH: I was wondering how significant you find it in this context that Grayling, Dawkins, and the rest have developed what is essentially a privatized ‘New college of the Humanities’ in this country?

TE: Oh yes. The Guardian asked me to write against that, which I did. I then had a radio programme that I was on with Grayling, and I kept trying to raise the question of his new college and he kept avoiding it. I really wondered, given the enormous backlash, whether he would actually go ahead, but he has hasn’t he? Grayling is officially a liberal – he’s not a militant right-wing ideologue; he just doesn’t understand these issues. He’s just very privileged. He just thinks ‘oh, what a good idea it would be to get all these posh people together in a college’, and the economics of it or the social implications or the egalitarian implications are not things that will occur to a man like him, I think.

RH: Might it be relevant to this discussion to consider the fact that scientific discourse plays a relatively central role in their humanities syllabus?

TE: Yes, that’s the old two cultures debate isn’t it, which again is quite ancient. But there’s a difference between humanities students being introduced to the sciences, and vice versa, as happens in the best of American education (you know, if you’re a physicist you might take, or have to take, a great books course or something of the kind), and what you might call a scientization of the humanities, which is a different matter and an attempt to introduce certain rather positivist techniques or methods, all of which of course now is flourishing at the level of the research exercise and assessment and so on. Classic reification – everything has to be quantifiable and measurable; I’m sure they put one’s books on the scales.

CB: Thinking in terms, then, of these key ideas and key words – impact being one that springs to mind – and the idea of assessing the excellence of research that universities are now ultimately concerned with, how hopeful are you that the humanities can survive in their current form?

TE: I think they’re in real peril. I think they’re really besieged. And it’s an international story: everywhere I go in the world it’s the same case. Even people in South Africa talk about the ‘Thatcherization’ of the university – it’s a bit archaic, but I really do think it’s a very serious point in that sense. I just had to make my own impact statement, in which I was asked what sort of social good my work does. I said I go around the country warning people about the perils of bankers and capitalism, and that this is a very socially responsible thing to do. They’ll probably cut it all out, but it was worth a try. I suppose it’s been part of a certain humanistic belief that the humanities are interesting in respect of impact, because they do have definite influences and effects, sometimes massively so, but not in the kind of way that the technologists of the soul or the bureaucrats would imagine. In other words they have a particular model of what an effect is, which is pretty mechanistic and pretty reductive. And we’re not arguing that we’re gloriously without effect, but just that you can’t measure those kinds of effects.

RH: So if we could return, for our final question, to The Event of Literature,in which you state that ‘One of the paradoxes of the literary work is that it is “structure” in the sense of being unalterable and self-complete, yet “event” in the sense that this self-completion is perpetually in motion, realised as it is only in the act of reading’. Does criticism rely, in order to possess any ‘critical’ (and thus political) power on some concept of eventhood? 

TE: There may well be a sense in which eventhood defeats a certain critical authority, because it can’t be predicted can it. That’s maybe one reason why criticism is not really worried by structural matters because there’s a certain stability in those which allows it a certain analytic role and a certain authority in carrying out that analysis. Whereas if it is true that in a certain way literary works are much more unstable than that, one thing that calls into question is the authority of criticism, because there’s something slippery about events in that sense, in contrast with structures which are much more objectifiable. So I think there’s something creative and fruitful in developing that eventfulness of the text, which somebody needs to do beyond my book, which may have interestingly unsettling implications. I was, incidentally, delighted to see that The Event of Literature was panned in the review in the TLS,was it last week? I would have been furious if it hadn’t because, even though I occasionally am allowed to review for the TLS, the TLS hashatcheted every book I’ve ever published since the age of 25, and this is such a marvellously consistent record (you can dine out on it) it would just absolutely send them into total chagrin if they blemished it. There are people who one hardly ever hears of otherwise who they kind of roll out – some aged Tory somewhere down in Cheltenham, you know – who they roll out simply to axe a book of mine, and then they go back in the cupboard and close the door.

RH: So you should start to worry about your work the day you get a good review in the TLS?

TE: Well, as they say, if they cheer you what are you doing wrong? [laughs] ‘Blessed are ye when men revile ye’.   

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