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High Profile

Keeping faith

John Schad

At a recent celebration of his 50 years in academia,1 Professor Terry Eagleton was hailed as 'possibly the world's most renowned literary critic' and 'the only major contemporary Marxist voice consistently audible in the West'. Third Way attended.

 

I'm hoping that your first question will be, in a tone of utter incredulity: 'You can't really be 71, can you?'

Actually, I was going to warm you up by asking: What is your favourite novel, your favourite play, your favourite poem, your favourite piece of music?
Proust's À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. John Arden's Serjeant Musgrave's Dance. Any poem by Wallace Stevens. Mozart's clarinet concerto and The Teddy Bears' Picnic - though not necessarily in that order.

 

Let's go back to your childhood in Salford…
I was born towards the end of the Second World War. Salford was then independent of Manchester - today, I just don't recognise it: nothing of 'my' Salford is left. They used to say in my day that not even canned fish could survive in the river. My father worked at what, I think, was then the largest engineering factory in the country. He was a deeply intelligent man but he'd left school at 14 and I doubt if he ever read a book in his life.

 

What made you take up reading as a boy?
I don't know. There were a few books in the house, but not very many; but about the age of eight I was seized by this idea that I had to read the classics. I had no idea what 'the classics' were, or whether it was three books or 300, but I dragged my poor, long-suffering mother to a secondhand bookshop in Manchester and there was a row of Dickens and I said to the man, 'Is that the classics?' and he said: 'Well, it's part of the classics, yes.' My mother couldn't afford to buy them, so she put down five shillings and paid it off each week. I read my way, doggedly and uncomprehendingly, through quite a few of the novels. I still have them on my shelf.

 

As an undergraduate at Cambridge in the early Sixties, you were both a Marxist and a Catholic. How did those two commitments work together for you?
I had tremendous problems reconciling the two. I still do in many ways. I think I've been on the left since about the age of 15 - my father was a socialist, and as long as I've been politically conscious I've known that I was one. The Catholic Church was highly reactionary in those days, but when I arrived in Cambridge it was the moment of the Second Vatican Council and things were opening up. I became part of the Catholic Left, a very small movement that was trying to politically radicalise the newly liberal middle-class Catholics who were becoming more and more prevalent.

At a time when most reasonable, enlightened, liberal- minded people would have left the church in disgust, there were, it seemed to me, good reasons to stay in it. I was lucky to encounter a version of Christianity that, to be sure, you could reject if you wanted to but it cost you something to reject it. My objection to most atheism, particularly where I come from in Ireland, is that most atheistic intellectuals buy their atheism on the cheap because - and this is the fault of the church - they've never been faced with a version of Christianity sufficiently radical and challenging for them to actually have to fight to reject it. I tell my Irish intellectual friends they are actually underprivileged in this respect.

 

What was it like to be in Cambridge in the Sixties?
At that time it was a very exciting place to be, particularly if you were reading English. There was a sense that, as far as literature went, this was a place where issues were really fought out. It was not a comfortable place to be, because these conflicts were pretty abrasive. There was a real sense of people being seriously engaged in what they thought were vital issues. Literature really mattered - I mean, for some of them it mattered too much, but that was better than the [opposite] mistake.

When I moved to Oxford in 1969 I was moving to a bastion of right-wing medievalist whimsy - CS Lewis and Tolkien and all those characters - and I wasn't very popular. Occasionally, I would see members of the faculty literally crossing the road to avoid me. I thought it was because I was a communist - that's the term I prefer, actually, though 'a Marxist' is true - but I think now it was because I was from Cambridge. Maybe they couldn't tell the difference between those two things.

 

In 1976, you wrote in Marxism and Literary Criticism:2 'Marxist criticism is not just an alternative technique for interpreting Paradise Lost or Middlemarch. It is part of our liberation from oppression.'
Today, the very thought that something as arcane as criticism could be revolutionary in a political sense is almost unthinkable. Can you explain how in those days radical literary criticism could feel - or, indeed, be - so dangerous?
It is strange now to project oneself back imaginatively into that period; but it was a period, the only period in my life, when the left was in the ascendant. That didn't mean that everybody was a card-carrying Marxist, it didn't mean there was a kind of triumphalist belief that we would definitely overcome; but what it did mean was that, in the late Sixties through to the mid Seventies, there was something around that you might call 'a left-wing culture'. And that meant that these ideas didn't just seem strange and esoteric, they made a kind of sense to people. I was able to draw on that in my work in Oxford. The moment I arrived, I launched a kind of class on Marxist criticism, which later became a class on literary and cultural theory in general. It was tremendously exciting.

What one is engaged in is a critique of a whole culture, and culture - as I've said now so many times, even I am bored by it! - means (among other things) what people will kill for. I'm not talking about Balzac and Beethoven - maybe there are a few weird people hanging out in caves somewhere who will stab you in the back for them - but culture in the sense of language, identity, kinship, history, custom. And today people will most certainly die for that, and kill for that - that's part of the politics of this moment.

Literary critics are two a penny but cultural critics- like Edward Said and Fred Jameson - are precious and rare.

One point about ruling-class institutions like Oxford, and indeed Eton (and I picked up some very fine students from Eton), is that they generate their own dissidents, you know. They spin off various freaks and oddballs and people a bit out of place or too intelligent to buy some of the stuff they're peddling. And part of my role at Oxford, I think - I didn't do this deliberately - turned out to be to provide a kind of forum for those people, and people who were sort of 'passing through' the place. People who are now very important culturally passed through that class.

 

You have written more than 40 books, on philosophy, theology, politics and history as well as literary theory. How do you decide what you are going to write about next?
I never know where the next book is coming from, you know. I don't want to sound all Romantic about it, but writing books is a very mysterious process for me. It is never, ever a conscious project. I never sit down and say: I'm going to write something on something. I just find myself, by some almost ineluctable process, in the middle of writing.

In fact, I believe that all the important things in life are generally not a matter of choice. I detest this postmodern cult of option and choice, this consumerism of the soul, as it were. I believe that all the most important things have a kind of inner necessity about them. And this applies to politics, too, and to love: there are commitments that even if you try to walk away from them, you find that you can't.

 

Somewhere you have said that you're almost addicted to writing.
Yes, I have several sessions a week with my therapist, trying desperately to stop writing! For a long time, I've been looking for some kind of contrascriptive. The only infallible cure for writing I know is death. Maybe I'm being too optimistic, but I think death would do it.

I think it is [the literary theorist] Roland Barthes who somewhere distinguishes between what he calls an écrivant and an écrivain. An écrivant is somebody who writes instrumentally - a note to the milkman or whatever; an écrivain is somebody who writes for the sake ofwriting, as it were. To put it in Freudian terms, which corresponds to my experience, écrivains are people who libidinally invest in writing itself, the word itself, and not so much what the word is expressing.

It doesn't really matter to me what I write. I like writing reviews. I like writing journalism. I like writing to a deadline - I like a journal to say 'Two thousand words by Friday,' you know. I can do that. People like me are in danger of writing too much, becoming too prolific - because writing is not a problem, it's a joy. I love writing, and I also suspect that my writing is a kind of compensation (as I think writing very often is). I feel supremely confident and in control when I am writing, as I normally don't in everyday life.

It seems to me that writing has very deep and entangled psychic roots. I don't know what they are in my case, but I am aware of it and I think it's part of my now rather obsessive concern with what is known technically as the 'autotelic' - that is to say, the beauty and the value of things that exist simply for their own sake. (Of which, of course, the most important is God, whose existence is entirely pointless. Another one is art, and another is evil.) I think that one of the reasons I am so interested in the autotelic is that I come from a working- class background where people couldn't afford to value things for themselves and a harsh daily utility had to govern one's existence. So, I imagine I am reacting against that.

 

You seem to be attracted to comedy. In your 1987 novel Saints and Scholars, you have Nikolai Bakhtin say: 'Your revolution will not succeed because you have not yet learnt to be frivolous.'
One of the strange things about comedy is that it can be extremely satirical, polemical, savage and stinging, and yet it can be a form of friendship, communication, solidarity, relaxation. In that respect, it's quite like radical politics, because one of the difficulties of being radical is that there's a disconnect between the kind of values in- volved in having to be antagonistic and critical and so on and the values of solidarity and community for which you are fighting. Bertolt Brecht, talking about revolutionaries in the days before the rise of Hitler, said: 'We who wanted to prepare the ground for friendship could not ourselves be friendly.'3 Yet radicals want to come in from the cold as much as anybody else does!


By the 2000s, your work had become marked by the grand themes of Western culture: self, death, tragedy, God - and, more surprisingly, nature. In what the Guardian called your 'anti-memoir', The Gatekeeper [2002], you say: 'These days I believe fervently in nature, though not in a Wordsworthian sense.'
I am not against nature in the Wordsworthian sense - it's just that I am a townie by origin: I didn't see a tree until I was about 36, and even then I didn't know quite what it was. It always amazes me how certain kinds of middle-class people know the names of 500 different plants - I struggle to identify a tulip!

What I meant, though, is that I believe very deeply in what Marx calls Gattungswesen, 'species being', which is, I suppose, a materialist version of human nature. I believe the left needs that concept - and if that makes me an essentialist, fine.4 Karl Marx was an essentialist. We can argue about what it means, but I certainly be-lieve in something called 'human nature' and I believe that politically it is very important.

 

OK, so much for nature. Can we turn now to selfhood? The Gatekeeper is arguably about everybody except you, and elsewhere you quote [the French philosopher Maurice] Merleau-Ponty's line 'I borrow myself from others.'
The Gatekeeper is not about me because I am a remarkably selfless person! No, it's not about me because I am allergic to conventional autobiography for some reason. Partly because it's so predictable - everybody has to be born, get educated, grow up, have a career.

Incidentally, I think there is a perversity in my writing, which I would associate with my Irishness (and I don't mind being some kind of ethnic essentialist there).

But on the matter of selfhood, I am [something] of a chameleon. If I hadn't been an academic, I'd almost certainly have been an actor. In many ways, I'd rather be an actor than an academic.

 

Have you acted much?
A little bit. There's not much difference between being a teacher and an actor.

So, I don't have any great consistency in that way - nor, of course, do I assume that consistency is ipso facto a virtue. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. But what has been massively consistent about me, I think, is my thought. What I believe now is roughly what I believed at the age of 15. I'm not advancing that as a virtue - or, indeed, as a vice; I am just advancing it as a fact.

It's excruciatingly embarrassing for me to read my early work - it's full of a kind of fervent Sixties euphoria - but sometimes I'm amazed when someone quotes something from my very early work and it's exactly what I wrote last Wednesday! It's quite extraordinary. Again, I am not lauding unity or consistency as inherently virtuous, but there is a massive underlying continuity in my work. I don't really understand it very well but I can see it.

 

Let's move on to tragedy…
Tragedy is about (among other things) trying to confront the Medusa's head of the real without being turned to stone by it. That's very hard. Maybe it's impossible.

To me, the most important political distinction isn't between left and right but between [those who can and] those who, with the best will in the world, cannot ac-knowledge that, for the vast majority of people, history has been largely a story of destitution and suffering - so that Schopenhauer, a philosopher so pessimistic he's wildly funny, has the audacity to say that it would have been better for huge numbers of people if they'd never been born. I don't know if that is true, but I think there is a fundamental distinction between people who un-derstand that and people who just don't, who think you are being dramatic or self-indulgent or whatever. As Stephen Dedalus said [in Ulysses], 'History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.' (It was Woody Allen who said: 'History is a nightmare through which I am trying to get some sleep.')

 

You have written of the everydayness of real-life tragedy, if you like. Can you expand on that?
In my book on tragedy, Sweet Violence,5 I think I write that women in particular have been aware of this. Think of people like George Eliot and the Brontes, who are soto get through, as against certain heroic notions of tragedy which are much more commonly male.

'Tragedy' is one of those words that is both absolutely everyday - you know, the 'tragedy' of a road accident - and highly technical and specific. We don't know what it means in ancient Greek but we can trace its very particular theatrical and artistic history. But how do you connect those meanings? Tragedy in the everyday sense is something very, very sad; and that's fine, that's fine - let's not stop using that. But tragedy in the theatrical sense is about the painful but necessary process of breaking and remaking, without which no new life can come through. And that new life has to be refined and tempered by a confrontation with death, in however symbolical a form, if it is to be durable enough to transform our condition.

This is not simply tragedy as something very, very sad. It is sad, to be sure, but it says that if you can accept the full bitterness of the real, then in some mysterious way that outlines a kind of transcendence. It is the tragic figure who is able to open him- or herself to that hideous 'real' who has a strange access of life, because what life can come through that is bound to be precious.

I sometimes put that point in theological terms: the Crucifixion is a classically tragic scenario, but it wouldn't be tragic if Jesus had said to himself, 'OK, six hours hanging on a cross, then two days in the tomb and then eternity. I'll sign up for that!' Who wouldn't? If he had said that, he would never have been raised from the dead. Unless you live your death to the full, as it were, unless you confront it as an absolute limit, there is no way in which it could be transformed into a horizon. It would be just a cheap conjuring trick.

And I think tragedy touches on this very precious and not altogether positive idea. It touches on it theologically - all theology is about this: baptism, the Eu-charist, the Resurrection. It touches on it psychoanalytically: the bruising encounter with the real which is the condition of any authentic life but (as always with tragedy) offers absolutely no guarantee that you will come through it renewed or reinvigorated. You don't know where it's going to bring you out on the other side. That's called 'faith'. That's called 'faith'.

And I think it also works on a political level - one name for the deathly self-dispossession that is the prelude to any possibility of new life is 'revolution'. Tragedy is a kind of turbulent transition from passing throughdeath to the possibility of new life.

Another word for that is 'sacrifice'. What more dismissed and derided term could a smart, postmodern, neo-capitalist society greet than 'sacrifice'? But sacrifice is, I think, absolutely about the passage of the weak and reviled thing from weakness to power - and that is very close to the rhythm of tragedy. And, as I say, it has implications personally, theologically and politically.

 

You sometimes use the term 'self-abandonment' in this connection. But where are we going to get a self that is strong enough to be willing to get rid of itself?
That is one reason why tragedy is an art form, isn't it? Yes, we can maybe manage this in a displaced symbolic form, but it's been stylised, formalised. Some people find tragedy very problematical because it stylises suffering, gives form to that which is intrinsically meaningless. In a sense, suffering is meaningless for the New Testament - it is very striking that what Jesus is doing most of the time in the Gospels is trying to cure people, and never once does he recommend that they reconcile themselves to their suffering. Suffering is an evil and he regards it as such.

So, it may be (to pick up your point) that we can confront that kind of 'real' only in some displaced artistic or sacramental form. The real is terrifyingly powerful, and when you ask, 'What kind of strength of self would we need to get through it?', well, that's what the doctrine of grace is about. None of us has this strength.

 

You have just referred to the Crucifixion, and in your writing you glance occasionally towards the Christian narrative of resurrection; but you have said that the afterlife is not a Judeo-Christian concept. What, then, are we meant to make of the narrative of resurrection?
The concept of the afterlife is not a Judeo-Christian one because it implies some kind of continuity or survival, something called, perhaps, 'the soul'. Wittgenstein says somewhere: How strange that people believe that when you die, eternity starts! How could eternity start? 'Eternity' means literally 'out of time'. You can't start it! The Christian belief is in eternity that is, of course, in some mysterious way here and now. It's not about infinity in the sense of going on and on. The philosopher Bernard Williams points out that the best argument against that mistaken conception of immortality is the argument from utter tedium. Not even the most dedicated narcissist is going to want ten million years stuck with himself. That's not heaven, that's hell!

I'm not trying to deny whatever reality the idea of resurrection is trying to suggest, but rather [to say] that the idea of survival plays down the dramatic transformation it involves. The afterlife as a sort of lingering on I think is a pagan rather than a Christian notion.

 

Is eternity here and now limited to the here-and-now?
No. I suppose the Judeo-Christian belief is, isn't it, that if God is the source of all life and if it is sustained by God, eternity must be here and now in some way that we don't understand.

 

You have written that 'the true tasks of the critic are still to come.' Who sets him or her those tasks?
I think it's part of the historical-materialist belief that, as critics, as intellectuals, we don't call the tune. First of all, we have to realise that we're not 'where it's at', that culture is not 'where it's at'. One's first act as a materialistintellectual is a modest self-marginalisation, because it's endemic to a materialist perspective that people do not live by culture alone - and, in the narrow sense of 'culture', most people don't live by it at all. So, that's one chastening and salutary lesson of materialism.

I hate to use capital-letter words like 'history', but in a certain sense it is history that sets tasks for the critic. Some of the most astonishing moments of criticism in the 20th century come when the whole identity, the whole notion, of the critic is radically recycled. In such rare historical conjunctures, new tasks arise, politically and historically, for the critic. Brecht wouldn't really have been possible without the existence in the Weimar Republic of a huge social-democratic movement with its own theatres, its own newspapers, its own cultural activities. One thing follows from another. You can see the same scenario in Bolshevik Russia, in those exciting years after the Revolution.

Now, clearly, we are not in that situation. We're in a situation where we have managed to effect the transition to some degree from a narrow definition of a critic as purely literary to a more generous cultural definition - and that's an achievement, but we don't call the tune, you know. There's a sense in which the critic, or intellectual, is dependent upon what the historical moment may make possible, or what it may demand.

What I would say about today is that we are living through a point in the history of Western academia so momentous it's hard for us to wrap our minds around it - namely, the effectual end of universities as centres of humane critique, the effectual end of an enormously rich and diverse and valuable tradition, which has always had to struggle to carve out a task for itself that is often at odds with the priorities of society. Today, in almost every country in the world, academia is capitulating, almost without a struggle, to the philistine and sometimes barbaric values of neo-capitalism.

A couple of years ago, I was being shown around the biggest university in South Korea by its proud president and I made the unseemly blunder of saying: 'There doesn't seem to be anything critical going on here.' He looked at me as though I had said, 'How many PhDs in pole-dancing have you awarded?' With the best will in the world, he had absolutely no idea what I meant.

 

Is there any hope for academia, then?
I am glad you asked me that, as it allows me to say that [in 2015] I have a book coming out with Yale University Press called Hope without Optimism. Basically, it's on the side of hope but not of optimism, and it tries to distinguish between the two.

When someone asked Kafka, 'Is there any hope?', he famously replied: 'Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope - but not for us.' It's very mysterious what he meant by that, but some people think he meant that God made the universe on a kind of off day and he could easily - and may indeed - have created other universes elsewhere, an infinite number of them, where hope is much more obvious. I suppose there's a kind of hope in that very perspective.

 

John Schad is professor of modern literature at Lancaster University. His most recent book is a documentary, or textbased, 'novel', The Late Walter Benjamin (Continuum, 2012).

 

Biography

Terry Eagleton was born in 1943 and educated at De La Salle College in Salford. He read English at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating with a first in 1964.

Moving across town, he became the youngest fellow at Jesus College since the 18th century. During this period, he edited the leftist Catholic periodical Slant.

In 1969, he moved to Oxford, serving in succession as a fellow and tutor at Wadham, Linacre (from 1989) and St Catherine's College (from 1993), and as Thomas Warton Professor of English from 1992. In 1982, he helped to found the socialist-feminist student pressure group Oxford English Limited.

He left Oxford in 2001 to become John Edward Taylor Professor of Cultural Theory at Manchester University.

Since 2008, he has been Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University.

Currently, he is also professor of cultural theory at the National University of Ireland and Distinguished Visiting Professor of English Literature at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

He has held visiting appointments at universities including Cornell, Duke, Iowa, Melbourne, Trinity College in Dublin and Yale.

He has written more than 40 books, including The New Left Church (1966); Marxism and Literary Criticism and Criticism and Ideology (both 1976); the millionseller Literary Theory: An introduction (1983, revised 1996 and 2008); The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990); The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996); The Truth about the Irish (2001); Sweet Violence (2003); Holy Terror (2005); The Meaning of Life (2007); Trouble with Strangers: A study of ethics (2008); Why Marx was Right (2011); The Event of Literature (2012); and Culture and the Death of God (2014); as well as the novel Saints and Scholars (1987), the play Saint Oscar (1989), the screenplay for Derek Jarman's 1993 film Wittgenstein and a best-selling memoir, The Gatekeeper (2002). His 2008 Terry lectures at Yale were published the following year as Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God debate.

He has three sons from his two marriages, and with his second wife lives principally in Dublin.

This interview was conducted on October 28, 2014.

 

notes

1 This public interview was conducted at Lancaster University as part of the university's own 50th-anniversary celebrations.

2 First published by Methuen & Co

3 Die wir den Boden bereiten wollten für Freundlichkeit/ Konnten selber nicht freundlich sein (from the 1938 poem An die Nachgeborenen, 'To Posterity')

4 Essentialism is the view that for any specific entity (such as an animal, a group of people, a physical object, a concept) there is a set of attributes that are necessary to its identity and function.

5 Sweet Violence: The idea of the tragic (Blackwell, 2003)