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|Posted January 3, 2004|
|Cultural Theorists, Start Your Epitaphs|
|'That Dreadful Terry Eagleton,' One of the Last Marxist Critics, Is at It Again|
By DINITIA SMITH
DUBLIN Get the critic Terry Eagleton in the right mood, and he will sing his song about literary theory for you. The ditty may seem nonsensical, but just imagine the round-faced and gray-bearded Mr. Eagleton singing in a mellow baritone to the tune of "Somethin' Stupid":
|Derek Speirs for The New York Times|
|The cultural theorist Terry Eagleton near his home in Dublin.|
"Nostalgic petit-bourgeois social democrat subjectivist empiricist,/I saw the light of day," he sings, ending the verse, "Until I went and spoiled it all by writing something stupid in New Left Review."
"The song is fiction, ironic," said Mr. Eagleton, 60. "It reflects a growing desperation."
Yes, desperation about literary theory, from one of the most prominent cultural critics around; from a man whose best-selling academic book "Literary Theory: An Introduction" (1983) has for two decades been the classic text that professors assign to give graduate students an overview of modern literary criticism.
But now the postmodernist giants like Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes are over, he says.
"The golden age of cultural theory is long past," Mr. Eagleton writes in his new book, "After Theory" (Basic Books), to be published in the United States in January. In this age of terrorism, he says, cultural theory has become increasingly irrelevant, because theorists have failed to address the big questions of morality, metaphysics, love, religion, revolution, death and suffering.
An effort to put 'questions of good and bad' back into context.
Today graduate students and professors are bogged down in relativism, writing about sex and the body instead of the big issues. "On the wilder shores of academia," he writes, "an interest in French philosophy has given way to a fascination with French kissing."
His critique goes further. "The postmodern prejudice against norms, unities and consensuses is a politically catastrophic one," he writes. Cultural theorists can no longer "afford simply to keep recounting the same narratives of class, race and gender, indispensable as these topics are."
What Mr. Eagleton, one of the few remaining Marxist critics, wants now is a search for absolutes, for norms, for answers to what he calls "fundamental questions of truth and love in order to meet the urgencies of our global situation."
His published declaration, already out in Britain, has received a mixed hearing. Allen Lane wrote in The Independent that the book's "huge achievement is to show just how formidable a presence the Marxist cultural critic can be."
But Noel Malcolm, writing in The Sunday Telegraph, dismissed "After Theory" as "a mixture of reformist Marxism, `virtue' ethics and some Thought-for-the Day meditations on love and death." And Eric Griffiths wrote in The Times Literary Supplement that the book "can only confirm the confused popular image of an intellectual as someone happy to mouth off about anything at a moment's notice."
Mr. Eagleton is used to criticism (Prince Charles once referred to him as "that dreadful Terry Eagleton") and he shrugs off the latest attacks, calling them "the standard set of criticisms of the left." He spoke as he was sitting at the kitchen table of his 19th-century Georgian-style row house in Dublin, where he lives part of the year, with his wife, Willa Murphy, a lecturer in English at the University of Ulster, in Londonderry and Coleraine; they have a 6-year-old son, Oliver. (Mr. Eagleton has two grown sons from a previous marriage.)
He is unrepentant in his defense of Marxism, which, he writes, offers the blueprint for a moral society. For Marx, "questions of good and bad had been falsely abstracted from their social contexts, and had to be restored to them again," he writes, adding, "In this sense, Marx was a moralist in the classical sense of the word."
Nowadays Mr. Eagleton lives the life of an academic superstar, jetting about the world from one academic conference to another. He has an apartment in Manchester as well as his home in Dublin and an 18th-century rectory near Londonderry, in Northern Ireland.
Over the years Mr. Eagleton has been a prolific writer, editor and co-editor of dozens of books. He has published a novel, "Saints and Scholars," about Wittgenstein in Ireland, which was made into a film, "Wittgenstein," by Derek Jarman, with a screenplay by Mr. Jarman and Mr. Eagleton. He has also written a play, "St. Oscar," about Oscar Wilde, who is one of his heroes.
Mr. Eagleton suggests that some of his Marxism may spring from his childhood as the son of a factory worker of Irish descent in Salford, England, near Manchester.
The family was poor, the air clogged with industrial effluvia. Two brothers died in infancy. He has two sisters, who became English teachers.
Mr. Eagleton had asthma. "In common with the North of England working class we were a good few inches below average height," he wrote in his 2001 memoir, "The Gatekeeper" (St. Martin's Griffin), "like a herd of extras from `The Wizard of Oz.' "
"The Gatekeeper" takes its title from Mr. Eagleton's duties as an altar boy at a Carmelite convent. After young nuns took their vows, they said goodbye to their parents forever. He escorted grieving parents who were never to see their daughters again, out the door.
He attended a Catholic grammar school run by the De La Salle Brothers, with a headmaster whom he describes as "a white-haired career sadist from an undistinguished Irish town."
He recalled how his father had won a place at grammar school but couldn't afford to go. His father had wanted him to go to Cambridge, but, he said, "he died on the brink of my going." He says this left him with an abiding guilt and a sense that he had leapt over his father's dead body to achieve success.
At Cambridge Mr. Eagleton's tutor was an old-world aristocrat. (In "The Gatekeeper" he gives him the pseudonym Dr. Greenway.) He "by and large preferred works of art and herbaceous borders to human beings," Mr. Eagleton writes, "but he was unfailingly courteous and considerate, even when we threw up our mulled claret over his pixie-like feet at his parties."
In his first year the man called him "Eagleton," in his second, "Terence," in his third, "Terry." "Perhaps if I had stayed on at his college beyond my undergraduate years, this escalating intimacy would have reached its natural conclusion in `sweetiepie,' " he writes.
"I found him ridiculous," Mr. Eagleton said, "but I was almost embarrassed by how much he meant to me." The two debated Marxism.
The Marxist cultural historian Raymond Williams later became his intellectual mentor and got him a teaching position.
Still, he detested Cambridge, he said. He discovered a home in the new Catholic left, coming under the influence of a radical Dominican friar, Laurence Bright, and he helped found the leftist Catholic journal Slant. After Bright died, and Slant folded in the early 70's, Mr. Eagleton gave up formal religion, finding the organized church too autocratic and hidebound, he said.
Still, his work is shadowed by Roman Catholicism. Mr. Eagleton seems to find a confluence between his interpretation of Marxism and Christianity, in a shared ethic of cooperativism, and protection of the poor and the weak. He cites one of Paul's letters to the Corinthians: "God chose what is weakest in the world to shame the strong." Morality begins with a recognition of one's weakness and mortality, Mr. Eagleton says. He uses the example of King Lear, who is redeemed only after he has endured the storm on the heath and understands is own vulnerability.
Although Mr. Eagleton remains vague about what his longed-for absolute truths would look like, he writes that an ethical society can only happen under socialism, "in which each attains his or her freedom and autonomy in and through the self-realization of others."
And he defends Marxists against the familiar litany of crimes.
"If you want the most trenchant account of Stalinism you have to go to Marxism, not liberalism," he said. "Stalinism wasn't, from our point of view, radical enough. Long before Tiananmen Square the mainstream Marxists were saying the Soviet system is a travesty. You can't build Communism in backward conditions. You need international support. You need a society with a liberal democracy. Marx always saw socialism in continuity with middle-class democracy."
So what is his advice, specifically? "Get out of NATO. Get rid of capitalism. Put the economy back into public ownership."
Since 2001, Mr. Eagleton has been a professor of cultural theory at Manchester University, near where he grew up. He left Oxford after more than 30 years, a place he said he hated. In "The Gatekeeper" he refers to the faculty as "petulant, snobbish, spiteful, arrogant, autocratic and ferociously self-centered."
Still, Mr. Eagleton became involved with radical politics there and joined the Socialist Workers Party. He was known for his exuberant lectures, and organized an Irish singing group where his song on literary theory was born.
He said he left "with as much regret as if it were the day I went in."
Despite his new book, Mr. Eagleton said that the golden age of cultural theory was not all for naught. "We provided an important left intellectual core at a time when other things got more conservative," he said.
Yet what theorists have forgotten, he said, is the importance of the system to people's lives. "You need the satirist and the debunker," he said. "But you need constructive politics, too."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company.
Reprinted from The New York Times, Arts & Ideas, of Saturday, January 3, 2004.
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