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A Guide to the Revolution

Literary Theory: An Introduction

by Terry Eagleton
University of Minnesota Press, 244 pp., $29.50; $9.95 (paper)

Like some other English Catholics, Terry Eagleton started writing in the ostensibly liberating days of the Second Vatican Council, when it was prematurely assumed that the Church was offering to transform itself. Eagleton, Brian Wicker, and a few Dominican priests rushed into print, mainly in the magazines Slant and New Blackfriars, with proposals for theological change. They were particularly drawn to the notion of making Catholicism not only Christian but Marxist. In this spirit, Eagleton wrote and edited such buoyant books as Directions: Pointers for the Post-Conciliar Church and The New Left Church, both published in 1968. This phase of his writing culminated in The Body as Language: Outline of a “New Left” Theology (1970). I deduce from his later books that he has resolved the tension between Marxism and the Church in favor of Marxism. There is no evidence in his current work that he has retained any interest in Catholic theology, old or new.

Eagleton’s main work for the past decade or more has been a Marxist analysis of literature. The theoretical part of it is contained in his Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976), Criticism and Ideology (1976), and Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981). The practical application of a Marxist terminology is contained in his books on Shakespeare (Shakespeare and Society, 1967), the Brontës (Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës, 1975), Richardson (The Rape of Clarissa, 1983)* and some writers, notably Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Auden, George Orwell, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh (Exiles and Emigrés: Studies in Modern Literature, 1970).

Any English Marxist who tries now to construct a materialist aesthetic,” Eagleton wrote in the preface to Criticism and Ideology, “must be painfully conscious of his inadequacies.” He meant that early English Marxist criticism is crude: you have to get rid of the rough work of Christopher Caudwell, for instance, before you can reap any advantage from Raymond Williams. In this book, Eagleton puts his trust in four rhetorical devices. The first is the standard Marxist vocabulary, drawn mainly from Marx, Lucien Goldmann, and Pierre Macherey, which speaks of ideology, productive forces, overdetermination, and so forth.

Criticism is a specific element of the theory of superstructures, which studies the particular laws of its proper object; its task is not to study the laws of ideological formations, but the laws of the production of ideological discourses as literature.

Much of this is transcribed from Marx’s The German Ideology in the first instance; later material is drawn mostly from Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production.

Eagleton’s second device is a strict ordinance by which only Marxist or neo-Marxist authorities are cited: the list comprises Marx, Lukács, Mikhail Bakhtin, Adorno, Goldmann, Althusser, Macherey, Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, Raymond Williams, and Perry Anderson. By this device, Eagleton implies that Marxism is the only serious activity taking place. Third, he relies on a further axiom, that modern society is understandable only as the field of class conflict. Eagleton does not entertain the possibility that, as a writer he wouldn’t dream of quoting—Paul Ricoeur—has argued,

the modern state is no longer dedicated to representing the interests of an oppressing class, but rather to eliminating the dysfunctions of the industrial system: the ideology that now secures the functioning of the system is science.

Eagleton prefers the old story of class conflict, straight from the Communist Manifesto and the Critique of Political Economy, so that he can assign images of heroic grandeur to the proletariat and scorn “the withered values of liberal bourgeois society.” He also insists on believing that the only classes in question are the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Fourth, he asserts a corresponding demonology in which “liberal humanism” is mocked as idealist, elitist, essentialist, contemplative, and besotted with the consolation prizes of tradition, symbolism, and myth.

Literary Theory: An Introduction purports to provide “a reasonably comprehensive account of modern literary theory for those with little or no previous knowledge of the topic.” Comprehensive? Only if it doesn’t matter that the diverse theories of Valéry, Virginia Woolf, T.E. Hulme, Maurice Blanchot, Umberto Eco, and Wayne Booth are ignored. But Eagleton’s sentence is misleading in a more serious way: the aim of the book, which is disclosed only at the end, is to get rid of literary theory. It follows that the undergraduates for whom the book is intended are released from the chore of reading the theorists in question.

The book starts out as if it were an ordinary guide to modern literary theory. But the first chapter is a dismissive and inaccurate account of Eliot, Leavis, the work of Scrutiny—“the essentially petty-bourgeois character of Scrutiny,” as Eagleton referred to it in Criticism and Ideology—I.A. Richards, and the American New Critics. We hear yet again the libel that these critics were indifferent to historical considerations, and paid attention to “the words on the page” rather than to “the contexts which produced and surround them”—as if Allen Tate hadn’t written The Fathers and the essay on Emily Dickinson; or L.C. Knights Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson, or John Crowe Ransom God without Thunder. Or as if the formula of attending to “the words on the page” could account for Eliot’s essays on Pascal, Baudelaire, and James, the force of their intelligence and care, the telling power of Eliot’s moral, biographical, and historical reference.

The second chapter deals with phenomenology, hermeneutics, and reception theory. The main sources of these errors, according to Eagleton, are Husserl and Heidegger. Phenomenology is predicated upon the idea of “a meaningless solitary utterance untainted by the external world.” In this spirit Husserl was responsible for the Geneva school (Georges Poulet, Jean Starobinski, Emil Staiger, and others) and eventually for E.D. Hirsch, Jr. This part of the chapter is unfair. Those who have read Starobinski’s book on Rousseau, for instance, will appreciate how rich its acknowledgment of the external world is. It is a deliberate injustice, too, to dispose of fundamental interests, as Eagleton does, by tracing a rough-and-ready line from Heidegger (“the Olympian heights of Heidegger’s ponderously esoteric prose”) to Hans-Georg Gadamer, who is allegedly guilty of “projecting on to the world at large a viewpoint for which ‘art’ means chiefly the classical monuments of the high German tradition.”

Reception theory,” which assumes that the meaning of the text is not a quality of the text itself but the reader’s experience in realizing it, is examined through the work of Hans Robert Jauss, Wolfgang Iser, Roman Ingarden, and Stanley Fish. But Eagleton finds in it only the same old sin.

Iser’s reception theory, in fact, is based on a liberal humanist ideology: a belief that in reading we should be flexible and open-minded, prepared to put our beliefs into question and allow them to be transformed.

Worse still, Iser is guilty of defending “the unity of the reading subject”—the reader in this case—and of making sure that his unity is confirmed in the end. Any textual indeterminacies he comes upon must be “‘normalized,’ in Iser’s revealingly authoritarian term.” A few pages later Eagleton remarks that “language is not in fact something we are free to do what we like with,” but he doesn’t say where he would put a stop to indeterminacy.

The third chapter deals with structuralism and semiotics, dismissing both. Structuralism was merely

yet one more form of philosophical idealism…hair-raisingly unhistorical: the laws of the mind it claimed to isolate—parallelisms, oppositions, inversions and the rest—moved at a level of generality quite remote from the concrete differences of human history.

The point is not well taken. It is not news that structuralism concerned itself with the synchronic rather than the diachronic aspects of a text; or that, as a result, the text seems more deeply becalmed than it would appear if genetic considerations, changing social forces, and historical process were recognized. But you can study a skeleton without constantly meditating on how it came to be what it is. In any case, this is an old charge against structuralism; Eagleton has nothing new to say about it.

Besides, Eagleton has a very odd notion of a structuralist. He throws Northrop Frye into a bin with A.J. Greimas, Gérard Genette, Claude Bremond, and Tzvetan Todorov.

Frye stands in the liberal humanist tradition of Arnold, desiring, as he says, “society as free, classless and urbane.” What he means by “classless,” like Arnold before him, is in effect a society which universally subscribes to his own middle-class liberal values.

I don’t see why Frye isn’t allowed to mean what he says: by “classless” he doesn’t mean middle-class liberal values. I think he means a society free from precisely the class war in which Eagleton takes such pleasure. A Marxist, by the way, is the last critic who should be caught sneering at someone who wants classes to disappear.

The same chapter deals with semiotics (C.S. Peirce and Yury Lotman) and speech act theory (J.L. Austin), but it brushes them aside to make space for Bakhtin’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1927), which is claimed to have “laid the foundation for a materialist theory of consciousness itself.” But Eagleton doesn’t go into the implications of Bakhtin’s distinction between the “monological” novel, which holds its several voices within a single objective world governed by the novelist’s unified consciousness, and the “dialogical” novel—Dostoevsky is Bakhtin’s example—in which the unity of a given event is qualified by the plurality of equal consciousnesses and their several worlds. Eagleton’s account of Bakhtin is useful, as far as it goes; but it’s not at all as informative or far-reaching as Julia Kristeva’s in her Semiotike (1969).

Post-structuralism arrives, not a moment too soon, in the next chapter; but Eagleton won’t be appeased. He looks at Roland Barthes’s later books, paraphrases Derrida’s Of Grammatology, adverts to Paul de Man, but his heart isn’t in the work; he thinks deconstruction merely a gun with blank ammunition. “Literature for the deconstructionists testifies to the impossibility of language’s ever doing more than talk about its own failure, like some barroom bore.” Derrida’s work has been “grossly unhistorical, politically evasive and in practice oblivious to language as ‘discourse.”’ It is neither my business nor my pleasure to speak for deconstruction, but I’m sure it is a more formidable thing than Eagleton’s version suggests, even if in the long run one decides that it belongs not to philosophy but to rhetoric, as a nuance of irony.

Eagleton’s next chapter, on psycho-analysis, is a more spirited performance: at least in Freud he has someone he can take seriously as the source of his own occasional essays in psychoanalytical criticism, in The Rape of Clarissa and other books. The chapter paraphrases the most available arguments of Freud, Jacques Lacan, Harold Bloom, and Norman Holland. Freud is paraphrased on the Oedipus complex, dreams, parapraxis, and the unconscious; Lacan on language and the unconscious, and the “mirror stage” of a child’s development; Holland on the ego and social life; Bloom on his attempts “to rewrite literary history in terms of the Oedipus complex.”

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    Reviewed by Anne Barton, The New York Review, July 21.

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