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.”

Kenneth Burke gets half a sentence: he “eclectically blends Freud, Marx and linguistics to produce his own suggestive view of the literary work as a form of symbolic action.” Julia Kristeva is mentioned, but Eagleton isn’t sure whether her work is acceptably feminist or not. Since women play the role in Eagleton’s work that the proletariat played in early Marxism, feminist critics have to be strictly orthodox.

And then, in a conclusion, Eagleton says what he has apparently wanted to say from the start, that most of the theories and theorists he has been obliged to discuss are not worth discussing, they are merely secretions of bourgeois liberalism, sunk in “the ephemeral pieties of twentieth-century liberalism” which he mocked in The Rape of Clarissa. Specifically: modern literary theories are politically corrupt. “The great majority of the literary theories outlined in this book have strengthened rather than challenged the assumptions of the power-system.” They have conspired with “a political system which subordinates the sociality of human life to solitary individual enterprise.” “The story of modern literary theory [is]…a flight from real history…into a seemingly endless range of alternatives: the poem itself, the organic society, eternal verities, the imagination, the structure of the human mind, myth, language and so on.” Such criticism has no right to exist. That being so, “if literary theory presses its own implications too far, then it has argued itself out of existence. This, I would suggest, is the best possible thing for it to do.”

The weakest part of Eagleton’s argument is where he thinks it is strongest. History, sometimes asserted as “real history,” is for Eagleton that which cannot be doubted or deconstructed. History puts a stop to the “play of signifiers.” “The ‘truth’ of the text,” he declares in Criticism and Ideology, “is not an essence but a practice—the practice of its relation to ideology, and in terms of that to history.” He doesn’t say what history is, or how it proves invulnerable to the irony he so relentlessly directs against other ultimate categories: Being, logos, origin.

I, too, have an interest in establishing the validity of history. I don’t want to feel, like Stephen Dedalus’s pupils in his history class in Ulysses, that history is merely “a tale like any other too often heard.” I would prefer to believe, with Stephen, that historical facts “are not to be thought away”; that the murder of Julius Caesar was an achievement in at least this respect, that it moved from the condition of potentiality to that of actuality.

This is a matter on which Stephen, who has read Aristotle on the theme of potentiality, broods till one of his pupils intervenes to say: “Tell us a story, sir.” But I didn’t need to read Hayden White’s Metahistory or Paul Ricoeur’s History and Truth to feel that the relations between history, narrative, fiction, and rhetoric are such as to make me wary of proclaiming “history” as the self-evidently solid ground of meaning. Was it Raymond Aron who said that theory precedes history? In any case I see no reason to reject Hayden White’s comment that

the Marxist view of history is neither confirmable nor disconfirmable by appeal to “historical evidence,” for what is at issue between a Marxist and a non-Marxist view of history is the question of precisely what counts as evidence and what does not, how data are to be constituted as evidence, and what implications for the comprehension of the present social reality are to be drawn from the evidence thus constituted.

When he cites “history” as real, Eagleton gives no sign of having worried over this question; perhaps he believes it was resolved once for all by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology and by Marx in his preface to A Critique of Political Economy. In any event, “history” is Eagleton’s ultimate term, replacing the theology he has set aside. He hasn’t the slightest misgiving about its validity; misgiving, such as Althusser expressed in Reading “Capital” when he said of “history,” “this apparently full word,” as it is used in the critical discourse Marx addressed to his predecessors, is “in fact theoretically an empty word, in the immediacy of its obviousness; or rather it is the ideology-fulfillment (plein-de-l’idéologie) which surfaces in this lack of rigor.” I don’t take any satisfaction from this alleged emptiness of the word “history,” but if I called upon it as assertively as Eagleton does, I’d try to give it content enough to sustain my argument.

Besides, Eagleton claims to know what “real history” is in any particular case. Richardson’s Clarissa can “dramatize the contradictions of ruling-class patriarchy as vividly as it does” because it was produced “at a transitional point” between patriarchy and the emerging “rights of women in choosing their husbands.” In the case of the Brontës, the “ideological structure” of any one of their novels “arises from the real history of the West Riding in the first half of the nineteenth century.” That “real history” for Eagleton is the relation between the landed and the industrial classes. Insisting on what he calls, in the book on Benjamin, “the irreducibility of the real to discourse,” Eagleton has to present “real history,” in the case of the Brontës, as being beyond discourse. He then has to explain—and signally fails in the attempt—how such remarkably different books as Jane Eyre, The Professor, Shirley, Villette, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were produced from the same “real history” and the same ideological conditions.

I don’t see how the differences among those books can be accounted for if you start by censoring every consideration of imagination, genre, and the solitary enterprise—which it had to be, at some point—by which each of the sisters wrote her fiction. It is a mark of Eagleton’s positivism that he disavows reflection. He doesn’t seem to have been persuaded, as I have been, by Habermas’s argument in Knowledge and Human Interests that Marx “deludes himself about the nature of reflection when he reduces it to labor.” So does Eagleton: his hatred of consciousness and introspection is, to put it gently, exorbitant. He turns away with extraordinary violence from the possibility that material interests might coincide, as they do, Habermas maintains, in “the power of self-reflection.” Eagleton wants interests to precede knowledge on all occasions. This explains his suspicion of theory in which there is a strong possibility, the resources of self-reflection being what they are, that knowledge and interest may be one. The most cogent defense of theory is that it is the form knowledge can take when it frees itself from the priority of dogmatic interests.

The fact that Eagleton presents nearly every modern theorist as grossly deluded is not surprising; it corresponds to his presentation, in Exiles and Emigrés and other books, of the major modern poets and novelists as victims. Conrad, James, Eliot, Yeats, Joyce, and Lawrence are modern victims, not modern masters; they are extreme instances of contradiction, and their value is merely symptomatic. Eliot’s “pathetically nostalgic fantasies of a hierarchical Christian order, organically interfusing a devout populace with a clericalist élite, are as historically obsolescent as Conrad’s romanticising of the merchant code.” If we read these writers, it can only be to see what it means to fail, to be in error or in bad faith.

So what is criticism supposed to do, short of doing the honorable thing? Eagleton’s clearest program is in his book on Benjamin:

Let us briefly imagine what shape a “revolutionary literary criticism” would assume. It would dismantle the ruling concepts of “literature,” reinserting “literary” texts into the whole field of cultural practices. It would strive to relate such “cultural” practices to other forms of social activity, and to transform the cultural apparatuses themselves. It would articulate its “cultural” analyses with a consistent political intervention. It would deconstruct the received hierarchies of “literature” and transvaluate received judgments and assumptions; engage with the language and “unconscious” of literary texts, to reveal their role in the ideological construction of the subject; and mobilize such texts, if necessary by hermeneutic “violence,” in a struggle to transform those subjects within a wider political context.

What this curriculum amounts to, in Literary Theory, is: a rhetorical analysis of discursive practices. Works of literature would get into the syllabus, but without any special privilege. You would start by deciding what you wanted to do, presumably what “political interpretation” you wanted to make; then look for the material that would best help you to do it. The material might include Paradise Lost, “The MacNeil-Lehrer Report,” MAD magazine, and whatever else your sense of the task required. It is not clear what Eagleton hopes to achieve from these analyses, since he evidently agrees with Barthes that “the real is not representable.” How, then, is Eagleton to get from discourse to the irreducibly real, if language, as he says in The Rape of Clarissa, is “a ceaselessly digressive supplement which…will never succeed in nailing down the real”? As for method: “Any method or theory which will contribute to the strategic goal of human emancipation, the production of ‘better people’ through the socialist transformation of society, is acceptable.” Strangely, Eagleton finds a good word to say about liberal humanism at last: while it “has dwindled to the impotent conscience of bourgeois society, gentle, sensitive and ineffectual,” it can still teach rhetoric something about the “humanly transformative” power of discourse. So perhaps his curriculum isn’t as daunting as it has seemed: it may not bother his colleagues, the Fellows of Wadham College, Oxford, at all.

But the odd thing about Eagleton’s curriculum is that he describes it as novel. Isn’t the rhetorical analysis of discursive practices what Barthes spent most of his life doing? Isn’t Foucault’s entire work such an analysis? Kenneth Burke has been engaged, for more than fifty years, in the rhetorical analysis of discursive practices, according to his maxim of “using all there is to use.” I.A. Richards’s work is rhetorical analysis of discourse. If more routine work is in question, I have for some years been reading essays that fulfill Eagleton’s curricular requirements—though I can’t vouch for the purity of their socialism—in such magazines as Signs, Poetics Today, Studies in Romanticism, Critical Inquiry, Glyph, Raritan, The Quarterly Journal of Speech, and Social Text. Eagleton refers to “the reinvention of rhetoric that I have proposed.” The proposal is redundant, I’m afraid, and the claim embarrassing. Rhetoric, reinvented many years ago, for example by Kenneth Burke, is an industry coast to coast. Rhetorical analysis probably accounts for most of our current activity in the humanities. How useful to have a negative guide to it and then go right on with it. It is precisely because of the prevalence of rhetorical analysis in our universities and colleges—and because of the hospitality a bourgeois liberal society extends to its opponents—that Eagleton can anticipate the success of his book.

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