Pedants and Partisans, in which he has a go at explaining fundamentalism. Not surprisingly, he sees it as a lunacy proceeding from language:
The word “fundamentalism” was first used in the early years of the last century by anti-liberal US Christians, who singled out seven supposed fundamentals of their faith. … The first of the seven fundamentals was a belief in the literal truth of the Bible; and this is probably the best definition of fundamentalism there is. It is basically a textual affair. Fundamentalists are those who believe that our linguistic currency is trustworthy only if it is backed by the gold standard of the Word of Words. They see God as copperfastening human meaning. Fundamentalism means sticking strictly to the script, which in turn means being deeply fearful of the improvised, ambiguous or indeterminate. Fundamentalists, however, fail to realise that the phrase “sacred text” is self-contradictory. Since writing is meaning that can be handled by anybody, any time, it is always profane and promiscuous. Meaning that has been written down is bound to be unhygienic. Words that could only ever mean one thing would not be words.I first met Eagleton’s work via his Literary Theory, the only major work about Lit. Hist. that’s referred to by reviewers as “racy”. (Alas, I cannot now remember whether it’s Literary Theory or another one of his titles that has the literary critics’ drinking song in the back.) It’s also erudite, useful—and occasionally startling, because Eagleton is perfectly willing to spill the beans about the underlying politics, academic and otherwise, of the litcrit world. Here’s a bit from his recent longish essay about Seamus Heaney’s new translation of Beowulf, Hasped and hooped and hirpling: Heaney conquers Beowulf. At the moment that we join our essay in progress, Eagleton is discussing Oxbridge politics, 1914:
…it helped, in battling the Boche, to know that you hailed from an ancient race with bluff, manly vowels and a handy way with a sword, and this gave the Anglo-Saxonists a belated boost at their most perilous historical hour. Perhaps some of the Germans’ own uncouth virility could be hijacked for the struggle against their dominion. Not long afterwards, by the time an English school at Cambridge was up and running, this view of English and Englishness had evolved into a full-dress cultural ideology in the hands of FR Leavis and his collaborators. Unlike Oxford, Cambridge had sought to solve the Anglo-Saxon problem by ensconcing it in a separate faculty from English. Spiritually, however, what would eventually become known as Cambridge English adopted just the opposite strategy, boldly redefining the essence of English language and literature in vaguely Anglo-Saxonist terms. If the subject itself was academically sequestered, its colonising spirit was everywhere apparent. Authentic English was gnarled, racy, muscular, robust, richly specified and concretely realised, and the literary canon would be drastically reconstructed as one continuous laying bare of its nerve and sinew. In the process, poetry, that most cissy of all activities, would be repossessed for the male species.Such fun.
Unlike cerebral, anaemic languages such as French, English words had the good fortune sensuously to enact their own meanings, so that the archetypal English poem sounded rather like the rumbling of a sack of potatoes being emptied. Not even the thinnest blade could be slid between signifier and signified. What Freud had seen as a characteristic mark of schizophrenia—the confusion of words and things—was raised to a sign of ethnic distinction. For this quasi-sacramental poetics, ‘Ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ palely alluded to something, whereas ‘mossed cottages trees’ was a matter of real presence. Once again, in the long history of English nationalism, Englishness was everything that the abstract, frivolous, revolutionary French were not.There is a geographical as well as a theological poetics at work here. Roughly speaking, the nearer you approach the Arctic Circle, the more authentic your language grows. Northern poems—from Beowulf and Ted Hughes’s The Hawk in the Rain to Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist—are craggy and brawny, whereas southern ones are more devious and deliquescent. The Northern Irish poet Tom Paulin, with his penchant for words which sound like the squelching of a leaky boot, raises this doctrine to the point of self-parody. In poetry like Heaney’s, you can hear the pluck and slop of brackish water as the signs button down snugly on their referents, whereas Donald Davie’s words stand at a chaster distance from his meanings.
(John Farrell, you should have a look at his review of Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why.)