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March 6, 2003

Terry Eagleton, on fundamentalism and other subjects
Posted by Teresa at 08:15 AM *

I’ve been fond of Terry Eagleton’s writing since my days as a litcrit editor. Somehow I’ve managed to not notice until now that he’s writing occasional pieces, and they’re turning up on the web.

For instance, 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.

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.
Such fun.

(John Farrell, you should have a look at his review of Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why.)

Comments on Terry Eagleton, on fundamentalism and other subjects:
#1 ::: Jeffrey Kramer ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2003, 09:48 AM:

Fun, but not to be mistaken for even a broadly fair summary of lit-crit history. Leavis, for example, could certainly be a bilious paranoid with xenophobic tendencies, but I doubt he ever wrote two sentences about Anglo-Saxon phonemes.

#2 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2003, 11:17 AM:

The reason it can't be mistaken for one is that it's not a broadly fair summary of litcrit history, or a broadly unfair one for that matter. I think I must not have made it clear enough that the article about Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf is not part of Literary Theory.

BTW, I've read some F. R. Leavis. Just a bit. Here and there. Queenie, too.

#3 ::: language hat ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2003, 02:17 PM:

Thanks for reminding me what a delicious writer Eagleton is, and for pointing me to a site where I can find his writing!

#4 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2003, 04:58 PM:

"...pluck and slop of brackish water..."

Ooooo, I love that.

Now, how about us messing about in boots, wellies, or anything rubbery?


#5 ::: Jeffrey Kramer ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2003, 09:50 PM:

Teresa; no, you were clear about the quote coming from his piece on Heaney's Beowulf. My quarrel, or quibble, or whatever, was with Eagleton casually declaring that "a view of English and Englishness" based on its heritage of "bluff, manly vowels" became "a full-dress cultural ideology in the hands of FR Leavis and his collaborators" and that there was a time not too long ago when Cambridge was rounding up all available phalli to fight the war against international cissyism. Can any English majors here remember being enlisted in such battles?

#6 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2003, 09:18 AM:

Thanks for the link! Printing it out now (guiltily, at work).

I too enjoyed and still have Eagleton's Literary Theory. And you're right--one of the strengths of his book was his evenhandedness, whether his subject was Northrop Frye (for whom I retain a great deal of fondness) or Derrida whom I also had to wade through as an undergrad.

BTW--I like the face lift on the web site. I've been in St. Thomas for a week (but it feels like it's been a month....)
and incommunicado.

#7 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2003, 10:37 AM:

The piece on Bloom was great. If you want an even cattier take, read Joseph Epstein in the Hudson Review.

I do like some of his essays in the Shakespeare (Inventing the Human) book, but he does get tiresome on Falstaff Uber Alles.

And, as I've peevishly complained before, his treatment of Tolkien, in what passes for the two volumes in his series, is annoying to say the least.

(I feel better now)

#8 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2003, 10:39 AM:

Jane, just say when.

Jeffrey, I'm not nearly old enough to have personal knowledge of the Cambridge phalli of 1914.

Leavis wasn't an Anglo-Saxonist -- far too much grubby excavation for that fox -- but he was a cultural ideologue, and had agendas like other people breathe. Authentically chthonic Anglo-Saxonized manly English was definitely one of them. Think D. H. Lawrence.

(Bleah! In the hands of Leavis' imitators, this spawned one of my least-favorite strains of criticism -- the kind that makes you deeply wary of the word root, and hampers your ability to use infallibly in any manly context.)

Eagleton has written about Leavis' beliefs and campaigns at some length in Literary Theory, if you're interested.

My take on this is that Eagleton has a great knack for accurately characterizing and summarizing tendencies in lit&crit. He's like one of those gifted caricaturists who can catch someone's likeness in a few lines and dots of ink.

To say that I appreciate this is wholly inadequate. I've had to read cubic yards of litcrit by writers who didn't have his knack. In their hands, the ideational content of that delectable paragraph that begins, There is a geographical as well as a theological poetics at work here, would have been a long article or a short book, painful to read, with charts tabulating rough craggy authentic phonemes vs. slippery devious ones. The section corresponding to as the signs button down snugly on their referents would have been especially turgid.

I haven't yet spotted him being notably inaccurate. I like to think I would have done so. I first read him when I was a litcrit reference series editor, spending fifty or sixty hours a week immersed in the stuff. I read Myths of Power, his study of the Brontes, during the period when I was intensively researching, reading, selecting, and editing criticism about them. I did the chapters on all three Bronte sisters simultaneously. It made sense to give overlapping groups to one editor -- I also did the Sitwells, and Charles and Mary Lamb -- but for a while there I was sodden with Bronte criticism. Their novels and poetry, I already knew. I found Eagleton's book solid (or at least defensible) at all levels of detail.

I haven't always been that familiar with his subjects; but where I have, he's known his stuff. I suppose I very nearly trust him, for the moment.

#9 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2003, 11:09 AM:

John! I'd wondered where you were. Glad to hear it was St. Thomas. The redesign was Patrick's idea. But back to the litcrit --

Oh, Jacob Epstein would, wouldn't he just. I was struck by this bit:

Critics come in vastly varying styles: from subtle, self-effacing, and sardonic, to oracular, vatic, apocalyptic, to plain damned intelligent. The one quality indispensable to the critic, however, is authoritativeness. He must show no hesitation, making commandingly clear that he knows whereof he speaks. Edmund Wilson put the case for authority in criticism best: 93The implied position of the people [that92s critics] who know about literature (as in every other fine art) is simply that they know what they know, and that they are determined to impose their opinions by main force of eloquence or assertion on the people who do not know [that92s the rest of us].94
That olympian tone is a convention of literary criticism, but I don't believe it's inherent to the form. However, I do believe that Jacob Epstein (and Edmund Wilson, and Harold Bloom) think it is.

Some time ago I started writing a comment to you about Bloom and Chelsea House and that Tolkien collection. It turned into a very long shapeless rant. I should tidy it up and send it out into the world, but I'm afraid that if I go near it, it'll get longer instead of tidier.

I just had an embarrassing moment on Amazon. I was browsing through the customer reviews of Literary Theory, occasionally clicking YES helpful NO not helpful, when I stumbled across a short review that struck me as being so full of manifest good sense and apt phrasing that I clicked on "yes" before I noticed that it had been written by one of my standard pseudonyms...

I have no idea what occasion prompted me to write it, nor memory of having written it.

#10 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2003, 11:35 AM:

I would love to read your comments about Chelsea House, however shapeless, whenever you get a chance to post (or email it!).

#11 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2003, 12:56 PM:

As would I. You could start with two old wizards sharing a bowl of pipeweed...

#12 ::: nick sweeney ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2003, 08:14 PM:

Eagleton's undergraduate lit-theory lectures at Oxford were, of course, packed out during my time there. Very impressive for the inge9nues of ox.eng-lit (too impressive for some, if you believe the stories); though I enjoyed hearing him more in smaller circles as a postgrad, such as when he opened a seminar group for c-18 types like myself.

Anyway, I'd be intrigued to know whether (or how) Heaney and Eagleton got on, when Famous Seamus was Prof of Poetry between 89 and 94. Because Eagleton's most recent comments on Heaney's critical prose (in the LRB) are quite arch:

"This sonorous, self-flauntingly metaphorical kind of language, on which meaning only just manages to impinge, is exemplary of what one might call Eng-Lit-speak. It constitutes the acceptable, as opposed to the unacceptably theoretical, jargon of the subject. Seamus Heaney is one of its leading perpetrators... From Sydney to San Diego, the speakers of this patois recognise each other as surely as Masons do by a crooked finger."

#13 ::: Marty Helgesen ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2003, 03:52 PM:

There were five fundamentals not seven However, there were two similar but varient lists of the five, which could have produced a total of seven. If I were able to go to work, instead of being sequestered with a broken ankle I could easily look up both lists. It's not worth the effort of finding them on the web.

#14 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2003, 11:01 PM:

Teresa: Is there a chance your pseudonym has taken on a life of its own? Otherwise, welcome to middle age.

John: I owe you an email explaining about Boskone. Real Soon Now.


#15 ::: Barnaby Rapoport ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2003, 04:28 PM:

The literary critics' drinking song is in Eagleton's collection *Against the Grain.*

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