Freud not ‘Family Guy’

The Event of Literature, by Terry Eagleton, Yale, RRP£18.99, 264 pages

Thirty years ago, Terry Eagleton published what would become one of the best-selling books in the history of criticism. Literary Theory was an introduction to the obscure – and often obscurantist – thinkers who had revolutionised the study of literature since the days of Matthew Arnold and FR Leavis.

Bakhtin and Barthes, Derrida and de Man, Foucault and Frye: Eagleton wrote about them all in prose so transparent and trouble-free it made even Heidegger seem at least momentarily comprehensible. Above all, it was fun. Eagleton was, and is, one of the great campus comedians, a Lucky Jim Dixon who’s actually read the books he’s meant to have read and earned the right to pour scorn on them. For kicking Arnold and Leavis’s elitist diktats as he did, Eagleton hardly came down any easier on their structuralist and psychoanalytic successors. Eagleton’s Derrida was blindly ahistorical, his Barthes a decadent sensualist, his Lacan frivolous and apolitical. And so, while Eagleton’s elegantly joshing précis helped you bone up for exams, he also suggested that courses studying such writers were irrelevant.

Eagleton’s latest book, The Event of Literature, is a kind of addendum to Literary Theory. Theory, we learn, has gone to ground during the past three decades. Students have fought shy of its often airy abstractions, its constant reminders that novels are made up of nothing but words, that words have no intrinsic connection with the phenomena they label, and that even the most devotedly realist writer hasn’t a hope of showing the world as it really is. Lecturers, meanwhile, surrounded by teenagers who know more about Desperate Housewives than Descartes, have proved more than willing to overlook Derrida’s once unassailable claim that “there is nothing outside the text.” Oh yes there is, the lecturers say: there’s your class, culture, skin colour, sexuality – anything to give you a handle on the otherwise estranging experience that is reading about other lives.

Eagleton doesn’t disparage the rise of post-colonial and gendered readings, but there are signs that he is worried at the way cultural studies have come to dominate literature classes. Though he acknowledges that advertising copy often makes rather more use of poetic techniques than many a novel, he fears that the study of “Family Guy is probably not as intellectually rewarding as the study of Freud and Foucault”.

The Event of Literature is studded with splendid put-downs. We read about US critic Stanley Fish wanting “to interpret the world, not to change it” and about how, “Having made his cosmos, [God] is forced to lie in it.” It’s also littered with great gags. At one point, Eagleton attempts to convince even the most confirmed moralist aesthete that psychological seriousness can be found anywhere – hence his reading of the “torrid tale of lust, murder, adultery and sexual vengeance” that is “Goosey Goosey Gander”. It’s beautifully done, but there’s no denying that, set next to Literary Theory, the book is a drag. Where once the Marxist Eagleton dedicated himself to the idea that literature and theory might be useful tools for revolution, now he sits there wondering whether Freud wasn’t right to say that philosophy looks mighty similar to paranoia.

Wittgenstein, whom Eagleton is fond of quoting, says at the end of his Tractatus that anyone who has understood it will also have seen through it. If anything, this book is even more self-sceptical. “There is no kind of language,” Eagleton tells us, “that literary works do not share with other bits of writing.” Fair enough. But if literature doesn’t exist outside the lecture hall, then what are its theorists theorising about?

Christopher Bray is author of ‘Sean Connery: The Measure of a Man’ (Faber)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.