I became a fan of the literary critic and cultural theorist Terry Eagleton during the last year of my undergraduate degree. Back then, faced with an impenetrable stanza from T.S. Eliot, and harassed by an approaching coursework deadline, I decided to do the unthinkable and enter the library. The next panicked half hour is lost to me, but I remember emerging into the busy sunshine of UEA’s concrete quad clutching a new copy of Eagleton’s How to Read a Poem, and allowing myself to believe that my problems might be over. Thanks to Terry Eagleton – and aside from a sudden suspicious abundance of ibid in my footnotes – for the time being they were.
if you’re looking for a stimulating antidote to Richard Dawkins’ get-on-with-your-life rational humanism, and a persuasive rereading of the gospels, have a look at Eagleton’s new Reason, Faith and Revolution
Eagleton was born in Salford, not very far from where, nearly sixty years later, he was made professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester. He spent the intervening years of his career studying at Cambridge and then as a professor of English at Oxford, a move he later described as ‘like taking refuge from insincerity in Hollywood’. Key to his writing and lecturing style is this kind of laconic wit, which he combines with effortless erudition: unlike with some lecturers, his learning rarely seems deliberately researched, and unlike many of the literary theories that he lectures on, his ideas never feel deliberately recherché. One of the last lectures of his that I attended, he finished a lengthy digression on Jacques Lacan by plugging his favourite brand of marmalade.
Eagleton attacks his subjects with rolled up sleeves, outlining with humour and (often) sympathy where this or that school of criticism has committed bad faith or come free of its moorings. To me, this kind of critical approach (metatheory, or theory about theory) is apt to die a slow death under the weight of its own jargon, and it’s a testament to Eagleton’s lively engagement with his subjects that his expositions never suffer a similar fate. If you’re curious to read around Slavoj Zizek’s ideas of the will, or want a short treatise on the constructed persona of David Beckham, I recommend Eagleton’s Figures of Dissent (Verso); if you want a discursive overview of the last hundred or so years of literary studies, you could do a lot worse than Literary Theory (Blackwell); if you’re looking for a stimulating antidote to Richard Dawkins’ get-on-with-your-life rational humanism, and a persuasive rereading of the gospels, have a look at Eagleton’s new Reason, Faith and Revolution (Yale). I think a pretty good endorsement of a critic is when their readers trust them to branch out into unfamiliar territory: with Terry Eagleton, it sometimes doesn’t feel like there is any.
by Matt Munday: Yale member of staff