Monday, February 2, 2009

Benton's First

Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton was first on my list of books I wish all undergraduate English majors would read before they graduate (that is Professor Eagleton in the photo at right). Several books are still jockeying for the second and third spots.

UPDATE: On February 12th, I spoke with Dr. McMahon’s Critical Approaches to Prose class about “The Rise of English,” an excerpt from Literary Theory: An Introduction. In advance of that discussion, Dr. McMahon sent me a list of questions she might ask me and in preparation for the class, I wrote out my answers. I’ve posted some of both in the “Comments” section of this post.


  1. Jennifer McMahon: Why did you choose to talk with our class about Eagleton as opposed to another theorist? Why do you find especially significant or appealing about his approach?

    When I was an undergraduate, I was discouraged from reading literary theory and criticism and as a result I felt excluded from a stimulating and knowledgeable discussion about the literature I was reading inside and outside of class. I feel like Eagleton let me in on the conversation.

    But I don't just appreciate Eagleton as a "gateway" to other places. I value Eagleton as a destination. Literary Theory: An Introduction is not just an analysis of the arguments of others. It is itself an argument--for literary analysis that serves an important purpose in the world: calling attention to social injustice and ways of thinking that produce or perpetuate unjust social relations.

    I like Eagleton because he showed me how I could combine my love for analyzing literature with my commitment to opposing social injustice. And he made it fun. He combines seriousness of purpose with a delightful irreverence toward received wisdom. He is both accessible and useful. And I dig the way he knocks intellectual giants down to a manageable size.

  2. McMahon: Why did you encourage us to read the selection from The Rise of English as opposed to the selection in our textbook (an excerpt from Marxism and Literary Criticism)?

    I thought the selection in the textbook presented Eagleton as more stilted and doctrinaire than he is. It throws around some Marxist jargon that make it less accessible than other writings by Eagleton.

  3. McMahon: Why did you ask to organize today’s class as a discussion, not a lecture? Is this choice consistent with Eagleton’s ideology?

    I'm not big on lecture. If someone prepares a lecture, I would just as soon read their notes outside of class. I think as much class time as possible should be used for discussion and the exchange of ideas.

    I further believe that the principal goal of a college education should be to help students learn how to participate in discussions of serious concerns with educated people. I think Eagleton is all about democracy and sharing the wealth--both economic wealth and intellectual wealth (as is evidenced by his writing style).

    That said, on the first day of the class on Modernism that I took with him at the University of Chicago, he walked into the room (a packed room, I might add) gave a lecture and then walked out. He was a visiting professor that semester and was also teaching a course at Notre Dame and took the train in from Indiana twice a week. His graduate assistants later explained to him that the expectation was that he would stick around for questions. And hold office hours.

    During that semester I learned that there are two kinds of college classes in England: lectures and tutorials. Attendance at lectures is not required. Tutorials are one-one-one meetings with the professor.

    I abused Eagleton’s office hours. He was a great listener and did not seem at all put out by my interruptions.

    I should add that Eagleton was a great lecturer. He is the kind of guy whose extemporaneous speech comes out in the form of highly polished paragraphs.

  4. McMahon: What is Eagleton’s place in Marxist literary studies? Are there aspects of his thought that are either particularly representative of a Marxist approach, or that are inconsistent (or might appear inconsistent) with it?

    Eagleton's mentor was Raymond Williams, a Welsh critic of working-class origins who became famous for the role he played in the emergence of Cultural Studies, which advocated the study of a wide variety of cultural texts traditionally dismissed as "popular" as opposed to "sophisticated" works of "high culture."

    A lot of Marxist critics lean heavily on analytical terms employed by Marx himself (such as: base and superstructure; false consciousness, etc.); Eagleton doesn't. In that sense, he is a popularizer.

    Eagleton is also Catholic. In 2007, he came out with a book called: Jesus Christ: The Gospels, which includes the full text of all four gospels and a thirty-page introduction by Eagleton in which he sings Jesus's praises. In 2006 he also leveled a withering attack in the London Review of Books against atheist Richard Dawkins’s recently published The God Delusion. [Here's a link: .]

    Marxists like Althusser offer an extremely grim worldview. Eagleton, however, is fond of quoting Antonio Gramsci's commitment to a "pessimism of the intellect" and an "optimism of the will." Eagleton's humor complements the seriousness of his political agenda.

  5. McMahon: In “The Rise of English,” Eagleton offers a historical analysis that attributes the rise of English, namely literary studies, to the decline in religion in the 18th and 19th century. Nine years into the 21st century, do you think his remarks are still relevant? Has the nature of fiction changed such that it might not be fair to say it operates in the same fashion as Eagleton contends it did in the late Victorian era?

    I don't think Eagleton has a beef with fiction. His beef is with the way literature has traditionally been taught in the schools. As Eagleton sees it, students who are required to take literature courses are too often required to bow down before the classics, to identify and celebrate "universal" and "timeless" truths. Tolerance of and appreciation for differing viewpoints is presented as a supreme virtue in many English classes.

    The overall effect of this kind of instruction is, as Eagleton sees it, pacification, “live and let live.” Fictional texts that address and criticize specific cultural practices or social injustices are attributed lesser value in literature classes than those that address more abstract puzzles that have always characterized the human experience.

    The implicit lesson is that rich and poor are all alike and thus, to complain about economic injustice is to incite "class warfare" (and that's a bad thing). Live and let live is a recipe for inaction, inertia and complacency, though, in Eagleton’s eyes.

    I think that kind of teaching is still very much with us.

  6. McMahon: Do you agree with Eagleton that literature operates as a substitute for religion? Does he (and would you) agree with Marx that it is an “opiate of the masses”?

    Eagleton argues that some attempted to use literature classes to pacify the masses in ways that traditional religious institutions had previously, by encouraging attitudes of "meekness, self-sacrifice, and the contemplative inner life."

    I don't think that Eagleton would argue that religion is an opiate. I think he would say that it has, on occasion, been used that way. At other times, it has been used to incite violence.

    I wouldn't say literature classes today encourage meekness and self-sacrifice. I would question, however, the great emphasis many English classes put on encouraging students to explore their feelings (as opposed to, say, reading and understanding a text, making a persuasive argument, analyzing something outside of themselves).

  7. McMahon: What assumptions about literature do you think Eagleton challenges in his article?

    The assumption that the only purpose served by literature classes is to enrich the spiritual lives of students.

  8. McMahon: How do you think Eagleton would respond to figures like Martha Nussbaum, Wayne Booth, and Bernard Paris, who argue that literature serves not to constrain, but to expand our moral sensibility, our sympathetic appreciation of divergent sets of values, and our capacity for empathy? Whereas they champion the vicarious identification with characters that literature encourages, Eagleton expresses concern about it (2247).

    Eagleton is not an enemy of literature. When he criticizes individual works of literature, he often discusses the ways they challenge traditional authority and oppressive belief systems (often the dominant ideology).

    He has a lot of good things to say about Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, for instance. He has himself written plays and a memoir. So I think he would agree that literature has the ability to empower.

    I also think, however, that he would be suspicions of arguments that suggest it is a good thing to learn to "appreciate" the values of those who want to keep you under their boot and "empathize" with their discomfort. That said, one of Eagleton's great virtues as a writer is his ability to describe a variety of worldviews with great perceptive clarity. And then dismantle them.

  9. McMahon: How do you think Eagleton would like to see readers' relationship to literature (and to each other) change in light of his work?

    I think Eagleton would want readers to ask of any text (and of any institution): What values does this text advocate? What attitudes does it encourage in readers? And finally, whom do these values and these attitudes serve? And, more specifically—to invoke his Marxist sympathies—do these attitudes serve the haves or the have nots? The workers or the fat cats?

  10. Some really rich discussions here. I'm impressed!

    I think Eagleton's contribution is teaching Benton who came to ECU :)

    I don't think his comments on religion are to be read as overt opposition, rather they can be undertood as a means by which the masses (i.e. people) fulfill their down time, attempt to manage their inner lives. I feel a novel can do that, but also, other factors can also contribute.