Rescuing literature from literary theory

Terry Eagleton’s attempt to define literature is impressive, but he fails to recognise that this definition is not merely descriptive – it’s also evaluative.

Sarah Boyes

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Since the Seventies and Eighties, following the demise of the political left, literary theory has become demodé, writes Terry Eagleton. The waning of a wave ‘pure’ theory – post-structuralism, psychoanalysis – and the resultant weakening of ‘radical critique’ has left four islands of study in its wake: post-colonialism, ethnicity, sexuality and cultural studies. Eagleton’s new book, The Event of Literature, reconnects with more philosophical concerns, returning to the question: what is literature? Unfortunately, his approach ultimately means shying further away from looking closely at novels and poems in their own right, frustrating the crucial question of literary value.

Come back to 1983. Eagleton – now professor of literature at Oxford University, having studied under the left-wing literary critic Raymond Williams at Cambridge – has just published an inch-thick, agile volume entitled Literary Theory. It will become a classic. Earlier, in 1958, Williams had conducted a landmark literary-historical study called Culture and Society: 1780-1950, a mature survey of novels and thinkers from Burke to Ruskin, Mill to Orwell, which traced how the idea of ‘culture’ first developed in England, passed down from a pushed-out aristocracy to a rising middle class following, and largely in opposition to, the development of industrial society.

Williams explored from the rumblings of the Romantic revolt, which blazoned the artist’s imagination and intuition as the light of culture against the brute forces of mechanisation, through the idea of cultivation as the highest form of man, a harmonious development of humanity’s qualities and faculties, through Matthew Arnold’s gloss of culture as ‘the best which has been thought and said’, and on to TS Eliot’s reading of culture as a ‘whole way of life’ and Leavis’ sanctuary of an organic past to guard against a fragmenting present. Williams concludes thoughtfully: ‘The history of our idea of culture is a record of our reactions, in thought and feeling, to the changed conditions of our common life.’ (1)

Eagleton’s 1983 book Literary Theory, meanwhile, picked up the rise of ‘literature’ as an academic subject in the nineteenth century, following the rough contours hewn by Williams well into the twentieth. Eagleton focused more explicitly on the role of social class and ‘ideological’ forces. He explored Matthew Arnold’s defensive project of educating the working class into particular modes of valuing and feeling through literature (culture) to dissuade them from more disruptive forms of political engagement deleterious to the current order (anarchy). He explored literature’s role in galvanising the formation of a fresh middle-class national identity after the First World War, as the subject was re-energised at Cambridge in the Fifties by men like FR Leavis, William Empson and IA Richards. He noted the way that TS Eliot distrusted middle-class liberalism and how the rise of New Criticism from the 1930s was a defensive move by intellectuals defeated and alienated by industrial capitalism.

Literary Theory marked an important shift in how literature was conceived, reflecting both a nervousness and a new, unmoored awareness. Eagleton consolidated the ‘theorisation’ of literature in the general term, as opposed to the older model of specific, protracted practical criticism still evident in Williams. He rarely quotes from novels in his ‘theoretical’ work, despite being a supple critic: the bulk of his 1983 book runs vividly through assorted ‘literary theories’, from hermeneutics and structuralism to semiotics and psychoanalysis. It is ultimately an argument from a very isolated, abstracted viewpoint. It unsurprisingly concludes that ‘literature’ doesn’t exist as a natural object out there in the world in the way that, say, insects do; that value judgements about it are historically relative and tied to social ideologies.

Eagleton ended with the thought that literature had been revealed as an ‘illusion’ by literary theory, so his book has unmasked literary theory itself as an illusion, the product of various ideologies. Unlike Williams, who drew conclusions about the richness and complexity of human experience and its reflection in verse and prose, there is a more honestly ambivalent response in Eagleton: that the way forward is to turn to a different kind of discourse, which sees literature simply as part and parcel of cultural practice.

Despite the insights at play, this ultimately involves a profound distancing from literature, a sense there is something wrong with quietly facing the book and absorbing what it has to say, getting lost in the world and characters the author has created. In general, cultural theory aims to reattach literature to its lived context in a superficial way, viewing its inclusion in a literary canon or salon as an act of estrangement from real life. This wrongly understands the articulation of shared standards for judging novels as a kind of violence, whereas it is only by being included in a vigorous literary tradition that they can truly aspire to a universal, common culture. Embracing cultural studies at the cost of literary criticism is really a displacement activity for people’s confusion about their own place in the world, reflecting a heightened crisis and anxiety at the direction of modern life.

An Afterward to Literary Theory added in 1996 evenly comments:

‘Cultural theory… has also provided a space in which some vital political issues could be nurtured in an inhospitable climate… if literature matters today… it is chiefly because it seems to many conventional critics one of the few remaining places where, in a divided, fragmented world, a sense of universal value may still be incarnate, and where, in a sordidly material world, a rare glimpse of transcendence can still be attained… the generosity of the humanist’s faith in common values must be candidly acknowledged… [but] nobody can yet say exactly what they would be…the material conditions which might allow them to flourish have not yet come into being.’

The rise of cultural studies has involved a displacement of political concerns into the academy and on to art. In response, it is right to aspire to value literature in a universal and transcendent way. But literature isn’t a magical repository for universal values just like that; many good works of the twentieth century involve and reflect experiences of dislocation and dissatisfaction, and solicit real work from the reader. Rather, it is our shared commitment to invigorating a vibrant literary culture – the articulation of a living tradition – that might give literature such verve. This is also a product of the articulation of shared critical standards now, moored in the present, taking sides and forming camps with differing aesthetic predilections and literary ideas.

Shoot forward to the present. The Event of Literature returns to the question of how to define literature. As the preface notes, this is not an ‘aridly academic’ question asked from an ahistorical vantage point. Eagleton’s aim is partly to bridge the ‘continental/analytic’ divide and temper both some of literary theory’s notorious excesses and the ‘intellectual conservatism’ of the Anglo-American tradition. As ever, this is a whistle-stop tour of various theories and ideas, amid a flurry of quotations and distinctive turns of phrase, sometimes at the cost of clear explanation. The ripping pace and eclecticism with which Eagleton writes is impressive, though it can undermine the sense of a clear case being made.

The book begins by asking whether general natures are possible, returning to the Medieval debate between ‘realists’ and ‘nominalists’, in particular the scholastics of the thirteenth century – Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus – and their opponents following William of Occam. Philosophically, this problem passes down from Plato in the fifth century BC, who believed that eternal, perfect and immaterial forms exist – knowable only through rational reflection and the ‘recollection’ of our immortal souls, of which objects in the fleeting material world are mere shadows.

These forms explain how distinct objects are similar, and can also function as ideals. For example, the abstract form of justice is the ideal behind any mere human justice in the world. It is also what these individual instances of human justice have in common. Aristotle, Plato’s pupil and the more commonsense and classifying mind, now known as the ‘father of science’, takes a more moderate view – general natures do exist but not separately from the objects they exist in. And in the declining, inward-looking demise of the Roman Empire, a third, Stoic position emerges, that general natures are in some sense subjective constructs.

These positions pass through to the Medieval world, where they become a part of theology, bound up with questions of essence and the relationship of God to the world, and from there through the birth of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries into modern philosophy as the ‘problem of universals’.

As Eagleton notes, Karl Marx took the view that abstract things can and do exist – for example, value is a real thing in the world, not something that exists simply in the minds of individual capitalists, as the bourgeois economists’ subjective theory of value would have it. The point is perhaps that the the dearth of a more filled-out social theory often leads to superficial solutions. Eagleton wryly comments that radicals tend to dismiss the question of defining literature as conservative, whereas it is more often conservative academics found eschewing the possibility of defining literature. This signals an exhaustion on both sides of the traditional divide.

The resultant attempt to combine ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ traditions is laudable, but hinges mostly on the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who moved from Vienna to Cambridge to study with Bertrand Russell in 1911. Wittgenstein wrote two major works, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus early on in 1921, and a later, more accessible work, the Philosophical Investigations (1953). Here, Wittgenstein introduces the notion of ‘family-resemblance’. Concepts are not applied to objects as rigidly as we imagine. Rather, we apply a concept to a set of objects because they share a broad family of resemblances, like family members share common traits – similar nose shape, high cheekbones, blue eyes and so on – though not every member has all of them. Eagleton uses the idea of family resemblance as a way out of the realist/nominalist impasse: literature doesn’t have an essence, but neither is it merely a subjective category. Rather, there is a collection of resemblances that can be found in things we call ‘literature’.

This is a bit of a fudge, but it does allow Eagleton to restate his basic position from Literary Theory, that there are five general characteristics of literature, by no means clear-cut or exhaustive. Literature is fictional, moral in the sense of giving us insight into human experience, uses language in a heightened way, non-pragmatic, and highly valued as a piece of writing. What follows is a searching investigation of these various aspects, drawing on a wide range of theorists, positions and thinkers from Stanley Fish to psychoanalysis, Derrida to Levi-Strauss. There is a useful section on what the philosophy of literature has to say about the nature of fiction, which Eagleton notes is a neglected area within literature (does Sherlock Holmes have a liver? Does he have a mole on his shoulder? Does he exist?). However, this is less a systematic survey than a romp through interesting ideas.

One small qualm is Eagleton’s insistence that literature is merely a descriptive category and not a normative one:

‘The truth, however, is that to use the word “literature” normatively rather than descriptively leads to a needless muddle, along with a fair number of self-satisfied prejudgements. It is better to treat the word ‘literature’ like the word ‘intellectual’. ‘Intellectual’ does not mean ‘frightfully clever’. If that were so there would be no dim-witted intellectuals, which is far from the case. The category is a job description, not a personal commendation. The word ‘literature’ should be similarly confined to descriptive uses.’

However, ‘literature’, like ‘intellectual’, is both a descriptive and normative term, and not simply a matter of disinterested logical definition or empirical inquiry. To say that Paradise Lost is literature, or to call Hannah Arendt an intellectual, is to make a personal commendation, a judgement of worth. Significantly, both terms are energised by their relationship to a robust, public intellectual culture. It seems strange that when Eagleton says one aspect of literature is being ‘highly valued’ as writing, that he then seems to reject this significantly evaluative criterion.

This signals deeper limits to the approach. Analytic philosophy is richer than often thought, but following a scientific attitude separates out questions of existence from questions of value: ‘is’ does not imply ‘ought’. Significantly, much continental literary theory also disavows questions of strict evaluation, as Eagleton notes, seeing value judgements as irrelevant, ideological obfuscation or else explicitly tied to political aims. Both traditions peel away from the idea that literature is first and foremost an artform in its own right, involving a special, subjective dimension that demands a significantly subjective and evaluative response, the more open the better. This is a job for the literary critic.

The question of what literature is can’t be answered simply through conceptual analysis. This is because it is also a question thrown up to us by history; one that cuts to the heart of the question of intellectual and moral value, asking us who we are and what is important to us, and how we respond to life. It must be tackled by rigorous and specific critical practice that looks outwards, on to the world, as well as inwards to the depths of thought and feeling. None of this is narcissistic, and much runs counter to powerful cultural forces. Eagleton is most articulate on the problems that have weighed down his topic in the final chapter: ‘Art and humanity, then, can be seen as akin in that their function lies not outside themselves but in the activity of their self-realisation.’

Sarah Boyes is a freelance writer and editor, and the assistant editor of Culture Wars.

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