The Guardian Profile
High priest of lit crit
A Catholic turned Marxist from a working-class background, Terry Eagleton was an influential English don - and active militant - at the heart of the establishment in Oxford. Now based in Dublin, he finds himself a 'semi-outsider' once more. Nicholas Wroe reports
Saturday February 2, 2002
It was no surprise that Terry Eagleton's memoir, The Gatekeeper, received both widespread and occasionally hostile press coverage when it was published last month. As Britain's best-known academic rebel and literary critic, and as a prominent and unrepentant Marxist revolutionary, Eagleton has a history of placing himself above the parapet and is well used to the abuse that is periodically heaped upon him. But this time he found himself disconcerted not by an attack, but by a generally favourable review of his book in, of all places, the Daily Mail. "In my defence, I should say it was reviewed by one of the first students I taught when I was a young Fellow at Cambridge in the mid-60s," Eagleton explains. "But when the Mail says nice things about you, it makes you think."
The review opened with the chilling claim that Eagleton was in danger "of becoming a national institution, like John Betjeman or Arthur Scargill". Eagleton has said that the "sheer horror of cliché, if nothing else," has helped preserve him from the stereotypical rightward drift of the militant young leftist. But perhaps more importantly, as is made clear in The Gatekeeper, he has never allowed himself to be fully embraced by any of the different worlds in which he has operated, so the chance of the establishment, or indeed anyone else, exerting an exclusive claim on him now seems reassuringly remote.
The title of his memoir comes from his time as a 10-year-old altar server in a Carmelite convent chapel in 1950s Salford. After initiation services in which novices renounced the world for the veil and a life of prayer, Eagleton would take part in an invariably distressing little ceremony where weeping parents said a final goodbye to their daughters. He has never been subjected to such gothic grotesquerie since. But this notion of negotiating a life lived on the cusp of different worlds is one that echoes through the rest of his story. He is a Catholic of Irish descent in Protestant England, a working-class boy whose professional life was spent at the heart of a ruling-class institution, a Marxist revolutionary who was not only tolerated, but rewarded by the liberal establishment.
John Sutherland, professor of English at London University, says Eagleton has been a recipient, "of what you might call repressive tolerance. In Argentina he'd have been one of los desaparecidos [the disappeared], in eastern Europe he'd probably be in prison, but what does Oxford do? Make him Warton professor of English literature in succession to John Bayley. And what does Terry do? In his inaugural lecture, slag off John Bayley."
Tariq Ali has known Eagleton for more than 30 years and says he has always had a sort of double existence. "He was one of the lads in the pub with the comrades and was wonderfully good at singing and writing songs. I remember a very good one in defence of the striking firemen. But then he'd go off and be a cult literary theorist. To his credit, he has always tried to bring his worlds together."
One reason Eagleton has been so successful as an academic is that he has also acted as gatekeeper to ideas. "In the 70s he took some incredibly complex stuff from continental Marxists like Althusser, Lacan and Macherey and explained what they were on about," says Sutherland. Professor Peter Widdowson founded the influential academic journal Literature and History after hearing Eagleton speak at a conference in the mid-70s. "It really was mind-expanding stuff and extremely influential. He's sort of the grand old man of British literary theory now and the way in which the syllabus has changed in higher education has had a lot of Terry behind it."
The increased prominence of largely forgotten texts by women writers, working-class writers or black writers, in part came from work undertaken by Eagleton. "But, interestingly, Terry himself hasn't really gone down that route," says Widdowson. "His criticism had been largely based on canonical authors, but his approach to Hardy or Lawrence or the Brontës - dealt with in the light of new theories - suggested new ways of looking at canonical texts, which have been followed through by other people. For instance, he'll take marginalised figures from books, push them to the foreground and re-shape the way in which we look at them. He takes very familiar texts and roughs them up. He calls it 'reading against the grain'."
This approach has been, according to some, a mixed blessing. In reviewing Eagleton's best-selling 1983 book Literary Theory for the New York Review of Books, the critic Denis Donoghue complained that the net effect of Eagleton's approach was to transform great writers from masters of their art into victims of their times. They become of interest, he wrote, only as "extreme instances of contradiction, and their value is merely symptomatic. If we read these writers, it can only be to see what it means to fail, to be in error or in bad faith."
One of Eagleton's responses to Donoghue was to include him in a list of hostile critics in his song, The Ballad of Marxist Criticism. The opening lines, to be sung to Something Stupid, are: "The day I found my tutor was a popular reformist sentimentalist/ Nostalgic petty-bourgeois social democrat subjectivist empiricist..."
Eagleton will be 60 next year, which on the face of it seems an appropriate time for him to take stock of his life and career. Other critics and writers of his generation, such as Sheila Rowbotham and the late Lorna Sage, recently published well-received autobiographies. But for Eagleton the form itself presents a difficulty. In a 1978 essay attacking the "discredited theoretical doctrine" of John Bayley, Eagleton asserted that "the whole body of his work is caught within a spurious belief that the truth of a text resides in the consciousness of its author". Something to ponder when writing a book about yourself.
"I do dislike the genre," Eagleton says. "Autobiography is enormously popular in Britain, where they love a character, but I do find it all rather predictable." So he has called his book a memoir, which is "a way of writing about ideas which can be weaved in and out of a life."
The book is a captivating read while remaining tantalisingly non-disclosive. Of the few names mentioned several have been changed. As one exasperated reader put it, "it doesn't help in telling us who he is. Five years ago he moved to Dublin but we still don't know whether he has gone home or is in exile. Is he a refugee from Oxford or an Irishman gone back to the ould sod?"
In fact Eagleton, born in Salford in 1943, is a third-generation Irish immigrant. He has one older and one younger sister, both of whom teach English. Two younger brothers died in infancy; one after his skull was damaged at birth, and the other when a nurse applied an ointment that had just been smeared on another child with an infection. His father had won a grammar-school place but didn't take it up because of the expense, and the family were both poor and "socially sophisticated enough to be conscious of their inferiority".
At primary school Eagleton remembers being the only boy to wear a coat. He was further distanced from his classmates by often being absent with asthma and by being a budding intellectual. He went on to a casually sadistic grammar school run by the De La Salle brotherhood. Among a large hinterland of cousins only his strand of the family had children who went on to higher education. "So for me it wasn't the usual story of being in the tribe and then being kicked out," he explains. "I was always on the periphery. When I was 28 at Oxford, relatives would ask my mother 'what is Terry going to be?' They obviously didn't regard being an academic as a job and were mystified why I was still an overgrown schoolboy."
He says he used to worry about his receding relationship with his own roots "but then I became rather stoical about it. It was foolish to believe this was a divide that could be simply crossed. I had no illusion that I could turn the clock back, and anyway that world is all gone now. But instead what I tried to do was write on behalf of my father's people."
Some of the most affecting and personal passages from The Gatekeeper concern Eagleton writing about his father, whose death he was told about as a 17-year-old sitting the Cambridge entrance exams. He says he felt anaesthetised when he received the news and recently noticed, after finishing The Gatekeeper, that when writing the scene he had focussed on his tutor's behaviour and not his own. "It was about how he coped with telling me, not with how I coped with being told."
At Cambridge, a fellow student says, "we all expected him to get a starred first and he did. I should also say that Trinity was a rather rich and grand college and Terry fitted it like a glove. There was none of the iconoclasm that came later." As an undergraduate Eagleton came into the orbit of the great critic Raymond Williams, and following his degree in 1964 was offered a research fellowship at Jesus College. Eagleton was still a member of the Catholic church and was enthused by the air of liberalisation following Pope John XXIII's ecumenical council, Vatican II, in 1962. He helped to found the leftist Catholic journal Slant and came under the influence of the radical Dominican Friar Laurence Bright who, Eagleton admiringly notes, could "give people a nasty knee in the ideology while seeming only to pass the time of day, from which it would take them weeks to recover". Slant died in 1970 and Eagleton left the church soon after, reasoning that its obdurate power structures were not going to be overthrown.
But although his Marxism had supplanted his Christianity, he acknowledges "there is still the old Joycean question of how far you can walk away from something culturally imprinted on you so deeply. And I still enormously value much of the culture that I inherited, and many of the people." As a young teacher at Cambridge - one of his first students was the playwright David Hare - Eagleton was turned down for a job as an assistant lecturer partly, he thinks, because people were gunning for Williams through him.
By now Eagleton had a family to support. He had met Rosemary Galpin, a state registered nurse working as a health visitor, while on a visit to Manchester during his first year as an undergraduate at Cambridge. They married in 1966 and had two children, Dominic and Daniel. Neither son opted to go into higher education. Dominic now works for the Oxfam research department and Daniel is a chef. Eagleton and Galpin divorced in 1976. He then had a 10-year relationship with the Norwegian feminist critic Toril Moi. In 1997 he married the American academic Willa Murphy. They have a four-year-old son, Oliver, and Eagleton confesses to having the obligatory cricked back of the middle-aged father. "I've met a few other middle-aged fathers who all seem to have a wonky muscle somewhere." They moved to Ireland to live on neutral territory and friends say he is delighted to be a father again. Eagleton laughs that Oliver has even started to learn some Irish at school, "but he thinks it's French".
As a young academic Eagleton says he never suffered any lack of intellectual confidence, but claimed his social background had severely disabled him. "So my intellectual ability shot me into situations where I wasn't equipped to cope. It was very uncomfortable." He was a heavy drinker for many years before stopping eight years ago. "I decided I couldn't take it any more and luckily discovered that I didn't need it. Giving up smoking was far more difficult."
At Cambridge, he says, "the double-think was that I didn't really want a job but Raymond wanted one for me and I wasn't really old enough to stand up to that. I became increasingly unhappy." So he took a job at Oxford which, he recalls in The Gatekeeper, was "rather like taking refuge from insincerity in Hollywood". The liberal Wadham College let him pretty much do as he liked, even if within the English faculty there was hostility to his politics and approach to literature. He was turned down for a professorship at a time when he was not only published but also translated. "My strategy for survival was to put distance between myself and the Oxford establishment," he says. "I wasn't a good college man in that I didn't dine too often and that sort thing. But I survived and Oxford provided me with a base."
Eagleton began a weekly seminar that became a focus for other dissidents, as he calls them, many now teaching at universities around the country. Two former attendees, Tony Crowley and Ken Hirschkop, are professors at Manchester University, and "in a way they hired me," he laughs referring to his move last year to Manchester to take up a specially created post of professor of Cultural Theory. "Ruling-class institutions pull in a lot of very intelligent people and some of these are going to spin off in a more non-conformist direction. I didn't set out to create this role but in the end I created a temporary home for these people at a time in the mid- and late-70s when that made a lot of sense politically."
Eagleton was also involved with the Irish community in Oxford. He founded in a pub a weekly Irish music session which ran for 15 years and later became an Irish cultural festival. "That was tremendously important to me as it gave me a life outside the university. It was very wearing that there were people in the faculty who hardly ever talked to me, although I do think that was ideological not personal." It says something about him that even his intellectual opponents are generally united in praising his essential warmth and wit as a man.
But he says he can understand why his colleagues responded as they did to his promotion of literary theory, as it came to be called. "They thought it was a threat to all they held precious. But I think they were wrong and the students I taught found it enormously enriching. It is sometimes presented as anaemic and deadening and cerebral. But for a lot of students it was a liberation that deepened their appreciation of literature."
Dr Stephen Regan has edited an anthology of Eagleton's writings, The Eagleton Reader (Blackwell), and recalls seeing him lecture in the late 70s. "One of the criticisms is that he is a kind of meta-theorist, in that he theorises about theory," says Regan. "But he has written wonderfully on the likes of Tennyson, Hardy, Dickens and the Brontës. He has taken the best of that old Cambridge tradition of close reading of the text, but made it socially and politically relevant. I saw him lecture on Wuthering Heights and he was very much on the side of Heathcliff. But mostly he showed that you could take a text that a whole generation of critics had abstracted from the social history of which it was part, and talk about it in terms of the tensions and conflicts which were still going on in the 1970s."
Eagleton said he pushed hard for changes in the way English was taught at Oxford throughout the 1980s, "and then, like a lot of ruling-class institutions, when they opened the door you fell flat on your face. There are still some people who still wish it would all go away, but for me it is deeply gratifying to see those changes. Whatever personal difficulties I had at Oxford I did manage to make some sort of a mark there."
A student from that time says Eagleton's position at the university was problematic. "While he was very popular as the Marxist at Oxford, he was very clearly also the token Marxist. In some ways he was a hero, but in other ways he was in a very programmed position. Oxford needed an Eagleton figure to soak up any radical subversive energy. I'm not really sure if he tried to negotiate that intellectually and think through the double bind he was in."
Duke Maskell earlier this year co-edited a book called A New Idea Of A University (Black Spring Press). He says not only has the school of thought Eagleton represents displaced the one represented by the leading British post-war critic FR Leavis - that literature plays an essential role in shaping the values of a culture and should be sustained by a body of highly trained, university based critics - but that Eagleton himself has also replaced Leavis as the best known and most influential academic critic in Britain. "His practical success could hardly have been greater," says Maskell. "But what all this adds up to is a rather interesting reversal. The left-wing rebel is now not just mainstream and respectable, but he is the pillar of the establishment."
If that is a contradiction, it was one Eagleton seemed to take in his stride and he happily sold revolutionary newspapers in Oxford shopping centres while holding one of the university's most prestigious chairs. He says his political development was gradual. As a child he was aware of his father's deep frustrations and the potentially tragic collision between aspiration and achievement. By the age of 15 he had been "fingered by the De La Salle brothers as a bit truculent and I tried to grow a beard. I joined CND and arrived at Cambridge as a conscious socialist, although not knowing a great deal about it."
He joined the International Socialists party, which later became the Socialist Workers Party. At Oxford he moved on to a smaller grouping, the Workers' Socialist League, after disagreeing with the SWP about liaison between local academia and industry. In The Gatekeeper, Eagleton is sharply aware of, and very funny about, the sexual and psycho-pathology of small left wing groups, but Alan Thornett, then a leading militant shop steward at the Cowley car plant and leader of the Workers' Socialist League, remembers Eagleton as a good comrade. "When Terry became a member it helped connect the struggles in the factories with the student movement. While he was a very valuable comrade, in formal meetings some of his language was a bit impenetrable. But people very much appreciated his contribution."
Criticism And Ideology (New Left Books), published in 1976, confirmed Eagleton's status as star left-wing academic. In it he appraises the ideological factors that had hitherto shaped literary theory before proposing a Marxist criticism that could encompass both economic and literary modes of production. "The left was in the ascendant and there was a sense we might break through. It was absolutely a book of its moment," he says. "All those ideas came out of that exciting period of the late 60s and early 70s and it was almost a matter of who was going to crystallise them."
The publication of Literary Theory (Blackwell) in 1983 put him on the world stage. His précis and critique of ideas like reception theory (an examination of the reader's role in literature), hermeneutics (a search for interpretation based on scriptural study), structuralism and post-structuralism (a focus on the linguistic structures that generate meaning, and the way the texts themselves can subvert this meaning) has now sold close to 1m copies.
Eagleton is unsparing of the inadequacies of these various forms of theory and the book ends with another call for a more practical political criticism. But for all that its success is still thought to be one of the reasons he was offered the Warton professorship in 1991, as in marketing terms he was the inter national brand leader. At the time he was appointed he was mulling over another far more lucrative offer from an American university.
One critic, an admirer of Eagleton's "bread and butter" literary criticism but not convinced by his theorising, says, "in a way he was rewarded beyond his desserts, but not beyond his potential. He is extremely clever and he can very quickly skim a book and get out of it everything that re-enforces opinions he already holds. And he can do this for a mass audience."
Whatever the carping, Eagleton entered the stellar world of the global academic, although such fame does not always guarantee academic dignity. A few years ago he was lecturing at an American university on Samuel Richardson's 18th-century novel Clarissa, about which he had written an acclaimed book in 1982. As he spoke, it slowly dawned on him why some of the "less intellectually athletic" students were so entranced. They thought he actually was Samuel Richardson.
Since the mid-80s he had been writing creatively as well as critically. His novel about Wittgenstein in Ireland, Saints And Scholars, was published in 1985, and in 1989 the Field Day theatre company produced Saint Oscar, his play about Wilde. "Some people did say how brave/foolish it was for an academic to write a novel because now you had to play with the ball," he says, "but for me it didn't feel too different from my other writing and Saint Oscar was a wonderful experience." As he wrote in the preface "an academic who turns to so-called creative writing should always choose drama because, like bingo or bowling, it gets you out of the house."
The acclaimed radical playwright Trevor Griffiths directed the play and describes Eagleton as "a very fecund and gifted man who can erase that line between criticism and creativity. They are all the same bucket of whelks for Terry." Griffiths says he was initially wary of working with such a renowned intellectual. "But in practice it was like working with my cousin from Salford. You might assume that this is a man who lives life through abstractions, but in his social living he is warm and expansive and there is always a song just below the lip."
Eagleton acknowledges it is intriguing that he began to write about Ireland creatively before publishing three theoretical, critical and cultural books about the country in the 90s. "When I was a child, Ireland was in the background, but wasn't prominent," he says. "It was at Oxford that I became interested in Irish music and through that Irish culture." His move to Dublin was probably the beginning of him putting daylight between himself and Oxford. He now lives 200 yards from Seamus Heaney on one side and Yeats's birthplace on the other. "One thing you can say about Irish Catholicism is that it has spread a certain moral concern to ground level. And I like living in a culture where the chemist has a view on mercy killing or contraception."
And he, rightly, has no illusions that his interest in the subject will be universally welcomed. In the preface to his 1995 book Heathcliff And The Great Hunger; Studies In Irish Culture (Verso), he says, "for an Irish writer to intervene these days in debates over Irish culture and history is always a risky business; for a semi-outsider it is well-nigh suicidal. 'Brits Out', it would seem, is no longer a slogan confined to republican quarters." These reservations were probably confirmed in a review of The Gatekeeper in an Irish newspaper, which picked up Eagleton's remark that no one in Ireland is called Nigel or Mark unless they are Anglo-Irish. "News I'm sure," hissed the reviewer, "to the two Nigels who played on that bastion of the ascendancy, the Meath football team, in this year's All-Ireland final. Is it perhaps Iceland he's talking about?"
Another apparent return to his roots came with his move to Manchester University. He pronounces himself "slightly alarmed" that leaving Oxford after more than 30 years was so emotionally easy, although "there were certainly some people I will miss". He is currently working on a theoretical book about the nature and role of tragedy in life and in art and says it is, in a sense, him carrying on a debate on the subject begun with his late Cambridge tutor begun nearly 40 years ago. "He used to wipe the floor with me then," Eagleton says, "but now I think I've got him. One of the criticisms made of me is that I've been a bit of bandwagon-jumper. But if someone really wanted to make a criticism it is that I am too consistent, and consistency isn't always a virtue. Strangely, what I believe now is pretty much what I believed when I was 20. I might have worked in different forms, but in my view they all work towards the same kind of end."
Stephen Regan says that, ultimately, Eagleton's relationship to critical theory is the same as Marx's relationship to philosophy. "Marx said 'philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it.' As Marx is the great anti-philosopher, there is a sense that Terry is the great anti-theorist. What he works towards is a political criticism that exposes the hollowness and irrelevancy of a lot of critical theory."
Eagleton notes that his cradle Catholicism made him well suited to this role. "Catholicism was a world which combined rigorous thought with sensuous symbolism, the analytic with the aesthetic, so it was probably no accident that I was to later become a literary theorist." He goes on to observe that "one can move fairly freely, then, from Catholicism to Marxism without having to pass through liberalism. The path from the tridentine creed to Trotskyism is shorter than it seems.
"You could say that that sense of rather alarming, gothic other-worldliness back in the convent was politicised. As a radical the thing I still can't get over is that there are people who think this is all there is. There is some impulse in me which is always rejecting the set up. I sometimes try a thought experiment to imagine my way into the mind of someone who is quite content, with perhaps a reform or two, about the world as it stands. I always find that very hard. You can call it an otherworldliness, but not in the usual sense. It is more a belief in change and in the possibility of something quite different."
Life at a glance: Terence Francis Eagleton
Born: 22 February 1943, Salford.
Education: De La Salle College, Manchester; Trinity College, Cambridge 1961-64.
Married: Elizabeth Galpin 1966, divorced '76, two sons; Willa Murphy '97, one son.
Career: Fellow in English, Jesus College, Cambridge 1964-69; tutorial fellow, Wadham College, Oxford '69-89; lecturer in critical theory, Linacre College, Oxford '89-92; Thomas Warton professor of English Literature, Oxford '92-2001; professor of cultural theory, Manchester University 2001-.
Some criticism: Shakespeare And Society 1967; The New Left Church '68; Exiles And Emigrés '70; Myths Of Power: A Marxist Study Of The Brontës '75; Marxism And Literary Criticism '76; Walter Benjamin '81; The Rape Of Clarissa '83; Literary Theory: An Introduction '83; The Function Of Criticism '84; The Ideology Of The Aesthetic '90; Heathcliff And The Great Hunger '95; Crazy John And The Bishop '98; The Idea Of Culture 2000.
Novel: Saints And Scholars 1987.
Plays: Saint Oscar 1989; The White, The Gold And The Gangrene '93.
Memoir: The Gatekeeper 2001.
· The Gatekeeper is published by Penguin, price £9.99
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