The task of the critic

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Terry Eagleton and Matthew Beaumont, Verso, £17.99

Subtitled Terry Eagleton in Dialogue, this book is the product of discussions with Eagleton during 2008 and 2009 with supplements from previously published interviews, and updates and revisions from Eagleton himself.

This format is fraught with danger - it can serve as an extended self-justification of the author's work or it can be clouded by an over-intrusive interviewer. In describing interviews as "careful fictions…ultimately the product of an artful edit", Matthew Beaumont has acknowledged the problem.

He has, however, overcome it with a quite brilliant intellectual biography of our foremost literary theorist and critic. Beaumont has steeped himself in Eagleton's prodigious output across a range of literary genres and brought to it his own considerable insights and research to produce a book worthy of its subject. It is a genuine dialogue and one that unfolds in a chronological and accessible format.

If the title hints at didacticism, its heritage and intent are the opposite. Borrowing the phrase "the task of the critic" from Walter Benjamin, the book is an affirmation of Benjamin's view that, "Instead of giving his own opinion, a great critic enables others to form their opinions on the basis of his critical analysis." These opinions can only be formed if we know what the critic stands for.

We certainly know where Eagleton stands. He has remained a Marxist, avoiding the siren calls of post-structuralism and the seduction of postmodernism, and for his pains he is hated by the establishment. His Marxism is not deterministic or reductive but one which recognises that although there are feasible limits on what is meant by the word it is open to different meanings and readings.

From his arrival as an undergraduate at Cambridge in 1961, "intellectually confident, but socially diffident", to his forced retirement from Manchester University in 2008, Eagleton has retained and constantly reaffirmed his stance and has used it as the basis of numerous interventions as well as his critical analysis.

An interesting aspect of this book is the way Beaumont has frequently elicited responses from Eagleton that reassess and re-evaluate his positions. The most striking of these is the complex relationship with Raymond Williams, his Cambridge teacher and mentor. In Criticism and Ideology, Eagleton had taken Williams to task for being unduly influenced by the elitist literary criticism of FR Leavis and the Stalinist politics of his Communist Party past. He now acknowledges that "the tone was wrong. It should have been more comradely and more respectful".

Don't be misled into thinking that this means Eagleton has lost his bite. He revels in polemicism and is always up for a fight. His blistering response to Martin Amis in the introduction to the second edition of The Society of the Spectacle in 2007 caused the furore that led to his departure from Manchester. Amis had declared that "the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order" in the aftermath of the London bombings.

Reflecting on the controversy and the speed with which the liberal establishment leapt to the defence of the decidedly illiberal racism from Amis, Eagleton talks of "a new species of liberal supremicism which finds in the benightedness of radical Islam fresh grounds to feel smug and self-satisfied about its own civilisation". Other members of this species are Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, whose "rationalist" attacks on religion are the subject of Eagleton's Reason, Faith and Revolution (2009), which adopts a more rounded and nuanced Marxist response to the phenomenon of religious belief.

Another welcome and telling aspect is Eagleton's determination to popularise his theories and analysis.

His Literary Theory: an Introduction, for example, has sold over a million copies partly as a result of its accessibility. It is not that difficult or complex ideas should be diluted, but that the language used to address them should be free of the obscurantism that infects much academic writing.

In discussing the role of a "public intellectual", "one who gets out of the house occasionally", he expresses, again in tune with Benjamin, his dismay that so many intellectuals who have established their academic credentials are not interested in writing in a way that can be more easily understood. "If one had a sharper sense of political urgency than is usual in Harvard or Columbia, one wouldn't write with such flagrant disregard for intelligibility."

Readers of Socialist Review will be heartened to know that Eagleton's next project is a defence of Marxism, a work we should await with enthusiasm. In the meantime we should congratulate him and Matthew Beaumont for producing such a revealing and readable book.