4 June, 2012Issue 19.4InterviewsLiteraturePolitics & Society

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An Interview with Terry Eagleton

Alexander Barker and Alex Niven



Throughout a career spanning several decades, Terry Eagleton has been an ineluctable part of British intellectual culture. Born and brought up in Salford, Manchester to working-class Irish immigrant parents, Eagleton won a place to read English literature at Cambridge, where he studied under Raymond Williams. As an academic at Cambridge and later Oxford, he became known for his Marxist readings of English literature, and for his advocacy of continental theory at a relatively early juncture and throughout its ascendancy. His book Literary Theory (1983) became the classic primer on the subject, and in the years since Eagleton has continued to provide theoretical analyses of a host of subjects from prosody to postmodernism in a critical voice that is by turns provocative, accessible, and erudite. Eagleton’s recent book Why Marx Was Right seeks to summarise and renovate Marxist principles in the context of the global financial crisis and a climate of resurgent anti-capitalism.

So: why was Marx right?

Someone asked me that last night at a talk, and I mentioned Greece. There’s irony in the fact that in the midst of the most affluent civilization history has witnessed people are scavenging in rubbish baskets for food. That’s the kind of contradiction I think Marx was talking about. I also stressed how much Marx admired the way that capitalism had in a very short space of time accumulated such wealth—material, spiritual, cultural—but that it couldn’t do that without the contradiction of generating inequality at the same time; we’re seeing a stark instance of that in Greece today. So that’s the kind of thing I’d point to to show the relevance of Marx. Even within the anti-capitalist movement, Marx is not a majority presence. One has to say that. It’s partly because of the discrediting of Marxism by Stalinism, which will take a long time for the Marxist left to recover from. But I’m not myself madly concerned about whether people stick the label “Marxist” onto themselves as long as they take a critical stance towards the present situation. It doesn’t matter what they call themselves.

Do you think at this point in history “Marxism”, “communism”, “socialism”, “leftism” are basically interchangeable? Would you insist on sharp distinctions?

No, what I’ve said in a sense suggests that they’re not, in that you can be a good leftist and thinker of the anti-capitalist movement without being particularly indebted to Marxism. I wouldn’t lean too heavily on the need for Marx to be right, though it’s true I suppose that Marxism has been the mainstream anti-capitalist critique within the left. What strikes me is the dramatic way the situation has changed since, say, the turn of the millennium. At the turn of the millennium, history was supposedly over. Capitalism was in a peculiarly confident and arrogant phase. And then, from the fall of the World Trade Center onwards, there has been the so-called War against Terror, the enormous capitalist crisis, the Arab Spring, societies like Greece teetering on the brink of radical change, a majority of American youth saying they prefer socialism to capitalism. Nobody could have predicted that ten years ago. So I think that what’s brought Marxism or at least socialism back on the agenda is of course the capitalist crisis. It’s not because people have suddenly started reading Marx or a new generation of leftists has spontaneously emerged. It’s that crisis always makes a system visible. It always makes its limits visible. And systems don’t normally like that, and therefore people are able to cast a new critical eye on them.

You spoke of the fact that Marx didn’t feel a revolution needed to be violent. Do you feel that what is now going on in response to the crisis and its aftermath is the beginning of a revolution in his sense?

I think it might be slightly rash to say so. I think I would want to wait and see. Socialists have traditionally talked about pre-revolutionary situations. I’m not sure I’d characterise it as that. Also, of course, Marx was against prediction, and what predictions he produced were grotesquely mistaken. I would say that it’s always rash to overestimate the fall of the power of the system. They have more tanks than we do! On the other hand, capitalism like any other political system can’t really work without a certain degree of credibility. It doesn’t need people to congratulate it, but it does need them to be at least passively collusive with it. The situation in Greece now is not like that. The situation in Greece now is I think raw anger on the part of people who are by no means naturally radicals. And it’s not out of the question—we don’t know—that that mood could spread through Europe. People in my view only go for a radical alternative when they think the present system is bust beyond repair. As long as they think it will yield them some meagre benefits, they’re likely to hang in there, because the perils and obscurities of change are such as to daunt people. But if it turns out that the system can’t yield people that, because a whole nation grubbing in dustbins is not out of the question, then there’s no reason why people shouldn’t consider an alternative.

You say somewhere, I think it’s in The Gatekeeper (2002), your autobiography and memoir, that it’s of great consolation to you that you’ve avoided the typical trajectory of going from being a youthful radical to being an old Tory. But there has been a kind of a movement towards dealing with big metaphysical themes in your recent work, I think: tragedy, evil, religion, love, death. Have you been conscious of that shift?

As far as avoiding the cliché of angry young man to the dyspeptic old reactionary, I guess a reason I haven’t done that is because, as I argue in the Marx book, the reason why people stopped being leftists [in recent decades] was not necessarily that they changed their views about the system, but that they found it too hard to break. There was disenchantment with the alternative in the rampant years of boom of Thatcher, of Reagan, of cowboy capitalism, of neoliberalism. There just seemed no way that you could feasibly change it. That’s depressing in one sense but encouraging in another. It wasn’t that people threw in their hats with the system because of how marvelous it was (apart from one of my most radical Marxist students ever who became a stockbroker, because he became convinced that capitalism was the best thing since Michelangelo). So that was the reason that I hung in there, and many other people did.

I suppose one of the advantages of a left downturn, ironically, is that it gives you time to think around politics, not to fetishise it. Politics isn’t the be-all and end-all. I never really believed that it was. But when the left is on the ascendancy, it’s hard not to believe. So there are ironically gains from the situation at the moment that you can then begin to lay in ideas or think around the topic, and I suppose that’s partly what I’ve been doing. Not deserting politics but trying to add a depth to it, and also, in doing so, breaking with the holy trinity of class, race, and gender. Vital topics though they are, they’ve become such tram-lines on which the cultural left has been moving.

So do you think there might be potential in an alliance between religion and left politics?

In a sense, you might almost say that’s been the theme of my intellectual career. It’s not always obvious to me or to anybody else for that matter. But of course I started, when I was at Cambridge, as a left-wing Catholic in the heady days of the Vatican Council. And I suppose what you might call “political Christianity” has run as a kind of subcurrent beneath my work. It’s now come to the surface, and there were times, particularly in what you might call my Althusserian phase, when it wasn’t so obvious.

Lots of people would see a contradiction between Marxism and Catholicism, for example…

Well, I’m not sure I would talk about myself as a Roman Catholic. I was brought up in that culture, and it is a culture. That’s one of the attractive things about it. You know, you meet a Catholic from Korea or somewhere, and you share an enormous amount of things in common. It’s like being a Jew, in that sense. I have no truck with the Vatican and all that kind of stuff. But I suppose it’s a certain theological mainstream that interests me, and the political implications of such. And of course that’s been coming much to the fore in the past few years. If you think of the number of agnostic and very theistic leftists from Agamben and Zizek to Habermas and Badiou, who have been raising theological themes, it’s very much part of the zeitgeist.

How important is Ireland to you? Because obviously you grew up in Manchester; is your interest in Irishness an exile’s impulse?

I don’t know actually. I wrote a lot about Ireland in the 1990s. I wrote a trilogy of books on Irish history and culture and literature, and since then I’ve intellectually moved away from Ireland. I still live there; I just haven’t written much about it since then. Except that I’ve just written a long review for the London Review of Books about a novel which involves Irishness, in which I remark that the Irish were put on this earth for other people to feel romantic about. One thing I do value about Ireland, which I also say in the review, is that our main export remains culture, all the way from Bono to Riverdance to Heaney to Friel, and that’s nice. I rather appreciate that. But living in a small contentious island also has its drawbacks, not least if you’re a semi-outsider, like myself; you have to be careful sometimes. I don’t know. I suppose I always knew Ireland too well to feel romantic about it.

And how about Englishness? There’s a lot of talk about that right now…

Yes. In many ways I feel myself English. What I sometimes say to people who ask me what I am, nationally, I usually say well it doesn’t matter to me, and that’s a privilege. What you are ethnically, or nationally, matters if you are being oppressed in it, if somebody’s using that against you to make you feel unhappy about it. Well that’s not the case with me, so it doesn’t really matter.

What are your views on the current state of academia? You’ve seen it evolve over a number of years.

Most people I know in academia want to get out. Which is a pretty new situation. I’ve never encountered that before. When I arrived in Oxbridge at the tender age of 18, it was massively upper class and very patrician, and I had a very hard time there. As a tutor in Oxford over the years, I saw all that—superficially at least—modulate. You know, Etonians with bones through their noses and Wykehamists carefully dropping their vowels, distressing their jeans and their accents. But at least in those years, the neo-managerial ethos hadn’t exerted its clammy grip so much over universities. [Neo-managerialism] is absolutely hideous. I mean, it has effectively brought to an end hundreds of years—at least a 200-year-old tradition—of the university as a centre of critique in a society where critique otherwise is pretty hard to come by. That is a momentous and historic development, and I’m really rather glad, personally speaking, that it coincides with my exit. Everywhere I go, from Peru to Australia, people are very unhappy in what perhaps were once, you know, “the best days of one’s life”.

How do you feel about current literary criticism? You were an episode in the history of literary criticism yourself in a sort of transition phase from Leavisism to the present day…

I’ve got a book coming out called something banal like How To Study Literature, because I fear that literary criticism, at least as I knew it and was taught it, is almost as dead on its feet as clog dancing. That is to say, all of the things that I would have been taught at Cambridge—close analysis of language, responsiveness to literary form, a sense of moral seriousness—all of which could have negative corollaries…I just don’t see that any more. Somewhere along the line that sensitivity to language which I value enormously got lost. I didn’t really know about this because I had moved up in the echelons of academia and I wasn’t close enough to the undergraduate ground, as it were, to be aware of this. But when I got to Manchester [Eagleton began teaching at the University of Manchester in 2001], I was appalled by the way that people could be very smart about the context of a poem, but had no idea about how to talk about it as a poem. Whereas even if one did that badly or indifferently, it was still something one automatically did in my day. This book coming out next year is really an attempt to put literary criticism as I see it back on the agenda. And to talk about questions of things like value, what’s good, what’s bad, form, theme, language, imagery, and so on.

That’s not exactly an about-face, but certain people would have seen you as one of the people responsible for a shift away from traditional literary criticism toward the end of the last century. It’s interesting. This alliance between the old Cambridge tradition and late 20th-century political criticism seems to parallel the new alliance between religion and leftism you spoke of earlier. It seems that all of these things have been on the back foot, and one way to combat that might be to ally them. So someone like [Oxford Professor of Poetry] Geoffrey Hill would agree with lots of what you’re saying, but is an Anglican Tory.

Sure. That’s taking the rough with the smooth. One has to accept that some of one’s positions can be agreed with by one’s enemies, that there is sometimes a common ground.

But there seems to be a lot of common ground, perhaps, right now, in terms of English.

Anybody, whatever their position, who supports some kind of a return to sensitivity to language has my support in that. I can see your point that it might be ironic that someone like myself who partly initiated high theory in this country should then be bewailing the loss of the close reading tradition, but as I said before, I don’t think that’s the case. I think that, almost uniformly across the board, the great theorists were very close readers, from Hartmann to Jameson to Kristeva to Derrida, who was for some people too close a reader. So I think that that’s a false opposition actually. I don’t think that’s the reason. I think the reason is much more to do with the media, with postmodernism, with changes in general culture, the status of the written word, and so on. But of course what one shares with someone like Hill there is rather formal: an agreement for a certain procedural way of reading. But then all the differences start. All the differences about the point of this, its place within culture.

And what would you say is the place of literature? What is the value of culture?

There have been attempts to make culture stand in for religion. Modernity is littered with failed candidates, substitutes, surrogates for religion. Culture was actually more successful than many of them. But it didn’t work. In my view, no symbolic system on earth has had religion’s power, pervasiveness, depth. Whatever you think of religion I think that’s just a fact. Not always a fact to be celebrated by any means, but I think it’s a fact. Culture can’t hold a candle to religion. On the other hand, the fact that it can’t do everything doesn’t mean that it should simply retire and sequester itself in some private and sacred space. It’s part, I suppose, of the materialist theory that culture is not where it’s at, in the end, even though culture has become massively more important from 1900 onward in Western societies. But nevertheless it has an important role to play, and that ideally is a role beyond simply, as it were, the private or academic activity of writing literary criticism. I would like to see the critic once again become a partly public intellectual. But you can’t just legislate that into existence. It depends upon culture as a whole, politics as a whole.

So what advice would you give to young critics?

It’s not a good time to be in the universities. What someone once described to me years ago (actually in South Africa of all places) as the Thatcherisation of the universities carries on apace under different names. I only have an oblique relationship to academia, as you know, now that I’m semi-retired. But even when I did, when I was thoroughly in the belly of the beast, I did try to hold the role of public intellectual. That is very important. Not that everybody can be an Edward Said or Habermas. But that’s what we need, and even more deeply and rigorously given the almost utter assimilation of academia into capitalism.

Do you think there are any positive ways of occupying that public role outside of academia, and outside the market perhaps?

Nothing entirely is outside the market. And I don’t think one should get too puristic about that. One works with what one has, and one has to be realistic about that. But the problem has been, at least through the end of the 19th century, perhaps, post-Matthew Arnold, that increasingly the intellectuals moved into the universities. You can almost chart that shift in late Victorian England. In one sense that gave them a certain backing and buttressing and authority. They were no longer freewheeling lone voices. But it also coincided with the slow demise of important journals and forms where you could have a non-academic public intellectual culture. I suppose I represent that now, but I didn’t for most of my life: I didn’t when I was inside academia. One of the things that worries me is that in the United States even radical academics are not particularly concerned about this. They accept the academicisation of radical intellectual life very easily. That’s partly because the whole of academia is much more self-consciously professional than it is here, the home of the amateurs. But it’s a very worrying development. As I’ve said, too many times, I see the intellectual as the opposite of the academic in many ways. Even if you can only launch that project from an academic position, which is often the case, nevertheless it has to be in contention with the complacency and the specialism and narcissism of so much academic work. But realistically, again on a materialist analysis, the possibilities of that are not up to the academic: they’re up to more general political developments.

Finally, what would you like to see happening next? In the world, in Britain, in England, in Ireland, in academia.

In Ireland, of course, at the end of the month, there’s a referendum on austerity about to happen. Probably austerity will win out, but it won’t (of course) in Greece. And if it doesn’t in Greece then there will be ripples throughout Europe, and I hope that that will strengthen the anti-austerity movement immeasurably. I think that there’s a good chance that that will happen because Greece in that sense is the canary in the coal-mine, and they can’t take it, however “proud” [scare-quote marks with fingers] a people they are. And nor will other people be able to take it if that spreads out. I don’t say that then people will man the revolutionary barricades by any means. Although Greece might not be far from it, certainly not far from civil war. But it will at least sharpen the political choices: it will put them on the table. And not through any heroic efforts by the left, ironically, but through the logic of capitalism itself, which has got itself, as Oliver Hardy said, in this fine mess. And the less people are self-sacrificially prepared to get it out of it, the more the real political options will, I think, become visible.

Alexander Barker is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Lincoln College, Oxford. Alex Niven is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. They are both senior editors at the Oxonian Review.