This is the ninth installment of Criticism in Public, a series of interviews with academics about public writing, academic scholarship and literary criticism. Read previous interviews here.
In March, I got a call from an unknown number from the U.K. I was rushing out the door, late for a meeting, and forgetting I’d likely be charged an exorbitant fee for answering an international spam call, made the impulse decision to pick up. “Hello?” I answered suspiciously. “Jessica? It’s Terry Eagleton.” Six weeks earlier I’d sent him a handwritten letter inviting him to be part of this series (he doesn’t use email and is a self-proclaimed Luddite), but I hadn’t expected him to answer.
Our conversation traversed the worlds of Derrida and Foucault, the political arena of the Sixties and Seventies, the decline of theory and the value in writing for public venues. Many jokes were made, laughs were shared, and I left encouraged to try on different writing styles. I also left convinced that one of the most important habits we can develop as writers is doing justice to our opponents’ arguments. That doesn’t mean, though, that we have to stop throwing punches.
Eagleton, a Marxist literary critic, has written eighty essays for the London Review of Books alone and published over fifty books, with four more books in the pipeline. His book Literary Theory: An Introduction is even an academic best seller, having sold over 750,000 copies. It’s no wonder, then, that the Independent has referred to him as “the man who succeeded F R Leavis as Britain’s most influential academic critic.” Our conversation confirms that the question uniting his many publications is: What is the meaning of literature? We talked over the phone in March and April.
Jessica Swoboda: In an interview with the Luminary in 2013, you were asked about criticism’s role in responding to social and economic events. I want to ask a related question: What do you see as the purpose of literary criticism?
Terry Eagleton: I think that the materialist has to keep constantly in mind that literary criticism is not insignificant but not terribly central either. We’re not saved by ideas or even radically transformed by them. And insofar as criticism works at that sort of level, its power is very limited.
I also don’t think literary criticism in itself should really entertain any political illusions. I think when the left was riding high in the early 1970s, it probably did entertain illusions about the performative power of literary criticism. But literary critics as literary critics aren’t really political beings. They can of course be political beings as well as literary critics, but if you think of, say, a trade-union official, they are political simply by virtue of his or her professional realm. Whereas literary critics only have a moderate role to play there.
Although perhaps you might say that literary critics in a certain sense are—and this is a rather conservative way of putting it—custodians of the language. I think there has been a tradition, including people like Edward Said, Susan Sontag and Raymond Williams, who were not so much critics as they were moralists. The word “moralist,” obviously, has a rather negative resonance in our present, somewhat cynical climate. But I am interested in a certain discourse that’s passed down from Williams’s Culture and Society, which is not quite in a narrow sense literary or technically philosophical. But it’s nevertheless a language in which we can raise some fundamental questions. And, quite often, the people who have spoken that language—I suppose you can call it moral language, which took the place of philosophy and theology, the language in which those questions were traditionally raised—and asked those questions most eloquently and effectively are actually people who, for the most part, have been trained in the literary-critical arena.
My forthcoming book Critical Revolutionaries, a study of the Cambridge school of criticism (I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis, William Empson, Raymond Williams), shows how the cheapening of language is deeply correlated with the cheapening of the whole culture. Until you get to Williams, people are rather reluctant to use the word capitalism in this context. It’s called commercialism or whatever. But I think this is precisely where there’s one political nexus between literary criticism, culture and the wider society, which is not specific to our time. As I say, it’s a tradition that was constituted by those Cambridge academics, though one that is now in danger of being utterly forgotten. It’s really up to us as literary critics to try to revive it.
JS: Is the revival of that tradition what you’d like to see happen in literary studies in, say, the next decade?
TE: It would need to be thoroughly overhauled to suit our very different historical times. But its concerns with rigorous analysis should be our concern too.
JS: You’ve written eighty essays for the London Review of Books alone. What do you see as the value in writing for these types of venues?
TE: I recently began writing for a website called Unherd. Though I don’t know anything about this technology. I’ve never even sent an email. I think they should put people like me in a fairground so others can come and prod me to see if I’m real.
I like the idea of being told to write three thousand words on the idea of chaos by Friday. Academics will normally blench at that. Most academics can’t even get out of their chairs by Friday! So I find writing for those kinds of venues valuable because it means that you’re part of a larger group, that your writing is at the service of it. It has a function. It’s also a way to use literary criticism as a basis for moving into the public sphere. The cliched phrase “speaking truth to power” comes to mind. Noam Chomsky said that power knows the truth anyway. Let’s not be so charitable as to imagine that power is utterly self-deceived. He added that the people who need the truth aren’t people in power but people who are powerless. Speaking truth to the powerless is a different proposition. And that’s what a certain tradition of a radical public intellectual is trying to do.
I think there are two important distinctions between an academic and an intellectual. One is that the academic tends to work in a rather small area whereas an intellectual roams over different sorts of areas. And that’s related, I think, to the second major difference, which is that an intellectual is trying to address a whole culture more than an academic is. A lot of academics aren’t concerned with popularizing ideas.
This of course has to do, especially in the States, with all kinds of professional restraints. You know, you’ve got to get tenure and so on. And certainly the Oxbridge system, which I’ve spent my life in, is more laid-back than the American one. Plus, I also can afford to popularize. I don’t have to write books anymore. I’ve written enough, for God’s sake.
But I do think it’s quite scandalous, especially on the left, to engage in a discourse that only connects with a few other people of your kind. A rather important task of the public intellectual is to mediate, as it were, between the academy on the one hand and a wider public on the other. That means you’ve got to be a bit of a chameleon as a writer. I think I’m a chameleon as a public individual. You’ve got to adapt to different situations and audiences, and academics on the whole are not trained to do that.
JS: Over the course of your career, how have scholars’ relationships to the public changed?
TE: Well, I think the difference in Britain, certainly, from the past to the present is that when I was a young don at Cambridge [laughs], it was a very pleasant job. It was enjoyable. And now I think about half of the young academics in the U.K. want to get out because the system is so managerialized. Whereas when I was at Oxford, I was left alone by the administration. There wasn’t the same managerial climate. I think this is a very ugly and very worrying predicament because the university is turning into a mere service station for the capitalist economy.
I could well imagine a situation in which the study of literature disappears altogether from universities, here and elsewhere in Europe. So I think that’s been an absolutely seismic change, which has really affected the nature of intellectual life. It’s a question of the increasing instrumentalization of intellectual study.
JS: You wrote at the beginning of The Meaning of Life, “Philosophers have an infuriating habit of analysing questions rather than answering them.” What infuriates you about literary scholars?
TE: I wanted to be an actor, yet I somehow ended up as an academic. So I try to make my lectures into performances. I’m dismayed, in fact infuriated, by people who sit there and read out their lectures as through they’re translating the Bulgarian as they go along. It’s a function of the loss of rhetorical capacity in the States—the inability to dispense with a printed script. I see lectures as social occasions, not just as the conveyance of information.
It also infuriates me that most American academics will write a hundred pages of notes. I try to get away with as few notes as I possibly can, partly because I’m rather indolent, but also because I don’t like this heavy academic apparatus. I’m rather saddened by the fact that left-wing critics or scholars don’t question, as it were, the academic apparatus. I’m also annoyed by, as I assume you would be, all those male writers who say, “Thanks to my wife for providing the sandwiches and the coffee.”
JS: Yeah, it’s all quite dreadful. Do you think your experience as an actor has helped you be able to write in and inhabit various prose styles?
TE: Oh, very much so. It involves an awareness of audience. You’re aware that you’re writing in a particular way for a particular audience. When I started out, my writing was what I call “YMI,” meaning Young Male Intellectual. All very high-minded. And then for various reasons, I found my own voice. That took a long time, but I began to relax more and experiment more and found my own element. But I had to unlearn a lot of the styles, habits and forms of academic address while remaining within the limits of academia. So, yes, that’s something to do with acting—finding the right pitch and tone and voice rather than just speaking as if nobody’s there. An important discovery for me was how to use humor in my work.
JS: Those academic structures sometimes feel inescapable, especially when you’re just starting off and trying to make a name for yourself.
TE: Oh, absolutely. I was very restricted in the same way when I was your age. But I’ve become an excessive stylist in my old age. I spend time just chiseling away, not quite like James Joyce, who was said to have spent a fortnight staring at his writing and then putting in a semicolon and taking it out again. I’m not quite as obsessive as that.
I wasn’t always like that. It used to come out right the first time. And because of my neurotic aversion to technology, I kept using a typewriter while everybody else had moved onto computers. People used to say to me, “But how do you revise?” And I’d say, “Revise? What do you mean, ‘revise’?” Which of course annoyed them even further. I enjoy annoying people. It’s my professional obligation.
JS: In your review of Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, you wrote, “Literary studies in the United States are more highly professionalised than in most other places, which is one reason American critics tend to evolve specialist idioms, less charitably known as jargon. … It is perhaps significant in this respect that the very readable Felski, though a professor at the University of Virginia, comes originally from the English Midlands.” Can you say more about the type of prose you fault American academics for?
TE: It seems to me that there’s a problem now in the States with developing a language that is neither jargon-laden nor folksy and faux-populist. One needs a language that is elegant but easy. Being lucid doesn’t necessarily mean being plain. Here, maybe the influence of a certain American Puritan tradition is important—telling it like it is on the one hand, and then a revulsion against that kind of language on the other. So either too plain or too obscure.
JS: I can never understand why some people assume clarity means basic or simple or weak ideas. But for me, some of the clearest writers have the most intellectually rich ideas. And I find that kind of prose really fun to read.
TE: Yes, indeed. Freud is a good example. He’s difficult, not because of his way of writing but because of his ideas. It’s a difference between a level of obscurity at the level of the signifier and the level of the signified. There are texts that are necessarily difficult because of the difficulty of their ideas, but that doesn’t need to be reflected in the obscurity of their language.
Marx is another example. His writing is very lively, but his ideas are often difficult. But you’re right, people have developed a kind of aversion or suspicion of lucid writing as simple or as intellectually simplistic. Which it needn’t be at all.
JS: Who are some of your favorite critics?
TE: I think that Fredric Jameson is maybe the most intellectually ambitious literary critic in the business, even though he’s not exactly a public intellectual in the way, say, that Edward Said was. His range is vast, and he also hasn’t politically turned his coat. I mean, nothing is more depressing than the sight of the militant young radical becoming a docile old conservative. I also admire Perry Anderson, the editor of New Left Review.
But I do think the giants of cultural theories are far behind us. I don’t think there’s been a succeeding generation of figures who are as monumentally influential as people like Foucault and Derrida. But that’s partly connected with the fortunes of the left, which is closely tied up with the rise and fall of theory. Theory takes off in a big way in the late 1960s and early Seventies, which is the last time the left was in the ascendent. That’s fifty years ago—a long time for the left to be on the back foot.
The decline of theory, then, is related to decline of the political left in the mid-1980s. And since then, the influence of an outstanding generation of thinkers has waned, largely because a generation of undergraduate and graduate students have very little to remember in terms of political history. Previously, one would assume you’d share a certain political past and set of experiences. But that’s no longer true, and I’m not quite sure what’s going to replace it.
JS: Did the Derrida/Foucault generation impact the public world, too?
TE: Their generation was very high-political, with little interest in the popular culture. What followed it was postmodernism, which has an enormous appetite for popular culture but theoretically speaking is something of a mess.
JS: You’ve endured a lot of criticisms in your career, but your writing is also quite punchy and can really set people off. Are either of these a good thing?
TE: Yes, I can be quite punchy, and people punch me as well. And that’s fine, within certain agreed limits. I remember once I gave a somewhat abrasive lecture at Duke University in the days when Stanley Fish was there, and when I walked out, he took me by the arm and said, “That’s right, Terry. Take no prisoners.” He was right in a sense. Why pull your punches? But you do have to do justice to your opponents’ arguments. You have to give all that you can to your opponents—you have to concede all that you can—and, incidentally, that will then make your negative critique all the more persuasive.
Image credit: “Bradypodion pumilum (Cape dwarf chameleon),” attributed to Robert Jacob Gordon (1777-1786)