I was put back on Terry Eagleton’s trail, I guess you could say, first by having recently written about Derek Jarman’s film, Wittgenstein (see Swan House Film # 40), for which Eagleton furnished a screenplay (much changed, however, in the course of filming), secondly by recently having read his one and only novel, Saints and Scholars (1987), a brilliant and very funny book, mostly about Wittgenstein, and upon which the Wittgenstein screenplay was clearly based, and thirdly, by recently reading the mercurial and prolific cultural theorist’s memoir, The Gatekeeper (2001)
Last night I dialed up three or four of Eagleton’s lectures on YouTube (I’d never hear him speak before) and found him to be as compelling and delightful in person as I had always found him to be on the page [I remember the degree to which I found his The Significance of Theory from 1990 to be fresh and liberating—especially in comments about his determination to “try to deconstruct the most bourgeois of all assumptions that the intellect is deadly serious and unpleasurable, and that pleasure is essentially frivolous and non-intellectual” (p.88)].
If one has any cavil with the prodigiously prolific professor (who, to date, has written over 50 books), it is perhaps that he has swung the pendulum of critical expression almost too far into the realm of a discourse “more companionable” than that of the “somewhat alienated rigours of certain traditional make Marxist discourse”—of which Eagleton has been, over the decades, a muscular participant.
Eagleton is often funny when he lectures—though it is, one hastens to add, invariably in the service of an important point or two. His novel, too, is very funny indeed (I wish he had written more). And his memoir, The Gatekeeper, though often grim in recounting his seriously impoverished childhood in the bleak, dreary industrial town of Salford, a borough of Manchester, is also wonderfully, cleansingly funny.
Here he is on his stringent early Catholic training (an overture to his eventual atheism): “The Church set its face against all phoney subjectivism, and was as indifferent to individual feelings as a psychopath. One of the few attempts to humanize religion I recall was the priest who tried to argue us out of impure thoughts by reminding us that ‘the Blessed Virgin has breasts too.’ This was about as effective a remedy for adolescent lust as urging a drunk to bear in mind the tawny sheen of a glass of Glenfiddich” (pp.32-33).
You want to copy out half the book into your journal. Here he is describing his first supervisor on getting successfully to Cambridge, a cultivated philosopher named Dr. Greenaway. Note, by the way, in what follows, two aspects of writerliness in Eagleton: 1) his quickness with a startlingly appropriate simile, and 2) his love of lists (a quirky little vice explainable, I reckon, as a dalliance with verbal texture). At any rate, here is Dr. Greenaway:
“Greenaway was the first truly civilized man I had ever encountered, and about as warmly spontaneous as a shaving brush. He knew all about cheeses, wisteria, Rubens’s brushwork, herbaceous borders, the bird-life of Venezuela, varieties of Malaysian fruit, Leibniz, Gregorian chant, brandy, the law of tort, the manufacture of saddles, seventeenth-century military strategy, water-colours, breeds of North African dog, the vowel sounds of Afrikaans, the vegetation of the Minho valley. All this knowledge seemed as built-in as his pancreas, or at least effortlessly acquired, and having just arrived at university, I began to understand that education was not really to be acquired from books….” (pp.127-128).
Because I’m a bit busy with Bertolt Brecht these days (I’m trying to write something to which is to be my standard-bearer), I was delighted by a couple of pages in The Gatekeeper devoted to that troublesome, often monstrous playwright: discussing Brecht’s diluted Marxism, and his various passes at stage-alienation effects, Eagleton comes up with the best and funniest summary of Brecht’s stagecraft I’ve ever read: Brecht, Eagleton notes, “had to break the audience’s infantile desire for suspense. If Brecht had directed Waiting for Godot, he would have hung a large sign at the back of the stage reading ‘He’s not going to come, you know’.” (p.70)