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Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton (1996)

Are there two drearier words in English than “literary theory”? Heavens, I hope not. They strike me rather like “rainbow bleaching” and “orchid mashing”, and though film theory and the writing it inspires are often even worse, film theory doesn’t irritate or depress me a tenth as much. Film is a fatuous, trivial medium invented very recently and flourishing best in America, so it’s entirely appropriate that it should be written about in fatuous, trivial ways by semi-literate barbarians. Literature is not a fatuous or trivial medium. It’s existed for thousands of years in literally written form and far, far longer in speech and song. It is not appropriate that it should be written about in fatuous, trivial ways by semi-literate barbarians.

But even writers I greatly admire, like C.S. Lewis and Lytton Strachey, seem to become lifeless and uninspired when they turn to literary criticism. And the skeletal hand of lit-crit has only tightened its grip on the throat of literature since their day. If you closed every department of maths and physics and shot every maths and physics graduate, those subjects would be very seriously harmed and take decades to recover. If you closed every arts department and shot every arts graduate, literature and the other arts could very well undergo a new renaissance, with the great bonus that The Guardian and BBC would have to close down too. As it is, maths and physics are struggling to survive in British universities, while “study” of the arts flourishes as never before, achieving less and less with more and more self-importance.

For an example of that self-importance, try this from Terry Eagleton’s introduction:

Those who complain of the difficulty of such theory would often, ironically enough, not expect to understand a textbook of biology or chemical engineering straight off. Why then should literary studies be any different?

To see how fatuous and ignorant that question is, compare “literary studies” with mathematics. Both have existed as serious subjects for thousands of years, but while all reasonably intelligent educated adults could still understand the literary criticism of the ancient Greeks, far fewer could understand their mathematics. And mathematics, apart from the stagnation that accompanied the triumph of Christianity, has only become more difficult with every century that has passed since the ancient Greeks. Literary criticism did not become more difficult: for more than two millennia it could be read and understood by all reasonably intelligent educated adults. Unlike mathematics, it did not advance because it was tied to something that is already fully developed in human beings: the faculty of language.

Then the clouds of ink squirted by cuttlefish like Marx and Freud began to drift into “literary studies” from sociology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy, and by the 1960s literary criticism had become something it had never been before: opaque and obscurantist. Compare A.E. Housman’s study of Swinburne, from the beginning of the twentieth century, with the semi-literate maunderings of countless literary critics and cultural “commentators” today. Here’s Eagleton himself about to engage with issues around “Structuralism and Semiotics”:

We left American literary criticism at the end of the Introduction in the grip of New Criticism, honing its increasingly sophisticated techniques and fighting a rearguard action against modern science and industrialism. (ch. 3, pg. 79)

How exactly does one simultaneously “hone increasingly sophisticated techniques” and “fight a rearguard action”, let alone do both while one is “in the grip” of something? The shallowness of Eagleton’s intellect and insight is apparent in the carelessness and self-contradiction of his own prose. And his is by no means the worst you can find today. Housman’s prose, by contrast, is both highly literate and highly readable, but then Housman had serious literary achievements in his own right and took no notice of metaphysics or speculative psychology. Given his prose, the “seminal” figures Eagleton discusses here are exactly the ones you’d expect: Heidegger, Lacan, Barthes, Freud, Bakhtin, Derrida, Saussure. All of them are maggots in the corpse of Christianity or Judaism, wriggling merrily in the metaphysical European tradition. You’ll look in the index of this book in vain for representatives of Anglophone empiricism like John Locke and David Hume, and Charles Darwin appears only as an example of what-literature-is-not. In short, there’s nothing solid, just glittering vapor and colored smoke, rather like a traditional Catholic mass.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence either. Priestly religions are designed to keep priests housed and fed, which is why their claims are not tested against reality. But priestly religions can exist in disguised forms. Accordingly, as the vast parasitic cult of overt priests and theologians has declined in the West, so a vast parasitic cult of academics has risen to take its place in the humanities departments of our universities. This new cult has its own sacred scriptures, prophets, and saints. Like priests and theologians, the academics produce nothing valuable either materially or immaterially, and unlike priests and theologians they don’t inspire (or at least preside) great work by others.

And unlike the old priestly and theological cult, the modern academic cult is much more “gender-balanced”. My formula for the intellectual worth and rigor of a modern subject is simple: they’re inversely proportional to the number of women involved. True, that’s also the formula for the threat posed by a subject, because literary studies, unlike hard science, has no potential to cause very serious harm to the wider world. Fortunately, the serious harm caused by hard science will include its destruction of literary studies and the rebarbative remainder of the modern humanities. Neurology and evolutionary biology will sooner or later destroy their narcissistic obfuscations and mendacities. And unlike the scientific undermining of religion, we won’t lose anything valuable in the process.

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