An Earnest Revolutionary

Now that our greatest authors have been defrocked like an order of heretical priests, literary critics face dire consequences. It is no laughing matter. Yes, you might be able to talk knowledgeably about Chaucer and Shakespeare; you might be an expert on literary form or the history of the English language; you might have considerable interdisciplinary range. But if you can’t wed your project to a progressive political agenda, then you really have nothing important to say. In Critical Revolutionaries, Terry Eagleton presents a compromise approach. The method, which Eagleton models, is to combine serious literary criticism and a refined form of Marxism. 

The critical revolutionaries of the title are five: T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, William Empson, F. R. Leavis, and Raymond Williams—to each of whom, after a brief Introduction, Eagleton devotes a chapter. The chief problem that Eagleton does not address—and in this respect one wishes he had written a Conclusion—is that the “critical revolutionary” is inherently an unstable compound. It can be argued that one is either a critic or a revolutionary. One cannot be both for long. The judge who cancels the trial in order to refashion society is taking the day off. In the humanities, if you promote the ideal of “critical revolutionaries,” you will find that the revolutionaries devour the critics in short order and without ceremony. The logic of the guillotine applies. This is just what has happened in the dying academic field of English: the critical revolutionaries have beheaded the literary critics. 

Yet I gladly concede that, if anyone manages to embody the ideal of the “critical revolutionary,” it is Eagleton himself. The celebrated author of Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) was born in 1943, just a few days before Beatle George Harrison. Prolific and industrious, he has written over fifty books on an astonishing range of topics. Literary Theory: An Introduction was a guide to the perplexed. It brought Eagleton fame for the clarity and wit of its analysis. He remains a wonderfully talented writer whose gift for exposition has lost none of its brio. He is both a perceptive judge of literature and an earnest Marxist. I distrust his politics, but he is an insightful and eloquent humanist and probably no more self-deceiving and self-interested than the average prime minister. He makes a strong point of defending provocative geniuses, T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence among them, illuminating their literary greatness while acknowledging what he believes to be their political or moral shortcomings.  

Empson is the antithesis of Tolkien, displaying, in Eagleton’s accurate judgment, a “near pathological abhorrence of the Judaeo-Christian God, whom he compares in Milton’s God to a Belsen commandant.”  

Let us examine how Eagleton constructs his critical tradition. It is preeminently a Cambridge affair, and the fact that Eagleton scarcely attends to parallel developments at Oxford deprives the reader of a more complete perspective. At Oxford in the 1920s, J. R. R. Tolkien (whom Eagleton never mentions) and C. S. Lewis worked to keep the new “English School” grounded in philology, while canonizing English literature through the Romantics. They achieved a difficult and stressful compromise. Even so, it more or less prevailed until 2002, when Old English, in a great victory for progress, was dropped as an undergraduate requirement. At the Cambridge of the time, by contrast, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch ducked the arduous task of creating a rigorous academic discipline. Quiller-Couch is Eagleton’s favorite butt: 

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who held the Chair of English, spent most of his time in the Cornish village of Fowey as commodore of the local yacht club, condescending to visit Cambridge for a few weeks each term. It was his custom to address as “Gentlemen” a lecture hall containing a large number of women, before proceeding to rhapsodize for an hour or so about the twin mysteries of the soul within and the exquisitely designed universe without. He habitually lectured in morning dress. What mattered was literary gossip, good taste and elegant belles lettres, not disciplined critical intelligence.    

The memorable phrase that survives from my ancient reading of Literary Theory: An Introduction is “belletristic waffle.” Quiller-Couch is the Cicero of “belletristic waffle”—Lewis hated Cicero, by the way (I am not sure what he thought of Quiller-Couch). 

Into this Cantabrigian gap of empty verbiage stepped I. A. Richards, the bold son of a factory manager trained in chemical engineering. Eagleton has a lynx’s eye for biographical gold: Richards “was a highly skilled mountaineer, and once had his hair set on fire by lightning during a climb. He also forced a bear in the Canadian Rockies to back off by urinating on it from a balcony.” 

Of Richards and his innovative work at Cambridge, Eagleton writes: “One might claim that he more or less single-handedly professionalized a subject which until then had consisted in waffle, impressionism, and textual scholarship.” But while Richards was a science-touting polymath in synch with secular materialism, Eagleton’s account does scant justice to the Christian holdouts at Oxford. Tolkien and Lewis were deeply engaged in textual scholarship (that is what philologists do). As a work of literary criticism, Tolkien’s 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics” is as good as it gets. Like Tolkien, Lewis was immensely capable of “close reading,” though Eagleton assigns this critical practice to Richards and Cambridge. “Impressionism” sounds bad in this context, but Eagleton’s line of critics exhibits plenty of impressionist tendencies: despite their official positions, none escapes his own subjective crystal, and each is more than capable of self-contradiction and idiosyncrasy. The culprit once again is “waffle”—and there’s plenty of that to go around, no matter where you go to school.

What really distinguishes the Cambridge school from the Oxford school is their different receptions of modernism. Eagleton is very good on this point. Tolkien and Lewis were reactionary to a fault, by which I mean they turned their backs on history; in this respect, they were akin to the brilliant neo-Thomists who dominated much of Catholic intellectual life prior to Vatican II. Eliot was the peculiar high modernist who converted to Christianity. Unfortunately, though, Eliot brought out the worst in Lewis, the demon of envy, the priggishness, the “inner ring” mentality that Lewis in his better moods deplored. Richards, on the other hand, shrewdly cultivated his acquaintance with the American-born poet, who delivered the Clark Lectures, at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1926. Eliot and Bill Empson, author of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), were drinking buddies in London for a time. Empson is the antithesis of Tolkien, displaying, in Eagleton’s accurate judgment, a “near pathological abhorrence of the Judaeo-Christian God, whom he compares in Milton’s God to a Belsen commandant.”  

Given his Augustinian sense of human depravity, Eliot could accommodate only a limited humanism. He did not share Eagleton’s stated “trust” in humanity.

An aristocratic Marxist, Empson, like his teacher Richards, was a cosmopolitan at home in the modernist milieu. If not the “major poet” that Eagleton claims, he wrote literary criticism that brought a new and riveting attention to the words on the page. Leavis admired Eliot and built on Eliot’s influential concept of “tradition.” He “warned prophetically of the dangers of universities falling victim to a bone-headed utilitarianism which measured outcomes in the manner of a biscuit factory.” As a bare-knuckled literary brawler and editor of the influential journal Scrutiny, he championed Jane Austen, William James, George Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence, coming around to Dickens only later in his career. The Marxist Raymond Williams, de facto founder of cultural studies, is an exception in his frosty reception of modernism. Eagleton’s friend and mentor, Williams was emphatically a man of the people who disliked the pretensions of high art and eventually got out of literary criticism altogether.

Eagleton’s generally excellent chapter on Eliot suffers from a serious defect in its failure to distinguish the Eliot of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) from the Eliot of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933). Eliot not only converted to Christianity in 1927—he changed as a critic. The latter work is considerably more humanistic and Aristotelian, as regards, for instance, the concept of mimesis. 

For Eagleton, Eliot is the sole non-humanist among the revolutionary quincunx. I would suggest that what Eagleton mistakes for Eliot’s anti-humanism is in fact Eliot’s pessimism about human nature. Given his Augustinian sense of human depravity, Eliot could accommodate only a limited humanism. He did not share Eagleton’s stated “trust” in humanity. Judgments about human nature being indispensable, I would argue that Christians are on better footing in this respect than Marxists are. For though it has nothing to do with Eagleton (who may be a kind of saint for all I know), one may correlate the socialist “trust” in human nature with a reluctance to acknowledge the plain truth about our species where sex is concerned.

A genuinely helpful social history of the liberal arts in our lifetime, including their rape by gender politics, would have to take account of real human behavior. The same capitalist who can acknowledge self-interest in the market can probably identify it in the classroom or the bedroom. It is not very pretty, and we may note that the untended free market is a true friend to pornographers. The socialist, it seems to me, does not want to cast a cold eye on his or her own desire: it is, for example, more comfortable to sleep with a comrade in a spirit of enlightened humanity than to admit that you are using that person as a means to personal pleasure or career advancement. Christian humanism, like Freud, is at least capable of addressing the issue.

Eagleton’s book is a valuable introduction to the work of Eliot, Richards, Empson, Leavis, and Williams. I hope it finds an audience. Yet I fear that Critical Revolutionaries may be too late to correct the disastrous course of literary studies. While it will educate graduate students in the history and potential of their would-be profession, the embrace of a tradition of dead white European males would in all likelihood sink their career prospects. This is the heartbreaking trap that strands the literary type of graduate student. He or she must run with the revolutionaries or perish. Eagleton’s inability to address this dilemma amounts to a moral and intellectual lapse that puts the utmost strain on his frequently stated socialist “trust” in human nature. My point to Eagleton, as to any Marxist critic at this late date, is that he would do well to be a more self-critical revolutionary.