After Theory

By Terry Eagleton

(Basic Books, 231 pp., $25)


I.

When I attended Cambridge in the mid-1980s, "theory" was sickly ripe. What looked like its fiercest flush of life, the red of its triumph, was in fact the unnatural coloring of fever. Paul de Man had just died, Harold Bloom was preparing his second career as a weak misreader of Clifton Fadiman, Roland Barthes was gone, the Yale gang of deconstructionists was breaking up, and much postmodern silliness among the signifiers was just around the corner. No one knew what was ahead, of course, and so at Cambridge there still reigned an assumption that the weakling liberal humanist undergraduate, fresh from his thoroughly untheoretical high school, had to be swiftly broken down and reconstituted. One college tutor, now a distinguished feminist/New Historicist scholar of Renaissance literature, told me that my first essay--on Edward Thomas and Philip Larkin, of all antiquities--was "an able museum-piece," and that I would have to be "saved."

The most common and least painful route to theoretical salvation went through Terry Eagleton's brisk and blokeish primer Literary Theory (1983), probably the best-selling book on its subject in Britain and America. (It has apparently sold three hundred thousand copies in Britain alone.) Being greedy for salvation, I found myself eating up many of Eagleton's books, including his early Marxist statement, Criticism and Ideology (1976), the book that established him as the leading Marxist literary theorist of his generation. I was suitably impressed by this book, and my freshman copy, which I still have, has a list of awestruck words written in pencil on its inside page. They are like a robot's talking points: "subjectivism/positivism/humanism/collectivism/ essentialism/determinism." They represent, I assume, the first faltering steps in the new language that I had to learn. But even I, like surely every reader, skipped the infamous second chapter, "Categories for a Materialist Criticism," which lays out a science of reading:

It is possible to set out in schematic form the major constituents of a Marxist theory of literature. They can be listed as follows:

General Mode of Production (GMP)
Literary Mode of Production (LMP)
General Ideology (GI)
Authorial Ideology (AI)
Aesthetic Ideology (AI)
Text

Now, older and wiser, one can only laugh at the way in which the poor battered text--the actual literature--is squashed into sixth place in that daunting list, sat upon by a litter of five pre-emptive categories, as if the text were some embarrassing runt, some impertinence of the real. Once Eagleton has established his categories, the chapter swells into a thumping headache of acronyms, closer in sound to a Pentagon report than to criticism: "A GMP produces a GI which contributes to reproducing it; it also produces a (dominant) LMP which in general reproduces and is reproduced by the GI." The chapter concludes with some reflections on the writer, whom Eagleton calls "the literary producer." Naturally, he has little time for "the bourgeois-Romantic category of the producer as 'individual creator.'" And finally there is the text itself: "The literary text is the product of a specific overdetermined conjuncture of the elements or formations set out schematically above. It is not, however, a merely passive product." Well, as that bourgeois grumbler Larkin has it in one of his poems, "useful to get that learned."


"Theory" has been responsible for many things, good and bad. If the general standard in, say, athletics, concert pianism, and viniculture has risen in the last thirty years, so it has too in academic literary criticism, and for some of the same reasons (increased competition, professionalization, money, and markets). Terry Eagleton is right when he says, in his latest book, that there can be no return to a pre-theoretical innocence. No university teacher of literature has been untouched by theory; even its enemies speak some of its language, if not its jargon. One could say, very broadly, that theory stiffened criticism by allowing it to become more philosophical. It encouraged criticism to be far more rigorous, self-examining, and dialectically ingenious than it generally had been. Graham Hough, once a well-known Cambridge academic, remarked of literature in 1966 in Essay on Criticism that "We know what it is, pretty well." The clubbable and complacent universalism (who is "we"?), the unquestioning domicile inside what Foucault was calling an episteme ("we know what it is"), the primacy of taste over argument, and the idea that criticism is just a matter of good old English fudging ("pretty well")--all that is gone forever, and no serious person misses it.

One way of looking at theory is to see it as the inevitable culmination not of Marx, but of Freud. One of the decisive changes that theory effected was to introduce the idea that texts do not know themselves. It is the critic's business to reveal their repressed anxieties and incoherences. There are no moments of pure innocence anymore. The deconstructionist will use these moments of undecidability, these "aporias," to demonstrate how the text unconsciously undermines itself. The feminist, the cultural materialist, and the New Historicist will see such fractures as the text's unwilling revelation of political anxiety. Hiddenness is what has changed, after Freud: that which is hidden for Freud and Derrida is hidden only at the cost of that which does the hiding; its absence marks the concealment. English criticism knew this about humans--the "unconscious" was hardly Freud's discovery, and De Quincey uttered the striking thought that "there is no such thing as forgetting"--but not about texts. Pater, in his essay on style, writes that we know the great artist by "the tact of his omission," by what he leaves out. But after Freud we will always itchingly suspect that omission is really repression. We know that the omissions are there if we can only find them.

Of course, critics have always read texts against themselves. But one of theory's innovations has been to show that in some sense texts read themselves against themselves. Works of literature are rarely as coherent as they want to be and are often tellingly self-divided at significant moments of anxiety. A criticism that learns to attend to this kind of self-division will probably be more energetically involved than most pre-theoretical criticism has been with the entanglements of content and form.

But these changes have also had considerable negative influence. The hunt for how a text betrays itself has too often been prosecutorial--and prosecuted, one feels, by people who do not love literature. Once criticism becomes a matter of searching for symptoms, it is relieved of the burden of evaluation, of deciding what is good and what is not. All symptoms are interesting, after all, whether in Middlemarch or on MTV. It is in this sense that deconstruction menaces literature, and this is why writers are correct to feel uneasy in its presence. Whereas a New Critic believed that we struggle, as readers, through incoherence toward a desirable, if often thwarted, formal coherence, a final coherence that the writer has intended, planned, superbly shaped, modern theory reverses this flow, moving backward from its presumption that works of literature are covering up their own incoherences, whatever the writer's good intentions are, and that they must be accordingly unmasked. The humanist was interested in good intentions; the theorist is interested in bad symptoms. The humanist gave innocence the benefit of the doubt; the theorist doubts innocence. To this extent, contemporary writers, however adept they have become at speaking the languages of theory and postmodernism, are closer to the old- fashioned humanist than to the cultural theorist, and doubtless always will be: writers have a great deal invested in the innocence of literary intention.


II.

So it turns out that theory, like any mode of reading, has to be performed sensitively; and it turns out that insensitive theoretical reading likely did more harm than insensitive untheoretical reading. Over the years, as this insensitivity seemed to become almost systemic, many theorists themselves switched horses, or turned tail. The genre of "confessions of a former theorist" is burgeoning at about the same pace as confessions of former supporters of the Iraq war. Some of the pioneers, such as Stephen Heath and Colin McCabe, dropped a few pounds of jargon and squeezed themselves anew into the English language, sensibly retaining what had been most valuable in their earlier work. Others, such as Christopher Norris, attacked what they saw as the new decadence of postmodernism. Harold Bloom, who claimed without much evidence that he had never been any kind of deconstructionist, became a sort of Book-of- the-Month-Club armchair-alec. Frank Lentricchia recanted everything he had espoused and began to sound like Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch or Orville Prescott.

And here is Terry Eagleton, the old Marxist "literary producer" himself, with a new book that violently assaults postmodern cultural theory, and which seeks to offer a credit and debit sheet for theory's successes and excesses. It ought to be a valuable revisionist work, and it is indeed often suggestive and highly intelligent. Yet it is marked by the same intellectual cost-cutting, matey bombast, vulgar haste, and final incoherence that made Literary Theory a less-than-finished work. There is, first, the question of Eagleton's style. By the standards of theory, Eagleton writes like Hazlitt: he is fluent, stylish, punchily funny, vivid, compact, and down to earth. But by any higher literary standard, he falls too often into a crowd-pleasing perpetual vivacity of style, a laddish, overly journalistic surplus. It is a style in which the truth cannot be told. After Theory, billed as the successor to Literary Theory, and hence aimed, one imagines, at college students, suffers especially from an atmosphere of merry simplification. One is reminded--Eagleton will not like the comparison with the swinish old medievalist--of C.S. Lewis's popular radio broadcasts on theological matters. Both writers exhibit the teacher's anxiety that unless complexity is rendered in bright colors, it will look too gray.

For a start, Eagleton has never met a crude binarism that he does not like. The theorist supposedly suspicious of such things is forever setting up fake alternatives. After theory's advent, "there can be no going back to an age when it was enough to pronounce Keats delectable or Milton a doughty spirit." Well, since that age hovers around 1920, there can indeed be no such return. Eagleton, like other British cultural materialists such as Terence Hawkes and Alan Sinfield, persistently defends theory against a caricature of pre-theoretical criticism. In Eagleton's rhetorical world, English and American criticism before 1960 was a snobbish drawing room filled by the jowls of Maurice Bowra and "Dadie" Rylands, posh old gents who could just taste good literature like good claret.

In the bad old days, it was assumed that culture was something you needed to have in your blood, like malaria or red corpuscles. Countless generations of breeding went into the way a gentleman could instantly distinguish a sprightly metaphor from a shopsoiled one. Culture was not really something you could acquire, any more than you could acquire a second pair of eyebrows or learn how to have an erection. Your judgments on Stendhal and Rembrandt were as spontaneous as a sneeze, as instinctive as opening doors for elderly ladies. Theory, which as we have seen was born somewhere in the dense, democratic jungle of the 1960s, thought otherwise. All you needed in order to join in the game was to learn certain ways of talking, not to have a couple of thoroughbreds tethered outside the door. And these ways of talking were in principle open to anyone.

It is troubling to think of credulous students who know no better swallowing these pithy falsities. Eagleton's memoir, The Gatekeeper, which appeared in 2002, operates at a similar level, persistently extracting easy laughs from a caricature of the 1960s Cambridge that he attended as an undergraduate. It was a place where "chinless young blades stamped their feet and hooted in cinemas at the feeblest of jokes, and elbowed the cowed townspeople off the thin medieval pavements." At the Cambridge college where Eagleton gained his research fellowship, the president of High Table "failed entirely to recognize me and mistook me for a kitchen boy who had arrived to inform them of some last- minute change of menu." You would never guess, from this Decline and Fall-like description, that at least two generations of clever young grammar school boys from lower-middle-class or working-class families had attended the place before he arrived. Likewise, you would never guess, from his wild either/ors, that Anglo-American criticism before 1960 had been both theoretical and cosmopolitan. For every "Dadie" Rylands or Graham Hough there was John Crowe Ransom, R.P. Blackmur, William Empson, W.H. Auden, I.A. Richards, Ian Watt, Donald Davie, Northrop Frye--all of whom had a considerable tendency toward the theoretical, and none of whom, to the best of my knowledge, kept a pair of thoroughbreds outside his study door.


But then Eagleton regularly writes as if no one not practicing his kind of theory can ever really be theoretical. He breezily remarks that theory, "strictly speaking ... goes back as far as Plato," and then forgets to speak strictly, preferring instead to see theory as merely the great brainchild of 1960s leftism: "it is really a product of an extraordinary decade and a half, from about 1965 to 1980." That art history, anthropology, musicology (and in particular ethnomusicology), biblical criticism, and philosophy were all highly theoretical fields well before Pierre Macherey wrote Pour une thorie de la production littraire, in 1966, is conveniently forgotten. Theory, he writes at one moment, is not interested in the question "Is this poem valuable?" It prefers the question "What do we mean by calling a poem good or bad?" And Eagleton continues:

Instead of asking whether the novel has an implausible plot, it asks itself what a novel is anyway. Instead of asking whether the clarinet concerto is slightly too cloying to be entirely persuasive, it inquires about the material conditions which you need to produce concertos in the first place, and how these help to shape the work itself. . . . Critics talk about the character of Coriolanus, while theorists ask how it comes about that a pattern of words on a page can appear to be a person.

One can just see all those music students discussing with Alexander Goehr or Charles Rosen the "slightly too cloying" nature of the Finzi clarinet concerto. (And so what if they did?) It is telling that Eagleton's example of the ludicrously non-theoretical is taken from a discipline precisely defined by theory, in which a high command of technical analysis and language has almost been continuous with musical performance itself. One hopes this is only caricature, because its alternative is ignorance.

If theory is here defined against a caricature of liberal humanism, it is also defined against a caricature of dastardly capitalism. The "tasteless, clueless philistines who run the world and whose lexicon stretches only to words like oil, golf, power and cheeseburger"--guess which country he is talking about--are people who may well be menaced by theory, "men who have never been excited by an idea, moved by a landscape or enthralled by the transcendent elegance of a mathematical solution. You may develop grave doubts about those who have the nerve to speak of defending civilization and would not recognize an obelisk or an oboe concerto if it were to slap them in the face. These are the men and women who prate of freedom and would recognize it only in the form of a hand-out."

This is just an intellectual's dockyard rabble-rousing. Keen readers of Eagleton will recall earlier, similar formulations. In the days when he was just beginning to attack American deconstruction, he used to argue that its apolitical procedures threatened no one in the White House or in the boardrooms of Standard Oil. For a while, the White House and Standard Oil were his favored metonymies. The names sought a knowing tone, a worldliness, but in fact they suggested an almost charmingly canonical idea of power and its centers. Likewise, in the paragraph above, one almost wishes that Eagleton's babyish picture were true, for then such power might be easier to deal with. Amid these airy fantasies it almost seems churlish to observe that, say, Jeremy Greenstock, the British ambassador who supported the Iraq war and spent six months working for the coalition forces, has much better Greek and Latin than Terry Eagleton (he taught classics at Eton), and might even be able to render "obelisk" in several languages. But then, one definition of rhetoric is that it scrabbles free of irritatingly obstructive denotation, and Eagleton is certainly a high- class rhetor.


All this rustling up of caricatured enemies is strange, because in this new book Eagleton is not really defending theory anyway. Or if he does finally defend it, he also spends a good deal of time attacking it. For his other great foe is postmodernism, which is also theory, and which broadly means deconstruction, cultural studies, and all theory since the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s. In a footnote, he defines postmodernism as "the contemporary movement of thought which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge." Eagleton dislikes this branch of theory, because, as a lapsed Catholic and an unlapsed Marxist, he believes in truth, foundations, and totalities. He has never had any time for American post-structuralism, which seems to him like fiddling while Rome burns. If you believe in revolution, or even if you just believe in maintaining the importance of the category of revolution, you will tend to believe in grand narratives, despite what Lyotard once ruled about their disappearance.

Readers will disagree about the extent to which Eagleton also caricatures his great postmodern enemy. Like many radical academics, he has a habit of taking the American classroom as pan-emblematic--it's that Standard Oil problem again--so that in Eagleton's account all postmodern thought is an obviously absurd matter of "quietly-spoken middle-class students huddle[d] diligently in libraries on sensationalist subjects like vampirism and eye-gouging, cyborgs and porno movies." It never has anything to do with, say, building the Guggenheim Bilbao. Postmodernism, for Eagleton, is just sex-crazy, body- obsessed, apolitical American academic footling. "Students once wrote uncritical, reverential essays on Flaubert, but all that has been transformed. Nowadays they write uncritical, reverential essays on Friends." Not all students of culture, however, "are blind to the Western narcissism involved in working on the history of pubic hair while half the world's population lacks adequate sanitation and survives on less than two dollars a day."

Eagleton is often sharply funny at postmodernism's expense, and his gibes are shrewd. He points out that the postmodern fetishizing of "difference" and "the Other" simplifies cultures: "With an arrogance thinly masked as humility, the cult of the Other assumes that there are no major conflicts or contradictions within the social majority itself." The "postmodern cult of the migrant" is a good deal "too supercilious," and is really just a rebirth of the modernist snobbism about exile. But "the problem at the moment is that the rich have mobility while the poor have locality." Temperamentally, Eagleton is really a tragic modernist. He likes Beckett because he refused to turn his gaze from "the intolerableness of things, even if there is no transcendent consolation at hand." Yet "the post-tragic realm of postmodernism" is a realm in which "there is indeed no salvation, but on the other hand nothing to be saved."

Postmodernism seems to Eagleton morally frivolous because it is politically toothless. With the help of Bernard Williams, he defends conventional foundations of truth and objectivity against the relativism of certain postmodernists; with the help of Alasdair MacIntyre, he easily wins the argument that we do indeed, as humans, share a common nature (postmodernists tend to be nervous about such universalism, fearing its conservatism). He inveighs also against pragmatists such as Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish: they commit the usual academic error of inflating the role of language--"an error native to intellectuals, as melancholia is endemic among clowns," he drolly adds. They are obsessed with our supposed inability to get outside the cultural moment that we inhabit, and their sense of the impossibility of finding an ideal Archimedean point of disinterestedness means that they fall into utter political complacency. Trenchantly, he observes that "you do not have to be standing in metaphysical outer space to recognize the injustice of racial discrimination. This is exactly where you would not recognize it.... There are many different, contradictory strands to a culture, some of which allow us to be critical of others." Postmodernism's love of "anti-essentialism is largely the product of philosophical amateurism and ignorance." There is not enough writing of this order, alas.


III.

Eagleton's book sometimes reminds me of the observation of the Sex Pistols that "I don't know what I want, but I know how to get it." The incoherence of his book lies not just in the fact that he both attacks and defends theory, but that he does both things in the name of saving a kind of original or untarnished theory from its contemporary decadence. On the one hand, the theory that was born "in the dense, democratic jungle of the 1960s" has bequeathed imperishable insights about gender and sexuality, about text and author, about culture and society; but on the other hand, most theory since the early 1980s, or what Eagleton calls "cultural theory as we have it," has failed to deal with fundamental problems: "It has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity and disinterestedness. "

Pass over the awkwardness that if something has been "superficial about truth" then it has probably been, well, untrue. What is strange about this passage is that Eagleton does not want to see that, if this later theoretical failure is related to the earlier theoretical vigor of the 1960s and 1970s, then the later decadence in some respects must pass judgment on the validity of the earlier vigor. Either these two different manifestations of theory, so different in effect, have nothing to do with each other, in which case he should stop calling the postmodernist thought he dislikes "theory"; or they are indeed related, in which case it may well be harder than he imagines to rejuvenate the old-fashioned theory he likes. Eagleton is a kind of deadbeat dad of theory, shaking his head at his own offspring and saying, "No, they're not mine!"

This probably explains his haziness about terms. In this book, "theory" (a good thing) is constantly blending into "cultural theory" (sometimes a good thing and sometimes not, especially when it is "cultural theory as we have it"), or blending into "postmodern theory" and "cultural studies" (almost always bad things). Naughtily, Eagleton calls Fish and Rorty "anti-theorists," because they are happy to let the world stay just as it is, while "real" theory wants to change it; but he must know that Rorty's first major book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, was a vigorous piece of post-structuralist theorizing, thoroughly indebted to precisely the 1960s and 1970s theory that Eagleton wants to defend. At other times Eagleton so inflates the category of theory that it would be impossible to disagree with its necessity. Theory is, at base, "a new self-consciousness about what we are doing." "Critics of theory," he writes, too often "complain that its devotees seem to find theory more exciting than the works of art it is meant to illuminate. But sometimes it is. Freud is a lot more fascinating than Cecil Day Lewis. Foucault's The Order of Things is a good deal more arresting and original than the novels of Charles Kingsley." Those coarse binarisms, again: how Eagleton loves to rise between two stools! And "theory" is now Freud? Theory is certainly Freudian; but most people would want to distinguish Freud and "theory," for fear of enlarging the word into meaninglessness.

It is partly Eagleton's own style of continuous exaggeration that scatters his argument. Once the theory of the 1960s has been unnaturally severed from a caricature of the liberal humanism that preceded it, and unnaturally severed from a caricature of the postmodern theory that succeeded it, it is left without head or limbs, a torso that he perversely wants to get up and walking again, but which is denied the tools of locomotion. An account of 1960s and 1970s theory that linked it not merely to modernism but also to early twentieth- century language philosophy, to the Russian Formalism of the 1920s, and to the Frankfurt School of the 1930s (all of which Eagleton is very knowledgeable about), that took the patience to see what was already theoretical in, say, the mid-century criticism of Erich Heller or Harry Levin, might be able to find within theory the resources necessary for its rescue. But Eagleton's Marxist imperative to see theory as just the achievement of the 1960s left, the product of "the only period since the Second World War in which the political far left rose briefly to prominence, before sinking almost out of sight," leaves him bereft of the materials appropriate for such renovation.

Thus, in the strangest chapter of this book, "Losses and Gains," in which Eagleton takes stock of theory's achievements and failures, he finds himself curiously incapable of mounting a convincing defense of theory at all. "What have been cultural theory's achievements? To begin with, it has disabused us of the idea that there is a single correct way to interpret a work of art." But who were all those untheoretical critics who believed that artworks yielded single correct readings? Theory's second legacy, apparently, is that "it has persuaded us that there are many things involved in the making of a work of art besides the author." But it was Virginia Woolf who argued that a female writer needed a room of her own and five hundred pounds a year. Third, theory has instructed us about the connections between culture and power, he says; it has brought culture and cultural politics to the fore. This is the least arguable of Eagleton's claims. Yet he knows better than most Walter Benjamin's famous remark about every document of culture being also a document of barbarism; and though Benjamin was clearly a theorist, and has been retroactively claimed by contemporary theory, the German mandarin essayist comfortably pre-dates Eagleton's "dense, democratic jungle of the 1960s."


In a curious if inevitable paradox, Eagleton seems to be able to show us why we need theory only in a rather theoretical way. His book characteristically proceeds at an impressive altitude of generality, rarely choosing to give chapter and verse for its lapsed theology. And lapsed theology is exactly what it turns out to be. In the book's most interesting and valuable section, Eagleton lays out some of the areas in which a renovated and properly political theory might do its new work. His sponsor here is Aristotle, and much of Eagleton's commentary doggedly follows Aristotle's lead in the Nichomachean Ethics. Eagleton champions Aristotle's notion of living according to the virtues, and of goodness as its own reward. He notes that ethics for Aristotle is the domain of the political, and he mixes Aristotle with a Marxist reading of Jesus's teachings. This is the Jesus he once distinguished, in his memoir, from the avenging God of the Old Testament: "The other image of God is of he who does not need to be appeased because he has forgiven us already, and scandalously accepts us just as we are. This image of God, as counsel for the defense or even as co-defendant in the dock, is known as Jesus, friend of the shit of the earth." Yes, but there is also the sterner Jesus who does not scandalously accept us just as we are, but who exactly refuses to accept us just as we are, the Jesus who becomes the basis of Paul's fierce imperatives, the Jesus who tells the puzzled Nicodemus that he will have to be spiritually born again, and his disciples that they must cleave to him and forget their families. That is the Jesus for whom salvation is not just a matter of doing but also of believing.

In an ideally Christian world, Eagleton writes, we would cherish each other's autonomy, and "become the occasion for each other's self-realization." Socialism is the political environment most likely to allow the kind of self- flourishing of which Aristotle speaks. "Love means creating for another the kind of space in which he can flourish, as the same time as he does this for us. ... The socialist society is one in which each attains his or her freedom and autonomy in and through the self-realization of others." Of course, there is no mention of the fact that socialism in its most rigid forms has often failed to give its people the kind of autonomy that Eagleton craves (somehow I don't think that by "socialism" Eagleton means Sweden). What is more interesting is that Eagleton begins to sound more like an Aristotelian liberal than a Marxian theorist. Theory, he avers, has not dealt forthrightly with morality, yet the kind of morality found in the work of the great novelists should be a nourishing and complex example for theory. "Morality, as, say, Henry James understood it," is "an intricately woven texture of nuances." Yes, it is, and Lionel Trilling and R. P. Blackmur would not have disagreed.

Theory, as Eagleton wants it, seems to be, in the end, traditional philosophical ethics with a bit of old-fashioned Marxism, temperamentally characterized by a tragic-religious modernist outlook. It is, above all, a form of political engagement; Eagleton's new book agrees with its predecessor on this score. But Eagleton, oddly enough, is most imprecise about what he cares most about: theory and politics. We come back to the larger imprecision of Eagleton's rhetoric. He writes that just as postmodernism was announcing the death of grand narratives, "a peculiarly ugly such narrative was launched in the war between capital and the Koran." This sounds good, and he is always drawn to easy alliteration. But a moment's reflection reveals its simplification. Osama bin Laden, too, has a great deal of capital, most of it made from a highly capitalist society, which in turn has gotten rich by selling its oil to the Great Satan itself, America. Capital may well be part of the problem here, but the problem is not itself a simple binarism.

Or take this extraordinary outburst, near the end of the book. America, Eagleton claims, is a society that is afraid of death, a childishly optimistic and voluntarist society, a place that refuses to see life in its properly tragic colors. "In such a culture there can be no real tragedy, whatever terrifying events may occur from time to time." The breathtaking generalization, the theorist's disdain for the masses, the arctic chill that blows over that sentence--here one hears an authentic Marxism for the first time. But what this kind of rhetoric cannot be, precisely because of its almost Zarathustran altitude, is an authentic politics. And yet Eagleton never stops talking about politics.

Eagleton's politics remains shadowy, imprecise, and thoroughly theoretical just because it can never be realized. Indeed, one might say that his theory needs an extreme politics so that it can safely never be realized, and his politics needs theory so that it can stay safely theoretical. He would seem to be committed to the messianic idea of the always imminent, but never actualized, revolution. It is a religious politics and a religion of politics. When, recently, The New York Times asked him for political specifics, he replied: "Get out of NATO. Get rid of capitalism." I fear he was being serious.


This article originally ran in the June 7, 2004, issue of the magazine.