‘The Event of Literature’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

The Event of Literature

Yale University Press, New Haven, CT and London, 2012. 256pp., $17 pb
ISBN 9780300194135

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


Picture a dusty, barren landscape, a smouldering wasteland where the emptiness of desiccated ruins is punctuated by a furling, drifting mist, and the only thing of substance is the whistling sound of the forlorn wind. Imagine yourself wandering aimlessly through such a terrain, bereft of will and direction, and you have a glimmering of what it feels like to read Terry Eagleton’s The Event of Literature. Here Eagleton’s Marxist methodology is comprehensively undercut by a credulous fascination with some of the most fashionable but vulgar thinkers in the pantheon – and where we might expect a meticulously constructed narrative which seeks to locate the genesis and development of literature as a historical form – what we are in fact treated to is an eclectic, unsystematic hotchpotch of ideas; a whirlwind blend of irredeemable confusion, permeated by the nebulous and lifeless abstractions of arch muddlers like Althusser, Foucault, Derrida and Lacan.

A lack of a coherent philosophical approach is everywhere evinced. In the third chapter Eagleton begins with a consideration of the role of the imagination – which he suggests provides us with ‘a sense of futurity, without which we would be able to act at all.’ (61) So far, so good. He then points out that the awareness of such ‘futurity’ in human beings renders the imagination as much a means for foul ends as well as for fair , so – for instance – alongside novel writing, the practise of serial killing also requires extensive preparation, a nod to the future, and a level of imagination to wit. Thus, Eagleton is able to conclude with a provocative flourish – ‘Pol Pot was one of the greatest visionaries, along with William Blake and Thomas Jefferson’. (62)

But Eagleton has simply conflated the imagination as a quasi-generic function of mind (as a sense of ‘futurity’) with a more specific and subsequent social form – that of the creative imagination. As possessors of individual egos, all human beings are simultaneously possessors of a future and a past and mediate these things through ‘memory’ and ‘imagination’. But the fact that the serial killer is able to conceive of a future in which he/she acts as a serial killer is, on a certain level, quite at odds with the function of the creative imagination, which entails a more radical proposition entirely.

The truth of this is apparent in everyday speech – the person who plans to mark a future Valentine’s day by ordering the same things on Amazon (perfume, flowers) as he did the year before, has clearly ‘imagined’ the future but is nevertheless in danger of being chided by his partner for being ‘unimaginative’; the creative imagination, therefore, implies not simply the ability to conceive the future, but also to radically alter its horizons in and through the conception. I suppose one might say that in grammatical terms it would be better represented by the conditional (could, would) rather than the future form (will). The way in which this shift takes place; the way more concrete aesthetic and creative functions of imagination secede from that initial ‘abstract’ stage – imagination as an unmediated ‘futurity’ – would be the subject of a worthy and fascinating socio-historical study, but having simply amalgamated the two in order to generate the provocative statement (‘Pol Pot was one of the greatest visionaries …’) Eagleton at once abandons his theme; like some postmodernist butterfly he simply floats dreamily on.

The same intellectual sloppiness is slathered on throughout. In another digression, Eagleton tries to explicate the relationship between ‘pragmatic’ and ‘non-pragmatic’ when it comes to the creation of the literary work: how much of it has an explicit functionalist agenda built into it? How much of it involves the satisfaction of a more nebulous, formless aesthetic impulse? Eagleton suggests that there is, in fact, an interpenetration of the two moments, of the ‘pragmatic’ and ‘non-pragmatic’, but the logic by which he derives this is superficial and inelegant. ‘You can read a non-pragmatic work pragmatically too’, he informs us sagaciously, ‘as when historians raid Macbeth for information about early seventeenth-century concepts of witchcraft.’ (115) Well, quite. But you could also use Macbeth as a means of teaching a school child to write words, or you could use it as a paper-weight, or as material for a bonfire, or even a weapon with which to bludgeon pretentious literary theorists. Does the delivery of a beating also have bearing on literary essence?

Again Eagleton has performed the same vulgar, undialectical amalgamation fusing ‘non-pragmatic’ with ‘pragmatic’ in a static identity, and thus his conclusions teeter easily and gleefully into the absurd. He realises, for instance, that a plumber’s technical manual qualifies as literature – providing ‘it is magnificently written’. (71)

But the issue is not simply about the way in which the literary theorist Eagleton brings to bear his own solipsistic intuitions and sensibilities in order to illuminate the relationship between the ‘pragmatic’ and ‘non-pragmatic’; rather – to paraphrase Marx – the more significant question is how these aspects distinguish themselves in the course of the development of literature, and art, more broadly; the relationship between them, therefore, must be adduced from its historical context as a living development. The first stories are also religious programmes; they are simultaneously ‘fictional’ and functional – undergirded by a series of moral imperatives designed to provide an explicit ethical code to be used, in turn, as a practical guide to everyday life. This is true of something like The Torah, and to a lesser degree, the oral traditions behind the epic poems which almost certainly influenced it, such as The Iliad and The Epic of Gilgamesh. What is it about more ‘modern’ forms of socio-historical existence – the Athenian polis for instance – which increasingly tends to divest the work of art of an immediate ‘pragmatic’ social function, so that it becomes, in the Kantian refrain, an end in itself? (Greek satire is a possible exception to the rule as it had, arguably, a more explicitly functional motif).

Eagleton remains, for the most part, unmolested by such inquiries – such is his comprehensive abandonment of the historical method. For much of the book, historical analysis replete with social contradiction is displaced by a static and apolitical consideration of the structural dimensions inherent to language itself, so we endure lengthy, rambling, navel-gazing streams of consciousness overlaid by every pseudo-profundity on offer in the tortured structuralist and post-structuralist lexicon:

Language works by a kind of double inscription, both clinging to the singular and departing from it. A lyrical poem or realist novel presents what is meant to be an irreducibly specific reality; but because the signs it uses are only signs because they are iterable, capable of being deployed in other contexts, any particular literary statement packs a wealth of general connotations into itself. It is thus that the singular comes to behave as a microcosm, condensing whole possible worlds in its slim compass. The more texts are fashioned and framed to display this duality, the more they conventionally approach the condition of literature. Literary texts typically exploit the double nature of discourse by portraying irreducibly specific situations which are at the same time, by the very nature of language, of more general import. (83)

The writer might well rely on the fact that his reader’s eyes have glazed over by this point, for otherwise, paragraphs like this simply don’t survive scrutiny. Language clings to the singular and departs from it. What means singular here? A single word? A sentence? A countable noun? A name? Any particular ‘thing’? Is ‘imagination’ a singular? Is ‘Terry Eagleton’? ‘A lyrical poem or realist novel presents what is meant to be an irreducibly specific reality’ we are then told. Is it only the ‘lyrical poem’ and the ‘realist novel’ – which behave this way? Do other forms, like science-fiction and chic-lit also try to describe an ‘irreducibly specific reality’? If not, then why? If so, then can’t things which are not literature, like a UKIP manifesto or an application for divorce – also be understood in terms of the attempt to present ‘an irreducibly specific reality’? Such questions are neither posed nor answered.

Eagleton argues that ‘any particular literary statement packs a wealth of general connotations into itself’ and ‘signs’ are only ‘signs because they are capable of being deployed in other contexts.’ Is a ‘literary statement’ a ‘sign’? Or a series of ‘signs’ strung together? Is it a ‘singular’ entity? Is it ‘literary’ because it appears in a work of literature, even if – within that context – it imparts something quite factual and banal? Does the phrase ‘two plus two equals four’ constitute a literary statement if it appears in a play? We are told that ‘any particular literary statement packs a wealth of general connotations into itself’ but don’t statements about the property market also achieve something similar? In fact, don’t all statements do this? Again Eagleton doesn’t fill in the blanks.

When you break it down, what, if anything has Eagleton’s paragraph actually told us about literature and fiction – besides providing the dizzying revelation that it is in fact constituted by language? On one level this is inevitable. No attempt is made by Eagleton himself to flesh out his concepts and bind them in any sort of rational interrelation, to cultivate them in a systematic and unfolding whole; in a certain way, though, this is the very point – the concepts are so vague, disjointed and barren that almost anything can be read into them or intuited from them. In a certain way they defy refutation, for they also defy rational cognition. And yet, such anarchy and indeterminacy also mean that Eagleton’s arguments are consistently prone to lurch into the most flagrant self-contradiction, often employing an assertion in an arbitrary and incongruous manner precisely because he is so blithely unconcerned with the way it was used only pages before. Sometimes the blunder occurs within the confines of the same paragraph:

Even the most lovingly particularised piece of fiction schematises the world, editing it accordingly to the requirements of a way of seeing. I do not mean to suggest that the way of seeing comes first, and is then exemplified by the detail of the work. Nothing could be less true. (146)

Here Eagleton argues ‘fiction schematises the world, editing it accordingly to the requirements of a way of seeing.’ In the next sentence he makes it clear that he doesn’t want to ‘suggest that the way of seeing comes first’. But this is precisely what he has suggested – nay stated – in the previous clause. The ‘way of seeing’ is used to edit and schematise. It is, therefore, prior. Such blatant inconsistencies are rife. In one chapter Eagleton argues: ‘Ironically it is presence of contingency, not least in realist fiction, that makes a novel’s outlook so convincing’. (146) In the very next chapter he avers: ‘the classical literary work does away with the bunglings and contingencies to which all real-world action is subject, eradicating the accidental and wedding form harmoniously to content.’ (173) On page 46, Eagleton derides the view that literature is supposed to serve some ‘edifying moral message’ as ‘curiously puritanical’, whereas on page 54 he informs us that literature must in some sense ‘guide our action in the world.’

In the third chapter the concept of ‘discourse’ (a concept one feels was depressingly fated to appear in a work such as this) is defined as ‘the use of language for strategic ends in practical situations’ (105), while later it is revealed that literary works are ‘snatches of “discourse”’ as opposed to ‘specimens of language’. Yet Eagleton has defined ‘discourse’ as the ‘use of language’ so how could a snatch of it – whatever that entails – not be a specimen of language? In the concluding chapter the situation is rendered even more surreal by the ominous but nonsensical proclamation, ‘Ideology is the neuralgic point where power impacts discourse and bends it out of true.’ (222)

Does this mean that ‘the use of language for strategic ends in practical situations’ (i.e. discourse) is not ‘ideological’ until it is bent ‘out of true’ by ‘power’? What does power refer to here? A ruling elite? A dominant class? Wouldn’t such an entity also use ‘language for strategic ends in practical situations’ – i.e. engage in ideologically driven ‘discourse’ to manifest the same power which allegedly ‘impacts discourse’ in the first place and ‘bends it out of true’? Again you will find no elucidations, no answers. But such utter disregard for consistency, rigour, and ultimately meaning, is flaunted throughout this book; over and over the reader is made witness to an Eagleton in flight, borne aloft on the hot air and haughty gravitas of concepts and notions far too profound and ‘freewheeling’ in nature to be weighed down by anything as banal and dogmatic as rationality.

Eagleton holds a particular affinity for the Lacanian notion of ‘the real.’ The ‘real’ is certainly an imaginative and – I hesitate to use the phrase – almost literary conception; however in philosophical terms it is supremely crass and dogmatic, asserting, as it does, that we are bound in some natural unity before being constituted as subjects by the language-mediated realm of the ‘symbolic order’. Our psyches are forever permeated by this loss, by the tragic and futile yearning to recapture that one initial state of grace. The aporia arises when we try to use we use language (and therefore thought) to theorize ‘the real’, for we are engaged in the very activity which perverts its true nature, which instantaneously facilitates its destruction.

The Lacanian Real, then, is a form of ad-hoc Kantianism; a noumenal entity which, of necessity, thwarts all comprehension. But rather than problematize the concept of ‘the real’ along the lines of a Hegelian style critique of its noumenal aspect, Eagleton simply adopts it, using it to describe literature’s raison d’être: ‘literature would seem to depend for its existence on a certain loss or distancing of the real, and this absence is vitally constitutive of its presence … the work seeks to compensate for this loss of the real’ (172) Clearly a dialectical critique of ‘the real’ is beyond the scope of a review, but, if nothing else, one should note what function the Lacanian concept plays in Eagleton’s overview: it shifts the focus from a literature constituted by historical forms and social contradictions, to a psychoanalytical category which is the property of the generic, ahistorical individual. Presumably both Shakespeare and Jeffery Archer keenly experienced the loss of ‘the real’ and yet there seems to be some variation in the content and quality of their work .

The Event of Literature represents an abandonment of the Marxist method; an unconscious capitulation before some of the more vapid constructs of the more fashionable and convoluted trends in contemporary philosophy. Naturally Eagleton’s book has received noisy acclaim, and its writer lauded as ‘our pre-eminent literary theorist’, the uncrowned emperor of his subject matter. It feels almost indelicate, therefore, to point out that this particular ruler appears to be missing some clothes.

28 March 2014

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