Literature from [Matthew] Arnold onwards is the enemy of ‘ideological dogma’… Arnold himself had beliefs, of course, though like everybody else he regarded his own beliefs as reasoned positions rather than ideological dogmas. Even so, it was not the business of literature to communicate such beliefs directly — to argue openly, for example, that private property is the bulwark of liberty. Instead, literature should convey timeless truths, thus distracting the masses from their immediate commitments, nurturing them in a spirit of tolerance and generosity, and so ensuring the survival of private property. — from Chapter One, “The Rise of English”
I have a confession.
I volunteered to write this post last week, when I was part way into the 2008 edition of Terry Eagleton’s classic Literary Theory: an introduction (first published in 1983 and extremely popular ever since). I was certain that I would finish it well before the deadline. Now here I am, a week on, and I’m only half way through. Why is this short, elegant text so demanding to read — at least, for me? (I anticipate plenty of comments from readers who breezed through Literary Theory in a matter of hours, maybe while sipping something brightly coloured with umbrellas in it. They have my admiration.)
The fact of the matter is that this book is making me work. It’s not that the material is unfamiliar. I come from Russian studies rather than English, but Peter Barry’s (excellent, highly recommended) Beginning Theory — which covers the same material, and then some — was a considerably easier read. Nor is the prose particularly difficult: in fact, Literary Theory is a joy to read, although Eagleton has his moments.* As for the Marxist analysis which underpins the entire critical structure of this book, that poses no problem for me at all. My ideological dogmas are quite in line with Eagleton’s, and it would be far too easy simply to accept his pronouncements on the likes of Matthew Arnold without a second thought. (I try not to.)
What makes Literary Theory such a challenging read (again, for me) is its density. While the text follows a roughly chronological narrative, this isn’t a straightforward introduction but rather an introductory critique of the various people, schools and tendencies which make up the history of literary criticism, all condensed into just over two hundred pages. Eagleton introduces, dissects and dispatches his subjects with breathtaking concision. Accordingly, every phrase is significant (well, almost every phrase). I find myself reading certain paragraphs carefully several times in order to make sure that I have grasped what Eagleton is saying — and why he might be saying it in that particular way — before moving on to the next point. To an extent this is choice rather than necessity: I could plough on regardless and still get the gist of the argument. But, frankly, I am enjoying my travels with Eagleton so much that I am happy to linger on the same page for a while if it means getting the full value from the text.
If you’ve read Literary Theory and have something to say about it, please consider leaving a comment below: we’d love to hear from you. As for me, I’ll carry on with the hard slog; I’m finding it supremely rewarding.
2008 edition published by University of Minnesota Press, 240 pp., ISBN: 978-0816654475
* If you approached me at a bus stop and murmured “Thou still unravished bride of quietness”, I might be “aware that I am in the presence of the literary”, but it wouldn’t be my first thought. (p.2)
Writing is a distinctly human activity.