Books: Terry Eagleton, “Literary Theory”

Terry Eagleton's "Literary Theory"I bought this book on a whim earlier because I found it in a bargain bin and it looked quite interesting. I’ve heard the name of the author before. If there is a nemesis to Dawkins and Hitchens, it’s this guy, and he actually does a fairly good and entertaining job of arguing against what he calls the Hitchkins-brigade.

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.

Eagleton is a professor at Lancaster University and at Notre Dame, and from the first page I got more of his amusing style, which I do find engaging even though I don’t agree with him on Hitchens and Dawkins. That said, I don’t have the knowledge to argue against Eagleton, because I’m sure he could beat me senseless with his encyclopedic knowledge about the themes and issues of Augustine’s “The city of God” for instance. One must pick one’s enemies. I think I’ll pick someone that’s smaller, and less knowledgeable than me. Which means I should pick on first years in preschool.

However, here’s the style of this book which I’m enjoying quite a lot.

Perhaps one needs a different kind of approach altogether. Perhaps literature is definable not according to whether it is fictional or ‘imaginative’, but because it uses language in peculiar ways. On this theory, literature is a kind of writing which, in the words of the Russian critic Roman Jakobson, represents an ‘organized violence committed on ordinary speech’. Literature transforms and intensifies ordinary language, deviates systematically from everyday speech. If you approach me at a bus stop and murmur ‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness,’ then I am instantly aware that I am in the presence of the literary. I know this because the texture, rhythm and resonance of your words are in excess of their abstractable meaning – or, as the linguists might more technically put it, there is a disproportion between the signifiers and the signifieds. Your language draws attention to itself, flaunts its material being, as statements like ‘Don’t you know the drivers are on strike?’ do not.

Terry Eagleton, “Literary Theory”, pp 2

11 thoughts on “Books: Terry Eagleton, “Literary Theory”

  1. Eagleton’s whole argument is based on the convoluted notion that “if you do not know god” you can’t criticise theology. By choosing this line of reasoning he completely ignores rational thinking. I do not have to meet Santa Claus to disbelieve him.
    Dawkins and Hitchens know enough of critical thinking to question the validity of thinking patterns.
    There’s no straw man in pointing out circular arguments and flawed logic.😉

  2. Eek! I have no idea what half of those quoted passages were talking about!
    (Can I talk with Mark instead, please?😛 )

    • I’m not sure I’m reading this book with the amount of seriousness and dedication that such a, on the surface, dry subject should demand because when I read that I had this image of a Bela Lugosi figure approaching some person at a bus stop. With the arm and cape across the face. I’m not suited for these serious books and subjects…😆

  3. One of the best thinkers amongst those who do not specifically believe in a god is the American Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Watch this clip on why he does not consider himself an atheist even though atheists claim him:

    I consider myself a secular humanist because it stands for something and I do get irritated when humanist wave the “there is no god” banner because I think the strength is that humanism asserts we can be loving, moral people without a deity to point the way.
    I also like Stephen Fry’s overall philosophy expressed in this great interview:

  4. I’ve been meaning to read Eagleton’s book for a few years now. Let me know if it’s good.

    • It is pretty good. I’m reading it in chunks: reading one bit, then digesting it. His style is quite funny, actually, like I said in the post. Makes me think quite a bit. I’ve done about half by now. But it’s one of those books you have to read several times to fully grasp it. Not because it’s particularly difficult, but because it’s layered.

  5. Was Eagleton not a regular reviewer for the TLS? The name rings a big bell even though I cannot remember anything specific he may have written.
    The extracts read well – I should get the book.

    • It’s a good book. I’ve read through it once, but I’m going to have to read it again in more detail. His style is excellent, and dare I say it funny at times.

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