On Terry Eagleton’s “The Event of Literature”

by vinnyhaddad

In The Event of Literature, Terry Eagleton constructs, in typically sardonic fashion, a wide-ranging critique of literary criticism in an attempt to trace a through-line that illuminates what literature “is.[1] For Eagleton, it is possible and important to establish a definition for literature (he advocates a family-set resemblance definition that literature is “fictional, or which yields significant insight into human experience as opposed to reporting empirical truths, or which uses language in a peculiarly heightened, figurative or self-concious way, or which is not practical in the sense that shopping lists are, or which is highly valued as a piece of writing” [25]) because only with a proper understanding of what is meant by literature, the parameters of its seeming autonomy from the ‘real world’ through the delicate construct of fictionality, will we be able to understand the instrumentality of literature, what it does to us and for us. Eagleton offers a sharp critique of reception theory, speech-act theory, Russian Formalism, and structuralism in an effort to show that literature is a strategy for, in so many words, ‘dealing with’ reality. According to this model, literary criticism has largely framed literature in negative relation to materiality (it can only reference what is absent) and ideology (literature ruptures our understanding of the ‘everyday’). The danger that is rightly noted in The Event of Literature is that literature’s relationship with ideology is more complex than we, as a largely liberally-biased scholarly field, have presently conceived of it; the ways in which literature not only ruptures ideology (Eagleton’s section on the Formalist’s concept of defamiliarization is particularly poignant here) but also normativizes ideology, and, for Eagleton, we ought to really begin to recognize that ideology qua ideology is not innately bad. Ultimately, Eagleton repackages and updates Jameson’s theory of symptomatic reading of texts: that we ought to fundamentally view texts as a series of problems posed as a response/symptom to a problem that the text itself is unaware: “Like the history and ideology which enter the literary work as subtext, it can never be known in the raw. We know it only in the form in which the ego has strategically shaped it” (216). At the conclusion of his text, he offers the most forthright explanation of what he means by literature as strategy:

The concept of strategy…is not just a question of how certain conflicts may be resolved, but how they may be left fruitfully unresolved, or how they are treated as a whole. One advantage of the concept lies in the fact that it avoids too unified a view of the artwork on the one hand, while on the other hand granting it enough identity for it to make sense to say that a particular feature of it is a feature of this text Strategies are loose-jointed, internally differentiated affairs, powered by a set of general purposes but with semi-autonomous parts, between which there can be frictions and conflicts. If they have their own complex logic, it is one which can be reduced neither to a single informing intention nor to the anonymous functioning of a structure. In this sense, neither a phenomenology centered on consciousness, nor a structuralist objectivisim, is enough to account for them. (225)

I struggle to rectify in Eagleton’s analysis the position that, like the relation between conscious and unconscious, the relation between literature and problem is “transformative” (195), yet he by and large approaches literature, not with an analysis of how the (compensatory) aesthetic actually exhibits this transformative force on the level of the initial encounter with the work of art, but with an analysis of how the plot and narrative elements unknowingly reveal about ideology (I am sympathetic to this approach, but the single model provided in the text is a 5-page yawn on Jane Eyre). Eagleton writes,

Historically speaking, the function of a literary work is a highly variable affair. Works…may accomplish a whole gamut of purposes, from inspiring young warriors into battle to quadrupling one’s bank balance. But…the literary text has a kind of internal context as well, to which it has a kind of internal relation; and here, too, broadly speaking, it is a function that determines structure. It is what the work is trying to do with this context that determines the devices it selects and the way it evolves. (194)

What is fascinating to me is how the two samples in his “gamut of purposes” actually require extremely different approaches to literature on the part of the reader and contain different, but not contradictory, truths about literature. It can be both self-serving and have a transformative force, a violent force that affects readers deeply.

Much of the ire that Eagleton directs at Stanley Fish can be understood as a defense against the leveling of reading of all texts, the distinctions between canon and popular are discarded. Eagleton’s issue with this dissolution is not because he is “a custodian of the canon,” but rather he rightly points out that, at the very least, the impression or force that texts command on readers is affected by preconception and expectation. Moreover, ‘canonization’ is not universally negative and ‘popular’ universally progressive, and ignoring each as a given is to ignore their potentially revelatory insights on ideology. It is questionable that when Eagleton deploys his thoughts on literary endings, he focuses exclusively on the generic lines of “Romanticism,” “realism,” “modernism” and “postmodernism,” which trace aesthetic movements that for many readers, as Amy Blair for example shows in Reading Up, are void of content and interchangeable in use. This significantly undervalues the “event of literature” in its actualized form. Eagleton makes the interesting observation about the evolution of literature as a form of wish-fulfillment:

Freud himself was aware that too blatant, full-blooded a wish-fulfillment on our part tends to be repugnant to others, though this is hardly a pressing problem when it comes to modern literature. Too pat or predictable a closure would satisfy such a work’s ipulse to form only at the price of disrupting its clear-eyed realism. This is because happiness is not a plausible condition in the modern age. Even the word itself has a feeble ring to it, evocative as it is of manic grins and end-of-pier comedians. A comic ending in these disenchanted days can be as scandalously avant-garde as The Tempest would have been if it had married Miranda of to Caliban. The contrast with the Victorian is telling. Bleak House could not have killed off its protagonists in the final paragraph more than it could have ended in mid-sentence…The defiantly tragic denouements of Tess of D’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure could still enrage a late Victorian readership. By contrast, we would be astonished and not a little unsettled if a work by Strindberg or Scott Fitzgerald were to end on a note of ecstatic affirmation. (174)

Eagleton cashes in on the groundwork of this claim after he illustrates the many parallels between the body and the form of literary texts. He writes,

[In] the fragmented body of the modernist or postmodernist work…meaning and materiality are now beginning to drift apart, as things no longer seem to secrete their sense within themselves. The high-modernist work is aware of its own material body, forcing us to wonder in the case of writing how a set of humble black marks on a page can possibly be the bearers of something as momentous as meaning. Yet the more its material medium looms large, the more spectral and elusive its signs seem to grow. It is as though the work interposes its bulk between the reader and its meanings. It can no more be fully present in any one of its significations than a human body can be in any one of its actions. We have left behind the Romantic fantasy of the single action that would say it all, the one pure event that would manifest the truth of the self in a single flash or epiphany in its mute yet eloquent presence. We have, in a word, put paid to the symbol, in which meaning and materiality are reconciled. Like the body, literary works are suspended between fact and act, structure and practice, the material and the semantic. If a body is not so much an object within the world as a point from which a world is organized, much the same is true of a literary text. Bodies and texts are both self-determining, which is not to say that they exist in a void. On the contrary, this self-determining activity is inseparable from the way they go to work on their surrounding. (209)

I actually quite like this conclusion that Eagleton comes to. However, it is more than a little disheartening that a Marxist would make an over-generalization that confuses “literary” with “literature” (a distinction he uses to sharply critique Russian Formalists) and ignores what non-professional readers actually tend to read. As Mark McGurl points out in The Novel Art, if anything, realism pervades throughout what we consider the modernist, high-modernist, postmodernist and high-postmodernist periods by numbers. I would stake my reputation that if I had the resources to do a quick Moretti-inspired data collection of “happy endings” to disenchanted ones, happy endings would still reign supreme. But, this does not nullify the truly fascinating and insightful conclusion to Eagleton’s argument about how we can come to understand the “body” of modernist and postmodernist texts. It only calls into question when or how we would claim that literature ruptures and/or normativizes ideology, we ought not lose sight of what literature is being read and in what context.

[1] As an aside consumer review, I had to wonder throughout whether or not I “like” the way Eagleton presents his arguments, and I have decided that for the most part I do not. The majority of other literary theories are, to Eagleton, obviously absurd (his disdain for Stanley Fish is awkwardly tense throughout). I love condescendingly elitist one-liners as much as the next white male working on his PhD in literary and cultural studies, but the sheer volume that populates the pages of this text really distract from the insightful arguments that Eagleton presents.