Tuesday, 5 November 2013

“That dreadful Terry Eagleton” (Prince Charles)

Terry Eagleton, enfant terrible of the British lit crit establishment, is one of Gert’s heroes.  It seems, though according to a review of his recent “How to read literature” in The Guardian, that Terry is a bit of an old fogey after all. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jul/26/how-read-literature-eagleton-review

The decidedly old-fashioned side to the radical leftie Eagleton was already evident in his memoir “The Gatekeeper”, more a series of essays cobbled together than an autobiography but a wonderfully funny and touching account of the quintessential scholarship boy, born in the unrelenting bleakness of 1950s Salford. Wearing a coat to school, which Eagleton did because of his poor health, “marked me out as sinisterly as if I had arrived at school in a Bentley with a caviar lunch tucked under my arm” (49) He progressed from here to Cambridge, arriving “an eighteen-year-old working-class Catholic, as certain as a speak-your-weight machine and as ignorant as a fish” and coming out the other end of the academic machine as a renowned scholar of literature, politics, culture and class.

The book opens with the truly surreal story of 10-year-old Terry’s job as “gatekeeper” at the local Carmelite monastery. Among other things, this involved lugging the elderly convent watchdog Timothy onto a turntable so that he could be passed in and out of the convent “as though required for some secret bestial rite”. 

Eagleton is acute and astute when writing of Catholicism:

It was less about charity than about candelabras.  We were pious and heartless, strict-minded and mean, pure-living and pagan. (30)

A radical stress on material practice, on the public, collective, symbolic dimensions of selfhood was entwined with a callous impersonality which would make even Stalin seem sentimental. (32)

Despite the benighted autocracy of their church, Catholics are prime candidates for the political left.  They are …taught to value systematic thought, feel at ease with the  collective, symbolic dimensions of human existence and are wary of subjectivism. They also…. inherit a fertile tradition of ethical and political thought, and are not afraid to think ambitiously. (35-6)

The old-fogey side shows through in constant swipes at Americans and post-modernism. But Gert can always forgive someone who writes like this: 

[Raymond Williams’] very presence deranged the conventional categories, and his fellow dons gathered inquisitively around him like zoologists around a dolphin whose low droning might just be a recitation of the Iliad. (26)

…childhood [is] a mixture of self-evident truths with an alarming inability to grasp what is going on (31).

...as stunning a rebuff as if the royal family were to renounce horse-racing (40)

My own personal proposal for furthering the cause of Socialism would be to abolish sport (83)

Of giving papers at conferences:

If your subject is the poetry of Northern Ireland some aggrieved audience member will enquire why you have been so churlishly silent about fin-de-siecle Bavarian orthopaedics (99)

Of an upper-class twit:

He spoke his few words like a man trying out some fiendishly difficult language which he had picked up a smattering of but had not yet dared to practise in public (156)

And finally, of his father:
What I remember most of my father is silence.  He was silent because he was agonizingly inarticulate and deeply ashamed of it…. I am still not sure whether his silence was a rock or an abyss, strength or indifference. He was painfully shy and unsociable, but also practical, rational, reliable and infinitely patient. (121)

The book ends with his father's death and with a return to the image of the gatekeeper. Now the gatekeeper is the don at Cambridge who accepted Terry as a student, but "it was my father who had turned the key."


Dorothy Johnston said...

Thanks for your thought-provoking post on Terry Eagleton's memoir. I look forward to reading it. I was particularly struck by Eagleton's description of his father.

joan and gabrielle said...

Thanks Dorothy. The sections about his father and his family are particularly good, and even when he's being exasperating he is just such a good writer. One of the cover notes describes him as "that rare bird among literary critics - a real writer" !

Dorothy Johnston said...

Yes, I remember you wrote very movingly about your own father, in the Age piece on the subject of 'Lightness'.

gorbals said...

why don't these damn comments work?

gorbals said...

well they did that time...what to wanted to say was I well remember reading Literary Theory at College and Dr McTavish chiding me, saying, 'Now wee Jeannie, you can't read this..the man's a Marxist and a bloody Catholic to boot!'

joan and gabrielle said...

I hope you didn't take his advice! Have you read The Gatekeeper or his pieces in the LRB?