Sunday, September 23, 2012

Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton

Any attempt to define literary theory in terms of a distinctive method is doomed to failure.  Literary theory is supposed to reflect on the nature of literature and literary criticism.  But just think of how many methods are involved in literary criticism.  You can discuss the poet's asthmatic childhood, or examine her peculiar use of syntax; you can detect the rustling of silk in the hissing of the s's, explore the phenomenology of reading, relate the literary work to the state of the class-struggle or find out how many copies it sold.  These methods have nothing whatsoever of significance in common.  In fact, they have more in common with other 'disciplines'--linguistics, history, sociology, and so on--than they have with each other.  Methodologically speaking, literary criticism is a  non-subject.  If literary theory is a kind of 'metacriticism,' a critical reflection on  criticism, then it follows that it too is a non-subject.

Terry Eagleton's primer on literary theory pretty quickly establishes the impossibility of identifying "literature" as a definable category, and continues its own self-dismantling by establishing that literary theory, too, is meaningless, less a discipline in itself than a wholesale borrowing from other university departments.  Well, for those of us who find the specter of "Theory" to be intimidating, that's something of a relief: if it doesn't exist then we don't have to deal with it.

I'm half-joking.  In one sense, Literary Theory: An Introduction does a really excellent job of demystifying the practice of literary criticism, partly by exploding the idea of it, and partly by just giving a really clear historical account of it.  Eagleton goes through the major schools of literary thought of the 20th Century, one by one, illuminating both their strengths and their weaknesses: phenomenology, structuralism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis.

For Eagleton, most of these approaches come up short, especially those that in his view are divorced from any examination of the real world and its structures of power.  Yet it's possible to come away from Literary Theory wanting to dive more into one of the methodologies Eagleton dislikes; such is his clarity and even-handedness, though perhaps he would consider that faint praise.  Eagleton wants to guide us to a political (that is, Marxist or feminist) approach to literature, an approach he emphasizes is not a methodology but a reappraisal of what it is we want to get out of literature.  And while he has me convinced that any approach that fails to deal with the connection between the text and real social implications is wanting, I don't think I can endorse his ultimate conclusions that we ought to study literature to become better people.  Especially when he claims that "there is a point in studying literature, and that this point is not itself, in the end, a literary one."  Beyond the fact that somehow this political focus on literature always ends up supporting the same kind of politics, that strikes me as a viewpoint that ultimately devalues literature by considering it not a integral part of the social fabric, but as a means of understanding that might be replaced by an anthropological dig or a demographic study.  When Eagleton begins to argue that the proper place for literary theory to go is championing workers' revolutions in Eastern Europe, I've already hopped off his train of thought.

But at the same time, if you're interested in the current state of argument about how we ought to look at literature, I highly recommend it.  Nothing for me has been as clear or comprehensive on the subject.

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