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The Hidden God

One of the cleverest and funniest accounts of literary criticism in the twentieth century is Marxist critic Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction.[1] Eagleton's project is to discredit most of the major schools of twentieth-century literary criticism by exposing for each one the underlying, untested assumption that must be accepted on faith in order for the whole system to stand. Eagleton has an extraordinary gift for this kind of analysis. He shows, for instance, how T. S. Eliot's notion of a Tradition in literature is based solely on authoritarian judgments handed down by Eliot himself and then given the status of absolute, almost divine principles. Similarly, the critical program of New Criticism, with its intensive focus on the poem itself, starts by imbuing the poem "with an absolute mystical authority" (p. 49). Like Eliot's doctrine of the great Tradition, New Criticism is at bottom a religious system in disguise. Phenomenological criticism, with its habit of reducing everything to pure subjective consciousness, is authoritarian, too, because it depends heavily on intuition (p. 57).

And so it goes for virtually all schools of modern criticism: if you look closely at them, they all turn out to be authoritarian, mystical, religious. A moderately skeptical mind will find Eagleton's debunking easy to accept. But Eagleton comes close to wrecking his entire enterprise at the end of the book when having proclaimed with great satisfaction the death of literary studies, he proceeds with the blind faith of a true ideologue to outline for the reader the sole realms of criticism worthy of being practiced. These are ones that pursue the goal of "human emancipation,


the production of 'better people' through the socialist transformation of society" (p. 211). What exempts socialist and feminist criticism from the charges Eagleton levels at all other types of criticism is that they are categorically different, and this because they "define the object of analysis differently, have different values, beliefs and goals" (p. 212). In other words, once the activity of literary criticism rests on the solid bedrock of a political program dedicated to the destruction of social inequality, it is beyond reproach from any quarter because no one can possibly question the assumption that inequality is bad (and that the elimination of privilege and private property are the solution to it). Hence the need for humanists in our day to turn their attention to areas of cultural endeavor whose worth, Eagleton feels, cannot logically be disputed, areas, that is, where "cultural and political action have become closely united" (p. 215). And Eagleton lists these areas: the culture of "nations struggling for their independence from imperialism," the women's movement, the "culture industry" (culture of minorities), and working-class writing (pp. 215–216).

Eagleton has asked us to take the skeptical line throughout his book and decry the clandestine articles of faith in each of the systems he talks about. He then asks us to regard another system as not just another system but as something different in kind from all the systems he disdains. But isn't there an untested, authoritarian principle here, too? "Men and women do not live by culture alone; the vast majority of them throughout history have been deprived of the chance of living by it at all, and those few who are fortunate enough to live by it now are able to do so because of the labour of those who do not. Any cultural or critical theory which does not begin from this single most important fact, and hold it steadily in mind in its activities, is in my view unlikely to be worth very much" (p. 214, my emphasis). Does Eagleton have any more right to tell us what the "single most important fact" is than Eliot does to tell us which are the most important texts? Eagleton is asking us to accept on faith, first, that the humanities are tools of capitalism, second, that they have an intrinsic responsibility to devote themselves to political change, and, finally, that the form of political change to which they must devote themselves is the "socialist transformation of society."

So Eagleton has his untested assumption, too, and he has introduced it with the same slippery logic as his predecessors, hoping in the end that a universal sense of social justice will persuade his readers to accept principles that in fact are merely handed down by authoritarian fiat. The social-activist theory of literary criticism begins to look a little like


theology, as well. But social-activist literary criticism is not my subject. I mention Eagleton's ideas only because they leave us with the disheartening sense that no school of critical theory escapes the sort of mystical authoritarianism he talks about. After all, if a critic like Eagleton, whose basic motivating force is precisely a resistance to arbitrary expressions of authority, does not escape the cancer of mystical authoritarianism, then who can?

Eagleton says at one point that there is "no need to drag politics into literary theory. As with South African sport, it has been there from the beginning" (p. 194). This is one of his most basic beliefs. In fact, however, he has demonstrated the truth of another statement, a paraphrase of that one: There is no need to drag theology into literary theory; it has been there from the beginning, and it lives on in the theory of Eagleton himself.

That is the subject of Part II. If there is a hidden god in almost every species of twentieth-century literary theory, it is because the intellectual origins of the entire movement that has produced twentieth-century literary theory were more or less explicitly theological. Eagleton dates the beginning of this movement with the publication of Viktor Shklovsky's "Art as Device" in 1917. One could easily quibble with this choice: Shklovsky had already written other articles on literature before 1917 (we looked at some of them in chapter 2), and there were other writers, too, compatriots of Shklovsky who had already written similar things. Eagleton is certainly right, however, in saying that something is happening in this period that had not been happening, say, a generation earlier—what he calls "the transformation which has overtaken literary theory in this century" (p. vii). But we need to examine Shklovsky's predecessors and contemporaries to understand what sort of transformation had taken place. It rums out that the transformation was not so marked as we might think, that the origins of Shklovsky's type of literary theorizing go deep into the theological history of Russia, and that these origins are never entirely abandoned.

Yet even this is only part of the story, for there are two theologies. There is Russian Orthodox theology, which threads its way through a millennium of Russian culture and into the early twentieth century, when all the major Russian literary thinkers of the early modern period share its heritage. The Russian whose impact on succeeding generations was the most direct was not Shklovsky or any of the other Formalist critics; it was a linguist, Roman Jakobson. In spite of his reputation as a guiding force in the modern "science" of language, Jakobson operates in


an old system of religious language philosophy that in many ways has simply been dressed up in the more modern fashion of scientific terminology. The other theology is a Western, largely Catholic one. It can be seen in French writers like Mallarmé, although the content of Catholic theology is obscured by Mallarmé's constant urge to satirize and profane the same religious principles he surreptitiously adopts.

Theology has a great deal to do with language: it is, in its root sense, "God-talk" (theo-logos ), as the Heideggerian theologian John Macquarrie puts it in the title of his book on the subject; and, since Christian theology is talk about the Christian God, it is also talk about God's Word. In some ways this brings us back to the subject of Part I. But in this part we will move on from language to the question of artworks, specifically artworks made out of language, and see how the hidden god has affected our thinking about them in modern times.


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