I have been a keen reader of the works of Terry Eagleton since discovering his various trumpet blasts against the monstrous regiment of postmodernism some twenty years or more ago. I have no sympathy for his Marxism but anyone who can make Lacan and Habermas comprehensible and amusing (occasionally at the same time) is surely worth reading. His autobiography, The Gatekeeper, placed my own marriage under some strain: As bedtime reading, it left me laughing out loud long after lights out; and there is surely nothing more frustrating for a spouse than having insomnia forced upon her by a husband’s private hilarity. Since then, I have appreciated his sallies against the excesses of critical theory and the naive optimism of the new atheism. I have also been fascinated by his increasingly positive appropriation of the radical Thomism of his youth, learned at the feet of the left-wing Dominican, Herbert McCabe. Eagleton is always unpredictable, informative, stimulating, and often unusually helpful. His tragic humanism somehow resonates with my sardonic Calvinism.
I am currently working on a review of his latest book, Across the Pond: an Englishman’s View of America. The book justifies its cost on the basis of the first chapter alone, a witty defense of stereotypes—a somewhat counter-cultural point at a time when society claims to glory in individuality (while ironically marginalizing through stereotypes anyone who refuses to conform to predictably correct political and ethical norms). There is also plenty of humor; but amidst the jokes (perhaps, indeed, within the jokes themselves) there is serious material for thought. Here are a couple of tasters:
Stereotypes are often thought to be negative and demeaning. But this is not always true. . . . The Irish do not take kindly to being told that they are dirty, idle, feckless, lying, drunken, priest-ridden brawlers, apart from the odd masochist among them who might find this censure a touch too mild. For some mysterious reason this kind of language tends to make them rather cross. Yet many Irish people are rather gratified to be told that they are genial, charming, witty, eloquent, poetic and hospitable, even though that is just as much of a stereotype. This may not make stereotypes any more acceptable in some people’s eyes, but it complicates the issue. In any case, stereotypes need not deny that we are all distinctive individuals. It is just that, like medical textbooks or prayers for the dying, they focus on what we have in common. To attend only to differences would be as misleading as to see nothing but similarities. (p. 6)
[W]e do not own ourselves, as some modern thinkers seem to imagine. I can use my Victorian paperweight as a door-stopper, but I cannot make what I like of my passions and desires. My body is not my property. There may be some good arguments for abortion [sic], but the belief that the body is one’s private possession is not one of them. For one thing, I can give my property away but I cannot give my body away. I do not have a pain in the same sense that I have a chainsaw. I am not monarch of my own flesh. On the contrary, it is my body, derived as it is from the bodies of others, which proclaims how dependent I am on creatures of my kind. To try to shuck off the body—to regard it as no part of one’s real self—is to deny this dependence in the name of an ethic of self-ownership. (p. 103)
I do wonder as to why a a committed middle-class conservative Calvinist such as I should find the work of a Marxist critic so conducive. Perhaps it is because we both still believe in that old fashioned notion that somehow essence precedes existence (and thus, in the categories of Eagleton’s latest book, that stereotypes in some sense precede particulars). Perhaps it is because we are both marked by the English grammar schoolboy’s distrust and dislike of patronizing elitist paternalism, whether of the left or the right. Or perhaps it is simply that we share the dark sense of humor common to those who know that they adhere to systems of thought which the wider world now regards as bleak, distasteful, and discredited.