In the 1980s, first-year undergraduates reading English at Oxford could take a course in Literary Theory. Good idea, you might think. A bit of Aristotle, Sidney’s Apology for Poetry, Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot – what better way of showing students at the outset of their degree that literature had been thought about and discussed in a great variety of ways?
Except, of course, it wasn’t like that. Study typically began in the early years of the 20th century, with the work of the linguistician Ferdinand de Saussure and the Russian formalists, such as Viktor Shklovsky. On the students toiled, through structuralism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, feminism and post-modernism. It was as if no one had really thought about literature before European philosophy had taken its “linguistic turn” towards structuralism. A course that should have opened minds proved in fact to be the narrowest of intellectual prison-houses. Even so, it was surely a pretty demanding course, not just in terms of reading load but of linguistic competence. To do it properly you would need a good reading knowledge of, at the least, French, German and Russian. A smattering of Czech might even come in handy, if you were tempted to spend a week on the Prague school of linguistics.
But – again, of course – it wasn’t like that. It was a monoglot course for largely monoglot students. In fact, many of those who took it seemed to read only one book: Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction.
Eagleton was then a tutor in English at Wadham College. His earlier books had been more or less earnest works of Marxist literary criticism, but with Literary Theory he acquired a new critical persona. For although Literary Theory proclaimed itself to be an “Introduction”, it was so only in the rather special sense that, for instance, being told at a party that the person you were about to meet was an alcoholic, a wife-beater, a fascist and a dotard might also count as an introduction. In five chapters, the dominant schools of literary criticism since the “rise of English” as a subject of academic study at the end of the 19th century were reviewed and each was found wanting. Do you enjoy close reading and think that great works of literature can possess moral power? If so, you are in the grip of a fairy-story invented to soothe “an uprooted, defensive intelligentsia who reinvented in literature what they could not locate in reality” (p. 47). Tempted by structuralism? Too “simple-minded” (p. 125). Exhilarated by the complexities of post-structuralism? Nothing more than “a hedonist withdrawal from history” (p. 150). Intrigued by psychoanalysis? An impossible position flanked by “discredited rationalism” and “intolerable scepticism” (p. 185). As Eagleton says towards the end, “This book is less an introduction than an obituary” (p. 204).
So, what is left? It is at this point that one realises that an even better title for this book would have been Literary Theory: A Sermon. Like a subtle preacher (his recent engagement with questions of religion is not surprising) Eagleton uses satire to soften up his reader for salvation, to which he points the way in a final chapter on “Political Criticism”. “Literary theory”, it seems, was just another convulsive shudder in the death throes of late capitalism. But suitably-enlightened students of literature could be the shock-troops in a new phase, not just of literary history, but of history itself.
Did it work? Students liked the satire – part of the appeal of Literary Theory was that at little cost in terms both of money and time, it armed them with a set of smart cynicisms with which they could affront their tutors. But even at the outset they were bored by the preaching. Very soon, literary theory itself seemed terribly vieux jeu. The new sport was in the history of the book, or even bibliography – subjects that would have seemed hopelessly empirical in 1983 and which didn’t even register on the radar of Literary Theory. Students are never less than shrewd, even if their shrewdness often takes the form of merely consuming intellectual fashions with frightening speed, and they quickly discovered that literary theory, at least of the 20th-century variety, was desperately boring. It said the same things about every book in the most unlovely language. Here Eagleton’s strategy, of disguising a polemic as a survey, bit back and theory’s reversal of fortunes have hit Literary Theory hard. Given that Eagleton’s book was written against literary theory, there is an injustice in this. But it is not an injustice over which one should shed many tears.
It was Lenin who said that the easiest way to destroy capitalism was to debauch the currency and Literary Theory: An Introduction was a Leninist attempt to debauch the intellectual currency of literary study. Outward success followed for its author. Eagleton was elected to a statutory chair at Oxford, from which he resigned to take up a chair at Manchester. The media have provided various soapboxes, from which he could pronounce on, for instance and most recently, Kingsley and Martin Amis, and the attacks on religion launched by Richard Dawkins. But Literary Theory: An Introduction failed and it trapped Eagleton’s career in the mode of caricature. Although he has written many books since, Eagleton is still really Aquinas’s “man of one book”, of whom one should beware.