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With a God on His Side

Richard Rorty, the only American cited in all three of the Terry Eagleton books reviewed here, gets just one mention in Materialism, but it's such a tell I'll quote Eagleton's sentence whole, nosegay of quotation marks and all: "'Anti-philosophy,' declares Richard Rorty, 'is more unprofessional, funnier, more allusive, sexier, and above all more "written" than conventional philosophy.'" What makes this a tell is how aptly it describes Eagleton himself while ostensibly honoring his heart's delight, Wittgenstein. And if you doubt that either Wittgenstein or Eagleton is sexy, you've been sandbagged by its faux-pro-forma comparison. Take heart--compared to conventional philosophy, you're probably pretty sexy too.

Whether you're as funny, allusive, or written as Eagleton or Wittgenstein, however, is another matter, and the same goes for yours truly. Eagleton is a wonder--an English professor gone to heaven. A sickly kid born into a poor Irish working-class family in 1943, he was educated Roman Catholic and still very much identifies Christian, although he's admitted that the pope might not concur. He also identifies Marxist, and has since he began graduate studies at Cambridge under my heart's delight Raymond Williams. Finally, he declared as a polemical anti-postmodernist as of 1996's The Illusions of Postmodernism. Eagleton has taught at Oxford and Cambridge, Manchester and Lancaster, Yale and Duke and Iowa, Brigham Young and Notre Dame and Trinity College, and published some 45 books, one of which, 1983's Literary Theory, is said to have sold 750,000 copies. That was the only one I'd read through till I began with 2016's Culture, moved on to 2017's Materialism, realized those two obliged me to backtrack to 2014's Culture and the Death of God, and then decided I had to stop (but took six more out of the library just in case).

None of these books is lengthy--Culture and Materialism are each well under 40,000 words, while Culture and the Death of God is 207 pages and the encyclopedic Literary Theory only 217. Moreover, they're easy to read for what they are--Eagleton remains lucid, succinct, and engaging no matter how fine his philosophical distinctions. Take this passage from Materialism, a philosophical faith he characterizes thusly: "In the face of a hubristic humanism, it insists on our solidarity with the commonplace stuff of the world, thus cultivating the virtue of humility. Dismayed by the fantasy that human beings are wholly self-determining, it recalls to us our dependence on our surroundings and on each other." Well put and enlightening, I'd say as something of a materialist myself. Ponder it if you wonder how someone can be a Marxist and a Christian at the same time. But if you merely wonder why Eagleton qualifies as an anti-philosopher, bask in its felicity and leave it at that.

I read Culture because I recalled Eagleton fondly long after I'd lost interest in the structuralist-etc. gobbledygook Literary Theory explains so succinctly, turning my anti-academic interests instead to the long history of a "pop" that only began to be called that around 1850--an expansive notion that's bound up in the concept of culture, a term that none other than Raymond Williams excavated in his seminal 1958 Culture and Society. Williams, who is substantively cited although never explored in all these books, is chided gently early in Culture for his tendency to expand the term from the narrow "body of artistic and intellectual work" through "a process of spiritual and intellectual development" and then "the values, customs, beliefs and symbolic practices by which men and women live" until it finally signifies "a whole way of life."

I'm in the values-and-customs camp myself, but agree that as Williams holds and Eagleton warns, the concept is rather elastic. So for a typically witty and wide-ranging first chapter, Eagleton distinguishes between "Culture and Civilization." Civilization, he observes, both antedates and codifies culture as an idea, which doesn't mean it's always such a great thing--after all, "Only civilised people can place sticks of gelignite in children's playgrounds." Then, gradually, he folds in such concepts as modernity, nature, art, and desire on his way to establishing two key ideas. First, "'Superfluous' does not necessarily mean 'worthless.' On the contrary, what makes life worth living is not for the most part biologically indispensable to it." Second, "Culture must preserve the vigor and freshness of the natural while curbing its disruptiveness. A paradigm of this is the work of art."

This chapter is such a tour de force I half expected the rest of the book to array illuminating epigrams into a glorious whole. But it was not to be. Eagleton comes less to praise culture than to bury both culture in the genteel sense and the cultural studies apparatchiks who make it their business to torpedo its pretensions, competing strains he packs into a single epigram: "the opium of the intelligentsia." Glossing Burke, Herder, Wilde, and Wittgenstein and adding commentary from Marx and occasionally Nietzsche--all save Herder anti-philosophers, all favorites of Eagleton despite the highly un-Marxist politics of Burke, Wittgenstein, and especially Nietzsche--he honors culture-as-art's vigor and freshness as he details just what he's learned from such canonical artists as Swift, Blake, Coleridge, Mann, and Lawrence (and Matthew Arnold, whom he detests). But he also pinpoints culture-as-art's blind spot: "It is a moral, personal or spiritual affair, aloof for the most part from the material realm of famines and economic slumps, genocide and women's oppression." About cultural studies, "where in some quarters culture has become a way of not talking about capitalism," he's less measured--it "deals in sexuality but not socialism, transgression but not revolution, difference but not justice, identity but not the culture of poverty." Diversity's not an absolute good, he insists (although ecologists disagree, for impeccably materialist reasons). Social change requires solidarity, not difference.

Functionally a long postscript to the somewhat heftier Culture and the Death of God, Culture left me feeling that Eagleton is more peeved by postmodernism than is good for the class struggle. In part this obviously reflects all the ways the succor and solidarity of popular music have helped make my life worth living and thinking about. Although Eagleton allows that "much popular culture is of superb quality," he never tells us what, if anything, he's learned from it, and I doubt he rooted for the late-'60s cultural studies tendency in U.K. academe as hard as I did. I also doubt he's much more put off than I am by the fussy hermeticism that befell it. Yet he clearly isn't inclined to see how invaluable the historico-sociological research cultural studies has engendered remains after you sift out the abstruse lefter-than-thou chaff. Which is probably why Materialism sat better with me.

After the extraordinary bit about the worldview's moral imperative quoted above, Materialism sets off once more into the pomo swamps as Eagleton spends nine pages decrying a post-whatever "New Materialism" previously unknown to me in which matter "is rescued from the humiliation of being matter." ("Rey Chow calls for a 'revamped materialism defined primarily as signification and subject-in-process,' which is rather like calling for a revamped idea of a rhino defined primarily as a rabbit.") Then he dispenses briefly with Williams's cultural materialism (the sociology of art rebranded), '70s semantic materialism (Wittgenstein is deployed to dispatch that one), and Quentin Meillassoux's speculative materialism, which Eagleton goes on about because he has it in for Meillassoux's project of a bulwark against theism--against the possibility that there is a God. As a devout atheist who struggled to achieve that faith, I say Eagleton smokes him.

Granted, I'd never heard of Meillassoux, whose modest Wikipedia entry suggests that you probably haven't either. Conventional philosophers, a tiny cabal, no doubt have. But as an anti-philosopher, Eagleton isn't writing for them except by the bye. He's writing for curious outsiders like me and you. So as in Culture, Materialism performs the trick of examining the topic at hand through other philosophers' conceptual apparatus: Aquinas, Marx, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein again. This particular trick is rendered trickier by the unlikelihood of every choice except Marx, whose main commonality with master theologian Aquinas, deranged anti-humanist Nietzsche, and evolved logical positivist Wittgenstein is genius of a magnitude that dwarfs even Burke's, Herder's, and Wilde's--plus, Eagleton wants us to know, their materialism. I don't have the space to outline Eagleton's arguments, which is just as well because I probably don't have the brains either. But I predict that if the idea of Materialism intrigues you, so will the real thing. Above all it celebrates the centrality for human beings of the human body in all its vulnerability, impermanence, and ability to connect us to the rest of matter via the sense organs--although not enough, I'd say, in its capacity for species of pleasure that make life worth living.

The human body is also the intellectual hero of the trilogy's thesis statement, Culture and the Death of God. Basically a history of atheism, a word Eagleton reports only entered English in the 1500s and, he argues, took centuries to establish itself as a living mind-set, it's typically informative as intellectual history. Enlightenment skeptics, he observes, targeted "priestcraft rather than the Almighty," "a political rather than a theological affair" conceived by ruling-class intellectuals "to oust a barbarous, benighted faith in favor of a rational, civilized one." Although hampered by the "naively rationalist faith that ideas are what men and women live by"--a point, Democrats please note, Eagleton harps on--most of them accepted religion on the grounds that "the skepticism of the educated must learn not to unsettle the superstition of the populace." Bang: "Secular social orders thus have a problem with their moral rationales." Boom: "Liberalism and Utilitarianism do not fare well as symbolic forms."

The Idealists, the Romantics, and their many progeny fail to escape this dilemma, although Lord knows they try. "Reason, Nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation, the state, science, humanity, Being, Society, the Other, desire, the life force and personal relations: all of these have acted from time to time as forms of displaced divinity," Eagleton declares, and although Culture and the Death of God doesn't touch all these bases, it comes close enough on its way to achieving its grand conclusion--that neither culture as a single concept nor the profusion of mutually tolerant subcultures can provide the moral rationale human beings require. As in Culture, I was especially struck by his account of the nearly forgotten Johann Herder, an 18th-century cleric from a poor family whose early embrace of German nationalism joined with his unprecedented notion of folk culture and his God-given empathy to render him the first multiculturalist while failing to enliven a prose style so grand and arid that I urge Eagleton to write a book about him. I was struck too by a point Eagleton likes to make--that in the sentence before Marx calls religion "the opium of the people" he also calls it "the heart of a heartless world."

Although I accept Eagleton's conclusion that where modernism experienced the death of God as a tragedy postmodernism doesn't experience it at all, his anti-postmodernist carping can get tiresome, especially when generalized. And in this book especially his provincialism is irksome--crucial Americans from James Madison to Martin Luther King are MIA, which I hope reminds you that people of color have been strangely absent from this review. That's because the only writers of color these books even mention is Salman Rushdie and the unfortunate Rey Chow (who's also one of the few women cited). There's no James Baldwin, no Henry Louis Gates, no Paul Gilroy, and indeed no Stuart Hall, the Anglo-Jamaican who pretty much invented cultural studies and does get a nice appreciation in the Eagleton collection Figures of Dissent. This troubles me because my own inexpert but intense and lifelong pondering of the philosophical conundrums Eagleton addresses has been so deeply inflected by the deeply earned life force of African-American writers and, of course, musicians--as were, I can't not mention, the more expert theorizing of two dead friends and major influences of mine, Marshall Berman and Ellen Willis, both committed Marxians if not Marxists, Berman more scornful than Eagleton of pomo fiddle-faddle and Willis almost as much. I hope he's checked them out.

One reason I'm such a firm atheist is that my belief system was constructed against the headwinds of a Protestant fundamentalism Eagleton regards with unseemly contempt--it's bad all right, foul sometimes, Christianist I like to call it, but with exceptions and qualifications more complex and numerous than most leftists have the agape to imagine. My moral values and particularly my empathy were inflected by my church youth--"faith, hope, and charity, but the greatest of these is charity." But since I share them actively with a wife who was raised agnostic, I've come to believe they redound more to warm and decent parents, fulfilling work and love, and the psychochemistry I was born with, all of which might also be called my luck, and that this kind of luck is the world's best hope.

My guess is that Eagleton enjoyed similar advantages. But in addition he makes use of a God this atheist found inspirational--a God who proves his love for humanity by inhabiting one of those human bodies Materialism makes so much of, and dying in it. That body belonged to a "scruffy, plebeian first-century Jew," "a political criminal," "a prophet who was tortured and executed by the imperial powers for speaking up for justice, and whose followers must be prepared to meet the same fate." I don't have much faith in the practical viability of a Christianity that keeps St. Paul and the Book of Revelation on the down-low. But if Christianity so defined helps Terry Eagleton make the most of his luck, that makes his luck ours and renders his faith a compelling enough moral rationale by me.

Barnes & Noble Review, June 11, 2017