Can Lit Help Build an Egalitarian World?

Terry Eagleton


I’ve been rereading, for the first time in years, Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, and my head is swimming. That’s in part because, as a Marxist, Eagleton looks at each theory from a double perspective: he tries to engage with it on its own terms and he strives to show how arose in response to the historical pressures of the age.

This is not alien turf for me as I have been heavily influenced by Marxist criticism and take seriously the injunction of another Marxist theorist (Frederic Jameson) to “always historicize.” Eagleton, however, covers so many different theories and so many different historical periods that after a while everything begins to blur together. I therefore am using today’s post to reflect upon my current relationship with Eagleton, Jameson, and neo-Marxist theories about if and how literature impacts history.

First, a clarification. Eagleton and Jameson have always been highly critical of Soviet-style literary theory, which judged literature to be good or bad depending on its class politics. They have derided this such practices as “vulgar Marxism.” Literature is more complex than that, involved as it is in a complicated dance with the economic pressures of the period. (Or as Marxists would say, literature is part of the ideological superstructure and is heavily influenced by but not entirely subordinate to the economic base.)

My own interest in Marxism began when I studied under history professor Carl Wiener at Carleton College, who was interested in Marxist thought. I was drawn to Marx’s vision of all people being free of “the realm of necessity” so that they could fulfill their potential, something that is difficult to do if you are hungry and oppressed.

It’s a vision that, say, Martin Luther King also had, and I have always been much more interested in non-violent protest than in violent revolution, given that I see violence as always resulting in unintended consequences. (William Blake observes, “The iron hand crushed the tyrant’s head/And became a tyrant in his stead.”) But King sees divine justice working through human events and, while I am a Christian, I need more secular reasons for believing that the arc of history bends towards justice.

When I read literature, therefore, I not only look at how it opens up the human spirit but how that open spirit might lead to a society where all are respected and the needs of all are acknowledged. What good if I myself am transported into aesthetic realms if others are not as well? What good if my mind is opened to new possibilities if I don’t act on this knowledge for the good of others? I look to literature to help me see beyond my own narrow confines and to open the eyes of my students.

This means that, at my core, I have an optimistic rather than a fatalistic view of reality. I believe that all men (and women) are created equal, that all have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that this goal is achievable in this world, although assuredly not in our lifetime. I also believe that even small acts can contribute towards these goals, and the sense that I am part of a larger narrative gives my life meaning. It doesn’t matter that I myself can make no more than a tiny contribution.

Eagleton notes that many literary theorists are conservative because they are disappointed with the world as it is and long for some earlier state. If those people don’t share my particular hope—perhaps they see it as something akin to an article of faith, not an empirically grounded belief—then it makes sense that they would see literature differently, perhaps as a personal refuge or a medieval monastery trying to hold its own amidst barbarian hoards. If they are fatalistic, then they might see literature in individual terms, a spark of warmth where they at least can find warmth, even if everything else is out of their control.

Eagleton sums up such views better than I do in the final paragraph of the second edition of Literary Theory:

[S]ome traditional humanist doctrines die hard, not least the assumption of universal value. If literature matters today, it is chiefly because it seems to many conventional critics one of the few remaining places where, in a divided, fragmented world, a sense of universal value may still be incarnate; and where, in a sordidly material world, a rare glimpse of transcendence can still be attained.

Eagleton believes that if these people could see that such universal values could exist in a future society and not only in literature, then they wouldn’t be so pessimistic and, in some instances, reactionary. But he speaks with Marxist optimism and I acknowledge that the world’s darkness will cause many to be skeptical.

I can’t with full assurance say that those many are wrong. Indeed, some of my favorite authors–Jonathan Swift, for instance–challenge my belief that human society can progress. I count on these authors to counter any naive notions that I have.

But the moment one starts looking to literature for only individual solace and ignores those outside one’s community, one has condemned oneself to hopelessness (unless one opts for some kind of religious or mystical vision). It’s also worth noting that, as regards Swift, he spent much of his life seeking to improve the conditions of the people of Ireland. He grumbled but he did it, and he is just as hard on fatalists as he is on gullible idealists.

So while I think it’s wonderful that literature can help us deal with our private sorrows and concerns, we are selling it short if we don’t also see it as a call to join in a collective struggle for a world in which no one benefits unduly at the expense of another. If we think of literature as merely a private affair, that’s because we live a privileged existence.

For a counter perspective, think of Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, who secretly taught English and American classics in her home after the Iranian Revolution. There was nothing purely literary about the way her students saw Elizabeth Bennet (who gave them strength) or Humbert Humbert (who stood in for their oppressors). When Mandela embraced Shakespeare in his Robben Island confinement, he wasn’t doing it merely to be cultured.

In short, I see literature as a boon to the oppressed and a wake-up call to the privileged.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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