site author: Anthony Wheeler email: email@example.com
Dear Professor Eagleton,
I recently finished reading your book The Event of Literature, and would like to present you with a detailed response. Before I begin, I want to say how much I enjoyed your book; a timely and valuable addition to modern criticism of literary criticism.
Two principle topics will be addressed:
Prior to entering the detailed discussion, I will attempt to provide enough context to make my comments meaningful, as I am far more familiar with you than you are with me, having been an anonymous student of yours for some time. I have read the following books of yours (title/year read):
Concerning the first topic, you wrote on page 24:
We have seen that from a family-resemblance viewpoint there is no need for every object we call a work of art to display the same property or set of properties. There will be a criss-crossing and overlapping of such features. Yet to arrive at a definition of art as such, it must be possible to specify which of these common features are taken to be constitutive of the class itself; and the fact is that art is made up of too amorphous a set of objects for this to be done with any great plausibility.
In response, I would like to provide the definition of art I developed in my (unpublished) book The Literary Novel: Why (and How) You Should Write One, by an Unpublished, Unknown and Very Successful Novelist. You will find a copy of the chapter titled ‘Definition of Art’ included with this letter. I believe the definition holds up to the scrutiny and criticism you presented in The Event of Literature, perhaps superseding the ‘family resemblance’ approach you advocate.
To put the enclosed chapter in context, there are a few things you should know about my book, The Literary Novel. From the introduction:
This book is a polemic: it argues that art is done primarily for the sake of the artist; that within a fully autonomous life the creation of art is fundamental; that within the sphere of art literature stands foremost; and within literature, the novel; that each aesthetically capable individual should write at least one, and that by doing so, that individual will fill the spaces that surround an otherwise empty, futile, and ephemeral existence, and may even, with the completed work, contribute something of value to the human universe.
Only the literary novel can express the deepest, the grandest, the most profound vision of human existence, and only a few individuals in any society have the ability, the desire, or the opportunity to participate in this creative activity.
And you may be interested to know that your thoughts reside at the very center of my argument in The Literary Novel:
Which brings the discussion back ‘round to the center of our concern: the literary novel, and the imperative to write one. According to Terry Eagleton, what the novel “reflects most importantly is not the world, but the way in which the world comes into being only by our bestowing form and value upon it. The novel on this view is most deeply realistic…because it reveals the truth that all objectivity is at root an interpretation.” This view supports the notion that our particularly individual lives owe their unique existence to that which we have created. Eagleton does not consider this particularly good news:
"If the only world we know is one which we have created ourselves, does not all knowledge become a pointless tautology? Aren’t we simply knowing ourselves, rather than a reality independent of ourselves? Don’t we only get back what we put in? Anyway, if form is what we impose, how can it have authority? The fact that I help to bring the world into existence makes it more precious; but it is also what threatens to undermine its objective value…."
Terry Eagleton has revealed the nexus, the fundamental core, the salient point of this entire discussion, as the moons of consciousness and spirit revolve in a frighteningly tight orbit around the solid planets of ‘value’ and ‘meaning’, the only substantial entities within the human universe. Eagleton goes on to say,
"If value and meaning reside deep inside individuals, then there is a sense in which these things are not really ‘in’ the world at all. This leaves value arbitrary and subjective. It also reduces [actuality] to a realm of objects which have been drained of meaning. But if the world is drained of meaning, then human beings have no place in which they can act purposefully, and so cannot realize their value in practice. And the less they can do this, the more they begin to disintegrate from the inside. As [actuality] is bleached of value, so the human psyche begins to implode. What we are left with is a human being who is valuable but unreal, in a world which is solid but valueless. Meaning and value are driven from the public world, which is now just a soulless expanse of neutral facts, and thrust deep into the interior of the human subject, where they all but vanish. The world is thus divided down the middle between fact and value, public and private, object and meaning."
This divide creates “the alienated condition of the modern age, which the novel reflects in its inmost form.” And the novel not only reflects this condition, the writing of one acts as a potent antidote to the fundamentally nihilistic nature of actual existence:
"Alienation is the condition in which men and women fail to recognize the objective world as their own subjective creation. Yet the very act of writing a novel offers an alternative to this condition, since a novel’s ‘objective’ vision of the world is one rooted in the subjectivity of its author. The act of writing crosses the border between subjective and objective. The novel is one of the few objects in a reified society which manifests in its every detail the subjective freedom in which it was born. In this sense, its very existence can be seen as an imaginary solution to the social problems which it poses."
Or, to turn Eagleton’s coin over and view the flip side, it might be said that the actual writing of a novel can be considered as a real solution to our imaginary social existence.
That should provide a decent introduction to my thinking and make the included chapter fully meaningful, should you choose to read it.
Reconsidering the entire question of ‘definitions’ while reading your book (I wrote the enclosed chapter several years ago) made me ask, ‘Why do we (the two of us, if few others) consider it important to define such things as ‘literature’ and ‘art’?
In answer, considering similar attempts to clarify the genuine nature of ‘tragedy’ may prove helpful. I recently re-read George Steiner’s Death of Tragedy and Walter Kaufmann’s Tragedy and Philosophy. In both works, the authors discuss the essential nature of ‘tragedy’, and the range of their disagreement is vast. I found both works intellectually satisfying, but in the end, favored Steiner’s argument, because he convinced me that there was something unique and important that originated with Aeschylus, and perfected perhaps by Sophocles. Steiner demonstrated why genuine ‘tragedy’ could no longer be written after Shakespeare, whereas Kaufmann believes otherwise.
In a similar fashion, we are unlikely to agree on a definition of literature; instead, we will likely leave the discussion retaining a conviction that there is something special and important about art and literature, and it’s worthwhile making an effort to identify what it is.
Instead of attempting to identify something essential about ‘tragedy’ or ‘literature’, another approach might be to simply use the words categorically, in the sense that anything we tossed into that particular category was, by definition, whatever we labeled the category. We could do this with tragedy, if we defined the term to include any of the extant plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and nothing else. Doing so would ignore the immense range of subject, meaning, form and structure that exists within the works of those three men, and necessarily exclude Shakespeare (and anyone else). Adopting this approach would render the word ‘tragedy’ devoid of significance, as it becomes a simple label, and unworthy of serious discussion.
Something analogous occurs when people assert things like, ‘Art is whatever I say it is,’ or ‘art is whatever hangs on a museum wall.’ Yet clothes are what they are, and sometimes the emperor is truly naked, and it bears saying so.
When attempting to define art, many people begin with a conglomeration of objects routinely labeled ‘art’ and then proceed to search for common features. Starting with the objects to be defined prior to defining essential characteristics will always confuse the matter, as one must wonder how an object attained admittance to the class without first establishing any criteria. Circular and impossibly open-ended.
In the case of art, the effort has proven understandably futile, as many of the objects considered as art aren’t art to begin with, and therefore, share nothing commonly definable. Absent a working definition of art, it will remain impossible to distinguish art from non-art.
But you are right to address the question, because there is something truly special and unique about ‘art’, something far more important than is generally recognized, something deeper than a loose family resemblance. You hint as much when you write on page 203:
Some of what we do, like clearing a windscreen of ice or having one’s wisdom teeth extracted, is indeed purely instrumental; but there are other activities which are undertaken primarily for their own sake, and these are arguably the most precious.
When it comes to novels, though, I am perfectly content to use the term as a label, and include just about anything that resembles a ‘novel’. The important distinction, in my opinion, is captured in my definition of art.
For me, attempting to identify something essential about ‘novels’ proved impossible, as I couldn’t come up with anything outside the physical form (and even that distinction has been broadened with the advent of ebooks). When we discuss ‘typical’ novels, we may think of 19th century works such as Middlemarch, or The Brother Karamazov, or Jane Austen. But then you consider works that differ as much as Clarissa, Don Quixote, Tristam Shandy, and such unclassifiable miracles as Wuthering Heights (a work I recently discovered, and can’t believe a young woman the author. The only comparable accomplishment in terms of youthful audaciousness is Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Wuthering Heights is the most Dostoevskian of English novels, for me the highest praise. It’s hard to understand how Emily Bronte and Jane Austen reside within the same time, literary tradition and gender. The sensibility of the two could hardly be more different).
In my critical view (one that differs markedly from the norm) Proust wrote the last great 19th century novel. And the greatest novel of all time. And yet his name and Joyce get co-mentioned constantly, as if they were somehow related. Where Proust represents the epitome of one tradition, Joyce begins another, albeit far less successfully. The two authors reside in utterly different literary traditions, and the only time their names should be mentioned in the same sentence is when the sentence means something like, “Although their lives crossed on one (un)memorable occasion, and they lived and wrote in the same decades on more or less the same continent, no two novelists could be more different within the Western literary tradition than Marcel Proust and James Joyce.”
As far as exceptions go, the only work that I would exclude from the category ‘novel’ that is routinely included is Finnegan’s Wake. It can’t be read and understood – by anybody. Deciphered, perhaps, but not read. That may be the only requirement a novel has: it must be linguistically coherent, with readers somewhere that can read and understand the text. That doesn’t mean I don’t consider the Wake art, because I do; clearly Joyce arranged the words of that work carefully, with intent and meaning (when my daughters want a quick laugh, they open it up at random and read a paragraph or two). If I had to classify it, though, I would suggest that it be considered a long prose poem, and leave it at that.
Which brings me to some modern examples of novels that re-define boundaries (or indicate that precise boundaries are simply unnecessary): Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and to a lesser extent, Roberto Bolano’s Savage Detectives and 2666. In my experience, there was nothing written prior to these works that would reasonably occupy the same category, in terms of form, structure and content. They are categorically unique. We can expect further examples as the age rolls on, and I remain content with readily applying the label ‘novel’ to such future works.
Slightly off-topic, I must mention a recent discovery of mine: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Published in 1937 and rediscovered by Alice Walker in the 60’s, I consider this novel the preeminent work of American literature in the first half of the 20th century. I believe it superior to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and would place it next to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn on the top shelf of American fiction. As a middle-aged white American male, I can extol the virtues of this work without prejudice, as it was written by and about black Americans, with a woman by the name of Janie Starks at its center. In the on-going conflict between women within the Western patriarchal institution of marriage, Janie shames such literary heroines as Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and Dorothea Brooke, as they come off sadly pathetic in comparison.
Reading and studying Their Eyes Were Watching God has illuminated for me how imbued I am with black American culture. Given that much of it was written in dialect, I don’t believe it could ever be properly translated, but for me it sings. Non-American readers of English may have difficulty with it, in the same way I would have difficulty reading something written in Scottish English (I use this example because once while visiting Edinburgh I couldn’t understand a bus driver, and somebody had to translate).
To complete a sketch of my literary preferences, I consider Heller’s Catch-22 as the best American novel of the latter half of the 20th century (primarily due to its unique presentation of the absolute lunacy of terror bombing, and the absurdity of modern mechanical warfare). I consider John Cowper Powys the most neglected novelist in the English language, and count A Glastonbury Romance a 20th century masterpiece. I marvel at the prose-woven worlds of Powys, ones that only Proust and Musil can match (for me, at least).
I consider Ulysses highly over-rated, as I believe it fails the most basic requirements of a literary novel (that it should be interesting and/or compelling and/or profound and/or deeply moving. Joyce accomplishes none of these things, at least for me). Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a mediocre novel that sports a banal theme raised to ridiculous heights by the critical community. Not that it’s a ‘bad’ novel, simply unworthy of so much attention.
As for contemporary novelists (although I don’t read much contemporary fiction – too much great stuff still to discover from the past), I favor Kazuo Ishiguro and Jeanette Winterson (oddly, both of whom are from your side of the Atlantic).
Concerning the second major topic—the relationship between literature and politics—you have consistently mixed your political philosophy in with your literary theory and criticism. I have always found this quite odd. In comparison, the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin never makes overt political statements, or anything specifically economic anywhere within the four volumes of his collected works. He employs Marxist terminology, and he closely associated with members of the leftist Frankfort school, but he doesn’t make one substantive statement that touches specifically upon a political object. He appears to be something of a ‘cultural Marxist’, and writes within a Marxist historical paradigm, but never writes explicitly of political economy. Another example I can cite is George Steiner: after reading eighteen of his books, I couldn’t guess at his political preferences. Perhaps a sensitive reader of Steiner could make a case for one political party or another, but he never writes anything explicitly political.
More so than any non-political economist I read, you are quite specific in advocating a political agenda. For example, on page 179 you write (and this is just a recent example – I could go back to any of your books and find plenty more):
The most desirable future is one in which we would be less in thrall to practical necessity than we are at present. If this is more than a wistful yearning on Marx’s part, it is because he believes that the resources accumulated by the drearily pragmatic narrative of class society might finally be made available for this end. The wealth which at present we toil to produce might be used to free us from toil.
I never understood why this was so, why you would infuse such political commentary within a literary context. In my view, political philosophy is distinct from aesthetic theory. They could be studied, written about, and appreciated quite separately, so it seemed odd to find such blatant political content in books primarily about literature. Your recent book helped me understand why this might be so, why you so readily express your political vision (this from page 60):
…if the work of art is morally exemplary, this is not least because of its mysterious autonomy—of the way it seems freely to determine itself without external coercion. Rather than stoop to some external sovereignty, it is faithful to the law of its own being. In this sense, it is a working model of human freedom.
And this, from page 142:
[Works of art] incarnate the essence of human freedom not by pleading for national independence of promoting the struggle against slavery, but by virtue of the curious kind of entities they are. One should perhaps add that as images of self-determination, they reflect less the actual than the possible. They are exemplary of what men and women could be like under transformed political circumstances. If they point beyond themselves, what they point to is a redeemed future. In this view, all art is utopian.
What follows is not intended to engage in debate, or attempt to alter your political stance, but simply to identify my own, so that you will understand my conclusion concerning the relationship between political theory and art. I am certain that you will find nothing new in what follows. The foundation for my political philosophy is contained in the following statements:
J. S. Mill:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle... That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.
Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? no man may start—the use of physical force against others. It is only as retaliation that force may be used and only against the man who starts its use.
My definition of evil:
An evil act is one committed deliberately by a person that knowingly results directly in unwanted and unjustified pain, suffering and/or death to another human. The greater the pain, suffering and death caused by the unwanted and unjustified act, the greater the evil.
My view of the Nation-State:
The greatest threat to any society (outside of natural disasters) is the Nation State (Canada, the United States, Russia, Uganda, Iraq, Israel, etc.). In fact, the only justification for the existence of Nation States is to protect its citizens from other Nation States. In other words, if we didn’t have Nation States, we would need any.
Within this context, if asked what I want the most, I would say: anything that leads to the reduction of evil. As far as my personal political affiliation goes, I consider myself radically apolitical, and refuse to support any collective that assumes authority over myself. For example, voting legitimizes the current political system, rendering me morally obligated to accept the results of any given election, along with the political decisions that emanate from it, so I don’t do it.
You assert on page 54 that “Political theory, to be sure, is supposed to guide our action in the world.” Alternatively, I would assert that political theory represents the method of getting one group of people to compel another group of people to do something that they would otherwise not do: give up their resources in the form of taxes and levies (used in ways many citizens find reprehensible – foreign wars, drug intervention, for example); prevent them from engaging in one form of activity or another (gambling, marrying the wrong people, starting a business, traveling to a different state, entering into mutually beneficial arrangements the state takes exception to [prostitution, for example]); forcing them to give up their land or property (eminent domain).
How would the application of these principles translate to today’s world? A couple of examples (in every case, practical implementation might take years, a generation in some cases): all drugs would be legalized; all US combat units would return to the continental United States, and all foreign bases turned over to local sovereigns; social security would be abolished; the postal service would be privatized; all education would transition to private ownership; all tariffs and duties would be abolished; industry regulation would be limited to the management of harmful externalities and employee treatment; taxes would be drastically lowered; immigration/emigration would be streamlined and barriers lowered; all marriage laws would be amended to allow all forms of civil union, including same-sex and multiple parties; gambling and prostitution would be allowed; major units of the state and federal bureaucracy would be dismantled (FDA, DEA, Dept. of Ed).
Does this make me some form of anarchist? Not at all; anarchy leads to the following (I consider this the classic statement):
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent of the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
If you consider a political scale with totalitarian communism at one end (a society where all individual thought, action and behavior is determined and controlled by the state) and anarchy at the other, I would assert that a genuinely free human society, one devoid of political coercion, resides at the golden center.
The government in this hypothetical free state would own the monopoly in the use of violent force. That government would use its monopoly to ensure the safety of the citizen’s persons and property; run the courts to manage disputes; regulate industry externalities. That’s about it.
But you don’t agree with any of this, or believe it desirable. You believe the state represents some form of ultimate salvation. You believe that if the state employs some form of Marxist/socialist solution, humans will be able to fully fulfill their potential, and be the better for it. You believe that the proper application of a socialist economy will reduce the burden of mindless toil on the multitude, allowing more quality time for self-fulfillment.
But from a practical perspective, this can only come about by radical means, by the application of systematic violence, both to bring such a state into being, and to maintain its existence once it becomes viable. And in that effort to bring about such a political solution, and to maintain it, any artistic expression, particularly literature, is profoundly important. Certain things must be honored and celebrated, and others repressed. Some attitudes are constructive, and others damaging to the cause.
For me, artistic expression is always a free activity (or should be) completely unhindered by the attitude of others. Any others. “[Works of art] incarnate the essence of human freedom…” Exactly.
For you, however, every work is potentially supportive of your agenda, or a radical critique. So like Plato’s Republic and Stalin’s Soviet, all art must be carefully controlled, if it’s allowed to exist at all. And that’s why your literary literature is strewn with overt political theory. Final example, from page 224:
Is every literary work the handmaiden of a governing ideology, resolving conflicts in ways it finds convenient? To imagine so is to take far too negative a view of them. The work of art, whatever its capacity to collude in forms of oppression, is an example of human praxis, and therefore of how to live well.
All my fiction is a radical critique of that which is. I am not sure how anyone engages in serious literature without questioning the world in which they live. My work is overtly political and philosophical, but that doesn’t make them works of political philosophy, because they are not tracts; they are works of literary art. If a serious critic were to comment upon them, I would expect a judgment of artistic value (to the extent that any existed), not a political or philosophical critique.
“What of works that resist a sovereign power?” you ask on page 224. I say those are of the utmost importance, and the first to disappear should your political desires be fully realized. You, like Plato’s Socrates, would not be welcome in the world you envision, as you are far too bright, original and sincere.
The study and enjoyment of literature should remain utterly separate from political theory. Not that they don’t on occasion contain each other, or reference each other, but the nation of art should forever remain sovereign and untouched by the practical elements of structured institutional violence, or any threat thereof.