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Terry Eagleton. The Event of Literature.

Terry Eagleton. The Event of Literature. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2012. P/bk 252 pp. ISBN 978-0-300-19413-5.

In The Event of Literature Terry Eagleton revisits the question of "what is literature" in an age when literary theory has been largely discredited, despite the fact that it continues to dominate the curricula of most literature departments.

Eagleton simplifies the debate into a question of realism versus nominalism. "Realism", as understood in philosophy or theology, presupposes the existence of a category "literature" existing outside our subjectivities. This strategy helps us distinguish what we might term a "literary" text from other texts-for example, advertisements or television programs. The nominalists reject such constructions on the grounds that literature is part of life. Eagleton sees both positions as unnecessarily extreme; drawing on Wittgenstein's argument of family resemblance and language games, he likens literature to love: while its borders might not be readily identifiable, that does not mean that literature should not be discussed any more. He identifies five characteristics of a "literary" text; it must be fictional, moral, linguistic, non-pragmatic and normative, offering an insight into human experience while employing language in a heightened, self-conscious way.

The rest of the book has Eagleton exploring the viability of these characteristics. In his analysis of the moral aspects of literature he acknowledges its empathetic aspects--it can offer guidance to anyone, provided they "listen" to the language and thought-- but highlights the ambiguity of such responses. We might lack sufficient capacity (intellectual, emotional or otherwise) to develop this kind of reaction. Empathy can also prove negative: dictators derive much of their authority through manipulating people by means of passionate speeches. Eagleton employs the same kind of approach (highlighting the negative as well as the positive aspects) for the other four concepts, showing how many of them invoke common assumptions that require deconstruction. This is Eagleton at his best, avoiding definite conclusions while exposing the complexities underlying familiar terms.

The book subsequently offers a way of reading based on numerous provisos. We cannot appreciate Shakespeare's style without understanding the ideological bases that underpin his works. On the other hand, we cannot deconstruct ideology without concentrating on the ways in which texts affect readers in different contexts. Eagleton poses the question: to what extent can a work be studied on its own terms (focusing on narrative, plot and character), or should it be evaluated as a response to--as well as a representation of-external circumstances? Or should a text be approached from both perspectives?

The Event of Literature is a complex book, drawing on a wealth of material from different disciplines. Eagleton takes the opportunity to demolish certain theorists--Stanley E. Fish, Paul de Man--while prioritizing others. In the light of his earlier work (especially during the Seventies and Eighties), it is interesting to see him championing F. R. Leavis. Eagleton also believes there is such a thing as "bad" literature (citing Robert Southey as an example) and "bad" novels (such as Melville's Pierre (1852)), even though he does not explain why Pierre should be considered "literary" as opposed to (say) E. L. James's recent succes d'estime Fifty Shades of Grey (2011).

Ultimately what Eagleton asks us to do is to be more self-aware about books, and reflect on why they might be considered "literary" or not. Rather than simply describing a text as "transcendent" or "uplifting" we should consider in greater depth what these terms signify. This requires us to think more deeply than we might have done previously about its structure, themes and style. What The Event of Literature lacks is an analysis of how this reflective process might create an effective "event" of literature. Although very interesting in terms of abstractions, Eagleton does not acknowledge how texts can be consumed differently across cultures. What might be deemed "good" or "bad" literature is very much dependent on the contexts that produce such judgements.

On the other hand Eagleton highlights the shortcomings of much current literary criticism, especially the lack of attention paid to authorial intention and/or reader response. We can still make close readings of texts, but we need to make more of their subjectivities. The real value of this book is summed up by Eagleton's observation that while literature cannot change the world, it can make us "more self-critical, self-conscious, flexible, provisional, open-minded and robustly skeptical of orthodoxies [...] It [Literature] says almost nothing about how we are to live once the doors of perception have been cleansed; but it [...] [plays a part] in altering our stance in the world, which is perhaps the best this residual humanism can muster in a deconstructive age" (104). This represents perhaps the most effective "event" of literature.
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Author:Raw, Laurence
Publication:Interactions
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
Words:777
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