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The human as such

Nobody could accuse Terry Eagleton of lacking a policy. Years ago, asked why he wrote about literature, he replied in my hearing, ‘To help bring about the arrival of socialism.’ Nothing in Sweet Violence suggests that he has changed that agenda. Early in the piece he claims that ‘It is capitalism which is anarchic, extravagant, out of hand, and socialism which is temperate, earth-bound and realistic.’ The reader has been given notice.

Trenchancy though is not Eagleton’s only mode. He writes, for instance, ‘In many of its aspects, religion today represents one of the most odious forms of political reaction on the planet, a blight on human freedom and a buttress of the rich and powerful. But there are also theological ideas which can be politically illuminating, and this book is among other things an exploration of them.’ For reasons which do not matter here, I came to the book with no high expectations; in the event, though, I think that Eagleton has gone about his grave task very well.

That task consists in a rethinking of the character of tragedy. The first chapter, ‘A Theory in Ruins’, consists of a critical overview of the ways in which, in older and in modern times, tragedy has been conceived. Eagleton has always been good at surveying fields, usually with an eye to the cockle as well as the wheat, and so it goes here: it is a Good Thing, for example, to be Raymond Williams or Walter Benjamin, and a Bad Thing to be Dorothea Krook or George Steiner. The Eagleton who elsewhere makes clear how thoroughly he loathes the Catholicism of his childhood can still write, betimes, in the spirit of a medieval scholastic theologian, determined to make clear just who are the enemies and who the friends.

By contrast, though, with some of those predecessors, he has a genuinely vivacious mind, which can be generously inventive even when it is being mordant. Eagleton usually writes as though he is fired as much by what he is reading as by his prior notions about it, which is a rarer thing than it sounds. For instance, when he says that ... the world of Samuel Beckett, in which things appear at once enigmatic and baldly self-identical, seems less a place which once had a meaning which has now haemorrhaged away than one which calls that whole rather peculiar way of looking into the question. Maybe what we call nihilism is just the wish that things had meaning in the sense that fish have gills, and the fury that they do not ...one might agree or disagree with the philosophical position which Eagleton favours, but still find Beckett’s writing illuminated, either way. In a chapter called ‘Freedom, Fate and Justice’, Eagleton remarks:

To see Greek tragedy as poised between the heroic-mystical and the rational-legal is to say that, like Freud, it is struck by the paradox that the very forces which go into the making of civilization are unruly, uncivil, potentially disruptive ones. This is most obvious in sexuality, at once anarchic passion and anchor of domestic life. But much the same is true of material production—the raw, earthy energies on which civilization is reared, and which bulk large in the myth of Prometheus.

Reading this, I think of the Auden whose intellectual energy was constantly seeking variety of experience and also appropriate forms for that variety, parities among the disparities: Eagleton too is notably a ‘maker’, a fashioner of shapes amidst the shifts. Firm in his own faith in the possibility and the desirability of political transformation, he can still be hospitable towards foreign insights and haunting questions. Significantly, Sweet Violence ends with a quotation from the end of Kafka’s The Trial, in which Josef K., about to be executed, glimpses, at a distant window, a human figure stretching out its arms: ‘Who was it? A friend? A good man? One who sympathized? One who wanted to help? Was it one person? Was it everybody?’ It would be a bold, or a blockish, writer who thought Kafka easily amenable to domestication, but Eagleton is surely right to invoke that master of concern and enigma when he has himself been attempting to pick his way through the labyrinth of tragedy.

The modest parlour game called ‘Cull the Index’ is suggestive where Eagleton is concerned: ‘Nabokov, Naipaul, nationalism, naturalism, Nature, Nazism, necessity’ it goes: ‘negativity, New Testament, Nietzsche, nihilism, Noh theatre, nominalism, normative tragedy, novel, Nussbaum.’ Index making is itself an art for adepts, but even so, this roll-call, taken at random, suggests some of the spring of Eagleton’s mind. There is a price to be paid for this, of course, which is that the reader can feel a little like a sparrow in a modern city, restlessly aware that something is likely to come roaring past at any moment, rarely sure whence, and sometimes uncertain why. But then, Eagleton himself is in effect that sparrow, and the city is the whole world, material, social, conceptual, and imaginative. Elias Canetti remarks derisively how odd it would be to imagine someone saying to Shakespeare, ‘Relax!’: it would be pretty odd, though for different reasons, to be saying it to Eagleton either.

The fact is that while the declared ambit of Sweet Violence is the character of tragedy, Eagleton is on the spoor of the human as such. Chapter titles like ‘Heroes’, ‘Pity, Fear and Pleasure’, ‘Tragedy and the Novel’, ‘Tragedy and Modernity’, and ‘Demons’ are so many signals that whatever else tragedy proves to be, it can be a lens for the inspection of what some still call human nature, and others, more guardedly, the human condition. ‘The human condition’ was an expression invented by Montaigne, and there is a streak of the montaignean in Eagleton’s own manner. He refers at one point to ‘the sceptical, self-ironizing prose style of Montaigne, a writer with what Claude Rawson has called “a temperamental shrinking from catastrophic perspec­­tives” ’, and although Eagleton is not much of a one for shrinking from things, he nourishes wariness in a good cause—that of taking the measure of human behaviour, again and again.

This book takes its title from Sir Philip Sidney, whose An Apology for Poetry Eagleton quotes at the point where a murderous tyrant ‘could not resist the sweet violence of a Tragedie’. Eagleton is properly dismissive of sentimental indulgence in such a one, but he remains fascinated by the element of paradox in much human behaviour. I cannot be sure whether he believes that the paradoxical can be explained, without remainder. Part of him, the favourer of Marxist doctrine, is drawn in that direction, and part of him, the questioner of all doctrine, is drawn elsewhere. Montaigne (again) speaks in an essay of ‘an art which wrestles against the art’ in thought, and that disposition is given a good run in this book.

For me, the most striking, and at times haunting, parts of Sweet Violence are those in which ‘the Law’, in various of its pluriform expressions, is being reflected upon. The Old and the New Testaments are of course major players here, but so is an ensemble of later writers, among them Shakespeare, Racine, Kafka and Freud. Usually, Eagleton resists the temptation to make them fit too polished a theme or theory, and one has a sense that he is thinking his way through them, rather than just past them. In his chapter on ‘Tragedy and the Novel’, he points out that:

Jane Austen’s novels give us a record of experience, but along with it the norms by which that experience should be judged and corrected; and literary form is one vital bearer of these norms. But form in other hands can easily become ironic, since like the Law in St Paul it only serves to show us how far the shabby content of our lives falls short of it.

Perhaps all this is indeed fostering the arrival of socialism, but for those with other things on their minds Sweet Violence may still be worth the candle. Near the end of the book, Eagleton writes that ‘To strive for objectivity of judgement in fact demands a fair amount of courage, realism, openness, modesty, self-discipline and generosity of spirit; there is nothing in the least bloodless about it. But the true paradigm of objectivity is not epistemological but ethical. The model of objectivity is a selfless attention to another’s needs.’ A rich mix, this, but a good one: and the book aspires to be of that kind. 

Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, Terry Eagleton. Blackwell Publishing, 2002. isbn 0 631 23360 1, rrp $52.75

Peter Steele sj has a personal chair at the University of Melbourne.



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