Terry Eagleton

Autor: Terry Eagleton

Editura: Blackwell

Descriere: This classic work, whose first edition sold more than 120,000 copies, is designed to cover all of the major movements in literary studies in this century. The second edition contains a major new survey chapter that addresses developments since the book’s original publication in 1983, including feminist theory, postmodernism, poststructuralism-what is broadly referred to as cultural theory. Noted for its clear, engaging style and unpretentious treatment, Literary Theory has become the introduction of choice for anyone interested in learning about the world of contemporary literary thought. Unique in its range and accessibility, it provides an iconoclastic and entertaining guide to current debates in the humanities.



What is Literature?
If there is such a thing as literary theory, then it would seem obvious that
there is something called literature which it is the theory of. We can begin,
then, by raising the question: what is literature?
There have been various attempts to define literature. You can define it,
for example, as ‘imaginative’ writing in the sense of fiction – writing which
is not literally true. But even the briefest reflection on what people commonly
include under the heading of literature suggests that this will not do.
Seventeenth-century English literature includes Shakespeare, Webster,
Marvell and Milton; but it also stretches to the essays of Francis Bacon, the
sermons of John Donne, Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography and whatever it
was that Sir Thomas Browne wrote. It might even at a pinch be taken to
encompass Hobbes’s Leviathan or Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion.
French seventeenth-century literature contains, along with Corneille and
Racine, La Rochefoucauld’s maxims, Bossuet’s funeral speeches, Boileau’s
treatise on poetry, Madame de Sevigne’s letters to her daughter and the
philosophy of Descartes and Pascal. Nineteenth-century English literature
usually includes Lamb (though not Bentham), Macaulay (but not Marx),
Mill (but not Darwin or Herbert Spencer).
A distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, then, seems unlikely to get us
very far, not least because the distinction itself is often a questionable one. It
has been argued, for instance, that our own opposition between ‘historical’
and ‘artistic’ truth does not apply at all to the early Icelandic sagas.1 In the
English late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the word ‘novel’
seems to have been used about both true and fictional events, and even news
reports were hardly to be considered factual. Novels and news reports were
2 Introduction: What is Literature?
neither clearly factual nor clearly fictional: our own sharp discriminations
between these categories simply did not apply.2 Gibbon no doubt thought
that he was writing the historical truth, and so perhaps did the authors of
Genesis, but they are now read as ‘fact’ by some and ‘fiction’ by others;
Newman certainly thought his theological meditations were true but they
are now for many readers ‘literature’. Moreover, if ‘literature’ includes
much ‘factual’ writing, it also excludes quite a lot of fiction. Superman comic
and Mills and Boon novels are fictional but not generally regarded as literature,
and certainly not as Literature. Ifliterature is ‘creative’ or ‘imaginative’
writing, does this imply that history, philosophy and natural science are
uncreative and unimaginative?
Perhaps one needs a different kind of approach altogether. Perhaps literature
is definable not according to whether it is fictional or ‘imaginative’, but
because it uses language in peculiar ways. On this theory, literature is a kind
of writing which, in the words of the Russian critic Roman ]akobson,
represents an ‘organized violence committed on ordinary speech’. Literature
transforms and intensifies ordinary language, deviates systematically from
everyday speech. If you approach me at a bus stop and murmur ‘Thou still
unravished bride of quietness,’ then I am instantly aware that I am in the
presence of the literary. I know this because the texture, rhythm and resonance
of your words are in excess of their abstractable meaning – or, as the
linguists might more technically put it, there is a disproportion between the
signifiers and the signifieds. Your language draws attention to itself, flaunts
its material being, as statements like ‘Don’t you know the drivers are on
strike?’ do not.
This, in effect, was the definition of the ‘literary’ advanced by the Russian
formalists, who included in their ranks Viktor Shklovsky, Roman]akobson,
Osip Brik, Yury Tynyanov, Boris Eichenbaum and Boris Tomashevsky.
The Formalists emerged in Russia in the years before the 1917 Bolshevik
revolution, and flourished throughout the 1920s, until they were effectively
silenced by Stalinism. A militant, polemical group of critics, they rejected
the quasi-mystical symbolist doctrines which had influenced literary
criticism before them, and in a practical, scientific spirit shifted attention to
the material reality of the literary text itself. Criticism should dissociate art
from mystery and concern itself with how literary texts actually worked:
literature was not pseudo-religion or psychology or sociology but a particular
organization of language. It had its own specific laws, structures and
devices, which were to be studied in themselves rather than reduced to
something else. The literary work was neither a vehicle for ideas, a reflection
of social reality nor the incarnation of some transcendental truth: it was a
Introduction: What is Literature? 3
material fact, whose functioning could be analysed rather as one could
examine a machine. It was made of words, not of objects or feelings, and it
was a mistake to see it as the expression of an author’s mind. Pushkin’s
Eugene Onegin, Osip Brik once airily remarked, would have been written
even if Pushkin had not lived.
Formalism was essentially the application of linguistics to the study of
literature; and because the linguistics in question were of a formal kind,
concerned with the structures of language rather than with what one might
actually say, the Formalists passed over the analysis of literary ‘content’
(where one might always be tempted into psychology or sociology) for the
study of literary form. Far from seeing form as the expression of content,
they stood the relationship on its head: content was merely the ‘motivation’
of form, an occasion or convenience for a particular kind of formal exercise.
DonQuixoteis not ‘about’ the character of that name: the character is just a
device for holding together different kinds of narrative technique. Animal
Farm for the Formalists would not be an allegory of Stalinism; on the
contrary, Stalinism would simply provide a useful opportunity for the construction
of an allegory. It was this perverse insistence which won for the
Formalists their derogatory name from their antagonists; and though they
did not deny that art had a relation to social reality indeed some of them
were closely associated with the Bolsheviks – they provocatively claimed
that this relation was not the critic’s business.
The Formalists started out by seeing the literary work as a more or less
arbitrary assemblage of ‘devices’, and only later came to see these devices as
interrelated elements or ‘functions’ within a total textual system. ‘Devices’
included sound, imagery, rhythm, syntax, metre, rhyme, narrative techniques,
in fact the whole stock of formal literary elements; and what all of
these elements had in common was their ‘estranging’ or ‘defamiliarizing’
effect. What was specific to literary language, what distinguished it from
other forms of discourse, was that it ‘deformed’ ordinary language in various
ways. Under the pressure of literary devices, ordinary language was intensified,
condensed, twisted, telescoped, drawn out, turned on its head. It was
language ‘made strange’; and because of this estrangement, the everyday
world was also suddenly made unfamiliar. In the routines of everyday
speech, our perceptions of and responses to reality become stale, blunted, or,
as the Formalists would say, ‘automatized’. Literature, by forcing us into a
dramatic awareness of language, refreshes these habitual responses and
renders objects more ‘perceptible’. By having to grapple with language in a
more strenuous, self-conscious way than usual, the world which that language
contains is vividly renewed. The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
4 Introduction: What is Literature?
might provide a particularly graphic example of this. Literary discourse
estranges or alienates ordinary speech, but in doing so, paradoxically, brings
us into a fuller, more intimate possession ofexperience. Most of the time we
breathe in air without being conscious of it: like language, it is the very
medium in which we move. But if the air is suddenly thickened or infected
we are forced to attend to our breathing with new vigilance, and the effect of
this may be a heightened experience of our bodily life. We read a scribbled
note from a friend without paying much attention to its narrative structure;
but if a story breaks off and begins again, switches constantly from one
narrative level to another and delays its climax to keep us in suspense, we
become freshly conscious of how it is constructed at the same time as our
engagement with it may be intensified. The story, as the Formalists would
argue, uses ‘impeding’ or ‘retarding’ devices to hold our attention; and in
literary language, these devices are ‘laid. bare’. It was this which moved
Viktor Shklovsky to remark mischievously of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram
Shandy, a novel which impedes its own story-line so much that it hardly gets
off the ground, that it was ‘the most typical novel in world literature’.
The Formalists, then, saw literary language as a set of deviations from a
norm, a kind of linguistic violence: literature is a ‘special’ kind of language,
in contrast to the ‘ordinary’ language we commonly use. But to spot a
deviation implies being able to identify the norm from which it swerves.
Though ‘ordinary language’ is a concept beloved of some Oxford philosophers,
the ordinary language of Oxford philosophers has little in common
with the ordinary language ofGlaswegian dockers. The language both social
groups use to write love letters usually differs from the way they talk to the
local vicar. The idea that there is a single ‘normal’ language, a common
currency shared equally by all members of society, is an illusion. Any actual
language consists of a highly complex range of discourses, differentiated
according to class, region, gender, status and so on, which can by no means
be neatly unified into a single homogeneous linguistic community. One
person’s norm may be another’s deviation: ‘ginnel’ for ‘alleyway’ may be
poetic in Brighton but ordinary language in Barnsley. Even the most ‘prosaic’
text of the fifteenth century may sound ‘poetic’ to us today because of
its archaism. If we were to stumble across an isolated scrap of writing from
some long-vanished civilization, we could not tell whether it was ‘poetry’ or
not merely by inspecting it, since we might have no access to that society’s
‘ordinary’ discourses; and even if further research were to reveal that it was
‘deviatory’, this would still not prove that it was poetry as not all linguistic
deviations are poetic. Slang, for example. We would not be able to tell just
by looking at it that it was not a piece of ‘realist’ literature, without much
Introduction: What is Literature? 5
more information about the way it actually functioned as a piece of writing
within the society in question.
It is not that the Russian Formalists did not realize all this. They recognized
that norms and deviations shifted around from one social or historical
context to another – that ‘poetry’ in this sense depends on where you happen
to be standing at the time. The fact that a piece of language was ‘estranging’
did not guarantee that it was always and everywhere so: it was estranging
only against a certain normative linguistic background, and if this altered
then the writing might cease to be perceptible as literary. If everyone used
phrases like ‘unravished bride of quietness’ in ordinary pub conversation,
this kind of language might cease to be poetic. For the Formalists, in other
words, ‘literariness’ was a function of the differential relations between one
sort of discourse and another; it was not an eternally given property. They
were not out to define ‘literature’, but ‘literariness’ – special uses of language,
which could be found in ‘literary’ texts but also in many places
outside them. Anyone who believes that ‘literature’ can be defined by such
special uses of language has to face the fact that there is more metaphor
in Manchester than there is in Marvell. There is no ‘literary’ device metonymy,
synecdoche, litotes, chiasmus and so on which is not quite
intensively used in daily discourse.
Nevertheless, the Formalists still presumed that ‘making strange’ was the
essence of the literary. It was just that they relativized this use of language,
saw it as a matter of contrast between one type of speech and another. But
what if I were to hear someone at the next pub table remark ‘This is awfully
squiggly handwriting!’ Is this ‘literary’ or ‘non-literary’ language? As a
matter of fact it is ‘literary’ language, because it comes from Knut Hamsun’s
novel Hunger. But how do I know that it is literary? It doesn’t, after all, focus
any particular attention on itself as a verbal performance. One answer to the
question of how I know that this is literary is that it comes from Knut
Hamsun’s novel Hunger. It is part of a text which I read as ‘fictional’, which
announces itself as a ‘novel’, which may be put on university literature
syllabuses and so on. The context tells me that it is literary; but the language
itself has no inherent properties or qualities which might distinguish it from
other kinds of discourse, and someone might well say this in a pub without
being admired for their literary dexterity. To think of literature as the
Formalists do is really to think of all literature as poetry. Significantly, when
the Formalists came to consider prose writing, they often simply extended to
it the kinds of technique they had used with poetry. But literature is usually
judged to contain much besides poetry to include, for example, realist
or naturalistic writing which is not linguistically self-conscious or self6
Introduction: What is Literature?
exhibiting in any striking way. People sometimes call writing ‘fine’ precisely
because it doesn’t draw undue attention to itself: they admire its laconic
plainness or low-keyed sobriety. And what about jokes, football chants and
slogans, newspaper headlines, advertisements, which are often verbally
flamboyant but not generally classified as literature?
Another problem with the ‘estrangement’ case is that there is no kind of
writing which cannot, given sufficient ingenuity, be read as estranging.
Consider a prosaic, quite unambiguous statement like the one sometimes
seen in the London Underground system: ‘Dogs must be carried on the
escalator.’ This is not perhaps quite as unambiguous as it seems at first sight:
does it mean that you mustcarry a dog on the escalator? Are you likely to be
banned from the escalator unless you can find some stray mongrel to clutch
in your arms on the way up? Many apparently straightforward notices
contain such ambiguities: ‘Refuse to be put in this basket,’ for instance, or
the British road-sign ‘Way Out’ as read by a Californian. But even leaving
such troubling ambiguities aside, it is surely obvious that the underground
notice could be read as literature. One could let oneself be arrested by the
abrupt, minatory staccato of the first ponderous monosyllables; find one’s
mind drifting, by the time it had reached the rich allusiveness of ‘carried’, to
suggestive resonances of helping lame dogs through life; and perhaps even
detect in the very lilt and inflection of the word ‘escalator’ a miming of the
rolling, up-and-down motion of the thing itself. This may well be a fruitless
sort of pursuit,but it is not significantly more fruitless than claiming to hear
the cut and thrust of the rapiers in some poetic description of a duel, and it
at least has the advantage of suggesting that ‘literature’ may be at least as
much a question of what people do to writing as of what writing does to
them. .
But even if someone were to read the notice in this way, it would still be
a matter of reading it as poetry, which is only part of what is usually included
in literature. Let us therefore consider another way of ‘misreading’ the sign
which might move us a little beyond this. Imagine a late-night drunk doubled
over the escalator handrail who reads the notice with laborious attentiveness
for several minutes and then mutters to himself ‘How true!’ What
kind of mistake is occurring here? What the drunk is doing, in fact, is taking
the sign as some statement of general, even cosmic significance. By applying
certain conventions of reading to its words, he prises them loose from their
immediate context and generalizes them beyond their pragmatic purpose to
something of wider and probably deeper import. This would certainly seem
to be one operation involved in what people call literature. When the poet
tells us that his love is like a red rose, we know by the very fact that he puts
Introduction: What is Literature? 7
this statement in metre that we are not supposed to ask whether he actually
had a lover who for some bizarre reason seemed to him to resemble a rose.
He is telling us something about women and love in general. Literature,
then, we might say, is ‘non-pragmatic’ discourse: unlike biology textbooks
and notes to the milkman it serves no immediate practical purpose, but is to
be taken as referring to a general state of affairs. Sometimes, though not
always, it may employ peculiar language as though to make this fact obvious
– to signal that what is at stake is a way oftalking about a woman, rather than
any particular real-life woman. This focusing on the way of talking, rather
than on the reality ofwhat is talked about, is sometimes taken to indicate that
we mean by literature a kind of self-referential language, a language which
talks about itself.
There are, however, problems with this way of defining literature too. For
one thing, it would probably have come as a surprise to George Orwell to
hear that his essays were to be read as though the topics he discussed were
less important than the way he discussed them. In much that is classified as
literature, the truth-value and practical relevance of what is said is considered
important to the overall effect. But even if treating discourse ‘nonpragmatically’
is part of what is meant by ‘literature’, then it follows from
this ‘definition’ that literature cannot in fact be ‘objectively’ defined. It
leaves the definition ofliterature up to how somebody decides to read, not to
the nature of what is written. There are certain kinds of writing – poems,
plays, novels – which are fairly obviously intended to be ‘non-pragmatic’ in
this sense, but this does not guarantee that they will actually be read in this
way. I might well read Gibbon’s account of the Roman empire not because
I am misguided enough to believe that it will be reliably informative about
ancient Rome but because I enjoy Gibbon’s prose style, or revel in images of
human corruption whatever their historical source. But I might read Robert
Burns’s poem because it is not clear to me, as a Japanese horticulturalist,
whether or not the red rose flourished in eighteenth-century Britain. This,
it will be said, is not reading it ‘as literature’; but am I reading Orwell’s
essays as literature only if I generalize what he says about the Spanish civil
war to some cosmic utterance about human life? It is true that many of the
works studied as literature in academic institutions were ‘constructed’ to be
read as literature, but it is also true that many of them were not. A piece of
writing may start offlife as history or philosophy and then come to be ranked
as literature; or it may start off as literature and then come to be valued for
its archaeological significance. Some texts are born literary, some achieve
literariness, and some have literariness thrust upon them. Breeding in this
respect may count for a good deal more than birth. What matters may not be
8 Introduction: What is Literature?
where you came from but how people treat you. If they decide that you are
literature then it seems that you are, irrespective of what you thought you
In this sense, one can think of literature less as some inherent quality or
set of qualities displayed by certain kinds of writing all the way from Beowulf
to Virginia Woolf, than as a number of ways in which people relate themselves
to writing. It would not be easy to isolate, from all that has been variously
called ‘literature’, some constant set of inherent features. In fact it would be
as impossible as trying to identify the single distinguishing feature which all
games have in common. There is no ‘essence’ ofliterature whatsoever. Any
bit of writing may be read ‘non-pragmatically’, if that is what reading a text
as literature means, just as any writing may be read ‘poetically’. If I pore over
the railway timetable not to discover a train connection but to stimulate in
myself general reflections on the speed and complexity of modern existence,
then I might be said to be reading it as literature. John M. Ellis has argued
that the term ‘literature’ operates rather like the word ‘weed’: weeds are not
particular kinds of plant, but just any kind of plant which for some reason or
another a gardener does not want around.’ Perhaps ‘literature’ means something
like the opposite: any kind of writing which for some reason or another
somebody values highly. As the philosophers might say, ‘literature’ and
‘weed’ are functional rather than ontological terms: they tell us about what we
do, not about the fixed being of things. They tell us about the role of a text
or a thistle in a social context, its relations with and differences from its
surroundings, the ways it behaves, the purposes it may be put to and the
human practices clustered around it. ‘Literature’ is in this sense a purely
formal, empty sort of definition. Even if we claim that it is a non-pragmatic
treatment of language, we have still not arrived at an ‘essence’ of literature
because this is also so of other linguistic practices such as jokes. In any case,
it is far from clear that we can discriminate neatly between ‘practical’ and
‘non-practical’ ways of relating ourselves to language. Reading a novel for
pleasure obviously differs from reading a road sign for information, but how
about reading a biology textbook to improve your mind? Is that a ‘pragmatic’
treatment of language or not? In many societies, ‘literature’ has served
highly practical functions such as religious ones; distinguishing sharply
between ‘practical’ and ‘non-practical’ may only be possible in a society like
ours, where literature has ceased to have much practical function at all. We
may be offering as a general definition a sense of the ‘literary’ which is in fact
historically specific.
We have still not discovered the secret, then, of why Lamb, Macaulay and
Mill are literature but not, generally speaking, Bentham, Marx and Darwin.
Introduction: What is Literature? 9
Perhaps the simple answer is that the first three are examples of ‘fine
writing’, whereas the last three are not. This answer has the disadvantage of
being largely untrue, at least in my judgement, but it has the advantage of
suggesting that by and large people term ‘literature’ writing which they
think is good. An obvious objection to this is that if it were entirely true there
would be no such thing as ‘bad literature’. I may consider Lamb and
Macaulay overrated, but that does not necessarily mean that I stop regarding
them as literature. You may consider Raymond Chandler ‘good of his kind’,
but not exactly literature. On the other hand, if Macaulay were a really bad
writer – if he had no grasp at all of grammar and seemed interested in
nothing but white mice – then people might well not call his work literature
at all, even bad literature. Value-judgements would certainly seem to have a
lot to do with what is judged literature and what isn’t not necessarily in the
sense that writing has to be ‘fine’ to be literary, but that it has to be ofthe kind
that is judged fine: it may be an inferior example of a generally valued mode.
Nobody would bother to say that a bus ticket was an example of inferior
literature, but someone might well say that the poetry of Ernest Dowson
was. The term ‘fine writing’, or belles lettres, is in this sense ambiguous: it
denotes a sort of writing which is generally highly regarded, while not
necessarily committing you to the opinion that a particular specimen of it is
With this reservation, the suggestion that ‘literature’ is a highly valued
kind of writing is an illuminating one. But it has one fairly devastating
consequence. It means that we can drop once and for all the illusion that the
category ‘literature’ is ‘objective’, in the sense of being eternally given and
immutable. Anything can be literature, and anything which is regarded as
unalterably and unquestionably literature Shakespeare, for example can
cease to be literature. Any belief that the study of literature is the study of a
stable, well-definable entity, as entomology is the study of insects, can be
abandoned as a chimera. Some kinds of fiction are literature and some are
not; some literature is fictional and some is not; some literature is verbally
self-regarding, while some highly-wrought rhetoric is not literature. Literature,
in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value, distinguished
by certain shared inherent properties, does not exist. When I use the
words ‘literary’ and ‘literature’ from here on in this book, then, I place them
under an invisible crossing-out mark, to indicate that these terms will not
really do but that we have no better ones at the moment.
The reason why it follows from the definition of literature as highly valued
writing that it is not a stable entity is that value-judgements are notoriously
variable. ‘Times change, values don’t,’ announces an advertisement
10 Introduction: What is Literature?
for a daily newspaper, as though we still believed in killing off infirm infants
or putting the mentally ill on public show. Just as people may treat a work as
philosophy in one century and as literature in the next, or vice versa, so they
may change their minds about what writing they consider valuable. They
may even change their minds about the grounds they use for judging what
is valuable and what is not. This, as I have suggested, does not necessarily
mean that they will refuse the title of literature to a work which they have
come to deem inferior: they may still call it literature, meaning roughly that
it belongs to the type of writing which they generally value. But it does mean
that the so-called ‘literary canon’, the unquestioned ‘great tradition’ of the
‘national literature’, has to be recognized as a construct, fashioned by particular
people for particular reasons at a certain time. There is no such thing as
a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself, regardless of what
anyone might have said or come to say about it. ‘Value’ is a transitive term:
it means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according
to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes. It is thus quite
possible that, given a deep enough transformation of our history, we may in
the future produce a society which is unable to get anything at all out of
Shakespeare. His works might simply seem desperately alien, full of styles of
thought and feeling which such a society found limited or irrelevant. In such
a situation, Shakespeare would be no more valuable than much present-day
graffiti. And though many people would consider such a social condition
tragically impoverished, it seems to me dogmatic not to entertain the possibility
that it might arise rather from a general human enrichment. Karl Marx
was troubled by the question of why ancient Greek art retained an ‘eternal
charm’, even though the social conditions which produced it had long
passed; but how do we know that it will remain ‘eternally’ charming, since
history has not yet ended? Let us imagine that by dint of some deft archaeological
research we discovered a great deal more about what ancient Greek
tragedy actually meant to its original audiences, recognized that these concerns
were utterly remote from our own, and began to read the plays again
in the light of this deepened knowledge. One result might be that we stopped
enjoying them. We might come to see that we had enjoyed them previously
because we were unwittingly reading them in the light of our own preoccupations;
once this became less possible, the drama might cease to speak at all
significantly to us.
The fact that we always interpret literary works to some extent in the light
of our own concerns indeed that in one sense of ‘our own concerns’ we are
incapable of doing anything else – might be one reason why certain works of
literature seem to retain their value across the centuries. It may be, of course,
Introduction: What is Literature? 11
that we still share many preoccupations with the work itself; but it may also
be that people have not actually been valuing the ‘same’ work at all, even
though they may think they have. ‘Our’ Homer is not identical with the
Homer of the Middle Ages, nor ‘our’ Shakespeare with that of his contemporaries;
it is rather that different historical periods have constructed a
‘different’ Homer and Shakespeare for their own purposes, and found in
these texts elements to value or devalue, though not necessarily the same
ones. All literary works, in other words, are ‘rewritten’, if only unconsciously,
by the societies which read them; indeed there is no reading of a
work which is not also a ‘re-writing’. No work, and no current evaluation of
it, can simply be extended to new groups of people without being changed,
perhaps almost unrecognizably, in the process; and this is one reason why
what counts as literature is a notably unstable affair.
I do not mean that it is unstable because value-judgements are ‘subjective’.
According to this view, the world is divided between solid facts ‘out
there’ like Grand Central station, and arbitrary value-judgements ‘in here’
such as liking bananas or feeling that the tone of a Yeats poem veers from
defensive hectoring to grimly resilient resignation. Facts are public and
unimpeachable, values are private and gratuitous. There is an obvious difference
between recounting a fact, such as ‘This cathedral was built in 1612,’
and registering a value-judgement, such as ‘This cathedral is a magnificent
specimen of baroque architecture.’ But suppose I made the first kind of
statement while showing an overseas visitor around England, and found that
it puzzled her considerably. Why, she might ask, do you keep telling me the
dates of the foundation of all these buildings? Why this obsession with
origins? In the society I live in, she might go on, we keep no record at all of
such events: we classify our buildings instead according to whether they face
north-west or south-east. What this might do would be to demonstrate part
of the unconscious system of value-judgements which underlies my own
descriptive statements. Such value-judgements are not necessarily of the
same kind as ‘This cathedral is a magnificent specimen of baroque architecture,’
but they are value-judgements none the less, and no factual pronouncement
I make can escape them. Statements of fact are after all
statements, which presumes a number of questionable judgements: that those
statements are worth making, perhaps more worth making than certain
others, that I am the sort of person entitled to make them and perhaps able
to guarantee their truth, that you are the kind of person worth making them
to, that something useful is accomplished by making them, and so on. A pub
conversation may well transmit information, but what also bulks large in
such dialogue is a strong element of what linguists would call the ‘phatic’, a
12 Introduction: What is Literature?
concern with the act of communication itself. In chatting to you about
the weather I am also signalling that I regard conversation with you as
valuable, that I consider you a worthwhile person to talk to, that I am not
myself anti-social or about to embark on a detailed critique of your personal
In this sense, there is no possibility of a wholly disinterested statement.
Of course stating when a cathedral was built is reckoned to be more
disinterested in our own culture than passing an opinion about its
architecture, but one could also imagine situations in which the former
statement would be more ‘value-laden’ than the latter. Perhaps ‘baroque’
and ‘magnificent’ have come to be more or less synonymous, whereas only
a stubborn rump of us cling to the belief that the date when a building
was founded is significant, and my statement is taken as a coded way of
signalling this partisanship. All of our descriptive statements move within an
often invisible network of value-categories, and indeed without such categories
we would have nothing to say to each other at all. It is not just as though
we have something called factual knowledge which may then be distorted by
particular interests and judgements, although this is certainly possible; it is
also that without particular interests we would have no knowledge at all,
because we would not see the point of bothering to get to know anything.
Interests are constitutive of our knowledge, not merely prejudices which
imperil it. The claim that knowledge should be ‘value-free’ is itself a
It may well be that a liking for bananas is a merely private matter, though
this is in fact questionable. A thorough analysis of my tastes in food would
probably reveal how deeply relevant they are to certain formative experiences
in early childhood, to my relations with my parents and siblings and to
a good many other cultural factors which are quite as social and ‘non-
. subjective’ as railway stations. This is even more true of that fundamental
structure of beliefs and interests which I am born into as a member of a
particular society, such as the belief that I should try to keep in good health,
that differences of sexual role are rooted in human biology or that human
beings are more important than crocodiles. We may disagree on this or that,
but we can only do so because we share certain ‘deep’ ways of seeing and
valuing which are bound up with our social life, and which could not be
changed without transforming that life. Nobody will penalize me heavily if
I dislike a particular Donne poem, but if I argue that Donne is not literature
at all then in certain circumstances I might risk losing my job. I am free to
vote Labour or Conservative, but if I try to act on the belief that this choice
itself merely masks a deeper prejudice – the prejudice that the meaning of
Introduction: What is Literature? 13
democracy is confined to putting a cross on a ballot paper every few years then
in certain unusual circumstances I might end up in prison.
The largely concealed structure of values which informs and underlies
our factual statements is part of what is meant by ‘ideology’. By ‘ideology’ I
mean, roughly, the ways in which what we say and believe connects with the
power-structure and power-relations of the society we live in. It follows
from such a rough definition of ideology that not all of our underlying
judgements and categories can usefully be said to be ideological. It is deeply
ingrained in us to imagine ourselves moving forwards into the future (at least
one other society sees itself as moving backwards into it), but though this
way of seeing may connect significantly with the power-structure of our
society, it need not always and everywhere do so. I do nO,t mean by ‘ideology’
simply the deeply entrenched, often unconscious beliefs which people hold;
I mean more particularly those modes of feeling, valuing, perceiving and
believing which have some kind of relation to the maintenance and reproduction
of social power. The fact that such beliefs are by no means merely
private quirks may be illustrated by a literary example.
In his famous study Practical Criticism (1929), the Cambridge critic I. A.
Richards sought to demonstrate just how whimsical and subjective literary
value-judgements could actually be by giving his undergraduates a set of
poems, withholding from them the titles and authors’ names, and asking
them to evaluate them. The resulting judgements, notoriously, were highly
variable: time-honoured poets were marked down and obscure authors celebrated.
To my mind, however, much the most interesting aspect of this
project, and one apparently quite invisible to Richards himself, is just how
tight a consensus of unconscious valuations underlies these particular differences
of opinion. Reading Richards’ undergraduates’ accounts of literary
works, one is struck by the habits of perception and interpretation which
they spontaneously share what they expect literature to be, what assumptions
they bring to a poem and what fulfilments they anticipate they will
derive from it. None of this is really surprising: for all the participants in this
experiment were, presumably, young, white, upper- or upper-middle-class,
privately educated English people of the 1920s, and how they responded to
a poem depended on a good deal more than purely ‘literary’ factors. Their
critical responses were deeply entwined with their broader prejudices and
beliefs. This is not a matter of blame: there is no critical response which is
not so entwined, and thus no such thing as a ‘pure’ literary critical judgement
or interpretation. If anybody is to be blamed it is I. A. Richards
himself, who as a young, white, upper-middle-class male Cambridge don
was unable to objectify a context of interests which he himselflargely shared,
14 Introduction: What is Literature?
and was thus unable to recognize fully that local, ‘subjective’ differences of
evaluation work within a particular, socially structured way of perceiving the
If it will not do to see literature as an ‘objective’, descriptive category,
neither will it do to say that literature is just what people whimsically choose
to call literature. For there is nothing at all whimsical about such kinds of
value-judgement: they have their roots in deeper structures of belief which
are as apparently unshakeable as the Empire State building. What we have
uncovered so far, then, is not only that literature does not exist in the sense
that insects do, and that the value-judgements by which it is constituted are
historically variable, but that these value-judgements themselves have a
close relation to social ideologies. They refer in the end not simply to private
taste, but to the assumptions by which certain social groups exercise and
maintain power over others. If this seems a far-fetched assertion, a matter of
private prejudice, we may test it out by an account of the rise of ‘literature’
in England.


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1 Response to “Terry Eagleton”

  1. 1 atent February 10, 2008 at 7:34 am

    Textul asupta spatiului de ‘localizare a dimensiunii semantice a literaturii’, exemplifica stilul multor romane de actiune englzesti dar mai ales americane unde autorul pentru a face cartea mai groasa, nu mai buna, adauga tot felul de amanunte am spune stupide, care nu aduc actiune ci cuvinte in plus.
    Daca vrem sa definim litreratura compact o putem caracteriza ca ‘descriere de eveniment efectiv sau descriere de inventie de eveniment’.
    In categoria descriere de eveniment societal, intra scrierile istorice, (care uneori sunt si ele opere de fictiune), in cealalalta, intra toate scrierile creative, fie ele filosofice, stintifice sau literare propriu zise, ocupand aria prozei si poeziei, ca jocuri ale imaginatiei, unele inspirate din realitate.
    Daca vrei sa repetii o multime de lucruri doar ca sa arati ca esti o persoana erudita si stii ce au scris sau spus altii, despre ce vrei sa spui si tu ceva, atunci faci o lucrare ca cea de mai sus.
    Incontestabil lucrarile de teoretizare a creativitatii fie ea filozofica sau literara, sunt importante si necesare, ele ar trebui sa arate cum scriem ceva, din ce cauza o facem, cu ce consecinte. Dar acum cand despre mai toate scrierile ‘cu valoare’, au fost spuse o multime, e realmente greu sa fi original, iar originalitatea actuala pare a sta in a arata in cate feluri a fost abordat un subiect, incepand si finalizand cercetarea cu trecerea in revista a totalitatii abordarilor.
    Asa a procerdat si Aristotel in celebra lui ‘Metafizica’ unde inainte de a spune ce crede el, trece in revista parerile inaintasilor cu privire la fiinta realitatii, mai precis cu privire la realitatea substrat, tratata ca pacient si apoi trece la criteriile schimbarii substrarului in modalitate, in realitate efectiva.
    Cauza este de patru feluri, dupa Aristotel, este agentul care modifica pacientul, substrat, transformandu-l in eveniment adica in realitate perceptibila, reprezentabila si conceptibila.
    Aristotel a stiut sa puna ceva de la el, cand a abordat fiinta si devenirea, ca sa ne exprimam metafizic, dar multi din autorii actuali nu par capabili de prera multa noutate.
    Exista si scrieri teoretice de clitate despre toate inclusiv despre literatura, dar asa cum spunea marele matematician englez Litlevood, el ‘apreciaza mai mult creatorii de indiferent ce, decat criticii.

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