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Everyone’s a Critic

Recovering a radical tradition of cultural critique

Critical Revolutionaries: Five Critics Who Changed the Way We Read by Terry Eagleton. Yale University Press, 336 pages.

In 1984, the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton described the state of his chosen field as being stuck between a “public relations branch of the literary industry” and “a matter wholly internal to the academies.” Criticism, he said, was a discipline that had lost its social function, left moribund in the face of an encroaching political system we have since learned to call neoliberal but was then flying under the banner of Thatcherism, or Reaganism, or—for some most ominously of all—postmodernism.

Nearly forty years have passed since Eagleton’s pronouncement, and where are we today? If that first branch of the literary public sphere was barely carrying sap then, it has all but rotted since. The literary pages of the major dailies have been further shaved down, year after year, on both sides of the Atlantic. If the space for evaluation has been reduced, then the evaluations themselves are no less flimsy. Rare is the review in these papers that does not oscillate between bland recap and PR bumf.

The academic branch is no healthier. One of neoliberalism’s greatest achievements has been the tentacular spread of the market into areas once relatively untouched by it. The fate of humanities departments, formerly the redoubt of many a critical thinker, is more precarious than at any time since the advent of mass higher education in the post-war years. Courses close, departments shutter, fees balloon, and lecturers are squeezed ever harder for ever less money—when they are lucky enough to find a position at all. If once the greatest threat to radical intellectuals was internal, in the glittery appeal of a hollow and defeatist postmodernism, then today it comes from without. The fate of the academic now mirrors that of the declining middle class more generally, whose ranks once reliably stocked the university.

Criticism was a discipline that had lost its social function.

All of which is not to deny the presence of certain holdouts fighting a rearguard action against this decline. Small magazines have always produced a reliable stream of criticism, as do the figures we once would have called “public intellectuals,” if that term’s death sentence hadn’t been passed too many times for it to signify much. One of this latter group’s most interesting exemplars is Eagleton himself, a critic of deep historical understanding, known as much for his contributions to the 1990s debates on theory as for his commitment to Marxism. He is an academic with an impeccable pedigree (graduate and postgraduate degrees from the University of Cambridge, followed by a thirty-year career at Oxford, including a decade-long run as the prestigious Warton Professor of English), who has often been derided as little more than a vulgar popularizer—or worse, a third-rate stand-up comic—for offering combative essays in the reviews section of periodicals like the Guardian or the London Review of Books. He is also one of the few intellectuals who has ever sold Trotskyist newspapers outside factory gates while occupying a college professorship.

Eagleton’s upbringing was an untypical one for a British literary intellectual. Born in 1943 in Salford, an industrial city in England’s northwest, his parents were “upward-aspiring working-class” of Irish Catholic descent, as he described them to Matthew Beaumont in a series of interviews published in 2009 as The Task of the Critic. His father left school at fifteen—partly, it was speculated, because his family was unable to afford to send him to the local grammar school—and he began his working life soon after at the Metropolitan-Vickers engineering work in nearby Trafford Park, first as a laborer and later as a clerk. Eagleton’s parents were anxious for their children to be afforded the educational opportunities they were denied, and, assisted by the introduction of free universal secondary education following the passing of the Butler Act the year after he was born, Eagleton attended the local Catholic grammar school. There, he did well enough to gain admission to study English at Trinity College, Cambridge, one of the largest and grandest of the university’s constituent colleges.

His early years at Cambridge were unhappy, marked by the early passing of his father (a fact he learned from the college’s admissions tutor while visiting the city to take his university entrance exams), and an education he would later deride as a “waste of time.” Yet at Cambridge he was also to encounter two of his early, and most formative, influences: the literary critic F. R. Leavis, whose last days at the university Eagleton experienced, and Raymond Williams, under whose supervision he completed his doctorate on the Victorian poet and writer Edward Carpenter.

Both Leavis and Williams loom large in the latest book to be added to Eagleton’s already vast oeuvre, Critical Revolutionaries: Five Critics Who Changed the Way We Read. The volume could be described as kind of balance sheet of his intellectual formation, or perhaps a coming-home, if he hadn’t already visited and revisited these critics so often during his now near-sixty-year career. Alongside Leavis and Williams, there are three other figures in the corpus of Critical Revolutionaries: the poets and critics T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, and William Empson. Taken together, Eagleton argues, this group defined literary criticism in England for over fifty years, from the 1920s onward.

The field into which these revolutionaries entered in the early decades of the twentieth century had been dominated by the genteel amateurism of such justly forgotten figures as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Just as modernism was partly a response to upheavals of these years, so, too, was a new form of criticism reacting to a world in which the old certainties were rapidly disintegrating. This disintegration also afforded space for relative outsiders to emerge. Of the five critics assembled here, only Empson had anything like a background typical of the literary intellectual, being a privileged son of the landed gentry. Eliot was an American-turned-monarchist-Anglo-Catholic and a staunch defender of the cultural elite; Richards was the son of a chemical engineer trained in the mental and moral sciences, not literature; the austere and humorless Leavis came from the provincial lower-middle class; and Williams was the working-class son of a railwayman and trade unionist from the Welsh-English border. Each was, in other words, an outsider, or at the very least marginal—not only in the field of literary criticism, but in the cultural elite more generally. And this gave them all a particular relationship to the culture in which they lived. “The outsider,” as Eagleton remarks in reference to Eliot, “is more likely to be conscious of the spirit and culture of a place as a whole than those brought up in it,” who tend to take that spirit for granted. “In some ways, the alien can see more than the native.”

Outsiders have long occupied Eagleton’s thought. His second literary-critical book, after an early study of Shakespeare, was Exiles and Émigrés, published in 1970. In a bold rereading of the canon of the twentieth-century British novel, Eagleton presents its major writers—from Joseph Conrad to D.H. Lawrence, through George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and others—as all, in differing and often conflicting ways, exiles or social marginals. Eagleton would later admit that the work has an oddly capacious definition of exile, able to contain, as it does, the impeccably upper-class Waugh and the ur-Englander Orwell, but the reading was an acute and suggestive one. And, if nothing else, Eagleton has always been a thoroughly dialectical thinker. His reading of the exile is nothing like the bland liberal valorization of difference. Nor, equally, is there anything approaching the conservative dismissal of the rootless intellectual there. The exile, after all, wants a home to return to, and to create the world anew is a task beyond literature alone.

If Eagleton’s exiled novelists forged a new form of literature in twentieth-century Britain, then the five writers surveyed in Critical Revolutionaries did likewise with criticism. They brought a newly rigorous sensibility to the study of literature, dispensing with old methods and hierarchies. We can begin to see the contours of these developments in the criticism of Eliot, whose bold redrawing of the canon of English poetry—elevating previously maligned seventeenth century metaphysical poets like John Donne and Andrew Marvell while relegating Milton and the Romantics—set the tone of what was to come.

While Eliot is still widely celebrated, if mainly for his poetry, it is only as a caricature that I.A. Richards has survived. Today, he is chiefly known for Practical Criticism, a 1929 book based upon on an experiment he conducted with several of his Cambridge students, wherein he presented them with unattributed nuggets of poetry and asked the students to analyze and evaluate these texts. The results were patchy at best, as you might expect from a bunch of kids barely out of high school, even if the schools were the kind of snobbish and elitist institutions that exist to replenish the British ruling class. But what came from this experiment was a tradition of close reading that William Empson and F. R. Leavis would later inaugurate as the tradition of Cambridge criticism.

In his sharp, pithy exposition of the complex thought of each of these figures, Eagleton shows himself no slouch in the close reading department, either. In his lengthy chapter on Empson, he quotes the critic’s bravura reading of the first four lines of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73,” in which the aging of the poet is compared, in a highly compressed metaphor, first to trees on which “yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang,” and then to the “bare ruin’d choirs” of a monastery. From this sprung forth, for Empson, any number of ambiguous readings. The bare boughs are like ruined choirs, he claimed,

because ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest, and coloured with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves, because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls coloured like the skies of winter, because the cold and narcissistic charm suggested by choir-boys suits well with Shakespeare’s feeling for the object of the Sonnets, and for various sociological and historical reasons (the protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of puritanism), which it would be hard now to trace out in their proportions.

And on, and on, and on. As Eagleton writes, “Nobody had ever read poetry as closely as this before, and certainly nobody from the landed gentry.” Eagleton then produces his own fine, ironical close reading of Empson, whose Seven Types of Ambiguity, from which the quote is taken, is a “pyrotechnic display” of literary imagination, featuring readings plucked from poetry “like a magician conjuring doves from thin air,” wedded to a strong whiff of the “precocious undergraduate show-off.”

Leavis, on the other hand—and despite his later reputation—was no great close reader. His puritanical, austere, and highly moralistic form of criticism did not yield a more intense pleasure in the text, nor a reading that would more deeply impact our emotions, but one in which both social and personal knowledge was produced. Eagleton quotes Leavis’s attempt at close reading a poem by Keats, which begins: “it is not fanciful, I think, that . . . ‘cottage trees’ suggests, too, the crisp bite . . . as the teeth close in the ripe apple.” As Eagleton responds, “if this isn’t fanciful, then neither are alien abductions.”

The final figure in his pantheon of critical revolutionaries, Raymond Williams, was not much of a close textual analyst either. Perhaps, then, there is something of a feint in Eagleton’s emphasis on close reading. If that practice doesn’t unite the critics he studies, what does? The claim to their outsider status seems similarly imprecise. All five certainly looked askance at contemporary culture, but it’s hard to see the Winchester-educated Empson as anything but a member of the elite, even if his roaming, bohemian, boozing, bisexual lifestyle made him an odd fit at Cambridge. As Eagleton himself admits, there was something of the “mildly knockabout style of the wayward aristocrat” to him.

The one unifying feature of each of these writers, then­—or at least the first four—is their deep cultural pessimism. The picture they paint of British culture is one of diminished standards, wracked by the rise of a mass culture in thrall to Americanized entertainment—what Richards hyperbolically called “the sinister potentialities of the cinema and the loud-speaker.” This cheapening of culture wasn’t merely a decline in the field of art, but was taken by the critics as a symptom of a declining society. What we have here is a form of analysis that the critic Francis Mulhern has called “metaculture,” or the inquiry into the conditions under which culture itself becomes possible.

Metaculture’s guiding principle is that one can detect in the dominant forms of culture, and in the very texture and quality of language itself, the spiritual health of the society that produced it. Criticism is thus no mere parlor game to entertain elites but a profoundly serious activity that plays a vital role in society more generally. Against this backdrop, the intense cultural and moral seriousness of Leavis becomes understandable, as, too, can Eliot’s mandarin disdain for the masses. Because what is at stake is not simply how we read D.H. Lawrence or the late Conrad, but the very life of the nation itself. And if there is an elitism to all of this, well, perhaps it is because the stakes could not be higher.

In many ways, Raymond Williams sits at the apex of this critical tradition, capping it in the most sociological and historically rich manner and inaugurating the field of cultural studies along the way. Yet in doing so, he also came to abolish this mode. After Williams, with his famous insistence that “culture is ordinary,” the brand of high-cultural elitism practiced by the other Cambridge critics looked not merely suspect, but downright archaic. What Williams contributed to their theory of cultural decline was the perspective of a true outsider to the elite, a perspective founded in both the very best traditions and organizations—the culture, in the strongest possible sense—of the British working class and inflected by Marx and Marxism.

The brand of high-cultural elitism practiced by the other Cambridge critics looked not merely suspect, but downright archaic.

It was only with Williams that the cheapening of society and culture observed by thinkers like Eliot, Leavis, Orwell, and Richard Hoggart was finally set against capitalism, which transforms all things—from the most high-brow modernist novel to the cheapest, dirtiest paperback—into commodities to flog. Along with this insight came a more fundamental one: that mass media and modern society are not merely flattening, as Williams argued, but, potentially, liberating. The culture of Hollywood and the popular press is not consumed mindlessly by what was then patronizingly called the “mass,” but actively shaped and reshaped in its reception. This is what Williams meant by “culture is ordinary”: people, no matter their background or education, live within and impact the culture around them. Thus, the academic’s job is not to survey the ruins of a decaying culture from the ivory tower while throwing out the occasional barb but to directly intervene in it.

If Cambridge English and Marxism were the first two pillars of Williams’s work, then the third was his early engagement with adult education. The lessons he took from this experience were to remain with him throughout his career. For the next forty years, he wrote hundreds of book and theater reviews for the popular press, as well as plays, novels, short stories, and several works for television (a medium he had a short, albeit rich, engagement with). If Williams has an heir in this respect, then it is surely Eagleton himself, a writer who has for many decades seamlessly mixed densely academic studies with widely accessible, popularizing texts.

The exalted position of Williams in Eagleton’s book may be surprising to those who haven’t followed his work in recent decades. It was, after all, with a blistering and polemical critique of Williams that Eagleton first made his name as the enfant terrible of British criticism. Yet, as the focus of Eagleton’s work has shifted—from the 1970s to the 1990s, from a study of ideology to one of culture—Williams has returned to the fore. Still, the picture Eagleton gives of Williams in Critical Revolutionaries is no hagiography; he is upbraided for his rather too credulous vision of working-class culture and his “stilted, ponderous and convoluted style.” But what Eagleton finds of value in his work is his democratizing impulse, along with his utopian optimism. Culture is important, for Williams and Eagleton alike, because in its best moments, it helps prefigure the new world to be built.

Despite writing during a period in which the workers’ movement in Britain and abroad was under siege by the reactionary forces of capital, Williams was able to draw deeply on what he called the resources of hope against the “widespread loss of the future.” If the tradition of the critical revolutionaries is, as Eagleton says, at risk of extinction today—and along with it, even the degraded public and academic criticism that Eagleton derided in the early 1980s—then it is not in Leavis and Richards that we should look for any hope of renewal, with their elitism and hoary myths of long-gone arcadia. As Williams often remarked, the one sure fact about the golden age is that it is always gone. It is the future that is still up for grabs.