SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 81 - March 2004

‘That dreadful Terry Eagleton’

The Gatekeeper: A Memoir

By Terry Eagleton

Penguin, 2003, £6-99


Reviewed by

Niall Mulholland

TERRY EAGLETON’s memoir, The Gatekeeper, is a witty and serious book from the leading academic Marxist commentator on literature and culture in Britain.

At just 192 pages, Eagleton follows a policy of less is more when it comes to setting down his past, which I think works very well. Rather than lose the reader’s attention with too much details of his life, Eagleton draws on themes, such as religion, politics, culture, philosophy and the academic life.

The book’s title comes from the ten-year-old Terry Eagleton’s role as a ‘gatekeeper’ at a Carmelite nuns convent in Salford in England. He was part of the ceremony that saw 19-year-old novices enter convents for life. Eagleton is critical of the Catholic church hierarchy, but he has sympathy with the ideals of its nuns. Their hard conditions of life were a rejection of the outside world of materialistic capitalism. Eagleton was so impressed by this devotion he even considered becoming a priest but decided instead to pursue an academic career and by the 1960s he was a student activist of the ‘Catholic Left movement’.

Salford during Eagleton’s upbringing, in the 1940s and 1950s, was desperately poor. Terry was the son of Irish immigrants and the family suffered from poverty, illness and child deaths. He recounts how Salford school children stuffed themselves with beetroot during lunchtime, as a way to stave off hunger with cheap food, and in the afternoon classes often puked it up.

As an antidote to the physical and intellectual poverty found at school, the young Eagleton dived into literature, reading, for example, all of Dickens’ books. He won a place at grammar school, opening up a new life unthinkable for his parents’ generation. Later, as an undergraduate, he lapped up the works of philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein. Eagleton says he has fortunately enjoyed a life of writing for a living while his father slaved for 30 years in an engineering factory "which never yielded him a single pleasant moment".

At Cambridge University the undergraduate Eagleton came under the influence of Raymond Williams, the hugely influential Marxist literary and cultural critic. Soon the young protégé was publishing his own opinions on literature. Eagleton’s Marxism has been marked by its breadth of learning and by its inclusiveness, unlike previous Marxist academics that were fellow travellers of the Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain. Eagleton, for example, openly embraced the contribution of Leon Trotsky on literature. He wrote that the Russian revolutionary’s book, Literature and Revolution, first published in the 1920s, is "a classic of Marxist criticism, recording the confrontation between Marxist and non-Marxist schools of criticism in Bolshevik Russia". (Marxism and Literary Criticism, Routledge, 1976)

Terry Eagleton has published a great amount over the years, and always presents ideas that are thought provoking and insightful. But I find his prose style can sometimes be heavy going and convoluted, which is a shame, given the important opinions he wants to express. Much more accessible, and humorous, are his shorter works, and those produced for a wider audience. Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976) is one of the best introductions to Marxist literary and cultural analysis. It summarises the various Marxist interpretations of these disciplines, including the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Georgy Plekhanov, VI Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Georg Lukacs, Lucien Goldmann, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht.

Eagleton has also published polemical works against post-modernist ideas, written on Irish literature and society, and even found time to produce a novel and a play. His latest publication, Figures of Dissent (Verso, 2003), is a stimulating collection of short reviews and articles written over the last decade.

While Eagleton made good use of his place in academia – he was Warton Professor of English at Oxford University and a Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford – the memoirs make lacerating attacks against the privileged and elitist institutions of Oxford and Cambridge Universities (Oxbridge). He says of his former fellow dons: "Petulant, snobbish, spiteful, arrogant, autocratic and ferociously self-centred, they were pretty a squalid bunch".

Oxbridge was "full of people who were there largely because they could not conceivably be anywhere else, as some people can only be in top-security psychiatric institutions… There is a kind of lumpen intelligentsia in Oxbridge who have no real jobs".

Unsurprisingly Eagleton is none too popular with the Establishment for holding these views. Perhaps what annoys them most is his continuing commitment to radical politics and the need for social change. Prince Charles is reported to have referred to the author as, ‘that dreadful Terry Eagleton’.

This does not stop Eagleton from honestly recalling his experiences of the ‘far Left group’ he was an active member of during the 1980s (he does not name the organisation). Eagleton found many of his former comrades middle class, abstract and contemptuous of the working class. He attacks ultra left groups that proclaim revolution and take no account of the real situation in society. He hilariously sends up types who attend Left conferences, including the "Most alienated Person in the Conference, as well as the Real-World-Out-There, prolier-than-thou participant…"

The Socialist Party has always argued that socialists must base themselves on the interests and needs of the working class, if they are to avoid the pitfalls of the middle class ultra left, which Eagleton so caustically describes. At the same time, though, Eagleton says it is necessary to be principled and to do something about the state of the world. He finds the "most dispiriting stereotype of all" is "the militant young leftist who has matured with age into a sceptical liberal or stout conservative".

In fine passages, Eagleton outlines how we live in a ‘revolutionary age’ where the desire of people for even modest change to global capitalism means becoming a revolutionary. "Anyone who imagines otherwise is an idle utopianist, though they are more commonly known as liberals and pragmatists".

The Fellows of St Catherine’s College must be spitting fire over Eagleton’s memoirs. Amongst them, no doubt, are ex-Marxists who have jumped to the side of the ruling class and who like to prove their worth by mocking the Left. Terry Eagleton resisted this well-worn path. He quips: "Sheer horror of cliché, if nothing else, has preserved me from this fashionable fate".


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