Who’s afraid of Terry Eagleton?

Back in the early 1980s, when I was a naive but well-intentioned Politics student in Sheffield, I was mostly inspired by reading the great Marxist historian and CND campaigner E. P. Thompson – “The Making of the English Working Class”, his biography of William Morris, his anti-0nuclear writings, and a book called “The Poverty of Theory”, which set out his strong grievances with and objections to a prevailing structuralist Marxism (or perhaps Marxist structuralism?), exemplified by Louis Althusser. Now of course I never read any Althusser, being in thrall to Mr E.P., but I always associated the books of Terry Eagleton on Marxist theory and literary criticism with a similarly forbidding and over-theoretical structuralism, and left them to fester on the shelves of the still-lamented Independent Bookshop of Glossop Road.

Imagine my surprise then, in recent years, as I have come to appreciate and enjoy the writings of Mr Eagleton on culture, literature and politics, discovering him to be, not a puritanical continental Marxist steeped in impenetrable jargon, but a deeply humanist and occasionally even humorous (in an appropriately dry manner) writer, with an unexpected catholic bent. Thus this week, taking advantage of the never-ending Verso discount sale (sign up to their email list here: https://www.versobooks.com/), I have read his only novel “Saints And Scholars” (1987), an account of an imaginary meeting of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Nikolai Bakhtin, James Connolly and Leopold Bloom (not actually a real person) in the west of Ireland in 1916. Rather than an arid complex intellectual exercise, I found it a roillicking, wordy, and self-consciously ridiculous little book, in often purple prose. If you can picture yourself guffawing at an imaginary conversation between Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell in Cambridge, this is the book for you. (Or perhaps it’s only me.)

I was delighted to finish the book while sitting with an Earl Grey and an almond slice in the back yard of the Boogie Woogie Bagel Bar in uptown Wakefield (http://www.bwbagelbar.co.uk/), the first such cafe visit for over three months. Obviously I have no faith in such normality becoming a secure habit.

Some musical recommendations from the past weeks, no particular order:

Roger Robinson https://rogerrobinson.bandcamp.com/

Miles Okazaki https://milesokazaki.bandcamp.com/

Moor Mother https://moormother.bandcamp.com/

Pat Thomas playing Duke Ellington https://www.cafeoto.co.uk/shop/pat-thomas-pat-thomas-plays-duke-ellington/

and the late great Keith Tippett https://discus-music.co.uk/catalogue-mobile/dis81-219-detail

Here’s to more reading and more listening and more cafes.

2 Replies to “Who’s afraid of Terry Eagleton?”

  1. Pete, I’ve also enjoyed reading E P Thompson and Terry Eagleton and I agree with your description of Eagleton’s gifts as a writer. Not yet read his novel, which I didn’t know about, but did enjoy “Why Marx was Right” (2012) and his book reviews in the Guardian and London Review of Books. At YSP I used to rush into the gift shop to browse through “Humour” (2019) which has got some good jokes and which I really must buy. Thanks for the Verso signposting and have joined their list. We look forward to the live music and continuing discussions on similar themes as soon as possible.

  2. Interesting! I have just finished the Jeffrey Boakye book that you sent me, and am trying to get hold of some Angela Davis. Everyone else, apparently, is also trying to get hold of Angela Davis so I have not been able to. Glad to hear you have finally managed a cafe visit

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