Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Happy Birthday Terry Eagleton!

Today is the birthday of Terry Eagleton. For those of us who have gone to graduate school to study literature in the past 20 years, we know that name and we may know his writing. I always enjoyed Eagleton because I found him more readable than most of the literary theorists I tried to plow through; in fact he wrote a book that explained literary theory in an approachable way, and he did it in just 200 pages. After reading enough of my posts, it probably won't surprise you to learn that if I had to label my literary criticism that I write (and my approach to literature and pop culture more widely), I'd say that I'm a feminist first (meaning that I look at literature through the lens of gender first), with strong Marxist leanings (it's hard for me to escape the implications of class and money).

Here's a taste of Eagleton's explanations of literary criticism: "In the Cambridge of the early 1960's, this was known among other things as existentialism, a term which was for the most part an ontologically imposing way of saying that one was nineteen, far from home, feeling rather blue, and like a toddler in a play school hadn't much of a clue as to what was going on. A few decades later this condition persisted among late adolescents, but it was now known as post-structuralism" (Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, page 4).

The only book of Eagleton's that I actually own is one that was released two years ago: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. What a witty book! For a meditation on the theology of the book, head on over to this post on my theology blog. In this space, I'll give you some of his quotes about art and creativity.

He says, "Works of art cannot save us. They can simply render us more sensitive to what needs to be repaired" (159).

Here are some quotes about Christianity and literature/the imagination: "Fundamentalism is in large part a failure of the imagination . . ." (page 54) and "But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov" (7).

Here's my all-time favorite quote from the book, a view of God, not as a judge or an angry parent, but God as a creator: "God the Creator is not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body no end, but an artist, and an aesthete to boot, who made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it" (8).

Think about your own art, and then read that quote again. How do you approach your art? As a way to get rich? For the sheer delight of it? As a way to transmit knowledge? As a way to create something that has never existed before?

I'm not suggesting that there's a right way and everything else is the wrong way. I do think that if we're clear about our artistic purpose, we'll save ourselves all sorts of time and heartache and dead ends.

And whatever our purpose, I'd argue that our art should bring us joy. If it doesn't bring us joy, what's the point? If I want drudgery, I'll go scrub the kitchen floor with a toothbrush. If I want joy, I'll turn to poetry, to blogging, to photography, to paint, to recipe ingredients.


Wendy said...

Well said! I love how you end this. And yes, I started graduate school with the requisite introductory class and Eagleton's was our introductory text.

Jim Murdoch said...

Without wanting to get too scatological on you writing, for me, is an act of evacuation, a clearing out. It’s not really about exercising ghosts – that’s really a far too poetic metaphor – it really is about getting all the ‘shit’ out of my head so I can think straight. To a certain extent what ends up being written in the process is of no use to me any more, it’s what is discarded after the process of writing. It’s the process that’s important, not the product. But other people can make use of it in exactly the same was as gardeners make use of manure.

Kristin said...

Jim, your comment reminded me of something posted around the grad school halls. We were fairly polarized: the creative writers hanging out mainly with creative writers, lit folks with lit folks, and the Critical Theory scholars wanted nothing to do with any of us. Someone posted fliers around the halls with a picture of a flower and the caption: "Literature is the manure which allows the flower of criticism to bloom."

Ah, grad school!

Wendy, thanks for reading and commenting!