Terry Eagleton’s Marxist methodology of reading “literature”.

Terry Eagleton’s “Introduction to Literary Theory” goes over the developments of the being of, firstly, literature itself, to then towards literary theories that cover it. From the discourse of ‘fact or fiction’ to the Formalists and the Practical Critics the title of “What is Literature” takes many forms. Eagleton exposes a Marxist methodology in his analysis of the varying discourses on the matter of “literature”. As his take begins, he presents some classic Marxist tendencies of argumentation; placing on the table the thing that is to be refuted. In terms the same way as Bertolt Brecht presents the ideas of motherhood, womanhood, chastity, trauma and war of his time in an unfiltered form in “Mother Courage and her children”, Eagleton puts the Formalists, the Practical Critics, New Critics and Criticism, as well as the essence of Coleridgean notion of ‘literature’ onto display.

Eagleton’s approach is Marxist because he’s engaging with the materiality of culture that produces literature, reverberant of Karl Marx’s Historical Materialism; engaging with the materiality of literary texts. For him it is not transcendental wisdom or some divinely inspired revelatory discourse that finds its way into literature, neither is it his position that real literature is a reflection of society, because that concludes as bad Marxism. Because if it would be a classical mirror, both Marxist analysis and literature, then we would be forced to conclude that “Madame Bovary” deals with aspects of Bovarysme and or the protagonist represents the social behaviour of the French women when Flaubert was writing. Another way that his Marxist tilt comes into play is from the way he critiques a sense of drawing new answers out; proposing it in terms of paradoxes and leaving it open ended for the reader to negotiate about. He also displays sensibilities of Historical Materialism when he critiques the experiment of I. A. Richards. To demonstrate the possible range of literary value-judgements Richards provided his undergraduates a set of poems without contextualising them or mentioning the author or title. Although, as expected, the results were incredibly varying, for Eagleton a ‘base’ formed all their judgements, “a tight consensus of unconscious valuations”. Eagleton provides the evidence of shared habits of “perception” and “interpretation” that all of the participants contained within their valuations; basing it on them being “presumably, young, white…upper-middle-class, privately educated English people of the 1920s.” Eagleton notably mentions how “these value-judgements by which it is constituted are historically variable” and go back to not personal taste but “assumptions by which certain social groups exercise and maintain power over others”. Eagleton’s approach to the discourse on the matters concerning the essence of “literature” demonstrates the Marxist methodology of reading it. He takes on the Formalist school of thought as a “perverse” one, for that they rest the case for literary essence in the connections and bonds of literary devices and structures in a literary text, concerning with the language to the extent of forgetting the literary ‘content’. The attempt to thus ground literature’s essence still had issues — the ‘estrangement’ case could be applied to any type of writing. ‘Non-pragmatic’ discourse is what would become of it, as anything could be read as literature, if things are to be taken to the extent of generality, outside of the boundaries of its founding context (historicity and materiality). Eagleton mentions however, that much that is classified as literature, the truth-value and practical relevance of what is said is considered important to the overall effect. Non-pragmatism on this part would leave the definition of literature on how somebody would decide to read a text, not the nature of the text itself. Nonetheless, the answer to the differentiation between the texts of Darwin and Donne, according to Eagleton, therefore in much resides in the value-judgements of a society which is contingent upon its historical developments. Although the idea of what is known to be ‘bad literature’ would form cracks in this ideal, this showcases that there is something still that presides in how literary discourse functions. The followed consequence of it would be that anything can be literature, and all literature would be ‘re-written’ by their readers of any kind of society. Even if one was to take for granted the ‘factual’ knowledge that presides in any society to whatever extent, it would still hold contradictory to the Eagleton’s (Marxian) sense of knowledge production (even with descriptive statements like the founding date of a Cathedral) of those set of statements which on a deeper level preside in the value-categories that have come to fruition over time. It would seem such that Eagleton’s understanding on the essence of literature is surrounded by this sense of knowledge production. The structures of values that inform and underlies the ‘factual’ statements of ours of any kind, outside of literature, are known as ‘ideologies’, those that connect power-structures and power-relations of the society that has formed the notion of ‘literature’. He tries to make ends meet with his Marxist tendencies by insisting about his critique of the “perverse” sect of Formalism on that although they did not deny the relation between art and social realities but they proclaimed a detachment of the critic’s business from the social reality which related to art.

This novel approach to literary valuations by Eagleton is kindred to the Marxist valuation of religion as just another historically materially produced entity. Eagleton however doesn’t commit to a kind of mechanical Marxism, moving from ‘text’ to ‘ideology’ to ‘social relations’ to ‘productive forces.’ Rather he is concerned with the unity of these levels. Literature may be part of the superstructure, but it is not merely the passive reflection of the economic or material base.

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