Saturday, July 07, 2007

It's all gone to the dogs

And, of course, the ‘rot set in’ with the ‘post-war welfare state’. Another of Peter Hitchen's rants? No it is Terry Eagleton on the state of radical literature today.

For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life.

Salman Rushdie? … moved from being a remorseless satirist of the west to cheering on its criminal adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan’. Christopher Hitchens? … looked set to become the George Orwell de nos jours, is likely to be remembered as our Evelyn Waugh, having thrown in his lot with Washington's neocons’.

Only Harold Pinter is an ‘honourable exception’. This is a big clue for anyone who has cringed at Pinter’s embarrassingly awful political tirades. The criterion for inclusion amongst the pantheon of great radicals is to agree with Eagleton, especially on Iraq.

So what have these writers done to upset the eminent critic? Exactly what Orwell did; take a morally consistent line against totalitarianism. This is from Orwell’s essay, Why I Write; ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as 1 understand it’. Note that these terms are not mutually exclusive but complementary. For Eagleton, opposition to the totalitarianism of our day automatically excludes anyone as being considered as a partisan of the democratic left.

Amongst those he praises are Brecht and Sartre, who, despite their considerable literary qualities, both accommodated themselves to Stalinism. And this should really get to Nick Cohen; Eagleton writes that “Virginia Woolf” (a particular bête noir of Cohen’s) “places herself to the left of almost every other major English novelist”. His view of radicalism is a narrow one, as is his literary canon.

I suggest he goes back and studies Orwell properly and then consider whether radical literary greatness is signified by writing unthinking tirades against Western democracies, combined with apologetics for totalitarianism, or by clarity of thought, a rigorous mental honesty and a consistent commitment to human liberty.

Norm adds an additional and important point


telltheworld said...

You forgot to mention Phiip Larkin, who put Hull (where is that place?) on the cultural and geographical map.

Terry Eaggleton was and is my cultural hero, despite his hang ups about religion - damn those priests. He would have made a good and faithful member of the SJ, as he seems to always be ready to jump the the defence of the Catholic faith against atheists like that egotist Dawkins.

Lord Pissfoot of Strathclyde said...

Presumably, this is the same Harold Pinter who wrote this poem called 'Democracy':

There’s no escape.
The big pricks are out.
They’ll fuck everything in sight.
Watch your back.

They'll be studying that one in schools long after we've gone.

The Plump said...

You forgot to mention Phiip Larkin, who put Hull (where is that place?) on the cultural and geographical map.

That is a bit hard on Andrew Marvell and William Wilberforce!

I agree with Eagleton on Larkin, I can't stand his misanthropy. Those who remember working with him can also attest to the fact that he wasn't putting on an act.

For me, to be politically interesting literature has to ask the awkward questions and not conform to a cosy ideological consensus and that was Orwell's strength. In this piece it strikes me that Eagleton was asking for just such a conformity.

Anonymous said...

The possibility of being a political writer is there as a statement in Orwell, but his own attempts, apart from the strictly speaking biographical 'Homage to Catalonia' are less than satisfactory. The essays on the other hand are extraordinary, even sixty years later.

If Eagleton has decided that for a novelist only the overt political questions are important, what then of Ian McEwan's 'Saturday', set on the baleful day when leftists and Social Democrats linked arms with the avowed enemies of the open society? Perhaps too equivocal, middle class? Not engaged?

It will make interesting reading in years to come. How will today's fundamentalist huggers wriggle away from their pasts?

Anonymous said...

Every Slam poet and every song writer that I hear of a political persuasion is against the government and the Iraq war. Denouncing Bush and Blair is just about obligatory.

I would say that if you're wanting political writers they would be likes of Billy Bragg and Attila the Stockbroker.

Anonymous said...

Terry Eagleton is good on literature I think but when it comes to politics, he just chucks in words like "global capitalism" in an incoherent mix. When it comes to Islamism, he dances round it. I did a fisk on one of his Guardian articles here:-

John said...

Thanks, Fat Man. You saved me the effort of a post on this execrable article. I was truly disappointed by Eagleton, who seems to imagine that "engagement" means toeing a party line uncritically, viz, his mention of Brecht and Sartre, the latter of whom, in his unworldiness, threw in his lot with the communists just as everyone else was leaving. This is anything but ENGAGING with politics; it's naivete, a failure to recognize the complexity of political decision-making, instead adopting a consistent position based on predetermined categories, ironically, the very thing Sartre warned against in his Critique of Dialectical Reason.

As for "engaged" writers, well, I don't imagine Eagleton thinks of Rob Newman as a writer worthy of consideration, nor indeed that Newman's altermondism constitutes "politics" as he understands it, but then I for one think that's Eagleton's loss. He seems to be in a world of his own (but seeing as he's a Marxist, a Catholic, and an academic, why should we be surprised?).

The Plump said...

kb player's earlier fisking is indeed excellent. You need to use the html tags to make the link work so here it is: Terry Eagleton

There are other authors too that are interesting political writers - Jonathan Coe for example is one I have always enjoyed reading.
Oliver Kamm also had a fit of anti-communist indignation about Eagleton's praise of MacDiarmid. I must say, 'First Hymn to Lenin' sounds grim! Writers and Politics

Anonymous said...

Yes, MacDiarmid was a grim old tankie who rejoined the CPGB in 1956 having been expelled for nationalist deviationism at much the same time as he was expelled from the SNP for being a tankie. Early lyrics are wonderful, mind.

Anonymous said...

the plump:- thanks very much for your comments and for fixing the link.
Further thoughts on Eagleton's article:-
1. It's lazy
2. Larkin was to the right of Norman Tebbit but was hardly a political writer anyway. A good essayist on literature though.
3. Martin Amis is a lousy political writer, always giving the impression of having swotted up on the subject the night before. (In his articles. I can't get through his novels. Again, he's good on language and literature).
4. I would say that the essay and pamphlet writing of the past is now done on blogs. There's some good political writing there eg Shuggy, Shiraz Socialist. They are all children of Orwell when it comes to clarity of expression. However blog-writing tends to shortness and is not necessarily good for developing arguments.
5. I bear a grudge against Terry Eagleton as I once spoilt a holiday by trying to read Notes on a Revolutionary Criticism.
6. He doesn't mention E P Thompson, maybe because EPT was anti-totalitarian as well.

The Plump said...

kb player

No 5 was by far the worst offence, I would hate him forever. Take something readable next time.

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