JUNE 24, 2013
TERRY EAGLETON IS A FUNNY MAN. Writing about Hal Gladfelder’s Fanny Hill in Bombay for the London Review of Books, he offered an overview of the changes in academic manners and morals he has seen over the last few decades. “In the prelapsarian 1960s,” Eagleton recalls:
a typical critical essay might be entitled “Window Imagery in the Later Pasternak,” while in the theoretico-political 1970s, “Class Struggle in The Divine Comedy” was a more predictable topic. By the 1980s and 1990s, conference papers with titles like “Putting the Anus back into Coriolanus” had arrived on the scene.
This is great stuff, and the fact that Eagleton’s own career has thrived amidst these intellectual tectonic shifts makes it all the more hilarious. Mock what you know.
When asked, in a 2007 interview with The New York Times, if he understood why the Prince of Wales found him so “offensive” as to refer to him as “that dreadful Terry Eagleton,” he replied, “I think just existing is probably enough.” But of course it’s a little more than that. A scion of the House of Windsor is unlikely to be enamored of a left-wing theorist whose long bibliography includes works with titles like Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature (1990), The Truth about the Irish (2001), and Why Marx Was Right (2011). That Times interview coincided with the publication of Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life (2007), and the interviewer, Deborah Solomon, asked whether he was going to do an American author tour to promote it. “No,” Eagleton replied. “As I get older, I find my visits to the States get shorter because I can’t take the general culture very much. I know I am back in the States because at the hotel breakfasts they are all talking about money.” I remember thinking, when I read this at the time: Maybe Terry should get out a bit more. If he left the hotel and walked as far as, say, the nearest Denny’s, I think he’d be able to find a place free from such vulgar pecuniary chitchat. Be that as it may, he hasn’t let his reservations about America get in the way of analyzing and pontificating about it in Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America, his 40th book by my reckoning.
In the interests of fullish disclosure, I should say that there’s a certain amount of autobiographical overlap between Eagleton and me: we’re both from the north of England, both have Irish Catholicism in our backgrounds, both studied English at Cambridge — though he was there a while before I was. By the time I arrived he’d moved on to become fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, thus launching a distinguished scholarly career, whereas I gave up all thoughts of academia at about the same time that Eagleton was convincing the English literary world that French theory was the way to go. Eagleton and I also both happen to be married to Americans, a source of regular linguistic and cultural confusion as well as enduring delight. In the case of my own marriage, even after a decade and a half together, there’s still plenty of “splainin” to be done by both sides from time to time. And once in a while, I admit, I’ve found myself saying, “You know maybe we should write a book about the Anglo-American experience, titled something like Fags, Fannies, and Football.” But in the end I’ve always concluded that this would be asking for trouble. Most Americans and Britons are quite content to live in mutual incomprehension, if not downright ignorance. What’s more, a surprisingly large number seem to think they already know all there is to know. Americans who’ve seen a few episodes of Downton Abbey, Britons who’ve spent a cut-price weekend in Manhattan: both reckon they’ve got a pretty firm grasp of the “general culture.”
In some ways Eagleton seems to be consciously flattering these lovers of received opinion, and he’s not afraid to make some pretty broad, and often debatable, generalizations. “Americans find it hard to do things by halves.” “The British are no enthusiasts of extremes.” “Americans tend to sling things together that Europeans would keep strictly apart.” (He’s talking about food.) “Most Americans are too straight-talking to make effective satirists.” (Oh please!) “Tourists from the States also stand out because a good many of them tend to hobble and waddle, being overweight and unused to walking.” Most of these observations are not exactly original, but Eagleton tries to cover his back with a section titled “On the Usefulness of Stereotypes,” in which he warns that his “comments must occasionally be seen as involving a degree of poetic license and a pinch of salt.”
That’s all well and good, and perhaps suggests that Eagleton’s book has been specifically designed to provoke and tease, but it sometimes makes for weary reading. Yes, yes, Americans say “excuse me” when the British would say “sorry”; no, no Americans don’t use the word “fortnight.” But who among Eagleton’s potential readers doesn’t already know this? It helps a little that he sometimes drifts into Wildean paradox: “It is not that Americans exist only on the surface, but that their surface is where their depths are supposed to be.” But at other times he seems to be describing a culture that’s as unfamiliar to me as that of the planet Zog: Americans who, upon visiting Britain, are appalled by uncovered sugar bowls (are Americans really appalled? for that matter, do English cafés even still have uncovered sugar bowls?); and who, like George W. Bush, apparently pronounce “tourism” so that it sounds like “terrorism.”
Eagleton is of course entitled to create his own dream version of America — each of us does, whether we were born here or not — and he’s clearly a writer who enjoys being a provocateur: there’s something to argue with on pretty much every page of Across the Pond, and usually something downright hilarious, too. Eagleton’s wit is never entirely benign. Consider: “The idea that one should respect other people’s beliefs is plainly absurd. It is like claiming that one should admire the cut of people’s trousers simply because they are people’s trousers.” Or: “To find the cosmos mildly entertaining has always been a sign of power in Britain. It is the political reality behind Oxford and Cambridge wit. Seriousness is for scientists and shopkeepers.”
Eagleton — who has written in defense of Christianity and against New Atheists like Richard Dawkins — is particularly scathing about American religion. “One of the most fundamental differences between the United States and Europe,” he writes, “is that in the States the twinkly-eyed, grandfatherly type serving you in the local shop is quite likely to believe that most of his fellow humans are destined for hellfire.” But that last one seems to indicate again how little Eagleton gets out in America. It’s hard enough to find a “local shop” (a better American equivalent might be “mom and pop store”) still in business, let alone one that employs a twinkly-eyed grandfather, fundamentalist or no. And again when he writes, “‘We are all responsible for everything that happens to us,’ Oprah Winfrey once declared, a statement that might come as a surprise to those who have landed up in intensive care because a drunken truck driver ran them down.” Might it come as surprise to Eagleton that one or two Americans have already had that thought? His (ironic) conception of God as both a good American and a good capitalist, on the other hand, strikes me as wonderful, unexpected, and true, while also guaranteed to annoy capitalists and religionists alike: “God is a very fine American because he is such a fantastic success […] There could be no better role model for an aspiring entrepreneur. God is not dependent on anyone else, and as such is a kind of cosmic advertisement for American individualism.”
Given Eagleton’s backlist, it’s no surprise that he’s fascinated by the American economic system, since it manifests capitalism in its most “perfected” form. There are times when he seems almost to approve of that form: “No way of life is more diverse, pluralistic and transgressive than capitalism. It is as promiscuous as a porn star and as non-discriminatory as the most tended-hearted liberal.” What may be more surprising still: he’s ultimately concerned with what we might call (and I’m amazed to find myself quoting the artist Richard Prince) “spiritual America.” “[O]ne of the many paradoxes of the United States,” Eagleton writes,
is that it is both fleshly and ascetic, worldly and otherworldly. The nation is as metaphysical as it is materialistic. The will which drives you to accumulate goods also detaches you from them. It does so because all such goods are finite, and therefore imperfect. If the will gorges itself upon them, it does so with its gaze fixed steadfastly on infinity.
He’s right, isn’t he?
Does Terry Eagleton, in any sense, “like” America? After reading Across the Pond, I’m not sure, but I guess he must at least care about it, otherwise why write the book at all? And he does make a few “modest proposals” indicating how America might be “saved.” That wording (which is Eagleton’s) implies Swiftian satire, but in fact his proposals are fairly gentle. They include a suggestion that Americans “stop selling themselves as the finest country in the world,” and another that they learn how to properly use a teapot.
As I reread my review before sending it off to the editor, I realize it seems rather pissier than I intended it to be. I actually do like parts of Eagleton’s book very much, but let’s face it, pissiness is what we English do best. In some quarters it’s even regarded as a sign of affection. Is that utterly un-American? I do hope not.
Geoff Nicholson is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His books include the novels Bleeding London and The Hollywood Dodo, and the non-fiction The Lost Art of Walking. He blogs about “food, sex, obsession, and the madness of the mouth” at psycho-gourmet.blogspot.com.