Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Terry Eagleton Christmas

To call Terry Eagleton a critic or even a Theorist (note the capital T) is really to damn him with faint praise. The man is uncommonly erudite and he writes with singular panache—so much so that when reading him we’re reminded of philosophers and social critics on the order of Voltaire and Nietzsche, with touches of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis thrown in for good measure. 

Like those brilliant and scurrilous gadflies, Eagleton is a counterpuncher who feigns and jabs, often hitting his mark, while seldom planting his feet on the mat long enough for us to figure out where he really stands.

But perhaps this is a false impression, based on the fact that I’ve read only a few of the essays collected in his book Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others. (I’m so out of touch, I thought  Spivak and Žižek were the same person!) 

My favorite line from that book: “For postmodern thought the normative is inherently oppressive, as though there was something darkly autocratic about civil rights legislation or not spitting in the milk jug.”

That remark strikes me as both true and funny.

I recently stumbled upon Eagleton’s book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Reading the first chapter, “The Scum of the Earth,” I was impressed by his grasp of Jesus’s mission, Aquinas’s analysis of first causes, and so on. He’s well aware, as few thinkers are today, that we live in the midst of entirely different categories of being and often partake of several simultaneously.

A few Eagleton sallies:

In Nietzsche’s view, the death of God must also spell the death of Man—that is to say, the end of a certain overweening humanism—if absolute power is not simply to be transplanted from the one to the other. Otherwise, humanism will always be secretly theological. It will be a continuation of God by other means. God will simply live a shadowy afterlife in the form of respectable suburban morality, as indeed he does today.

He responds to Christopher Hitchens assertion that “thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of any­thing important” as follows:

But Christianity was never meant to the an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.

Pursuing the issue of God as creator, Eagleton continues:

God for Christian theology is not a mega-manufacturer. He is rather what sustains all things in being by his love, and would still be this even if the world had no beginning. Cre­ation is not about getting things off the ground. Rather, God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever. Not being any sort of entity himself, however, he is not to be reckoned up alongside these things, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

In case we haven’t quite wrapped our heads around this concept, Eagleton lays it on a little thicker, jumping from point to point as if he’s afraid our attention might be wandering.

God and the universe do not make two. In an act of Judaic iconoclasm, we are forbidden to make graven images of this nonentity because the only image of him is human beings. There is a document that records Gods endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion, known as the Bible. 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.

Or, as one might say in more theological language, for the hell of it. He made it as gift, superfluity, and gratuitous gesture—out of nothing, rather than out of grim necessity. In fact, for Christian theology there is no necessity to the world at all, and God may have long ago bitterly regretted succumb­ing to the sentimental impulse which inspired him to throw it off in the first place. He created it out of love, not need. There was nothing in it for him. The Creation is the original acte gratuit.

The danger implicit in this position is that morality relinquishes pride of place to delight. But where’s the danger?

If we are God’s creatures, it is in the first place because, like him, we exist (or should exist) purely for the pleasure of it.

And where does Jesus fit into all of this? The radical Romanti­cs (according to Eagleton) including Marx, find in Jesus a character who fully grasped this radical disjunct between instrumental reason and the ontological freefall we actually live.

 Jesus, unlike most responsible American citizens, appears to do no work, and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He is presented as homeless, propertyless, celibate, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdain­ful of kinsfolk, without a trade, a friend of outcasts and pa­riahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, careless about purity regulations, critical of traditional authority, a thorn in the side of the Establishment, and a scourge of the rich and powerful. Though he was no revolu­tionary in the modern sense of the term, he has something of the lifestyle of one. He sounds like a cross between a hippie and a guerilla fighter.

Food for thought, on these, the shortest days of the year.

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