March 28, 2018
ou’d be forgiven for thinking the Left's internal struggles consist of tactical debates over how best to destroy things. Karl Marx himself, in his Thesis on Feuerbach, wrote that all which exists “deserves to perish.” If even the works of great writers like Goethe and Shakespeare―let alone Marx and Friedrich Engels―are subject to the gulag of historical negation, then what wisdom can the Left draw from? When continuity is itself deconstructed, how will the Left achieve anything of lasting value?
Irish literary scholar Terry Eagleton has dedicated the better part of his career to such questions, struggling to insert Western culture's glories into inter-Leftist debates. His most recent book, Radical Sacrifice, continues this struggle against the Faustian “spirit of perpetual negation.”
Eagleton manned the ramparts early in the culture wars, staking out a lonely position that was simultaneously anti-capitalist and anti-postmodernist. He provides an alternative mode of Leftist thought, one spurned by the likes of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault and their current gender studies spawn. Eagleton is the ghost of what Leftism could have been, and he brings with him the entire lineage of Western culture. He differs from many other members of the post-70’s Left by the fact that he is a Leftist because of and not in spite of Western culture. This generous spirit towards the past, along with the ease with which Eagleton wears his learning, makes him a joy to read.
For the past few years Eagleton has written slim but powerful volumes focusing on issues usually associated with wisdom (e.g., evil, God, and death)―things which lie at the very root of our social order. Radical Sacrifice shares in the spirit of these previous works, in a bid to reclaim a notion of sacrifice for the secular Left. It draws from the thought and work of Thomas Aquinas, Albert Camus, Rainer Maria Rilke, William Butler Yeats, Søren Kierkegaard, Henry James, William Empson, and a host of others. Eagleton's arguments are a joy to read even when unconvincing.
Eagleton argues that, since “conventional liberal wisdom” sees “self-fulfillment and self-dispossession” as essentially at odds, we need a clearer articulation of what sacrifice is and what our individual deaths mean within a larger symbolic order. “Death is one of the few residues of the absolute in a secular age,” he writes, “and as such it is at odds with its prevailing orthodoxies.” Assurance of our personal annihilation does more than simply bind people together. It also gives shape and coherence to everything which comes before it. Transience makes life poignant, and underscores the gratuitous nature of creation itself. Appreciation for both life's gratuity and ephemerality, Eagleton suggests, allows us to understand the symbolic value of sacrifice―especially the sacrifice of one’s own life.
The most obvious example of such sacrifice is Jesus's crucifixion. Most leftist literature scholars treat the defining episode of Christianity with fatigued condescension; Eagleton provides a deep and thoughtful analysis of the moral meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. For Eagleton, “the sacred represents a critique of instrumentality,” and “[e]very political regime stands under the judgment of the cross.” Eagleton is not religious, but having been educated from a young age in various Catholic institutions and taken theologian and priest Herbert McCabe as a mentor, he respects religious thought and moral sentiments. His analysis of Christian thought is secular, but serious:
If Freud names this condition neurosis, Paul gives it the title of sin, which he regards as a matter of the unconscious. When I sin, he writes in Romans, ‘I do not understand my own actions’. The sinful subject is a split subject. To sin is to be decentered or self-divided, an enigma to oneself, as one’s most reputable intentions are derailed by forces which cannot be controlled and of which one is a mere help-centered subject, rather as neurotic behavior can be altered not by an act of will but by changes which reach deep into the unconscious. ‘Flesh’ (sarx) is the name Paul gives to the monstrously impersonal drives he calls sin, as opposed to the body (soma), which in his view is holy.
Eagleton might denude religion of its metaphysical foundations, but he takes its moral claims seriously. He might quote Jacques Lacan a little too much in his defense of Christianity, but he also dedicated his book to the Carmelite Sisters of Thicket Priory.
Eagleton is anything but doctrinaire. He writes in his introduction that people shouldn’t be any more surprised that a professor with a
Marxist legacy should take an interest in theology than that a liberal or social democrat should take an interest in Stendhal or Flaubert. For Marxism is a theory and practice of historical change, not a vision of human existence, and as such is not intended to have anything particularly arresting to say about evil or mortality, suffering or forgiveness, tragic breakdown or the nature of nihilism. For such questions, one tends rather to have recourse to Dostoevsky or St. Paul, Shakespeare or Sebald.
One can imagine a Marxist feeling about Eagleton’s fidelity to the dialectic the same curious ambivalence that a Christian feels about Eagleton’s interest in Christ.
Eagleton’s idiosyncrasies are disarming, but also a bit tragic. People on the political right will read him with interest, learning much and honing their own thoughts before gently disagreeing with his cargo cult version of religion. They’ll think he’s wrong, but at least for the right reasons. But what will the Left think? How will Eagleton’s project of preserving wisdom for the Left be received by the Left itself? Can a text which liberally quotes Aquinas and Joseph Conrad hold any truck with them, or, having existed, does it deserve to perish?