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The Gatekeeper: A Memoir by Terry Eagleton

The Gatekeeper: A Memoir

by Terry Eagleton

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Terry Eagleton grew up poor and Catholic in working class northern England to become one of the great literary critics of the Western world. His Literary Theory: An Introduction is a classic, and the ideal pedagogical tool for busting literary hubris, as it is unremittingly critical of all theory, even his own Marxism. In his memoir, The Gatekeeper, he is a writer with a fine, biting wit. At age ten, he was the “gatekeeper” at a convent—the last male (besides priests, who, Eagleton insists with a smirk, aren’t men) those 18-21 year-old nuns ever saw. Noted—and too often dismissed in the U.S.—for his socialism, Eagleton was radicalized early: “The Christian gospel invites us to contemplate the reality of human history in the broken body of an executed political criminal.” Eagleton’s humor bites, but his biggest teeth are his moral convictions, which refuse to separate the academic enterprise from the rest of the so-called real world:

There was a crazed precision about the Church’s doctrinal system, rather like those geography textbooks which record the height of Mount Everest as exactly 29,006 feet, or railway timetables in some ramshackle region of the world which announce the departure of a train at 11:03 a.m. It resembles the insane exactitude of the psychotic whose mathematical calculations are impeccable, but who is carrying them out perched on a window-ledge thirty floor up. For some, this might sound a reasonable description of literary theory.

Eagleton wants literary theorists to write the way he wants people to live: with their feet on the ground, and watching where (and upon whom) they’re stepping. “For… one is saved not by some exotic cult or ritual, but by the quality of one’s ordinary, unglamorous relationships with others, by feeding the hungry and protecting the widows and orphans from the violence of the rich.” He brained (knowledge is power, and Eagleton’s brain is sometimes a blunt instrument) his way into Cambridge, and trained as a literary critic. But Eagleton is not just telling the story of his life, though there’s plenty of juicy bits in this short memoir, but describing the life of a mind alive in the world, encountering other minds:

I am convinced the postmodernists are wrong to be so deeply in love with the constructed, the invented, the self-fashioning. Piously opposed to universal truths, they generalize what it feels like to live in Manhattan to the entire globe. On the contrary, what governs our lives for the most part is the given, the habitual, the sheer inertia of history, circumstance, inheritance. It was a Saul Bellow character who remarked that history was a nightmare during which he was trying to get some sleep.

This celebration of the quotidian, which is often more of a if-I-pinch-it-will-it-yelp? attitude, shines forth in Eagleton’s love of what he calls the “anti-philosophers.” These include Socrates, the “clown, ironist and self-proclaimed ignoramus,” and Nietzsche, but most of all Wittgenstein. It was Wittgenstein who said that philosophy was a futile endeavor, as the things worth saying couldn’t be, while the worthless filled philosophical texts. Philosophers, Eagleton claims, simply can’t see “the truth… concealed… under our noses.” But that was the early Wittgenstein, who then spent the rest of his life philosophizing. This double-edged life is what Eagleton seems to identify with more than Wittgenstein himself, because writing literary criticism is a lot like philosophy: it wants obfuscation and pedantry and not the obvious truths of the everyday. And beyond his discussion of his early life and formative ideas, Eagleton’s memoir loses its celebratory edge and grows tedious, frustrated, and frustrating.

In the final three chapters, Eagleton becomes the intellectual equivalent of a WWF smack-down artist. He seems to forget the model of Socrates, or of Brecht, who had beside his typewriter a donkey with this line taped to its ass: “Even I must understand.” His fine sense of humor evaporates, and his teeth get sharper and bloodier. The attitude is understandable—the world is a mess, wealth is distributed with outrageous inequality, and so on—but it’s a shame he loses the double-edged antics of the anti-philosopher.

At his best, Eagleton’s writing doesn’t dilute the toxicity of the human, all too human, world, so much as transcend it, giving the reader expansive plateaus from which to contemplate and take action. At his worst, which is the second half of The Gatekeeper, his moral realism becomes a dull drumbeat of idealism. The book is short (only 178 pages), though, and for the first four chapters, it’s well worth reading.

Originally published in Rain Taxi ( )
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312316135, Paperback)

Often scathingly funny, frequently tender, and always completely engaging, The Gatekeeper is Terry Eagleton's memoirs, his deep-etched portraits of those who influenced him, either by example or by contrast: his father, headmasters, priests, and Cambridge dons. He was a shy, bookish, asthmatic boy keenly aware of social inferiority yet determined to make his intellectual way. The Gatekeeper mixes the soberly serious with the downright hilarious, skewer-sharp satire with unashamed fondness, the personal with the political. Most of it all it reveals a young man learning to reconcile oppositions: a double-edged portrait of the intellectual as a young man.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:22 -0400)

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