Monday, October 7, 2013

Terry Eagleton at Santa Clara University

An Informal Chat About Sports as the Opiate of the Masses

This evening, prolific scholar Terry Eagleton will lecture on "Why God for Christians is Good for Nothing," but I was fortunate to be invited to take part in a small discussion with Eagleton before his lecture for the Bannan Institute. Below I've put together a summary/paraphrase of the discussion had by members of the Santa Clara faculty with Professor Eagleton.

During the discussion, Eagleton remarked that he does not have an email and he has never read the internet, but hopefully my notes from our discussion will prove interesting for those who were unable to attend. Note: these notes and summary come from what I typed as he and others spoke, so I acknowledge the potential for inaccuracies of details. The overall tone of the discussion was collegial and friendly.

To get the discussion started, Dr. Marilyn Edelstein asked, given Eagleton's work with Marxist theory and Marx's famous critique of religion as opiate of the people, how does Eagleton explain his move towards religion?

Eagleton explained that his concern with theology was always there. He joked that it also might be "fire insurance--I'm getting old." He also attributed his theoretical work to the era of theory ascending while left politics were also in ascent. It was time when there was too much trust in politics. Christianity went underground. Although politics like everything has its limitations.

As of late, he's had recurrent work with tragedy. However, Marx's point about religion as the opiate of the people is often taken out of context. In the context of Marx's criticism of capitalist society as a heartless world, religion as a kind of opiate was more positive. "What's wrong with a little opium?" he jested. Eagleton explained that Marx doesn't condemn religion, he just argues that there could be a better way. Eagleton argues that in the heart of the heartless world, his opinion is now that sports is opiate of the people. He cites Marx's daughter attending a secular school, and Marx saying that she'd be a great deal off reading the New Testament. Marx has little to say about the future--future is the failure of the present. His relation to religion is a complex one.

I followed up asking how his criticism of sports being the opiate of the masses went over at certain universities in the U.S. where American football is the reason many students attend the school. 

He admitted that he'd made the mistake of offending taxi drivers by criticizing sports, a mistake he wouldn't make again.

(Eagleton, Edelstein and Phyllis Brown)

He also explained that he'd been more reconciled to the idea of death, thinking that the future was huge crowds moving towards him "mesmerized by a small electronic square." He said that he was always seeing people forever shouting boring things across from him on train, things like, "Have you got the invoices?"

Father (Fr.) Mick McCarthy, an administrator and Religious Studies faculty member asked: Could you explain your writing process because you're known for writing very quickly? And in your career looking back--what were your significant intellectual surprises?

Eagleton said that he suffered from "hypergraphia." He said they'd finally come up with a diagnosis for his excessive writing. "I can't stop writing," he said, relating that he has three books in the pipeline while continuing to conceive of others. He enjoys writing, and that he's of the category of people who are writers--it's not a matter of what they write, only that they write. He said he's written for the theater and even a film script--it's artificial the difference between creative and scholarly; what I write rather more contingent. I'm more one who creates in the act of writing. If only I disliked it a bit more, I might slow down and others might catch up.

Someone suggested that if he were more interested in sports perhaps he might feel less compelled to write less.

He said, being Irish, I lack a visual and spatial sense--good verbal sense, not much visual sense, I'm always blundering around the place.

I asked Professor Eagleton if he had a daily writing schedule so as to keep up with his writing.

He responded, "I don't have a daily schedule, I can do it anytime like combing your hair, I can pick  it up and put it down again. I don't tend to [go back and forth between projects]. I only work on one project, except for short journalism, and finish a book at a time."

Dr. Stephen Carroll asked if he goes back while he's writing to revise as he's writing?
"No. Revise? I revise more than I used to. I'm fairly obsessive about style. I might be the same category--to sell grandmother for a turn of phrase."

Eagleton answered: "I write with an eye for style and then go back with the same aim in mind. As I get older, I find myself polishing a lot more. I might polish a whole manuscript where I might not have done that when I was younger. Perhaps it doesn't come as right as it did before.
I suppose...I could go all the way back through again and never feel satisfied, ...stylistically."

Dr. Marilyn Edelstein: You were critical for theory not engaging the material world?
You wrote After Theory , when you look at that high theory moment--did the high theory not engage enough with the real world?

Eagleton: "I think it would be a mistake from a materialist point of view to believe that ideas can  by themselves can change everything. History is a great sorter-outer...Marxist criticism experienced the rolling back of the left. It managed to hang on in some ways. One has to look at theory historically. I've been a critic of post-modernism is that it did on the whole bring theory down to earth. Post-feminism, ethnic politics, they're much more concerned with social relations--it's a category mistake to put textual literary interpretive methods; you can't classify with socialism and feminism that are political movements; in certain ways it brought these discourses down to earth."

From a Modern Language Faculty member, there was a question about French theorist.
Eagleton responded:
"It's been a while since France has been intellectual capital. I spoke with Bourdieu and Bourdieu said that hadn't been popular--he had never been asked to speak on a French campus. Par excellence, there's a hierarchy in discourses. Derrida speaks about art and Bourdieu counts how many people go into museum.
Towards the end of the discussion, the questions were faster and the answers quicker; however, here are a highlight of some of what was said:

"Frederick Jameson has carried on in a period when a lot of literary critics fell by the wasteside. God clearly doesn't like literary theorist. Not many survivors from that period."

"Deconstruction doesn't travel well. Derrida declared many a time that deconstruction was political and not textual."

"It is the responsibility for radical critics to popularize their work outside of a narrow audience; I had a lot of responses that came from my Literary Theory
 book from people outside who wanted to know what's going on; popularizing is an art."

Towards the end, I asked if he had recommendations for teaching writing--a question that was perhaps lost in translation as his response was geared towards creative writing as opposed to composition.

He responded:
"So-called creative writing is new in Britain; after years of snobbish in British universities, it's beginning to be studied. I suppose when I talk to undergraduates--as though they were human beings what I always say to them--there is one rule to writing: literary criticism is to look at what is said and how it's said.

Generation of teachers who do not do it that way. You read half a line a day, eight months to read a Blake poem. If a student can talk about tone, pace and texture--better than being able to give a decent summary of text--that's why I wrote How to Read a Poem
 and How to Read Literature."

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