Thursday, 31 January 2008

Reading Eagleton

I spent three hours of my life last night curled up on my new sofa listening to jazz and reading Eagleton’s English novel: an introduction. I remembered, as the hours ticked by, why I love Eagleton’s work so much. I read Literary theory; an introduction years ago as an undergraduate and it helped me make sense of literary theory and its purpose. Now, I finally understand – at least in part - why the novel is an inherently ironic form. It is a bit of a shame however that when I try to articulate Eagleton’s theories, they lose something in the explanation. I can read the books and wrap my mind around the concepts, but processing and paraphrasing is a little more difficult. Still, I’m willing to give it a go.

So far, I have read the introduction and two chapters, which are concerned with – amongst others – Defoe, Swift, Fielding, Richardson and Sterne. He analyses deeply philosophical concepts such as what it means to be human, how the novel as a form developed and why, and what effect the process of representation has on reality.

I love the way he slips phrases into the narrative and swipes chunks out of established ways of thinking. In one page, he states ironically that any gentleman of the 18th century was expected to have a classical education as this set him up with a good moral code - then continues, a good enough moral code to bloodily fight for empire. He talks about war being the ultimate meeting of high ideals, realistic realism and disenfranchised disappointment (I'm paraphrasing here!) A bit like a novel, which often strives to portray realism but alters it in the telling and the fact that it is fiction, shown most clearly in the desire for a happy ending where the good guys get what they deserve and the bad guys are justly punished. How one wishes this happened more in real life.

His focus on materiality and morality, the gap between them, and the means which authors take to close this gap is fascinating. Defoe, for example, abandons form in favour of content; his focus is placed firmly on materiality – the only people who had morals were people who could afford them. An outrageous stance to take in a Puritan England where the general thought was that even the poor should be pious in order to reach Heaven. One should rather die of hunger than steal a loaf of bread. For Defoe’s characters, this is ludicrous; there is plenty of time to be moral after one has amassed a fortune on ill-gotten gains. It is fitting that everything comes down to materialism. The gap between materiality and morality will never be closed due to the opportunistic and beastly nature of humanity. Pessimistic, perhaps, but maybe this accounts for Defoe’s positive stance towards capitalism; it gives the common man a chance for a better life, materialistically if not spiritually.

I shall continue with the book although during the three hours I spent reading it last night I only got through 60 pages; Eagleton’s writing demands immediate reflection. So perhaps tonight I’ll settle down, put Aretha back on the stereo, and read some more about Fielding’s devices for bridging the gap between reality in reality and the reality of a novel.

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