Terry Eagleton’s essay presents two closely related lines of argument, which can be summarized, very roughly, as follows. His main thesis is historical: he outlines what he takes to be the major ideological weakness of Victorian capitalism, and describes the various attempts that were made to recast the ideological instruments of British bourgeois rule, paying emphatic attention to the strategically important role that literature was assigned in this long and difficult effort. In his own words: ‘In the English literary culture of the past century, the ideological basis of organic form is peculiarly visible, as a progressively impoverished bourgeois liberalism attempts to integrate more ambitious, affective ideological modes, thereby entering into conflicts which its artistic forms betray in the act of attempted resolution.’ However, as the title of his essay indicates, Eagleton’s ultimate concern lies elsewhere. His historical arguments serve to illustrate a theoretical point about the relationship between ideology and literary form, about the ‘nexus between history and literary production’. This thesis is not formulaically stated at any point in the essay, but seems to entail the following: 1. One of the distinctive features of bourgeois literature is ‘organic form’, which is designed to suppress the contradictions of bourgeois ideology by producing ‘aesthetic formations with the supposedly spontaneous unity of natural life-forms’; 2. Like the corporate political and ideological formations to which they correspond, these ‘organic’ productions, and the critical ideologies parasitic upon them, must be combated by revolutionary theory—‘the destruction of such ideologies in the aesthetic region is essential not only for a scientific knowledge of the literary past, but for laying the foundation on which the Marxist aesthetics and artistic practice of the future can be built’.
Both of these thrusts of argument are exceedingly useful and timely. In the field of literary history, F. R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition continues to hold imperious sway; and the only serious attempt that has so far been made to dislodge its judgments—Raymond Williams’s English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence—has deep-seated and as yet undetermined affinities with that book. It is encouraging, therefore, to read a
However, Eagleton’s essay is not without its difficulties. It is neither possible nor appropriate in a note of this kind to make a systematic assessment of the author’s historical analyses, which are intricate and richly illustrated. The remarks that follow refer principally to certain theoretical assumptions that I believe to underlie his analyses, and to the effects of these assumptions on the development of the essay’s ulterior theme, the relationship between ideology and literary form. It should be said, in qualification of this intention, that these comments are necessarily provisional. Eagleton’s text is, in his own words, ‘skeletal and schematic,’ and, as a result, often elliptical in its formulations. It is possible that in a longer exposition (which the essay deserves) some of the problems noted here would automatically disappear.
In his concluding paragraph, Eagleton makes explicit acknowledgement of the work of Pierre Macherey. But the procedures adopted in his historical analyses immediately recall the work of another, very different Marxist theorist, Jean-Paul Sartre. In The Problem of Method, Sartre’s main concern is to criticize and overcome the ‘heuristic inadequacy’ of a Marxism that ‘situates but no longer ever discovers anything’, and to pose, as a Marxist, the problems of elucidating an individual life and its distinctive literary project—a crux which he defines in a famous aphorism: ‘Paul Valéry is a petit-bourgeois intellectual, no doubt about it. But not every petit-bourgeois intellectual is Paul Valéry.’
footnote1 Eagleton’s analyses, which are in fact a kind of literary sociology, are conducted in this spirit. In each case, attention is focussed on the author’s class-situation, his/her corresponding ideological dispositions, and the resulting formal characteristics of his/her literary productions. The best of these analyses are distinguished by the scrupulousness with which the complexities of class situation are determined; and the results are correspondingly fruitful. For instance, Eagleton is able to show how many of James’s artistic preoccupations are determined by his peculiar ‘mode of insertion’ into the social structure of the United States. He traces the contrasting roles of ‘Nature’ in the novels of Charles Dickens and George Eliot to their contrasting situations within the petty bourgeoisie: Eliot, the daughter of a farmagent, was capable of seeing in the structures and tempos of rural life an emblem of social order; for Dickens, whose milieu was the urban petty bourgeoisie, the appeal of pastoral ideologies was inevitably faint. A more striking example is furnished by the analysis of Conrad, whose
At its best, this type of analysis is evidently superior to the reductionist exercises that have been all too common in Marxist criticism. But to the extent that it continues to meet the problems of the individual consciousness by a differential analysis of class-consciousness, such a method retains traces of historicism, and therefore remains vulnerable to criticism on materialist grounds. First, it does not conclusively displace the notion of the ‘class-subject’, that is, of class as the expressive source of political and ideological positions. Second, the differential analysis of individuals, which logically tends towards the dissociation of the individual subject (his/ her redefinition as an unrepeatable complex unity, composed of various social, cultural and biological relations, all of which pre-exist and remain external to the individual), can paradoxically err in the direction of a reaffirmation of the sovereign individual subject (this is probably to be explained by the contradictions inherent in Sartre’s attempt to marry existentialism and historical materialism). Third, this kind of analysis fails to recognize that class situation, however finely nuanced, is not the only material foundation of the ideologies of individuals or groups. All three difficulties are present, to a greater or lesser degree, in Eagleton’s essay.