Terry Eagleton: Let me begin with what strikes me as an interesting fact about the so-called ‘canon’ of literature, which has recently generated so much debate footnote＊ . I take ‘canonical’ works to be in some sense works of value; but the truth is that if you write one such work of value, then by the laws of the canon all the rest of your works make it into the canon too. Wordsworth’s poems celebrating capital punishment are sucked into the canon in the wake of The Prelude. What this means is that at any given point the literary canon contains an enormous amount of rubbish. I mean rubbish even in terms of the canon’s own modes of evaluation, let alone in any other terms. Nobody I know is prepared to argue that Lem is unquestionably inferior to Thomas Love Beddoes, but because Lem happens to write in what is currently ranked as a subordinate genre, he doesn’t make it into the canon and Beddoes, who writes in a currently consecrated genre, does. The canon, in other words, makes no kind of sense even in its own terms.
A major problem with discussing the value question at all is how, by some as yet perhaps impossible dialectical feat, to assign it its due importance while resisting that relentless fetishism of value at the core of liberal humanist aesthetics. If one looks for example at the historical constitution of the field we now know as ‘literature’, it is obvious that ‘value’ is as central as it is in that history because the very definition of literature is indissociable from the nurturing and transmission of certain highly specific ideological values. Confronted with this history, and all its attendant absurdities—that art is the most valuable of all human activities, that it furnishes us with the very touchstone of the ‘human’ and teaches us in some relatively direct sense how to ‘live well’—the Left has tended in recent years to react in two different ways. On the one hand, and particularly in the 1970s, there has been a more or less violent suppression of the problem of value, hopelessly entangled as it seemed to be with a subjectivism falling outside the parameters of a scientific criticism. The result of this prudishness, to which some of my own work has been subject, has been an evasion of the whole question of the effectivity of art, and of the ideological struggle over evaluation. On the other hand, there has sometimes been a falsely populist skirting of the problem which would appear to regard any discrimination between artifacts or cultural practices as intrinsically elitist.
But of course people go on discriminating anyway, and the point is surely to examine from a materialist standpoint the grounds on which they do. For Samuel Johnson, for instance, there was no problem at all about how the reaping of aesthetic pleasure from a work could be reconciled with ideological disapproval of it. It just couldn’t be done. Johnson was incapable of enjoying art he found morally objectionable. For us post-Romantics the process of evaluation is more complex, which is not to say that it need remain mysterious. If we studied the interrelations between ideology, semiotics and psychoanalysis in actual processes of reading and viewing, we would no doubt be able to discover a great deal more than we presently know about why people like some works of art more than others. So far, I suppose, we have got as far as recognizing that value is always ‘transitive’—that is to say, value for somebody in a particular situation—and that it is always culturally and historically specific. We need, however, to be a little bolder about drawing some of the implications of that latter assertion: for example, that Shakespeare and Rembrandt could quite easily cease to be of any value. Walter Benjamin once wrote that we would only be able to read Proust properly when the class he represented had disclosed something of its true substance in the final confrontation. We will only be able to read Proust retrospectively; for a true evaluation of him we must wait upon history. And the Proust who will then be found either profound or worthless won’t be exactly the Proust we now read. Meanwhile, as Benjamin might have said, we collect Proust, because we never know when he might come in handy.
Peter Fuller: ‘People sometimes talk as though the ordinary man in the street (of all classes, I mean) is the proper person to apply to for a judgement on Works of Art. They say he is unsophisticated, and so on . . . Now let us just look the facts in the face. It would be very agreeable if he were. But if he were, you would not need all these efforts for Art Education that you do need now. As a matter of fact he is not unsophisticated. On the contrary he is steeped in the mere dregs of all the Arts that are current in the time he lives.’ It’s all right. I’m only quoting. But before I tell you who from, I want to go on a bit.
‘There is a tendency for all people to fall under the domination of tradition of some sort; and the fine tradition, the higher tradition, having disappeared, men will certainly fall under the power of the lower and inferior tradition. Therefore let us once for all get rid of the idea of the mass of the people having an intuitive idea of Art, unless they are in immediate connection with the great traditions of times past, and unless they are every day meeting with things that are beautiful and fit.’
I wonder if my good friend, Comrade Doctor Eagleton, knows who that’s from. I don’t expect he does; because if he did, he wouldn’t have said or written some of the things he has. This is not a voice coming from the right; nor even from ‘Liberal Humanism’; it belongs, in fact, to William Morris, a self-avowed ‘Revolutionary Socialist’. As it happens, I agree with the drift of what Morris is arguing here; but that isn’t why I started off with this quotation.
Rather, the point I’m trying to make is that it just is not true that ‘The Question of Value’ has a centrality in British culture because of some