Friday, June 11, 2010

From The Gatekeeper, by Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton's memoir reads throughout as a little tossed-off, occasionally a bit repetitive both in diction (see below) and in anecdote, and generally less-focused and unpolished than his essays—it reads almost as an extemporaneous lecture. But I think even Eagleton's detractors would find it frequently pleasant, and there is a kind of effectiveness to almost informal political talk like the following:
Radical politics may not be a thankless affair, but it is an exceedingly modest proposal. Bertolt Brecht once remarked that it was capitalism, not communism, which was radical, and his colleague Walter Benjamin added wisely that revolution was not a runaway train but the application of the emergency brake. It is capitalism which is out of control, and socialism which seeks to restrain it. It is capitalism, as Marx recognized, which is revolutionary to its roots, one extravagant thrust of Faustian desire, and socialism which recalls us to our humble roots as labouring, socializing, materially limited creatures…

It is a sign of just how bad things are that even the modest proposal that everyone on the planet gets fresh water and enough to eat is fighting talk. One can imagine launching revolutions in the name of some exorbitant utopian ideal, but to disrupt people's lives in such a spectacular way simply so that everyone may be guaranteed a supply of fresh vegetables seems oddly bathetic. Only extremists could argue against it, just as only extremists could endorse a global capitalist system which in 1992 is said to have paid Michael Jordan more for advertising Nike shoes than it paid to the entire south-east Asian industry which produced them. Revolutionaries are those realist, moderate types who recognize that to put such things to rights would require a thoroughgoing transformation. Anyone who imagines otherwise is an idle utopianist, though they are more commonly known as liberals and pragmatists…

Revolutionaries, then, are neither optimists nor pessimists, but realists. Indeed, one reason why they are so thin on the ground is because realism is so extraordinarily difficult a creed to practise. It is exactly this that the street-wise pragmatists fail to appreciate. To see the situation as it really is is the basis of all effective moral or political action, but nothing could be more elusive or exacting. Since the truth, politically speaking, is usually thoroughly unpleasant, being a realist means living a vigilant, cold-eyed, soberly disenchanted sort of existence, perpetually on the qui vive for the mildest flicker of fantasy or sentimentalism. Since this is both the only way to live and no way to live at all, radical politics is bound to be a contradictory affair. Its more successful practitioners are likely to be the last people to embody the values of the society they are fighting for—one which would make ample room for fantasy and sentiment—just as nobody would join a club which was tasteless and desperate enough to recruit people like themselves. As a Brecht poem comments: 'Oh we who tried to prepare the ground for friendship Could not ourselves be friendly.' 
The counter-intuitiveness of this passage (or at least the first paragraph) is rich, and it is most effective perhaps as a replacement for the kind of preaching-to-the-choir fist-pumping that Eagleton spends a good portion of the book baiting. The romanticism of revolution (as opposed to the realism of it), it turns out, just breeds people like the following:
Those who speak regularly at [leftist] conventions know just how unfathomable is the human capacity for misinterpretation. If your title is 'Why We Must Smash Fascism', and your speech one luridly impassioned invective against it, there will always be somebody in the audience who will want to know why you are so soft on fascism. The person who came in half an hour late will imperiously demand to know why you failed to make a point which you made in your second sentence, while someone else will wonder aloud why, if you're so anti-bourgeois, you wear a suit and spectacles rather than dressing in cowhide and peering at the world through home-made lenses cut from discarded Guinness bottles on an antique lathe.
Eagleton, obviously, can get a bit carried away, and, rather like a pint of Guinness, there is a large amount of foamy self-congratulation that one must somehow maneuver around to get at the real stuff, but his point seems to me not too far off. At least (and perhaps this is more a way of damning myself than praising him) I have thought similar things to myself quite often.

4 comments:

Richard said...

Those are great passages. Thanks, Andrew.

Len said...

the thing about a pint of guinness, though, is that the foam is part of the real thing.

Andrew Seal said...

De Guinnebus non est disputandam, I guess.

Larry Werner said...

I like the way the author described the anti-burgeois: "peering at the world through home-made lenses cut from discarded Guinness bottles on an antique lathe." The author of this anecdote surely knows what he's talking about. At this age of milling machine with live tooling, having spectacles from such antique machine can be considered low stature.