By Dragan Plavsic
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Going Back to His Roots

This article is over 20 years, 5 months old
Review of 'The Gatekeeper', Terry Eagleton, Allan Lane £9.99
Issue 260

Prince Charles once dubbed him ‘that dreadful Terry Eagleton’. It’s not often a royal is so indelicately forthcoming about a former professor at Oxford University but, then again, this one’s no hoary old academic. He is, of all things, a revolutionary Marxist who, as these short memoirs reveal, has mixed his time as an Oxford don and Britain’s foremost literary theorist with stints selling socialist newspapers in the street and leafleting workers at the local car plant.

Eagleton’s memoir is no conventional A to Z narrative, but a witty set of reflections on a life marked indelibly by the chasm between his Irish Catholic working class origins in Salford, and the bourgeois respectability of Oxbridge, where he studied and taught for over three decades. It is perhaps his leap across this chasm which makes this memoir so exceptionally sensitive to the dialectical complexities of our times, or he may just have picked up a few tricks from his wily Irish grandmother who found ‘shoddy motives lurking behind others’ good deeds with a dialectical subtlety which Hegel would have envied.’

This blend of levity and profundity is typical of Eagleton’s style. When describing his experiences as a young boy who acted as gatekeeper to novices at the local convent, he notes how the nuns escaped the world to serve one man and ‘he, being conveniently absent from earth, required no cooking, laundry or sexual comfort.’ Hints here of Eagleton’s early left Catholicism which gave the religious concept of redemption–that the flaw of the world was so deep only a thoroughgoing transformation could cure it–a distinctly collective inflection.

Sketches of cowed working class life are as hilarious as they are serious. His recollection that a knock at the door would send his family ‘scrambling in terror like the thump of an SS rifle-butt’, so unaccustomed were they to visitors, has a sadly comic and familiar ring. Such sketches are sprinkled throughout the memoirs, often interspersed with pithy, epigrammatic reflections on Brecht, Wittgenstein and Oscar Wilde and asides on subjects such as the film cliché or the comic jest. As such, the very form his memoir takes is as autobiographical as its content.

It is no surprise that he stumbled through Cambridge ‘sick at heart’ and ‘as ignorant as a fish’. Having a supervisor who recruited for MI5, was ‘as warmly spontaneous as a shaving brush’ and who got his servants to switch on the electric fire only feet from his chair can’t exactly have helped.

By the Thatcherite 1980s Eagleton was teaching at Oxford where he recalls that students approached Marxist academics as if they were ‘encountering their very first coprophiliac.’ There he joined what seems to have been an ultra-left revolutionary sect for whom the working class could ‘be trusted no further than you could throw it.’ He recounts how the sect tried to enter the Labour Party and how he was refused entry, only to be let in later ‘long after it was worth joining.’

The problem, though, is that Eagleton’s tone of ironic detachment about these experiences leaves you wondering whether, for him, the very idea of revolutionary organisation is now merely of historical, but not practical, interest.

This immensely entertaining journey through the arcane worlds of Catholic monasticism, Oxbridge academe and sectarian revolutionary politics never loses sight of the fact that Eagleton’s own good fortune in doing a job he has enjoyed would never have been possible but for people like his father, an engineering worker for 30 years, who ‘thought the idea of enjoying your job the most sublimely utopian one imaginable.’ Ultimately, this is why his faith in socialist revolution remains undiminished, and why many of us are still glad we were taught by the dreadful Terry Eagleton.

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