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A question of history

What is the meaning of life? Terry Eagleton takes up the thread from the guys in Monty Python.


[theory] I have no figures on how many books Terry Eagleton has published over the last 30 years. Eagleton, a professor of literature at The University of Manchester, has written extensively on topics such as postmodernism, Irish culture, the history of the novel and tragedy, theology, poetry, terrorism and political dissent.

One of the latest books, After Theory (2003), has been met with extra good reviews. In this book, Eagleton argues that it is high time to reformulate the ethical and metaphysical issues that were pushed aside by postmodernism's march into cultural conversation. Among the enthusiastic critics we find the Slovenian sociologist and philosopher Slavoj Zizek (with whom Eagleton has much in common). Zizek describes Eagleton's style and method as a "unique combination of theoretical rigor and acidic commonsense wit."

Socialism and wooden shoe dancing

It is by no means difficult to agree with Zizek. The always energetic Eagleton appears to be an intellectual descendant of Ireland's greatest satirist of all time – I am thinking, of course, of Jonathan Swift. Like the author behind Gulliver's Travels, the professor shows a rare ability to see the comic in most situations. For example, he does not hesitate to ironize about the situation he himself is constantly in.

Repeatedly, the Eagles Marxist has taken on the role of the melancholy and guilt-ridden left-wing cultural political cunning. In one sentence, he can account for both the uncertain future of socialism and the sad fate of the wooden shoe dance. Then it is also possible to demonstrate a relationship between the professor and the comedians of Monty Python. That Eagleton is in debt to the guys in Python is evident in one of this year's books: The Meaning of Life, a small essay collection that can be read as the sequel to After Theory.

Again, Eagleton is on the cutting edge, and again he formulates himself so condemned precisely that a review seems superfluous – the best thing would have been to reproduce the book in its entirety. While philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, so to speak, ask to be "translated" into explanatory secondary literature, Eagleton creates the impression that most things in the world can be illuminated using a Commonsensic language. But an impression is usually nothing more than an impression, and if you are willing to read slowly, you will eventually discover a theorist who is as "deep" as Derrida, Deleuze and other "enigmatic" thinkers.

(Here a footnote could have been in place: It is high time that the "modernists", Eagleton among them, find out that Derrida and Deleuze are not representatives of the postmodern. More on that another time.)

History and love

Eagleton points out that he is not a philosopher. With a clear reference to Raymond Williams' cultural theory, Eagleton explains how important it is that writers and linguists also deal with philosophy. Eagleton writes about Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Freud, great thinkers who have all helped to formulate the great question: What is the meaning of life?

Not only is the question problematic and difficult to answer. The question is a cliché, it is a historical track that many of our contemporary leading thinkers avoid following. Eagleton goes the other way. For him, the clichéd and "unpopular" question of the meaning of life is also a matter of history. The cliche refers to the many attempts of the past to gain awareness of the conditions of human life, the material as well as the spiritual.

Yes, you may have to be jockeys to be able to throw clichés. But let us not forget that the skilled juggler always takes on the role of the cunning performer of Criticism. Eagleton, cunning as he is, ends The Meaning of Life by pointing out an important condition for us to talk about the social world: Love. ?

Reviewed by Leif Høghaug

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