Terry Eagleton - Marxist, Christian, academic, literary critic, - and a provocative voice who relishes taking on those who disagree with him, is rightly regarded as one of the world’s foremost intellectuals.
He is also a man with strong Irish and Galway connections and in his new post in NUI, Galway he will be able to combine academic work with being in a city he has known for some 40 years.
In November Prof Eagleton was appointed Adjunct Professor of Cultural Theory at the Moore’s Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies in NUIG.
The position will see him visiting for a few days every semester and each time give a public lecture and a number of seminars for graduate students and staff on literature, philosophy, and culture.
“I hope to stay in this position for as long as possible,” Prof Eagleton tells me as we sit for the interview in NUIG on a Thursday morning. “The first instalment is for five years but if I’m a good boy and keep my nose clean they might keep me on.”
The Galway connection
Prof Eagleton was born in Salford, outside Manchester, in 1943 into an “Irish-Salford ghetto”.
“My childhood was very influenced by Irish culture,” he recalls. “My mother’s family were strongly Republican. I remember writing a bad Republican song at seven but I hadn’t a cat’s idea in hell what I was writing about!”
Prof Eagleton has long associations with Co Galway, particularly the Headford area. Will he be catching up with the relatives?
“I hope so,” he says. “There is still a brood of Eagletons around the place and I’m keen to get back in touch with them. I have been visiting Galway for 40 years and I have some very good friends in town so it’s delightful to be here in a more formal capacity and I’ll get to see them a good bit.”
One man Prof Eagleton has been catching up with since arriving in Galway is his old mate (and mine) Prof Tadhg Foley of NUIG’s English Department.
“Tadgh just showed me an exhibition of John F Kennedy’s visit to Galway,” says Prof Eagleton. “There is a picture of Kennedy standing in a car passing right by Tadgh’s thatched cottage - I’m glad there was no rifle peeking out of the window! Tadhg came to Oxford to do his doctorate. That’s where I first met him 35 years ago.”
Prof Eagleton is both astonished and impressed by the changes he has seen in Galway since the late 1960s.
“I remember Galway, Westport, and Ballina being very dull and drab,” he says. “There was the contrast between the beauty of the landscape and the makeshift nature of the towns. What struck me most was Connemara, the tiny fields strewn with rocks and people trying to work them as farmland. The idea that Galway later turned out to be such a high tech place was inconceivable then.”
Prof Eagleton was educated in De La Salle College in Manchester and then Trinity College, Cambridge. He published his first book, The New Left Church in 1966 and has since written the influential works Literary Theory: an Introduction (1983) and After Theory (2003). His latest books are The Meaning of Life (2007) and Trouble with Strangers: a Study of Ethics (2008).
Given that much of his work is based on culture and cultural theory, how would Prof Eagleton define culture?
“You could define culture as what people are prepared to kill or die for,” he says. “Community, language, culture, traditions - these things go to the root of personal identity. In that sense culture is important.
“Since 9/11 a new narrative has opened. The ‘war on terror’ is not fundamentally cultural but geo-political but it impacts on culture and includes domination, occupation, oppression. That will accelerate in pace for the coming decades so sadly culture will continue to be something people die for.”
Prof Eagleton is an unapologetic admirer of Karl Marx and brings a Marxist perspective and analysis to his writings. However we are fast approaching the 20th anniversary of the collapse of Communism which many felt consigned Marx’s ideas to the past. Why does Prof Eagleton feel Marx still has important things to say to us?
“Because capitalism is still around and around more than ever and penetrating into the farthest reaches of the globe,” he replies. “Marx was the greatest analyst of capitalism and that’s why he’s still important. The Communist Manifesto’s predictions of inequality and the global spread of capitalism have come true and this is why sales of Marx’s books have shot up.
“Marx showed us that capitalism was not human nature and eternal but a system with origins, operating by particular kinds of laws. That was his great achievement so he continues to be relevant.”
Given that Marxism is synonymous with atheism, how does Prof Eagleton reconcile his belief in Marx with his belief in God?
“When people say Marx kept up the themes of Christianity and secularised them I think that’s true,” says Prof Eagleton. “There is community, the good society, even redemption in Marx but all are categorised in secular terms.
“I don’t think there is any incompatibility there just as there is none between God and science. This is the mistake people like Richard Dawkins keep making. Thomas Aquinas, one of the great minds, didn’t think there was any conflict and that the scientific study of the universe had nothing to say about God as God is transcendent.”
Prof Eagleton is famous, not only for his Marxism, but because he is one of most forceful voices against the rise of the fanatically intolerant atheism personified by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. A magnificent example is Prof Eagletons’s powerful critique of Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the London Review of Books. Many atheists took great offence to it when they saw their high priest laid low.
“And they’re going to take more offence as I have a book coming out where I continue my critique of Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens,” declares Prof Eagleton, with no little relish.
Prof Eagleton finds the chief characteristics of the ‘new atheism’ to be a high level of intolerance and a contentment to deal with religious people through crass, ill-informed charactures, sweeping generalisations, and crude, vulgar stereotypes.
“Atheism can be a plausible position but what I object to is the evangelical atheism,” he says. “They advance a version of Christian belief that is crude.”
For Prof Eagleton, such “middle class western liberals” have rejected one way of interpreting the gospels, but have looked no deeper into alternative readings or analysis. “You can ‘buy your atheism on the cheap’ is how I put it,” he says.
How does Prof Eagleton view the central figure of Christianity, Jesus Christ? Is he the ‘meek and mild’ wimp the Church often presents him to be, or the heroic, rebellious, social justice campaigner and agitator we find in Mark and Matthew?
“Christ has an uncompromising character,” he says. “For the New Testament love can’t be compromised. As opposed to middle class liberals, conflict is the name of the game for Jesus. For the campaign for justice, community, and brotherhood you are either with him or against him. The New Testament also presents Jesus as extremely tolerant, hanging about with people like prostitutes and tax collectors who weren’t considered good to be seen with.”