The Event of Literature
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In this characteristically concise, witty, and lucid book, Terry Eagleton turns his attention to the questions we should ask about literature, but rarely do. What is literature? Can we even speak of "literature" at all? What do different literary theories tell us about what texts mean and do? In throwing new light on these and other questions he has raised in previous best-sellers, Eagleton offers a new theory of what we mean by literature. He also shows what it is that a great many different literary theories have in common.
In a highly unusual combination of critical theory and analytic philosophy, the author sees all literary work, from novels to poems, as a strategy to contain a reality that seeks to thwart that containment, and in doing so throws up new problems that the work tries to resolve. The "event" of literature, Eagleton argues, consists in this continual transformative encounter, unique and endlessly repeatable. Freewheeling through centuries of critical ideas, he sheds light on the place of literature in our culture, and in doing so reaffirms the value and validity of literary thought today.
Meanwhile, let us take a glance at a couple of the other criteria, beginning with the linguistic. René Wellek and Austin Warren insist in their Theory of Literature that there is a special literary use of language, a claim that has turned out to have embarrassingly few adherents.21 Literary theorists these days are well-nigh unanimous in their conviction that there are no semantic, syntactical or other linguistic phenomena peculiar to literature, and that if this is what the Russian Formalists,
of self-satisfaction about this case, as when Olsen draws a remarkably patronising comparison between the professor's view of a literary text and the judgement of the hapless undergraduate ingénue. The superiority of the former's approach, he writes, can be recognised only by those who know what critical practice involves – who know not merely what texts are labelled literary, but who can appreciate them as such.47 So the professor's way of proceeding is correct because it is confirmed by … the
this ‘defamiliarising’ case has been in modern times. The leading theoretician of the Prague school, Jan Mukaovský, attends to the innovative deviations of a work rather than to its reproduction of existing norms.63 If this is also largely true of the aesthetics of Theodor Adorno, it is equally to be found in the semiotics of Umberto Eco, for whom literary texts occasion a reassessment of codes which issues in ‘a new awareness about the world’.64 Eco, to be sure, acknowledges that such texts can
serviceable in those more ancient systems of justice, and without emasculating a violence, or rationalising away a sense of reverence necessary for the survival of civilisation itself. George Eliot's Middlemarch struggles to reconcile a buoyant middle-class faith in progress, totality and grand narratives with a liberal wariness of such ambitious schemes, a nostalgia for the local and a tragic sense of human finitude, all of which can be seen as characteristic of a middle class whose high
Realism may appear in love with the stray particular, but this is to overlook some rather vital aspects of the form. Once the wave of existentialism had receded, the latest chapter in the history of nominalism was written by post-structuralism and postmodernism. Thinkers like Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze, in their aversion to the general concept, the universal principle, the informing essence, the totalising political programme, are among other things the improbable heirs of certain late