"You won't believe what happened last night!" Terry Eagleton announces, with a twinkly smile that is clearly something of a trademark. He had, it turns out, been walking along the Strand, after seeing Michael Frayn's new play, Democracy, when he was stopped by a young man with a Yorkshire accent. "Where's that David Blunkett?" the youth demanded. Eagleton suggested politely that he try the Home Office."No, no," insisted the youth, "the one in the glass cage."
It is a strangely surreal scenario, but somehow not surprising: the former Thomas Warton Professor of English at Oxford being asked for directions to the weirdest show in town, the sort of narcissistic, navel-gazing enterprise, in fact, that has been one of the triggers for his new book. After Theory (Allen Lane, £18.99) is an explosive follow-up to Literary Theory, the book that changed the intellectual lives, and curricula, of a generation of undergraduates. At a time (the early 1980s) when students of English literature were either battling with Beowulf or ploughing through swathes of opaque prose by literary theorists announcing the Death of the Author and the pre-eminence of the Text, Eagleton took the literary theoretical bull by the horns and, well, deconstructed it. With him as their down-to-earth and witty guide, thousands of students suddenly saw the postmodernist light. If all was not clear exactly, at least they knew why.
There was no such thing as clarity, only the "seething multiplicity of the text", hitherto obscured by one's hidden, and simplistic, assumptions. The advantage of this view, as he helpfully points out in the chapter on post-structuralism, "is that it allows you to drive a coach and horses through everybody else's beliefs while not saddling you with the inconvenience of having to adopt any yourself".
More than 20 years on, After Theory is not, of course, an attempt to redress the balance (a woolly liberal concept that Eagleton would hate) but a response to a crisis. The jacket bears the silhouette of a plane, a motif that could imply the book is yet another knee-jerk response to September 11 and the rise of fundamentalism. That is part of it, Eagleton admits, but the general issue is very much wider. Students today, he asserts, are engaging neither with history nor with post-structuralism. "What is sexy instead is sex," he announces, in the first chapter, on "The Politics of Amnesia": "Quietly spoken middle-class students huddle diligently in libraries, at work on sensationalist subjects like vampirism and eye-gouging, cyborgs and porno movies." Cast adrift in the stormy currents of postmodernism, they prefer to focus their energy on "the history of pubic hair" or the evolution of Friends, a trend that Eagleton regards as "politically catastrophic".
But isn't this a trend of his own making? The elusive pleasures of Barthes, Derrida, Foucault et al would surely have remained safely obscured from the masses if Eagleton's passionate primer hadn't burst on to student bookshelves and into their brains. "Well, I don't think I've ever been on that particular bandwagon," says Eagleton, breathtakingly. "Inevitably," he adds, more convincingly, "those ideas grow out of or are developments of ideas that I've been involved in. Postmodernism grew out of Marxism and so on, so, to the extent that I've been involved in that whole game, I'm responsible. Of course," he continues, with a huge grin, "I would say that I've been ill-served by my acolytes."
We are sitting in a minuscule office on the eighth floor at Penguin, surrounded by leaning piles of Penguin Classics. We'd been promised panoramic views over the Thames but the posh meeting rooms on the 10th floor have all, today, been colonised by Pearson. Our conversation in this cramped corner is, in more ways than one, a consequence of the Triumph of Capitalism. The entire building, with its vast, open-plan vistas and rabbit warren of tiny, glass-walled offices and spaces for meetings and parties, is a symbol of contemporary cultural production. Here culture is acquired, processed, marketed and launched, with sauvignon and canapés, before hitting the media and then the shops in its final incarnation as cash-producing commodity.
It is, in fact, a symbol of the very "commodification of culture" that Eagleton believes has contributed to the intellectual bankruptcy of a generation. It started, he believes, in the 1980s, when "the whole structure of sensibility shifted" and "a whole number of questions which had been very important to people were dropped".
Eagleton looks back, he says, with "proper nostalgia" to a time when "there was a sense that culture was somewhere you could make a political difference". He even, astonishingly, expresses a long-standing regret at having turned down a job at the Open University. He went instead to Oxford, where he stayed for 30 years and which he left "without the slightest twinge or sense of nostalgia". Oxford gave him "a lot of freedom", but he never came to terms with its innate conservatism and unfriendliness. "When I came to Oxford some of the rather hostile vibes that I felt I was getting I thought were because I was a Marxist," Eagleton confides with a wry smile, "but were probably because I was from Cambridge."
It is certainly true that Eagleton has been "ill-served by his acolytes", those jargon-spouting, willfully obfuscating and, sadly, often not too bright purveyors of the kinds of arguments that prefer to loop endlessly rather than take the risk of any kind of original thought. Whoever bears the responsibility for this cultural mire - and only a conspiracy theorist could lay the blame entirely at Eagleton's DM-shod feet - there is, he believes, an urgent need for fresh, and more profound, thinking about the world we are in. "History now is such," he explains, "with the political drive from the right, that thinking small isn't really an option any more ... There are different ways of thinking big, or deep."
After Theory outlines just some of them. With his characteristic lucidity and wit, it charts the gains and losses of cultural theory and its refusal, or inability, to engage with the Big Issues: not just political, but moral and metaphysical, too. Unlike the vast majority of contemporary cultural theorists, Eagleton is not afraid to talk about love and death, or to reinstate the body as on object of frailty as well as a source of Californian myths of eternal youth. And, even more unlike most of his peers, and against the interrogative grain of a culture that has absorbed the Antipodean inflexion as part of its cultural currency, he does not just raise questions. Was he nervous about an enterprise that some might regard as hubristic?
"There my old Roman Catholicism kicks in," he admits, with disarming honesty. "In terms of sensibility, I've never really got on with the idea that we're just raising questions." Even more surprising than his penchant for answers is the omnipresence in the book of God, a figure better known in the annals of postmodernism by his conspicuous absence. Eagleton famously chucked in his Catholicism in his early twenties, but he does not write as one who thinks that God is dead. Does he? "I think," he replies with another hearty laugh, "you should address that question to the Almighty, who knows far more about that than I do ... For one thing," he adds, "I am quite appalled by how ignorant secular intellectuals are of theology ... that is to say they tolerate a degree of caricature in that area that they wouldn't possibly countenance anywhere else ... The second thing, I suppose, is that you never entirely leave Catholicism behind and I don't see anything wrong with that."
I take a deep breath and ask the question that Tony Blair wasn't allowed to answer. Does he pray? "Um, gosh!" says Eagleton, looking, for the first time, a little flustered. "I think the whole idea of prayer is probably so bound up with the whole bank manager idea of God. It would be better to stay silent. He might appreciate that more."
For those who like irony, there is plenty here: the Marxist who has homes in three cities; the anatomiser of contemporary culture who does not use e-mail; the Oxford don whom students dubbed "a stand-up comedian"; the revolutionary who became a pillar of the establishment.
Whatever the mix,we're lucky to have him. Terry Eagleton is not just a warm, funny, brilliant man. He is an original thinker whose passion and zest for life, and writing, remain, after years in the famously dessicating groves of academe, undiminished. "The genre deeply doesn't matter," says the man who has set his mind to fiction, drama and (hilarious) memoir, as well as lit crit. "The way of putting that maybe that I'm a creative writer manqué ... I write," he explains with a smile, "until somebody drags me from a box in the cupboard and they have to put boxing gloves on to stop me from doing any more."
Terry Eagleton was born in Salford in 1943. He read English at Cambridge and was a research fellow at Jesus College before moving to Oxford in 1969, where he ended as Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature. He is currently Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester.
His literary criticism includes Literary Theory: an introduction (1983), Heathcliff and the Great Hunger (1995) and After Theory, published this week. He has also written a novel, Saints and Scholars (1987), several plays and a memoir, The Gatekeeper (2001). He divides his time between Manchester, Dublin and Derry, where he lives with his wife, Willa Murphy, and their six-year-old son, Oliver.