A voice of sanity amid the roar of turbo-capitalism

The Idea of Culture by Terry Eagleton (Blackwell, £12.99 pback, £40 hback)
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The Independent Culture

This is a book, unlikely as it sounds, about how to live well and righteously at the present time. Terry Eagleton, while nothing if not a teacher - and professor of English literature at Oxford - is a teacher in an exceptionally, as well as a traditionally full sense.

This is a book, unlikely as it sounds, about how to live well and righteously at the present time. Terry Eagleton, while nothing if not a teacher - and professor of English literature at Oxford - is a teacher in an exceptionally, as well as a traditionally full sense.

One main point of his compact but ambitious book is that, whatever your culture, it seizes you and makes you think. It also leaves you alone to make your lonely way out of it, just as Eagleton left Roman Catholicism, irrevocably shaped by it, forever repudiating it. There's an awful tendency now for our most distinguished ex-Marxist, cradle-Catholic apostates to go back to Holy Mother Church. I don't see Eagleton joining them.

None the less, he does take from his own and his church's history both a role and a rhetoric. The man can fairly write and calls upon Irish origins and a Salford working-class upbringing, both allied to a terrific sense of comedy, to stiffen the stuff of culture.

This is a personal as well as a very funny book. Eagleton knows himself to be a figure of some authority in the motley constituency of Anglophone radicalism. He has taken some risks with that status recently, fiercely and correctly criticising the work of fellow academic celebrities for self-serving jargon or time-serving evasiveness.

These boats burnt, Eagleton speaks here plainly and sanely about matters of life and death - often movingly, at times caustically, once or twice deliriously. The topic of culture provides ample occasion to tell of old acquaintance and allegiance, and to weigh both of them in today's unprecedented circumstances.

For the left is bereft. Actually existing socialism has gone under the tides of history, maybe for good. Turbo-capitalism roars unstoppably, leaving the usual carnage in its wake. All the left can do by way of criticism, and in defence of the wounded, is to invoke the contested legacy of culture.

Eagleton is wonderfully lucid in his inventory of this threadbare inheritance. Culture as art once promised salvation for all, then a refuge from the beastliness of the bourgeoisie, until it shrank to a frail weapon with which to fight the present time.

A second concept of culture beckoned, in which pre-capitalist ways, with their rootedness and rituals, would protect the good life. But that enclave turned out, as often as not, to house the Taliban or their like. In any case, all cultures were invaded, one by another, and none could keep out globalism. Last, postmodernism burst in to say that culture was everywhere provisional, its signs capricious, its meanings afloat. If, in this carnival, image and capital proved inseparable, then nothing could be done about it.

Eagleton is crisp and clinical with the horrors implicit in each definition. This is much more than intellectual critique. He makes painfully clear the consequences of criticism for thought and action, not just in front of the green screen, but in being and doing. His monster enemies are vast and vague: capitalism and "the West" are marched on and off a rather puny stage. By and large, though, Eagleton avoids the ravings of his comrades on the academic left and reminds them of such excellent truths as Shakespeare's picture of a common human nature, and of the noble ideal - hymned by socialism - of a universe of common ends.

He tries, as fine teachers always do, to include too much. The last pages open with a fixed and dated fight between TS Eliot and Raymond Williams, putting one in mind of the schizoid's crazy efforts to configure everything in a single frame. The larger effect of this book, however, is on behalf of sanity and sobriety. It hangs on to what may be salvaged of Enlightenment values; still finds in great art a guide to goodness; and confirms the sacredness of solidarity, as well as noting its taste for murder. And it keeps up the life-giving guerrilla fire against the savagery of economics, the omnipotence of politics and the sentimental delusions that suppose themselves at home in the idea of culture.

The reviewer is professor of cultural studies at Sheffield University

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