Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Why Terry Eagleton Hates Americans.






Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), $18.95. (This is one of the best, though also one of most difficult books dealing with aesthetics that I have come accross.)
Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), $12.95.

Christopher Hitchens, "England Made Them," in Vanity Fair, January, 2008, at p. 118. (Christopher Hitchens, who is known as the epitome of normality, writes of English oddballs.)

I like Terry Eagleton. He does not like me because I am one of those frightful, uncouth Americans, who are destroying the planet with their hamburgers and action movies. Maybe it's Roger Scruton who feels that way about us. Probably both of them do, since disdain for Americans is one of the few things on which everyone agrees in Britain.

We like Brits who remind us that we are morons because they do it in such lovely accents. Plus, they may be right. In any case, we are happy to contribute to unity in Britain on the basis of a strong dislike for Americans, though not necessarily for our tourist dollars or our support of the British film industry. ("Hey, there's a new English movie and they're all wearing those great clothes from the nineteenth century and having tea!")

Poor Mr. Blair may have been too closely associated with Americans, notably Crawford's "man of the hour," George W. Bush, resulting in his departure from number 10 Downing Street. I think he's going to work for "Virgin" megastores in the DVD Department where a section is reserved for "fun-filled classics."

Terry Eagleton is a "good guy," who is proudly working class (except that he went to Cambridge and teaches or taught at Oxford), a Marxist, who is into the whole "Lit-Crit" thing. I have recently learned of the association of the term "guy" (an Americanism meaning roughly the same as "bloke") with "Guy Fawkes" and the gunpowder plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, which sounds like fun. We have our own Daniel Shays in U.S. history and a noble tradition of proletarian dissent which is often not appreciated in Europe.

I believe that the world famous independence and wit of the British working class can be found in Shakespeare's grave digger in Hamlet, or even earlier in literary history. We tend to forget that British aristocrats are not the only people living in those islands who have ancestors. From Shakespeare's grave digger to John Lennon and Julie Burchill (who is always welcome to have her way with me!), there is a direct line.

Terry is not averse to an occasional beer at a local pub, along with philosophical chats afterwards -- as we urinate on the sidewalk -- while standing shoulder-to-shoulder, as it were, awaiting the arrival of the vanguard of the revolution or the police, whoever gets there first. Come to think of it, Terry may be the vanguard of the revolution. So he claims anyway.

When the revolution reaches Notting Hill and the Upper West Side, it is Terry who will be leading it. And I may join him. Terry is also brilliant, insightful and adept as a critic and theorist. I have read several of his books, including his guide to literary theory, his treatise on aesthetics (possibly the best in English) and the recent After Theory. He is amazingly prolific, churning out dense volumes of theory as well as a novel, and a memoir during his lunch breaks.

Although Terry's familiarity with Continental theory is impressive, he is also a superb writer, who makes himself understood, even by ignorant students (like me), sometimes surprising the reader with an arresting image that fixes a philosophical insight in the mind. What I especially admire about Terry -- you can't refer to him as "Professor" or "Mr.," not after reading a lot of his work, because he becomes a friend -- is his refusal to abandon common sense in order to get tenure. My familiarity in speaking of him should be understood as not only a further indication of my American crudeness, but as an expression of genuine friendship for a Marxist thinker whose work I admire even in disagreement.

Terry is quite certain that there is a real world which contains such items as bathrooms and evil Americans. He is also certain that some things are right and others wrong. There is no lack of clarity and no bullshit with Terry. The reader must admit that, among philosophers and professors, these are rare qualities. Consider the following paragraph:

People who see truth as dogmatic, and so want no truck with it, are rather like people who call themselves immoralists because they believe that morality just means forbidding people to go to bed with each other. Such people are inverted puritans. Like the puritan, they equate morality with repression; to live a moral life is to have a terrible time. But whereas the puritan thinks that having a terrible time is an excellent thing, and remarkably character-building to boot, these people do not, and so reject morality altogether. Similarly, those who do not believe in truth are quite often inverted dogmatists. They reject an idea of truth that no reasonable person would defend in the first place.

I spent months saying exactly this to a fairly typical pack of Internet morons in a discussion group. These (mostly) liberal imbeciles were incapable of grasping this point and still are. Many are probably in the U.S. Congress or Senate, right Mr. Menendez?

That [ethical] truths of this kind are absolute is of no great moment. It simply means that if a statement is true, then the opposite of it can't be true at the same time, or true from another point of view. It can't be the case that the fish is both a bit off and not a bit off. It can't be fresh for you and putrid for me, even if putrid is the way I like it. This does not rule out the possibility of doubt or ambiguity. Maybe I am not sure whether the fish is off or not. But if I am not sure, it is absolutely true that I am not sure. I can't be sure and not sure at the same time. It can't be that I am sure from my point of view but not from yours. Maybe the fish was fine two hours ago and is now distinctly dubious. In that case, what was absolutely true two hours ago is no longer true now. And the fact that it is not true now is just as absolute.

As we say in America, here's "the bottom line":

If it is true that racism is an evil, then it is not just true for those who happen to be its victims. They are not just expressing how they feel; they are making a statement about how things are.

I concur, with the proviso that "how they feel" is also a question of fact as to which there is both truth and falsehood.

Now, as for Terry's anti-Americanism, we must remember that he is British. There is a long and honorable tradition of British eccentricity and anti-Americanism. This is because Americans are seen, by our British cousins, as similar to that embarassing member of the family who likes to keep an eye out for UFO attack vessels, votes for Conservatives in every election, and invariably displays urine stains on his trousers, refusing to read any books because he has figured everything out ("it's all the fault of the Rockerfellers!"), and who is always getting into fist fights. Unfortunately, since he is a family member, this often means that one must come to the rescue and prevent strange, shaven-headed hoodlums in a tavern from beating his brains out.

I appreciate the genuine concerns expressed by Terry about American foreign policy. Along with many of my fellow citizens, I share those concerns. I also share in a sense of outrage and anger at the people who have placed bombs in London, KILLING many civilians. I felt sad and pained at the murder of London commuters in July of this year, just as I did for the victims on 9/11. I feel the same frustration and sadness for people dying in Iraq and Lebanon now. Murder is not how we like to resolve philosophical and political disagreements in the English-speaking world. This is not because we are all "homosexual Communists." Violence is not a very efficient means of distinguishing better from worse philosophical theories or political opinions.

Brits and Americans often disagree about many things. Let's be honest about some of the things that we happen to agree on. We all know that there are people in this country who see Americans and Brits as roughly the same, except that they "talk funny." There are people in the U.S. (I am one of them) who feel a profound affection and gratitude for the residents of those islands -- for their culture, especially their gifts to humanity of political liberty and the greatest literature in the world, by far -- and we feel their pains as if they were our own.

We recognize the values that we share with the British people which, sadly, still makes us part of a small minority on the planet, a minority willing to recognize, at least when their politicians are forced to do so, something called "human rights and dignity," including freedom of speech and the inviolability of the choice to be different.

Any honest person will also admit that terrorists are a real threat in today's world and -- for whatever reasons -- see British and American citizens (and soon, others) -- as legitimate targets, even if we disagree with the policies of our governments, since (strangely enough) we tend to object to being murdered with our families.

If the choice comes down to those who threaten our families and want to kill people to prove that they are right about something, and those of us who welcome the opportunity to read a book by Terry Eagleton -- even if much of it will displease us or be critical of our government -- then, I suspect, the British people will always side with those dreadful Americans, who are willing to agree to disagree.

We ignorant Americans will certainly stand with Britain in a dangerous world, a world that always has a fresh supply of bigots and dictators, terrorists and maniacs, who are more than willing to murder children to get a point across. Killing 73 innocent people on an airplane is not O.K. because you hate Communists. ("American Hypocrisy and Luis Posada Carriles.")

A lesson to be learned from history by "friend and foe alike" is that, peaceful protest or civil disobedience may persuade the British government that it is mistaken (Ghandi) and negotiations will usually win concessions from the U.S. or Britain, but you cannot threaten either the U.S. or U.K. -- or any nation with an ancient and proud history, like Israel -- into doing what you wish or abandoning principles fashioned over centuries. This includes China, Mr. Wieseltier. It ain't gonna happen, folks. And it shouldn't. I suspect that this is also Cuba's position as an independent nation. ("Time to End the Embargo Against Cuba.")

A final anecdote to give a sense of the British character -- and, perhaps, of an important quality shared with Americans -- concerns the first World Cup games that were played after the Second World War. The British played the Germans and lost a close game. The German team captain approached his British counterpart, who offered his hand to the winner. The German refused to shake that hand and said: "We have defeated you in your national game."

In perfect German, the British athlete responded: "Yes, sir. And last year, we defeated you in yours."

An apology followed from the German, who then offered his hand. The British player, graciously, accepted it. You can understand something important about the British people, inherited by their American cousins, from that one episode in sports history.

I know, I know ... friends say my sense of British people comes mostly from literature and films. I've met quite a few Brits in New York, not one was stupid or socially awkward. Maybe my perspective is slanted, but I like the people of those islands. To the extent that there is such a thing as a national character, then I think there is a tendency to self-deprecating irony, wit and understated intelligence -- also firmness of purpose -- in British people that I admire and find attractive. It's Shakespeare's long shadow and all that literature acquired from infancy that is, unfairly, a big part of British culture.

Brits should be required to share their great writers, because they have so many, with the rest of the world. Oh, they have, haven't they? (I'm ending my sentence with a question in a very British way.) Bin Laden is an asshole, isn't he? Why, yes ... he is. Any nation whose government includes a "Ministry of Funny Walks" has earned our loyalty.

Oh, and don't forget to see the new Harry Potter movie. I hear it's awesome. I'm going to the Sherlock Holmes movie with semi-Brit, Robert Downey, Jr.

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