Altar ego

An iconoclastic scholar on the modern value of a very old-fashioned idea

The dedication note at the front of a book can be a revelatory glimpse into the intellectual posture the author is going to take in its succeeding pages. Terry Eagleton dedicated his 2010 work On Evil “To Henry Kissinger,” displaying both cheek and moral sobriety. The opening page of Eagleton’s latest work, Radical Sacrifice, reads “For the Carmelite Sisters of Thicket Priory.” The inscription echoes a passage from Eagleton’s thoroughly excellent and entertaining memoir, The Gatekeeper. Recalling the start of his service to “a convent of enclosed Carmelite nuns” as a ten-year-old altar boy, Eagleton observes the modus vivendi of these cloistered lives:

In living their own lives, they were saying something about ours. In divesting themselves of the world they were prefiguring their own deaths, dying every moment; so that the ultimate self-abandonment of death, which for the rest of us is a matter of coercion, would become in their case a kind of free act. What was most subversive about them, however, was their implacable otherworldliness…For them, the flaw of the world ran so deep that it cried out for some thorough going transformation, known in their jargon as redemption. Short of this, things were likely to get a lot worse. Their view of human history, whatever one might say of their solution to it, was thus entirely realistic.

Eagleton’s description of these nuns’ “realistic” embrace of life offers a clue to the ideas he develops in Radical Sacrifice.

There are very few thinkers today who have the fluency to write about political theory and religious thought as seamlessly as Eagleton has managed to do. This may be surprising to those who are not familiar with the whole range of Eagleton’s oeuvre. He is famed, and rightly so, for his work on literary theory, as well as on Marxism. Eagleton remains one of the discipline’s most influential critics, and a popular one, too: his classic text, Literary Theory: An Introduction, has sold more than a million copies. The past decade and a half, though, has seen the emergence of another facet of Eagleton. Some may recall that he has waded into spats with Richard Dawkins; his London Review of Books review of The God Delusion memorably opens: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” Repeatedly, and most eloquently in his 2010 Gifford Lecture, which subsequently became the book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, Eagleton has challenged the default anti-theism that has comfortably taken hold among progressives in the West. His book On Evil, published the same year, was an exploration of an idea with deep Christian roots. Along the way he also, with characteristic flair, took Martin Amis to task for the novelist’s stated views in an interview after 9/11 on restricting the travel rights of the British Muslim community “until it gets its house in order.” He wrote in the Guardian:

The idea was that by hounding and humiliating them [British Muslims] as a whole, they would return home and teach their children to be obedient to the White Man’s law. There seems something mildly defective about this logic.

Taking a glance at Eagleton’s extensive bibliography, his involvement in religious matters seems to have occurred in the latter part of his career. And there is a fair (I think) assumption that could be made that Eagleton is merely reverting to his Catholic roots and attempting to baptize Marxism and communize Christianity to make it relevant and palatable to secularists. One can be forgiven for thinking that as in the later, more sentimental works of great artists and writers, Eagleton’s later works, including Radical Sacrifice, are succumbing to a nostalgic vision that echoes his childhood. Eagleton’s current preoccupation should not be dismissed with this line of thinking.

For one thing, it seems to have emerged after Eagleton noticed the strange illiteracy of his peers in academia and among public intellectuals with respect to religious belief and practice. Should said peers have pleaded ignorance, it would have been one thing. But having some of them arrogantly assume superiority and (often enough) prejudicially hold forth on these uninitiated topics was another matter altogether. In Radical Sacrifice, Eagleton decries the “great many secular views of the Judaic and Christian lineages [that] are…grossly prejudiced and abysmally ill-informed.” He confesses that he is turning to his current preoccupation to traverse ground that is avoided by his allies on the “political left,” and that he is doing so to emphasize his belief that neglected ideas such as “death, tragedy, sacrifice, dispossession, and the like” have vital implications for our political discourse today.

There is also evidence that this latter period shows a continuity of interests and a deepening of his previous reflections. Eagleton’s primary contention, although he doesn’t state it explicitly in the book, is that to be human is to be religious (yes, that goes for you too, dear reader). It is not surprising or anomalous that figures like Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have waxed evangelical in their hostility to the idea of God. Secularists can display many of the attributes of the religious: The modern world has its own dietary regulations (fair-trade coffee, local and organic sourcing, the disavowing of gluten or dairy), which can in some instances rival traditional Jewish Kashruth laws or the Catholic prohibition of meat on Fridays, say. It also has its own liturgies, many of which revolve around the ritual pursuit of fitness and wellness. What’s perhaps unique about secularism is its inability to view itself as a belief system that is a product of its time, geography, and culture. Its fanciful view is that it is objective, and its rivals of traditional religion subjective and thus outmoded.

Eagleton is seeking to remind his secular audience of the debt they owe Christianity. He does this not to call for a conversion, but to unearth and showcase important ideas that were once prominent due to the place of religion in society and are now obscured, and whose neglect costs us a better common life that makes room for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the weak. Eagleton contends that the idea of sacrifice, rather startling to modern audiences, is essential to the fashioning of the individual self, and perhaps more importantly, in helping to transcend the tyrannies of systems that plague the commonweal. To the latter point, Eagleton develops his concluding insight that political “revolution is a modern version of what the ancient world knew as sacrifice.”

A key proposition advanced in Radical Sacrifice is to debunk the notion that “self-fulfillment and self-dispossession are essentially at odds.” Calls for making personal progress frequently go hand in hand with empowerment, so this notion of conscious relinquishment of rights would seem masochistic at first glance. But Eagleton emphasizes the fact that for the self to emerge, it requires the “fundamental breaking and refashioning” that trials and sacrifice demand. Enlarging this idea to a community, Eagleton tracks the development of early human societies and notes how even with the taming of anarchy within an orderly community, the wages of maintaining a civilization require “the licensed aggression of the judiciary and armed forces.” Eagleton links these ideas to frame law and order as the necessary manifestation of restraints, a type of sacrifice that allows human flourishing to occur. Theoretically, ritual sacrifice, once employed as appeasement in early human communities, becomes “introverted and sublimated” particularly with the emergence of Christianity and the beginning of rabbinical Judaism at the end of the first century. With the withering of traditional Christian piety, Eagleton notes that our political culture can fall victim “to a spuriously existentialist cult of action for its own sake.” In order to prevent this distortion of frenetic activity as virtue, Eagleton contends that we must remember the certitude of death and meditate more closely on our mortality.

The weaving of literary analyses in Radical Sacrifice demonstrates Eagleton’s distinctive strength as a scholar. He uses the work of figures as varied as Lacan, Kierkegaard, Žižek, and Bloch to expound on the Crucifixion of Christ. Eagleton’s related meditations on mortality and its place in the political discourse are the most penetrating part of his work. There is a caution against an abstraction of suffering into something that verges on the euphoric. According to Greek mythology, the Theban king Pentheus suffered the gruesome fate of sparagmos, or being torn limb from limb, by the devotees of Dionysus, whose cult Pentheus opposed. There is a type of ­exuberant self-­affirmation in this ritual, according to Eagleton. He contrasts this with the traditional narrative of Christ’s descent into hell, a scene vividly captured by Dante; Christ’s bearing the marks of his Crucifixion on his resurrected body meant a thorough embrace of death “in all its brute meaninglessness,” without romanticizing “the reality of human affliction.”

The fact of death, then, need not collapse into hedonistic nihilism but can instead be rooted in hope. Eagleton’s contention is that most religions prepare their adherents for a good death, and that they do so partially by keeping the inevitability of death in full view; rather than translate morbidity into meaninglessness, they allow a truer appraisal of life to emerge against the horizon of demise. Eagleton stresses that the notion of eternity does not mean a continuation of time, a temporal perpetuity. It means a very concentrated attentiveness to the present without regard to being on the right side of history. It is to operate “always as if you and history were about to be annihilated.” It means foregoing the need to view human actions in light of their utility or of their final ­consequence:

To act in fine disregard of an aftermath is to fold the end of time back into the present, and thus to create an abbreviated image of eternity. One thinks of the cowardly Hirsch of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, who, to the reader’s astonishment, suddenly spits in the face of his executioner in the knowledge that for him there will be no consequences of this act beyond an instant bullet in the brain. Those who make their deaths their own have faced down the worst of horrors, and thus enjoy a rare degree of freedom. The Jew who refuses to kill a fellow Jew when commanded to do so by the Nazis, and who is therefore beaten to death himself…dies to affirm the truth that love and pity have not vanished from the world, and that the true catastrophe would be when such terms were no longer even intelligible [emphasis added].

Being “mindful of the end of time” is, for Eagleton, “to live as if the Day of Judgment were at hand, and thus as if the only pressing matters were justice and fellowship, [which] is not an ethics to be scorned.” Eagleton highlights the fact that this life of sacrifice and suffering is exactly what Christ promises his comrades, conceding that, “Of all the excellent reasons for not being a Christian, this—along with the fact that if God exists, he must be hopelessly in love with Donald Trump—is surely the most persuasive.”

Throughout and frequently, Eagleton engages with his ideas with what might be termed as the theological mode, primarily that of Western Christianity, with a healthy soupçon of Marxism. At first glance, especially to those familiar with “liberation theology” from the last half of the 20th century, Eagleton’s attempt to showcase parallels between the Christian Gospel and Marxist communism seems shopworn and grotesque. But that is only because Western post-Christian societies such as ours have successfully domesticated and obscured the fact that, as Eagleton notes, in “Christian faith, God is present most fundamentally in the dispossessed.” The Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart confesses the results of his scrutiny of the New Testament texts that arose from having to translate it:

The New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil. Actually, the Biblical texts are so unambiguous on this matter that it requires an almost heroic defiance of the obvious to fail to grasp their import.

In mimicking the Christian affirmation of the poor, Eagleton outlines how Marxism allows the idea of the disenfranchised to find “a home in the modern political sphere.” The focus in Radical Sacrifice on the poor and the proletariat as a perennial and thus present-day stand-in for the scapegoat is superb. They are especially illuminating because a lot of sympathy for the poor today is bent on superficial efforts to improve their station in life with very little regard as to the spiritual dangers of cheap materialism or the systematic inequities embedded in the insatiable machinery of global capitalism. Eagleton notes that “the destitute have nothing but God, which is one reason why they are holy.” He castigates “post-structuralism” and parts of the progressive movement that thinks “virtue can now be found only in the margins and fissures of the political system.”  Eagleton elaborates:

At worst, there can be no positive system, any more than there can be an illicit transgression. Sporadic dissent is preferable to organized resistance. “Marginal,” a category that includes both neo-Nazis and Rosicrucians, becomes ipso facto affirmative. In its denigration of the regulated, conventional sphere of everyday existence—a disdain scarcely surprising in intellectuals who are personally remote from it—it represents a secular version of the Protestant split…

For Eagleton, this position constitutes a dissipation of purpose, an irresponsible fetishization of the fringes, and kowtowing to impotent gestures. The problem with this view for Eagleton is that institutional action, or revolution rather, is not undertaken on behalf of the poor. Any action is divorced from meaningful ends, a vision for how things ought to be. There is no positive concept of flourishing, other than the one of personal happiness. When order is “implicitly denigrated,” by these progressive views and “anarchy and disruption are uncritically affirmed,” there is bound to be suffering.

Eagleton has left out a lot in his analysis (as, inevitably, has this review). The strength of his ­success lies, however, in what he has kept in. It is worth returning to a further elaboration from Eagleton on the lives of the Carmelite Sisters in The Gatekeeper:

These Carmelites lived as though history could disappear down the plughole at any moment, which is the simple truth. But if it did, then it would find them with empty hands, bodies cleansed as far as possible of desire, and so would not catch them napping. They could pull a fast one on death by acting it out in their lives, performing their own demise and thus cheating it of its terrors. By being in but not of the world, their existence was a kind of irony…their role was to bear witness to the passing away of [the] world…[T]heir business was simply to take pity on the plight of humanity and to intercede ceaselessly on its behalf.

In this passage, Eagleton intimates the radical sacrifice that is necessary for a true revolution. It may go beyond the person and encompass political systems, but it needs to take root in the interior life of the soul. Here we come up against the frontiers of political discourse and enter into a melioristic metaphysics adumbrated by the enigmatic words of Christ: “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”