27 June, 2010

Terry Eagleton and Wuthering Heights

I'm currently reading Terry Eagleton's book "The English Novel," which is really quite a good read, despite the fact that he's a Marxist critic, and I entered it a bit suspicious of his likely ideological bias. That exists, it certainly does, and I find rather skews his vision of what a novel is (is it really only a social instrument"? I disagree, at any rate), but whenever he delves down into criticism of/commentary on specific novels, he's quite perceptive. The key to this seems to be a certain intellectual honesty, by which Eagleton may heartily disagree with, say, Jane Austen's overall worldview, and certainly finds much problematic in the claim that any sort of absolute truth can be located by human society (it can't, that's why we have the Church, my friends, and that's what will always be missed as long as people insist upon considering the Church a purely social institution...), but he's willing to take the authors' ideas as they are. Thus you have here a genuinely remarkable admission that, yes, Jane Austen is a moral figure on the model of Aristotle and Homer, looking at a person's proper role in society as the context in which they live a moral life.

I'll take one example which has been rather on my mind of late. Wuthering Heights. He gives a remarkably "conservative" interpretation of this novel. Refreshingly, given how often that book has been distorted by readings that see it as little more than a sordid romance novel (think Stephanie Meyer and Twilight). Fairly obviously, even though I read it years and years ago, it is in part a serious critique of the Byronic hero, showing how uncontrolled "naturalness" in Heathcliff results in a grotesquely unnatural character who is willing to act atrociously to every person around him, using them more blatantly than the entire utilitarian society which he tries to escape. In short, Heathcliff is not a romantic hero. He's an antihero, and his romance with Catherine is a wild, egotistical fall into passion that is simply a hiatus in his general project of manipulating the society he loathes in order to gain revenge on basically everyone who's ever offended him. I do think Emily Bronte is more of a moralist here than Eagleton seems to give her credit for being, but he does a very excellent job of bringing out the contradictions inherent in Heathcliff's and Catherine's alternate acceptance of, then rejection of society--in both cases they are really using it as an objective standard to measure themselves against. Heathcliff, from what I can remember, pretty much defines himself in terms of his antagonism towards society, but in doing so, he's implicitly accepting the demands it makes on him as real...you can only "throw off" real constraints.

Now Eagleton more or less concludes claiming that the problem is that society exists in anything like a form that makes objective demands on its members. Or that's more or less the claim holding up most of the book. You can understand immediately why a Marxist would have a problem with that. Or really why any modern liberal would: human freedom has become the paramount value in their perspective. Any external force that influences behavior is an illegitimate invasion of human freedom--a capital crime.

I disagree with him here. The thing he misses--or rather, doesn't really miss, but is unwilling to admit--is that there may be some objective standard outside the purely human sphere of action, that human society, for all it's internal insecurity and propensity for error, may ideally be based on. And thus I see Bronte's suspicion of radical breaks with this society in terms of the ideal Jane Austen puts forward and can't bring myself to disagree with her all that much. What Eagleton has a problem with is that this ideal is rarely--one may even say never--really met. My question is...because an ideal is constantly unachieved, does that make it illegitimate in itself?

I've far too little time now to present a defense of that my actual position, or even to try to explain it more clearly, but the question should make things clear enough. Far too much to say, and work summons.

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