The Meaning of Life
By Terry Eagleton (Oxford)
Terry Eagleton , a long time literary critic of Marxist training (Marxist Literary Criticsm, Literary Theory, Illusions of Post Moderism) and Catholic church moral rigor and one of the best explicators of the dually condensed and convoluted intersections of literature, philosophy and political action, has give us all a small, witty, tersely choice gift with his new book, more correctly an essay, called The Meaning of Life. Eagleton's intent, despite what one might assume, isn't to cast a disparaging glare at what has to be simultaneously the most over- asked and least answerable question issued forth, continually, but the swelling ranks of the Middle Brow readership. Eagleton is one of the few truly fine stylists in Leftist literary criticism, an intellectual who is able to translate the most involuted and deferring theoretical quagmires in elegant, comprehensible English, and who is likewise able, and blessedly inclined to make the murky suppositions of other academics sweat by insisting that notions of reading deal , finally, with a book's perceptible idea, and that analysis of the workings have something to do with a reader's experience of the text they've finished and seek to fruitfully ponder. He steers clear of the stalling abstractions of Frederick Jameson, and more clearly addresses the same idea advanced by the increasingly oracular Harold Bloom--the investigation into how Literature helps us think about ourselves and our deeds in the world.
The author does not sneer, deride, nor deride the question, although more than a little of his prickly wit bubbles up from under the surface of his elegantly poised writing. It's a question he takes seriously--it must be important,since queries into grander, greater (or lesser) significance in our existence have been debated for as long as humans could write and record their knowledge and history-- but he is one who is rather tired of the various sophistries that have absorbed the question and tried to force it into submission. He is short fused with the New Agers, who's dreamy capitulation of personal responsibility to whispering drives are useless to most of us who find ourselves denied celestial epiphanies in ruthless material plain, and Eagleton is equally contemptuous of post-modernist theorizers who would argue, abstrusely, thickly, blockheadly, that the Meaning of Life is a merely a social construction and that one is finely better off, by implication, attempting nothing to change one's state and purpose and instead enjoy the spectacle of observing the culture collapse upon itself.
An attractive aspect of Eagleton's progressive dissections of concepts and the language that gives them form is a tangible humanity; he refuses to slide into pessimism with the false assurance that the population is too stupid or deluded to do better by themselves and their fellows, or that the quest for meaning of our deeds is delusional. There is a series of skewerings , interrogations and elucidations of the basic elements of the need to define the life worth living-- the rise of the need for metaphysical certainty as expressed in religion, philosophy and political thought, and the latter day "eclipse of meaning" as modernism and postmodernism seem to fragment phenomena into a incoherent multi-verse that could be be authoritatively unified under banner of general noble purpose.
The thrust of the book, we find, is that seeking the answer to what The Meaning of Life is is less an attempt to find that patch of wise and fertile soil on which one may advance their lives with a given purpose, but that that it is a way of life. Far from being static, the genuine quest for coherence, meaning, a means by which to measure one's best intentions and making them effectively congruent with their actions, is in itself the purpose of being alive and productive, above and beyond the biological imperative. The species is quite capable of much nastiness and unmistakable evil, but we are likewise capable of great works of art , compassion, charity. That capacity, after the pseudo systems of philosophical side streets have been blocked off, the sweetness of new age thought turns into a fouling stench, and the apocalyptic ravings of religious extremes reveal themselves as useless to the question to what one does in this life that's useful, Eagleton considers the open mind interested in the ongoing need for the good to be the thing which we must prize over all.