Bill McSweeney, ‘Fear and freedom’, review of Terry Eagleton, Holy Terror, in The Irish Times (17 Sept. 2005), Weekend.

[Cultural Studies: Former altar-boy Terry Eagleton searches for the meaning of terror in a theological context.]

This is not another book about terrorism, the author assures us in his preface, but rather an essay in metaphysics, a search for the deeper meaning of terror in its theological context. Such a context, he tells us, linking Satan and Dionysus, scapegoats and demons, furnishes a base for a more radical politics than is found in the “more orthodox discourses of leftism today”.

Terry Eagleton is Professor of Cultural Theory at Manchester University. For his breadth of learning and erudition and, not least, his political leanings, he stands with Raymond Williams and Edward Said in that small pantheon of the academic left admired and derided for their cussed refusal to bend radical instinct to the wisdom of age and the demands of status.

With this new publication, Eagleton offers a short reflection on terror and displays his trademark erudition and originality to signal effect. Terrorism began its political life as a strategy of the state, not of shadowy individuals pitting their guile and muscle against it. Its historic authorship points to Robespierre, not Bin Laden. The term “terrorist” is intended to separate the agent of violence from any coherent set of ideas - exemplified in the west’s refusal to hear any explanation of suicide bombing. It is rather like labelling someone a copulationist, writes Eagleton, in order to rubbish their high-minded justification for everyday fornication.

The author invites his readers to an orgy, as he calls it, to contemplate the ambivalence of terror in its most primitive origins, where the contradiction of terror is exposed as both life-affirming and life-denying. One of the potent symbols of this ambivalence is the mythic character of the god Dionysus, the lovable hedonist as well as the fearsome despot. For the women who worship at the shrine of Dionysus - “as for some modern-day purveyors of cultural junk”, he adds in a swipe at unnamed leftists - their enemies are summarily despatched as out-of-touch elitists, their own community is bound in solidarity only by the intolerance and despotism characteristic of a quasi-fascist cult.

Drawing on euripides and Hegel, Lacan and Freud, Eagleton guides us on a literary exhibition of the duality of terror, of its sacred origins and its merciless roots, and shows us the faces of Dionysus in the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, whose “pitiless love knows no bounds”. This is the God which confronted St Augustine in his Confessions: “one who fills me with terror and burning love: with terror in so much as I am utterly other than it, with love in that I am akin to it”.

Here we see Eagleton at his most imaginative, at times poetic, juxtaposing some pithy observations of the contemporary - with psychoanalysis, he tells us “we have moved from the godly to the genital” - with some dense literary analysis and indeed some impenetrable prose to boot. (Writing of medieval images of God, for example, he proclaims: “This paradox of a violent void or abrasive form of nothingness returns in late modernity under the name of the Real. This, to be sure, is the ‘bad’ late-modern or postmodern sublime; the ‘good’ one is to be found in the postmodern celebration of whatever defeats representation.” Yeah, right.)

In a stimulating discussion of freedom and fear the author continues his task of illuminating contemporary politics and culture through reflection on our images of God - images bequeathed to us by Nietzsche’s account of his death - and on our images of that most godly attribute: freedom.

Absolute freedom aspires to everything and ends in its own denial and self- destruction. (The word “absolute” means “absolved from”.) In a biting aside on current political developments, Eagleton remarks that the custodians of state power are beginning to morph into their ideological opponents. It was always absurd to claim that Islamic extremists envied western freedom - like “they longed to hang out in Amsterdam cafés smoking dope and reading Simone de Beauvoir” he adds sarcastically. The struggle to shore up our freedom against this misinterpretation of their motives ends, inevitably, in the denial of the very freedom we proclaim.

The terror of the French Revolution is the single event in history which most illustrates the central theme of the book, the ambivalence of terror. Using Georg Buchner’s Danton’s Death as a literary platform, Eagleton captures the post-Iraq hubris of the west in a biting comment: “To redeem humankind, they are ready to break into its flesh in order to lay violent hands on the ghostly Idea which secretes itself there. Today, a similar scenario is unfurling in the fantasy-ridden politics of some Western nations which hope to save peoples less blessed than themselves by first destroying them, then breaking open their corpses to find the word Democracy inscribed on their hearts.”

This is Eagleton at his most interesting, provocative, startling, and always relevant to politics. The one-time brilliant sceptic of the “Slant” critics of the Second Vatican Council, later lapsed into academic agnosticism, now returns as the high priest of a cultural criticism that owes as much to Catholic theology and metaphysics as to the profane literature of conventional lit-crit.

Always faithful to his left politics, Eagleton in his 60s has rediscovered religion - albeit a set of beliefs which float so high above the ordinary as to be barely discernible as such. The one-time altar-boy of the Carmelite Convent in Salford, where he was born, has returned to his roots to become the scourge of hierarchy, the sniffer of hypocrisy, the holy terrier of secular culture.

[Bill McSweeney teaches International Politics at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin. Holy Terror by Terry Eagleton Oxford University Press, 148pp. £12.99]

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