John Waters, on Terry Eagleton and the challenge to the liberal agenda, in The Irish Times (3 Sept. 1996)

Details: John Waters, ‘Challenge to liberal agenda cannot be dismissed’’, in The Irish Times (Tuesday, 3 Sept. 1996) - available online; orig. date of access unknown].

The lecture given by Dr Terry Eagleton to the recent Desmond Greaves School was intelligent, lucid and radical, as I would have expected from the Warton of English Literature at Oxford, and author of fine volume, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger.

But if your knowledge of the occasion is based only on the account of the talk given by Dick Walsh in last Saturday’s Irish Times, you may have the impression that it was less than lucid, being, as Dick Walsh averred,‘smothered in thickets of jargon’.

Moreover, on the basis of Dick Walsh’s lumping him into bed with the Archbishop of Cashel, Dr Dermot Clifford, you may have come to the conclusion that this Terry Eagleton is some reactionary upholder of tradition. This would be a grave mistake, and I would advise that you obtain his lecture and read it carefully before lending credence to the assertion that Dr Eagleton would have preferred life here to have remained as it was over half a century ago’.

Someone sent me a copy of his paper,‘The Ideology of Irish Studies’, which I believe makes a start in addressing some of the most pertinent questions facing Irish public thinking today. Begging indulgence on account of the difficulty in condensing 6,000 words into a couple of hundred, I will try to outline the nature of the arguments Dr Eagleton was making.

Primarily, he was talking about the need to deconstruct the liberal humanism which governs much of our public thinking today. Dr Eagleton was not pointing fingers but, as in the best cultural criticism, including himself among the candidates for deconstruction.‘The hardest thing is always to turn one’s demythologising impulse upon the very assumptions which enable it’, he said.

Terry Eagleton is no traditionalist - atavistic traditionalism, he states,‘is a hideous enough affair’ - but a thoroughly modern thinker with a deep suspicion of the pseudo modern.‘Modernisation in Ireland today,’ he states,‘means a host of precious things: pluralism, feminism, tolerance, civic rights, secularisation, flexible notions of sovereignty’.

But it can also mean‘being shamefaced and sarcastic about your historical culture ... so as to leap, suitably streamlined and amnesiac, into the heart of a European order characterised by racism, structural unemployment, urban barbarism, military campaigns against the Third World and the abandonment of the Irish small farmers and working class to a brutally neo liberal polity’. In other words, modernisation which takes the form of a compulsory package is unlikely to be uniformly pluralistic and enlightened.

What Dr Eagleton is seeking is synthesis between apparent incompatibilities. He outlines the dangers of binary oppositions between‘atavistic traditionalism on the one hand and a liberal, pluralist, enlightened world order on the other’.

The dynamic of his thinking signals that we are near the end of the reactive revisionist phase and about to move on to a new stage of perception wherein we will identify both romantic nationalism and pseudo liberal revisionism as preliminary states of consciousness from which to pick and mix our way forward.

Dr Eagleton did not blame everything on revisionism. He spoke about the contradictions of the term‘revisionist’, pointing out that‘the greatest enterprise of historiographical revisionism in Ireland’ was surely the nationalist one. Which is simply to observe that revisionism is not itself an ideology, but rather an attitude which is disrespectful of existing narratives.

I suspect that, like myself, Dr Eagleton would, in the right company, agree that he is also a revisionist. His real target was the ideological impulse underlying the phenomenon of latter day Irish revisionism.

The determination to believe that justice freedom, respect and autonomy can be achieved‘without a thoroughgoing transformation’, he said, illustrates that Irish middle class liberal pluralism‘is more hopelessly mystified than unionism or old style nationalism ever were’.

He said that, because Ireland lacks a tradition of liberal humanism, what passes for such here‘tends to overreact against an illiberal society and betray its own liberal tenets in the act of doing so’. He went on to observe that the main division underlying the traditionalist revisionist debate is really one of class outlook: the‘dominant’ who believe that history has not been all that bad, and the‘dispossessed’, who believe that it has been‘unspeakably dreadful so far’.

Thus, while liberal pluralism believes itself to be on the side of the dispossessed, it is actually part of the culture of domination.

Like a true liberal, Dr Eagleton declared that‘there is almost nothing more politically valuable than tolerance, pluralism, mutual understanding.’ But the problem lies in that word‘almost’ -‘for there is indeed something even more important than tolerance, and that is justice’ (my italics).

Dr Eagleton made a number of distinctions between post modernism, liberal pluralism and romantic nationalism, which he says have become entangled in the Irish debate to the detriment of, clarity, understanding and truth. Perhaps it was this section of his talk which provoked Dick Walsh to admit that he and a number of his friends, colleagues and relatives had difficulty in understanding what was being said.

Dr Eagleton’s argument was certainly not couched in the language of Ireland’s Own, but I for one had no difficulty in understanding his line of argument. He deals, for example, with the limitations of trying to find a solution for the Northern conflict in cultural terms, exposing the fudge of liberal revisionists who want desperately to believe that the conflict is open to some cultural panacea which will cause everyone to jump up and down and shout‘Bingo!’ and‘Why didn’t we think of that before?’

I HAVE no axe to grind on behalf of Dr Eagleton. Some of his argument I agree with, more of it causes me to say‘Yes but ... ’ But all of it is valuable and deserves more than to have its author bundled in along with the latest bogeyman of the liberal imagination.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. I have noticed in my own jousting with some of our self styled liberal pluralists that, when they do not agree with you, they tend to do one of two things. One, they accuse you of being‘pretentious’, i.e. not using the language of the common man. Or two, they tie you in a three legged race with the most reactionary cipher available.

If possible, they will select the nearest gun toting, hog nationalist, but a crozier wielding bishop is almost as good. Thus, you are either too smart by half or too stupid to matter. It is interesting that Dick Walsh chose to use both tactics against Dr Eagleton, who is therefore, one presumes, the first case of an over educated backwoodsman in the history of Irish historiography.

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