When is a book a book?

In the middle of Terry Eagleton’s new book, The Event of Literature, we come across the eighteenth century bishop who, having just read Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, threw the book into his fireplace, declaring that he didn’t believe a word of it. Fictionality is not the only topic under discussion in this work (although that chapter is particularly rewarding).

Eagleton takes a look at literature through the conjunction of Continental literary theory and the Anglo-Saxon philosophy of literature. In a recent In Our Time episode, this dichotomy seemed to be revealed as an Anglo-American construction, alien to continental philosophers. But, for the sake of argument, or more realistically not making a huge fool of myself by taking on one of the most esteemed and groundbreaking literary theorists, we’ll leave that there.

In the chapter on realism and nominalism, he surveys the running battle between the empiricists and rationalists, noting that realism has been rebuked for generalisation, whilst nominalists have gotten flack for being so wrapped up in material imaginings that they can’t disentangle themselves from them, so much so that Plato threw the poets out of his Republic, so caught as they were in the sensuality of music that they couldn’t rise to the dignity of an abstract idea. Students of literature should watch out.

How is a poem different from a joke? How is a dream, written down, different from a novel, both combining imagery, wordplay, grippingly dramatic events, moral insight, fascinating characters and a compelling storyline? If a real duke plays a character who is a duke, is a film or play removed from its supposed fictionality? This exploration of dogmatism and meaning allows Eagleton swipes at liberals who attack didacticism and conviction, proof that the old Marxist is not dead. But this is no lengthy meditation on Marxist criticism. Tolstoy, Twain and Tropic Thunder are mentioned in the same breath.

He sets up what seems to be a reasonably plausible definition of literature, and then knocks it down: fictionality, the ability to yield significant insight into human experience, the self-conscious or heightened use of language, a lack of practicality, and highly valued as a piece of writing. Impracticality and fictionality work, as they exclude shopping lists. But what about the American Declaration of Independence? It is practical and a work of non-fiction, yet also a work of literature. We learn that Shelley wanted to class parliamentary statutes as poetry, creating harmony – as they supposedly did – out of disorder (although, to dispel the risk that David Cameron is considered the new Keats or Wordsworth, we should move on swiftly).

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Eagleton’s book is a swirling nebula, a string of stars set against a seemingly impenetrable black sky. It is wonderfully accessible, and yet the subject tackled is gigantic, so massive as to extend beyond this world into questioning God’s nature and reality itself. Yet, you don’t leave sections on subjects like Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations feeling a dolt. This is a book for those interested in literary theory, philosophy, or anything in between.