Unlike his former fellow Trotskyite, Christopher Hitchens, Terry Eagleton is by his own admission, “fixed in the groove of my adolescent beliefs, clinging to my leftism like a toddler to his blanket.”  Marxism has become unfashionable, but that doesn’t stop Eagleton from next year releasing a book, “mildly and unprovocatively titled” Why Marx Was Right. When he was Warton professor of English at Oxford, Eagleton styled himself “a barbarian inside the citadel”, but, he interrupts, “that was just to annoy the Daily Telegraph”. 

This resistance to convention and academic expectation at times seems wilfully perverse.  While Richard Dawkins incited controversy with what Eagleton calls his “inverted Evangelical” atheism – “he’s as obsessed with religion as puritans are with sex” – Eagleton defied expectation yet further by defending religion.  Dawkins’s attacks are so crude and ignorant, he claims, as to “make a first-year theology student wince”, yet Eagleton himself admits that Dawkins’ plan to arrest the pope for crimes against humanity is a “seductive” suggestion.
What Eagleton objects to in the argument of Dawkins, he explains, is its laziness; he has, Eagleton claims, “bought his unbelief on the cheap, he has rejected a version of religion that nobody in their right mind would accept”. It is, Eagleton insists, “a matter of intellectual justice to confront your opponent at his or her best, otherwise you just set up a straw target and knock it over, and get a thrill out of doing so”.   

In Eagleton’s talk at the Union and our follow up interview, there emerges his unwillingness to buy any notion “on the cheap”, even if it means he must embrace indecision, he will do so in the stead of dubious judgement.  What shall we do, someone asks in the audience, in the face of fundamental Islamic terrorism, if not condemn it?  “Attempt to understand it”, is Eagleton’s answer, “do not reduce it to caricature”. But, he admits, “it may be too late for that now”.
Eagleton’s entire life, however, seems to be informed by contradiction. He was described by Elizabeth Jane Howard (Kingsley Amis’ widow) as “a lethal combination of a Roman Catholic and a Marxist”; he is a liberal who detests “mushy liberals”; his professed Marxism infuriates critics who point out his ownership of three houses as well as his apparent longstanding regret at having turned down a job at the Open University despite his legendary Oxbridge careerism.

When I worked on the Wadham telethon and spoke to former students of his, the memories they expressed were as ardent as they were bipolar. Even his talk that I watched at the Union on Monday night, punctuated as it was by erudite and apparently ad hoc witticisms, can be seen to be repeated almost verbatim on an interview available on Youtube. 

‘Whether I believe in God or not, it certainly fed a lot into my work’

There is something irresistibly theoretical about this point of repetition; seeing the king of theory enact and repeat a ‘performative gesture’ of ‘self-formation’, one is tempted to see ‘Terry Eagleton’ as more of a role the he plays: the character of renegade academic, the throwback Marxist. But to do so would truly be to set up a straw target and knock it over.  Eagleton’s views are above all – and by his own admission – complex.  Yet, as he points out, so is the world.  “Religion has been responsible for some horrendous crimes, probably more so than most social institutions; it’s been peculiarly cruel and obnoxious and dogmatic”. What he doesn’t agree with, though, is the prototypical Dawkins “blanket rejection of religion on the basis of caricature, which would be the equivalent of someone saying to Dawkins, ‘Oh Darwin, it’s just about how we’re all monkeys really’.”

In 2007 Eagleton prompted a media furore by accusing Martin Amis of Islamophobia.  Amis had commented that he felt a “definite urge” to make the lives of ordinary Muslims uncomfortable until Islam “gets its house in order”; he suggested strip-searching anyone who looked like they came from Pakistan or the Middle East and deportation, “not letting them travel”.  Amis has since distanced himself from the comments, which Christopher Hitchens defended as “a thought experiment, or a mood experiment”.  I nervously ask Eagleton what he would say to this, unsure of his willingness to discuss Amis. Surprisingly, he reasons openly: “I think it’s outrageous”, he says immediately, “what strikes me about that is the fact that Amis has refused to apologise for the disgusting things he said. He offended a lot of people, he should have the moral courage to come out and say so.” 

Did he have the right to say it though, I wonder; does everyone have the right to voice their opinion, however unsavoury? The answer from Eagleton is, predictably, complex.  “Almost”, he says with a smile, “I think liberalism is almost right.  I don’t think people have the right legally or ethically to voice opinions that are racially insulting, and I think it’s quite proper that the law should take account of that. On the other hand, in no sense do I want to censor Amis. What I admire about him and Hitchens is that they’re both good liberals that have grown conservative. They’re right tilting liberals, it’s the cliché of old age, from radical to conservative; Hitchens who detests a cliché should realise he’s one himself and become more ironic about it.” 

Despite this, he acknowledges that any religious leanings in later life are also clichéd. “It’s probably a sign of age. I’m getting nearer heaven or whatever that other place is called”, he says. But this isn’t just the desperate godliness of an old theorist. His theology is of a kind of Christianity “that is politically radical and ethically engaged. And whether I believe in it or not, it certainly fed a lot into my work”. Interestingly, he never explicitly reveals whether or not he does believe in God. I suppose that would be too simple.

The world, he says, is split into two groups of people. Those that believe too much, and those that believe too little, and “each keeps feeding the other”. Western scepticism, he jokes, has got to the point where even ‘It’s 9 o’clock’ sounds dogmatic; “It’s like ‘9 o’clock’ is so much more indeterminate, it’s very postmodern”.

The point for Eagleton though is that whatever he believes in, he does so wholeheartedly. “What I believe now is pretty much what I believed at the age of fifteen”, he says, “I don’t think consistency is itself a virtue, if things change, one should change. But I haven’t changed because I see no sign that, fundamentally, the system I oppose has changed.” Eagleton will accept complexity, but never compromise.