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January 04, 2006

"A Dangerous, Mischievous Book": Holy Terror - Terry Eagleton

Posted by David Womersley

Holy Terror
by Terry Eagleton
Pp. viii + 148. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005
Hardback, £12.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews Terry Eagleton's Holy Terror. The book leaves Prof. Womersley deeply unimpressed.

Let me state plainly at the outset that I have never, in fact, seen a charlatan tap-dancing on a coffin. But, if I ever were to see such a thing, then I imagine that the sight would raise in me emotions similar to those which have been stimulated by reading Holy Terror.

There can be few subjects of current concern which more deserve, and more require, the utmost scrupulousness of treatment than that of terror and its sibling, terrorism. This is in part a question of the sensitivities of those who have been damaged by acts of terrorism, either directly themselves or via their friends and relations. It is also a question of the complexity of the moral, legal and intellectual issues raised by terror and terrorism. Can acts of terror ever be justified? If so, how and why? What is the relation between religious fervour and terrorism? Is it possible to conceive of an atheistic fervour undergirding a terrorist programme? Is it logically possible for a state to commit an act of terrorism, or is there a perfect separation between legitimate authority and terror? What is the history and the genealogy of terror? Does it make sense to label certain acts of violence in the ancient world as acts of terror, or does terror only really come into existence with the birth of the modern state during the early years of the French Revolution?

Clear and well-weighed answers to these questions will not be found in Holy Terror, a short book comprising the substance of a set of lectures apparently delivered on two occasions in 2003 and 2004 at the universities of Aberystwyth and Toronto.

Holy Terror does not aspire to be part of the "mounting pile of political studies of terrorism". Rather, it claims to set the subject of terror in:

a rather more original context, one which might loosely be termed "metaphysical".
What does this metaphysical context consist of? In large measure, it resolves itself into the assertion that terror and the sacred are twinned, because:
terrorism runs all the way back to the pre-modern world. For it is there that the concept of the sacred first sees the light of day; and the idea of terror, implausibly enough, is closely bound up with this ambiguous notion. It is ambiguous because the word sacer can mean either blessed or cursed, holy or reviled; and there are kinds of terror in ancient civilization which are both creative and destructive, life-giving and death-dealing.
This original ambivalence is later revived in the aesthetic category of the sublime, with its "shattering enthralments", and it powerfully informs the Freudian categories of the unconscious, the death drive, and the Real:
this monstrous ambivalence, which for the Judaeo-Christian lineage finds its epitome in the holy terror of God, is also to be found at the root of the modern conception of freedom. The absolute notion of freedom, pressed to an extreme limit, involves a form of terror which turns against the finitude of the flesh in the very act of seeking to serve it. Like the tragic protagonist, it glides through some invisible frontier at which its "everything" collapses into nothing.
Different kinds of writing persuade in different ways. One way – perhaps not the best – is simply to club the reader with a rapid succession of phrases, references, names of authors and concepts, and to varnish over these miscellaneous and ill-connected materials with a certain kind of verbal style. This is the manner of Holy Terror. A lightning tour of selected high-spots of western culture conducted at a pace which inhibits reflective, critical engagement with the propositions being advanced; a sprinkling of literary analysis (but, interestingly, no account of Samson Agonistes, although space was found – puzzlingly, given the subject – for Clarissa); a roll-call of some of the more glamorous names in western thought (the "designer-labels" of the world of ideas, such as Lacan, Foucault and Kierkegaard), seasoned with some surprising inclusions such as de Maistre and Stendhal (but, interestingly, not Nechaev, not St.-Just, not Robespierre); this is a mélange which conspires to create the illusion of intellectual power.

Add to this a style which implicitly claims that there is no effectual distinction between thinking and phrase-making, and the debasement of the subject in hand is well under way. It is a dangerous thing to trifle with a serious subject; and Holy Terror is a dangerous, mischievous, book.

Holy Terror also stands in an interesting relation to previous work by this author. There is a trace of preening self-regard in this book, and at its outset that self regard is focused on:

the metaphysical or theological turn (or full circle) which my work seems to have taken in recent years, one welcomed by some but looked upon with alarm or exasperation by others.
Surely this was a "turn" entirely ignored by the overwhelming majority of the sentient world, and, even amongst those few by whom its existence was registered, it was viewed for the most part with complete indifference?

At any rate, I for one have never chanced upon huddled groups urgently extolling or deploring the recent metaphysical turn in Professor Eagleton's work. Yet, it is, after all, an interesting late development. Those of us who have battled through the joyless Marxism of the early writings would have found there little to suggest this eventual engagement with concepts and forms of belief which were once either brutally derided or coldly ignored. More rejoicing in Heaven, etc. etc., of course – but on such momentous issues as these, transformations on this scale suggest triviality of mind.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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'Those of us who have battled through the joyless Marxism of the early writings would have found there little to suggest this eventual engagement with concepts and forms of belief which were once either brutally derided or coldly ignored'.

That paragraph shows just how little Professor DW knows Eagleton's early work.

Posted by: A reader at April 9, 2006 02:55 AM
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