The Gatekeeper

gatekeeperTerry Eagleton

What might make a working class Catholic kid with a Cambridge education turn to Marxism? The straightforward answer in The Gatekeeper: being a working class Catholic kid with a Cambridge education.

Eagleton’s memoir begins with his life as an ethnic Irish child, in particular with his experiences as a good little Catholic, the trusted altar boy who shepherded visitors into the outer rooms of a cloistered Carmelite convent,  a forbidden world into which only he, as a pre-man, and the priest, as a not-man, were allowed. This role yields the book’s title, and it serves as a handy metaphor for Eagleton’s sense that his life has been a series of ritual tests and acceptances, most importantly into the closed and privileged worlds of the scholar, the ideologue, and the writer.

As a former devout little Catholic boy of immigrant stock and eventual Jesuit university education, I identified with the young Eagleton and enjoyed a frisson of recognition at the social and moral and intellectual atmosphere he describes. Eagleton’s summary description of the Catholic experience, of a world in which the individual was always subject to the doctrinal groupthink, was particularly familiar.

As Eagleton notes, while Protestants wrestled to form and maintain a personal relationship to their saviour, Jesus, Catholics learned to recite the catechism. Perform the right ritual, say the right prayer, and the actual content of your character sinks from view into its proper insignificance. In some senses, at least in those times before Vatican II, Protestantism was a religion, and Catholicism was a church. With typical wit, Eagleton puts it this way: “… You could not doubt your personal commitment to God because you had no personal commitment to him, any more than you had a personal commitment to the Panama Canal or the concept of near-sightedness.”

Returning to this article’s introductory hook, Eagleton summarizes the effect of his early experience on his later politics:

I grew up, then, amidst secrecy and doubleness, absolute refusal, Gothic grotesquerie, gestures of extremity, ginger-tufted virgins, rituals of asceticism and self-immolation, death-in-life. No doubt this all helped to shape my politics later, if only because it was as far from the world of middle-class Protestant England as the mountains of Afghanistan.

Eagleton speculates that it was this very distancing, this mediation of authority between the boy and God, that gave him the unshakable foundations of a worldview that made Marxism attractive:

Despite the benighted autocracy of their church, Catholics are prime candidates for the political left. They are, at least in Britain, usually of working-class immigrant stock, are taught to value systematic thought, feel at ease with the collective, symbolic dimensions of human existence, and are wary of subjectivism.

As a literary critic and materialist thinker, Eagleton remains “wary of subjectivism,” most notably in his distrust of postmodernist relativism. Marxism and postmodernism have an uneasy relationship at best, and when you throw in a Catholic-inspired sensibility, the gap widens:

I am convinced that the postmodernists are wrong to be so deeply in love with the constructed, the invented, the self-fashioning. Piously opposed to universal truths, they generalize what it feels like to live in Manhattan to the entire world. On the contrary, what governs our lives for the most part is the given, the habitual, the sheer inertia of history, circumstance, inheritance. It was a Saul Bellow character who remarked that history was a nightmare during which he was trying to get some sleep.

Eagleton counters with the familiar Marxist charge that relativism serves the “late capitalism” of status quo corporatism and other imperialisms:

The apparently radical belief in perpetual change, mobility, plasticity, is a fantasy largely in the service of the status quo. It is capitalism which arrogantly imagines that everything is possible, and socialism which acknowledges in its more modest, materialist way the heavy ballast of legacy and circumstance.

Eagleton also pokes fun at the continental existentialism that was so popular during his youth:

I was to flirt briefly with existentialism, but this was just a high-falutin way of announcing that I was a depressed, disoriented late adolescent, as post-structuralism was to be for some of a later generation.

More influential for Eagleton was the Oxbridge world into which he was granted entry. Here, he encountered a worldview completely different from the one which he had acquired in his youthful poverty.

Indeed, during my years in Oxbridge, I came to see that the place was full of people who were there largely because they could not conceivably be anywhere else, as some people can only be in top-security psychiatric institutions or houses with views of the English Channel.

These professional scholars were as isolated from the world outside as were the Carmelite nuns of his youth — in fact, his academic supervisor served as a second “gatekeeper,” admitting Eagleton to the secret inner life of academia, a life from which Eagleton has not completely escaped even now.

Many seek entry to this nether world, but if you stay too long, there’s no returning to the surface:

There is a kind of lumpen intelligentsia in Oxbridge who have no real jobs but who, as in some Buñuel-like fantasy, find themselves incapable of leaving, as long-term prisoners who grow gradually more terrified as the fatal moment comes for them to rejoin the world. Oxbridge colleges, like hospitals and monasteries, have an infantilizing effect on their longer-term inmates, reducing them to a state of querulous narcissism.

Eagleton’s political cadre comes in for its share of abuse, too. Anyone with much experience of progressive movements will certainly find familiar Eagleton’s descriptions of party conferences and true-believer debates: “Most of the group’s energies were directed not to the conflict with world capitalism, but to the rather more urgent war against other left-wing organizations.”

The left has its own immobilizing worldview, just as emasculating as the similar self-referential insularity of Oxbridge academia:

For the revolution to come about, it was first necessary to smash the petty-bourgeois illusions of those who believed in strikes, picket lines, anti-nuclear demos, mass protests, the defence of jobs, pay levels, working conditions, hospitals and nursery schools, and other such reformist distractions from the historical matter in hand. In elegantly dialectical fashion, all attempts to build socialism were in fact efforts to undermine it, so that the single most productive revolutionary act was to stay at home and listen to The Archers.

This kind of ironic humour is the most endearing quality of The Gatekeeper. Eagleton writes like a better-read Bill Bryson, with that insider-outsider understanding that gives even the simplest episodes an enjoyable little twist. Two very different examples illustrate Eagleton’s style well.

The first is a pure Grand Guignol description of a college porter and drinking buddy’s prodigious and legendary nose:

His nose was not in fact just inflamed but a kind of intricate system of nodules, pits and crevices, of sudden shifts of plane and tiltings of perspective like a Cubist painting, impossible for the eye to take in as a single unified phenomenon. With its complex sub-systems of bumps and multilayered nostrils, it seemed to defeat any simple three-dimensional logic, like some purely imaginary form known only to mythologers or mathematicians. Teams of cartographers working night and day might just have mapped its flushed, crumpled folds.

The second example is Eagleton’s proposition that the first step to achieving the revolution is the abolishment of sport, in particular British football. His view is the typical “bread and circuses” objection to benign despotism, but his idiosyncratic sensibilities inform it with new life: “My own personal proposal for furthering the cause of socialism would be to abolish sport. Few more crafty ways of deflecting the populace from political action have been dreamt up.”

He continues:

If capitalism destroys human community and solidarity, it provides some powerful substitutes for them on the soccer field. If it eradicates history and tradition, it restores them with the mighty annals of sporting achievement. … Sport is where ordinary people can feel a corporate existence denied to them elsewhere … Like politics, it has its pantheon of legendary heroes, and combines macho drives with aesthetic subtleties. … Like religion, the truly devout regard sport as a way of life rather than just a weekly ritual. … The instant abolition of sport, with the possible exception of the more tedious sort of board game, should be high on the list of every radical agenda.

If, like me, you’re a former Catholic of modest origins, imprinted with a particularly rational version of a liberal arts education, with a healthy cynicism toward the “purer-than-thou” demands of your progressive political consorts — The Gatekeeper is just the book for you!


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