(Visual) Notes on Culture
  Book Review: THE GATEKEEPER by Terry Eagleton

The Gatekeeper: A Memoir
Terry Eagleton
St. Martin's/Griffen
$12.95 Trade Paperback

I have been reading a good deal of Terry Eagleton's work lately. My first exposure to him (as with thousands of others) was through Literary Theory: An Introduction, which remains the standard text for making sense of the confusing world of literary study. Many of the key elements of subsequent Eagleton books are present. The prose is sophisticated, lively, and animated. Literary Theory distills the even the most maddeningly complex of ideas into a heady stew of humorous anecdotes, grotesque examples, and punny axioms. This does not in any way cheapen, or denounce, the work...in fact, it is made all the more serious and sustainable because of its slight irreverence. Beyond Literary Theory, I have also recently finished Holy Terror, his monograph on Marx for the Routledge Great Philosophers series, and am about to read his jolly The Truth About the Irish (me being, as with Eagleton, an Irishmen with some reservations about the Irish).

It has elsewhere been noted that The Gatekeeper is a bit of an "anti-memoir": Eagleton does not provide an wholly intelligible chronology of his life, seems under interested in telling us much about his wife and kids, and does not overemphasize too many life lessons. He certainly has quite a storehouse of life lessons, though, and the bulk of the book is dedicated to subtly illustrating how he came to think with such verve. His life, as best I can tell, was marked by seemingly vast contradictions. He was an Anglicanized Irish born in working-class Salford yet he read all of Dickens while most kids were still learning how to read. He served as a tutor and Don at Oxbridge yet also remained active in socialist organizations, handing out leaflets at factories and selling left-wing newspapers on the street. He came to be known as one of the most cogent humanists in the world, yet attributes his eventual vocation to his Catholic upbringing, his affiliation with the radical Catholic journal Slant, and a lifelong interest in theology.

In this case, the contradictions make the man. Eagleton certainly has obscured the autobiography, but in doing so, he was written one of the funniest books I've ever read. His descriptions of hypocrisy, eccentricity, and the disillusioned are worth the price of admission and more. He writes about some of his mentors in a loving way, yet at times in such language as one would describe a cat amusing itself with a ball of string. Eagleton's rise to fame and success (he would deny it) was peppered by the understanding that the old ways of the United Kingdom, with its rigid class hierarchies, codes of propriety, and gentlemanly virtues, was about to die. The old guard of Oxford and Cambridge was the last vestige of a dying way of life - too useless to survive, yet so grandly amusing that it was sad to see them go. He has choice words for Carmelite nuns, counter-cultural priests, and the aristocracy. The book is at its best when describing, in vivid detail, the colorful characters of his life. These people are now burned into my own memory, and I will never have a chance to meet them.

The Gatekeeper could work as a surreal screenplay, a series of disconnected, highly intelligent sketches linked in the manner of Monty Python. It is no wonder that Eagleton complains that a slightly clueless public often mistook him for Terry Jones and told him about how much they enjoyed The Life of Brian.
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