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Renowned critic visits campus

Sara Felsenstein | Friday, September 30, 2011

For three weeks each semester, Notre Dame humanities students can interact with one of Britain’s most influential literary critics and a man who is the author of more than 40 academic books on topics ranging from the God Debate to Shakespeare to Marxist literary criticism.

Terry Eagleton, Notre Dame’s Excellence in English Distinguished Professor, visits the University twice a year to teach a miniature graduate course and deliver lectures on campus.

Despite his prestige in the literary world, Eagleton called himself “a bookseller’s nightmare.”

“I’ve long since forgotten what field I’m supposed to be in,” Eagleton said. “I started out in literature, and in some ways I still am. Literature is an open-ended field, it continually merges into surrounding areas [and] a lot of my work is [in] the intersection of different fields.”

This semester, Eagleton will be in residence at Notre Dame from Sept. 19 to Oct. 7.

Chris Vanden Bossche, director of undergraduate studies in English, said Eagleton began traveling to the United States to teach in 1970. Since then, he has taught at more than 100 universities across the country.

“The opportunity to hear from and interact with somebody of that stature is really valuable for our students, especially our graduate students,” Vanden Bossche said.

Eagleton was a Visiting Professor at Notre Dame before his current title as the Excellence in English Distinguished Professor was created specifically for him, Vanden Bossche said. Eagleton became a distinguished professor in 2009, and the position will last for five years.

“We created this [position] particularly because there was an opportunity to have Professor Eagleton join us,” Vanden Bossche said. “He has historically had some connections [with Notre Dame, and] he’s been here to give talks in the past, so there was an existing relationship between him and the department.”

Eagleton is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lancaster University, where he teaches for a few days a semester, and until recently was also a visiting professor at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He is currently working on a book called “The Event of Literature,” which he said deals with “pure literary theory” and will be released next spring.

Eagleton said he think the most interesting academic work crosses boundaries between disciplines. Throughout the 1990s, he focused on Irish Studies, but has since returned to an area he explored in the beginning of his career — theology.

Eagleton recently completed a book on evil called “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” which focuses on the God Debate and the interconnection of religion and politics.

“I wrote about theology in my early 20s at the time of the Second Vatican Council when things were very exciting in the Church, but over the years I’ve become sort of interested in political theology,” he said.

Vanden Bossche said Eagleton is one of just three main influential figures in the area of Marxist criticism and literary theory, the other two being American literary critic Frederick Jameson and Raymond Williams, a Welsh academic, critic and novelist who died in 1988.

“The leftist perspective has obviously been a consistent thing throughout his career, but in the broadest sense,” Vanden Bossche said.

This year, Eagleton will teach his graduate course on psychoanalysis. He delivered a public lecture called “Jesus & Tragedy” Wednesday night, and will give an undergraduate lecture, “The Contradictions of Oscar Wilde,” on Oct. 5.

“They’re on big topics, big questions that fit his strength as a thinker,” Vanden Bossche said. “He just always has something interesting to say that’s really useful for our students.”

While Eagleton said forming relationships with students and colleagues may be slightly more difficult while he’s only on campus for three weeks, he said those three weeks are “terrific.”

“It means I don’t have to spend a year in South Bend, it means I don’t have to be [away from] my children,” Eagleton said. “Whenever I go anywhere, I like to have an escape. I would like to have a way out rather than feeling I have been marooned.”

Eagleton said his short-term stay actually has advantages for teaching.

“One of the advantages of dipping in and out is it means my relationship to the place is a purely educational one. What I do is pure teaching,” he said.

While the individual departments of universities restructured over the last 20 years, Eagleton said he believes humanities departments could be developed even further.

Vanden Bossche said the Department of English at Notre Dame has been working towards a more interdisciplinary focus for a number of years.

“I think that’s true [at Notre Dame] as well as elsewhere. People use various disciplines in their study of literature ⎯ philosophy, for sure, history, and so on … We tend to see literature in an interdisciplinary context,” Vanden Bossche said. “That’s definitely been the general trend in literary studies.”

Not all of the writing Eagleton has published is academic. He has also written plays, film and television scripts, a memoir and a novel over the course of his career.

“Writing for the theater is okay, writing for film is dreadful,” he said. “Actors don’t regard the writer as the most important person. The writer takes very much the back seat in the theater [and it] causes problems if he or she intervenes,” Eagleton said.

Eagleton calls himself a “chameleon” when it comes to writing.

“In some ways I think I’m just a writer ⎯ what I write is really not important to me,” he said. “I like to write in different styles. I just enjoy the act of writing so much.”