Holy Terror by Terry Eagleton
Can the pre-history of a concept or an ideology really tell us very much about how it works in the world today? Is archeology context? Does geneology generate real insight?
Eagleton's publisher helpfully tells us that his latest work Holy Terror, rather than adding to the mounting pile of political studies of terrorism, offers “a metaphysics of terror with a serious historical perspective”. From this description, the volume is to be welcomed. Far too many of the books published since 9/11 have told us far too little about what really underpins the war on terror and whether Al Qaeda’s terrorism is truly something new.
Eagleton opens his study with a close reading of Euripides' The Bacchae and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, and goes on to study Richardson’s Clarissa (which, he says, has “a claim to be the greatest English novel”) and Lawrence's Women in Love. We should expect nothing less from a Professor of Literature than his attentiveness to such texts, but what we might be surprised at is Eagleton's credulous Freudianism. We might enjoy his far-ranging reading, but we might wonder to what end all his frenetic referencing.
Dionysus, we learn, is the god of revelry but also a dangerous, rapacious rebel. In this Janus-faced way, Dionysius is like us and like our society: we are constituted via paradox. This paradox means that our relationship to terror – and terrorism – is flawed. Terrorism itself may be a new concept – it arose with modernity in the French revolution, although Eagleton calls it “quintessentially postmodern” – but terror is as old as humanity. More importantly, it is coterminous with the sacred. It is our foundation and our flaw.
As a pre-history of ourselves this is metaphysically plausible and ethically interesting. How do we relate to the Other? How and why should we respect the Other? As vulnerable and in need of friendship? Or to be feared and regulated by administration? The fact is that we relate to the stranger as both potential enemy and potential friend. We need love and the law.
Avowedly, Eagleton is a Marxist. One of the great shames of this book is that, beneath all his learning, when a clear, more committed voice emerges, it isn’t something radical we hear, but the same, dull, liberal platitudes (“the West risks being brought to the ground by its own unwielding strength”, “freedom must posit the freedom of others”) which we hear all of the time. It would seem, despite all his learning, that Eagleton is as perplexed as the rest of us. As readers we are cowed by his citations, not enlightened. Knowing that sublimated at the very core of society resides a primordial terror tells us precious little. It certainly tells us nothing about the history of terrorism nor illumines paths that may counter or prevent it.
This seems to be Eagleton’s pattern. Theology, the Other and, bizarrely, lots of Thanatos (Freud’s Death Drive) make up his theoretical backdrop and what emerges is less than clear. At the level of the sentence, Eagleton is a clear explicator of other’s ideas and an often charming writer. To be sure, too many pally idioms creep in, and his jokes are often cheap, but, for High Theory, this is readable enough. As a follow-up to his book on the idea of the tragic, Sweet Violence, it has some admirable maxims. But as a treatise on terrorism, or as any sort of a guide to thinking about either the terror of the impassioned or the equally vile response of the scared State, this is all but useless.