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Crazy John and the Bishop

By Terry Eagleton

Ever since he burst on to the scene some thirty years ago with Marxism and Literary Criticism, Terry Eagleton, now Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, has been both prolific and polemical, his mixture of literary scholarship, critical acuity, and social concern having the incendiary force of a hand grenade tossed into the stuffy, fuddy-duddy sherry party milieu of English academia back then, some of whose staid attributes and attitudes remain entrenched even today. Crazy John and the Bishop, following on from 1996’s Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, and his play Saint Oscar, continues Eagleton’s interest and inquiry into Irish cultural history, often confronting the vexed relationship between the Irish and the English.

Crazy John and the Bishop is made up of ten essays which stretch from the eighteenth century to the present day. Topics range from Augustan satire and sentimentalism to the modern Irish novel, from the carnivalesque in early nineteenth century Cork to the philosophy of John Toland and Bishop Berkeley. Eagleton also moves between well-known, even celebrated writers to less familiar, even neglected ones.

The opening essay aims for a close critical dissection of the little remembered eighteenth-century poet William Dunkin, calling him ‘at least as fine a poet as many of his English counterparts who have found their assured niche in the eighteenth-century canon’. There are also studies of Thomas Moore, W B Yeats and Samuel Beckett, the latter piece brilliantly illuminating some of the darker paradoxes that lie at the heart of Beckett’s work, and dealing with the problems it presents for traditional liberal humanist criticism. The title essay focuses on John Toland and Bishop Berkeley, and examines Irish eighteenth-century history of ideas in general. ‘The Good-Natured Gael’ explores concepts of ‘benevolence’ and ‘sensibility’, and includes a long segment on Oliver Goldsmith, as well as some wonderful insights on Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, one of this reviewer’s favourite novels. ‘Cork and the Carnivalesque’ looks at notions of parody, comedy and plagiarism in relation to Irish writing, with particular reference to Frances Mahony (‘Father Prout’) and William McGinn. The theme of the Irish ‘internal émigré’ is featured in ‘Home and Away’, and discusses the work of a broad span of novelists including Maria Edgeworth, Kate O’Brien and Francis Stuart. The cultural and political stance of the book emerges most clearly in the pieces on the largely forgotten Irish socialist Frederick Ryan, ‘The Ryan Line’, and the concluding examination of the revisionist controversy, ‘Revisionism Revisited’. In this essay, full of ingenious juxtapositions, he argues that the debate between traditionalists and revisionists, or conservatives and liberals, is redundant, since what is being proposed is as good or as bad as what went before, and the impasse can only be solved by a radical alternative. ‘There seems little point in replacing the myth of the Celt with the myth of Europe’ he writes, while acknowledging that, ‘There is not much point in trying to convince a Dublin advertising executive that modernity can be every bit as emotionally devastating and spiritually mutilating as lounging unemployed and sexually guilt-ridden at the country crossroads’.

If there is a criticism to be made of this bravura performance, it is that perhaps Eagleton writes too fast. He is rich in ideas, but these are sometimes thrown out at the expense of style. But then again, he would probably have his own rather jaundiced view of essayists who have a reputation for fine writing, and find themselves dubbed stylists, the noun often preceded by the qualifying adjective ‘mere’.

This book is another fine contribution to ‘Critical Conditions’, the Field Day series of books of essays and monographs, whose general editor is Seamus Deane. It adds to Field Day’s reputation as one of the most worthwhile ventures in modern Irish intellectual life.

First published in The World of Hibernia



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