Matthew Beaumont took on a tusk of a task in trying to extract two inches from Terry Eagleton’s mammoth memories of a life in the ivory tower. In a series of discussions with Eagleton over a nine-month period in 2008-09, Beaumont covered everything from his subject’s birth to his new lease of life, and even afterlife, as the former altar boy took on the unbelievers in the shape of the two-headed beast, “Ditchkins” (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens). If, for Mark Twain, William Shakespeare was “a Brontosaur: nine bones and 600 barrels of plaster of Paris”, then Eagleton is a tyrannosaurus: nine barrels of blarney and 600 bones to pick. In his short autobiography The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (2001), Eagleton traversed some of the ground measured out in more detail in these interviews, which are more personal than that text. Beaumont, citing Peter Osborne, concedes they are “careful fictions, conjuring the promise of the actual from the signs of the present”. Walter Benjamin, who gives this text its title from an unpublished fragment of a project to “recreate criticism as a genre”, inspired what Beaumont considers to be Eagleton’s best book, Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981). Beaumont quotes from Benjamin’s “The Task of the Critic” a comment that goes to the heart of Eagleton’s significance: “Instead of giving his own opinion, a great critic enables others to form their opinion on the basis of his critical analysis… What we should know about a critic is what he stands for.” This fits Eagleton beautifully. He is tribune rather than bureaucrat.
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