Monday, November 3, 2008

Terry Eagleton Comes to Cairo

AUC has a Distinguished Visiting Professor program, which enables departments to bring distinguished visitors to Cairo for a week to give a series of lectures. Our department—English and Comparative Literature—brings two people in every year, the fall visitor delivering the Edward Said Memorial Lecture on November 1, which was Said’s birthday. So far, they have invited folks who knew Said; last year, Cornel West came to town. This week, we are hosting Terry Eagleton, one of the best known literary critics in the English-speaking world. Eagleton recently was forced into retirement (at age 65) by Manchester University. He is Irish, lives in Dublin, taught for many years at Oxford, and has published dozens of books.

Friday: Jenna and I attended a reception in Eagleton’s honor at the Dean’s home (an awesome sixth floor apartment on the Nile). Not only was this a chance to meet Eagleton—and his super-cool 10-year-old son, but there were other folks who knew Said, including a few people who grew up with him. There were two women—professors at Cairo University—who lived in the same Zamalek apartment as Said and grew up playing with him. And there was a man who attended the conservatory here and brought Said there after learning he was a pianist—they were classical music buddies. As I sat there, listening to incredible stories (including one about the burning down of the US Cultural Center here following the assassination of Lumumba), I realized how very fortunate I am to be part of such a rich cultural scene.

Saturday: Eagleton delivered the Said lecture at the old AUC campus downtown, though he did not really talk about Said. To describe the event as standing-room-only would be an understatement. The room was far too small. His talk, “Terror and Tragedy,” touched on a range of topics, including a conflict between tragedy and materialism. He presented the argument in way that, I think, illuminated some of these implications for culture, economics, religion, law, and politics. It is part of a book he recently published in England, which is, I believe, not yet available in the US--Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics. After the talk, I was able to go out to dinner with him a small group of people, which was nice. Very strange since I remember so well reading Literary Theory: An Introduction, Marxism and Literary Criticism, and Ideology: An Introduction as an undergraduate all those years ago. His writing made a lot of theory more accessible to me than it would have been otherwise. I enjoyed his books then, and have enjoyed returning to them. And I enjoyed sharing Lebanese food with him, his son, Jenna, and some colleagues here in Cairo.

Monday (today): Eagleton delivered “The Death of Criticism?” at the new campus, which was well attended by students and others even if the crowd did not rival that of Saturday night. A lot of my students came to both events—especially my first years who had a bit of trouble understanding the Saturday talk. They aren’t used to the academic discourse which, for me, is all the more reason for them to attend. This talk on the new campus was, I think, more geared toward students. (I will find out from them tomorrow what they thought.) Here he gave an overview of how the literary critic came to occupy the role of intellectual in the early 20th century, and how those roles are products of specific historical circumstances and economic forces. He discussed the role of the creative imagination as a political force, and sought to redefine the practice of literary theory (c. 1965-1985) as a practice of close reading. There was a defense of a sort of politically left formalism, but I am not sure where that leaves the rather important arguments he has been making for decades about the materiality of literature and culture. His argument is that the changing historical landscape has altered the materiality of literary critical discourse (which may sound kind of simplistic as I write it though I don't think it is).

Postscript: Anyway, the visit was a lot of fun. You can get some of Eagleton in his own words from a good Guardian interview that appeared last year amid his tiff with Martin Amis.

No comments: