- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

Today and for another few weeks, wise heads will tell the next generation of young adults what the world expects of them and what they should expect of the world. Few of the speakers will have as distinguished a CV as Terry Eagleton, the Oxbridge literary critic who is currently Professor of Cultural Theory and John Rylands Fellow at the University of Manchester.

Likewise, few of the addresses will be as literate as Mr. Eagleton’s new book, “The Meaning of Life,” and none perhaps will have so grand a title. But many of the commencement speakers will give much the same practical advice that Mr. Eagleton gives: Love each other, and find contentment in each other’s love.

This advice, however, is more the byproduct of Mr. Eagleton’s book than the object. Most of it explores not what the meaning of life is, but what the question itself means. There are many possibilities: It may not be a real question at all, but only a “pseudo-question” that is “really just a ponderous Teutonic way of saying ‘Wow!’” It may be a real question but with no answer. It may be a question that has an answer we cannot know. It may even be that our not knowing is itself part of the meaning of life.

If the question is so problematic, why does Mr. Eagleton bother with it? He is not, after all, a schoolboy taking an exam, and he could have chosen another question and another title for his book. But Mr. Eagleton believes the mere asking of this particular question tells us something important about the history of our culture. Specifically, he argues that “What is the meaning of life?” is the sort of question that is only asked by people who think there is a meaning of life but no longer know what it is.

The ancient Israelites thought the meaning of life was obvious, as have most people in most eras. Similarly, post-modernist thinkers today believe the absence of any meaning in life is equally obvious. Thus, like an intellectual detective following a trail, Mr. Eagleton takes the appearance of the meaning-of-life question in art and literature as a clue to the point at which we left the bedrock certitude of our ancestors behind and began our migration to a new form of certitude, based paradoxically on radical skepticism.

To make this argument, Mr. Eagleton takes us on a panoramic tour of Western literature and philosophy in which he points out fairly precisely when and how we wandered off the right track. “Somewhere around 1870 or 1880 in Britain, certain central Victorian certainties on the question began to unravel; so that, say, Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad pose the meaning-of-life question with an urgency impossible to imagine in the case of William Thackeray and Anthony Trollope. Or, before these authors, Jane Austen.”

Mr. Eagleton concedes that other authors raised the same questions before 1870 — one thinks in particular of some of Shakespeare’s great soliloquies — but “rarely as part of a whole culture of questioning.” The brutality of 20th century politics also played its part: “If life is so drastically devalued in practice, one might well expect its meaning to be questioned in theory.”

But Mr. Eagleton’s main focus is on the way modernism “privatized” religion, culture and sexuality, the three traditional constituents of “the symbolic dimension of human life.” Before modernism, religion shaped politics and was celebrated communally in public rituals, and artists typically worked for hire to produce works that communicated important cultural truths to the masses and sexuality transcended personal fulfillment because it created the all-important ties of kinship, class and property.

“Love, religious faith, and the preciousness of one’s kin and culture: it was hard to find more fundamental reasons for living than these.” Modernism, by insisting that these sources of meaning must be purely private, created “a meaning-shaped hole” that nothing in our shared experience could fill.

Mr. Eagleton takes the postmodernist view — that we are essentially self-authoring animals, that the meaning of life is something we construct rather than something baked into the cake — to be the “conventional wisdom” today. He therefore devotes the balance of the book to an examination of whether such a view can possibly be right: Is life what we make of it?

Mr. Eagleton makes a rather circuitous approach to that question, reserving it until the book’s fourth and final chapter. He first devotes two chapters to “The Problem of Meaning” and “The Eclipse of Meaning.” These are interesting, and they contain some insightful commentary on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

The style here is rarely argumentative; it is as if Mr. Eagleton wants to make us passengers on his voyage of discovery rather than simply telling us what he has found. Some readers may grow impatient during these chapters, but the intellectual scenery is attractive and our guide is undeniably knowledgeable.

Along the way, Mr. Eagleton repeatedly bumps into the question of whether meaning depends on religious belief in a creator. He repeatedly insists it does not, and he may be right, but for “those who believe in God, or some other intelligent force behind the universe, life has built-in meanings and purposes because it is itself an artifact.”

Mr. Eagleton rightly points out, however, that even the Christian narrative of redemption involves some element of sense-making by the believer himself — as do pagan ideas of Destiny (think of Oedipus). He is therefore skeptical of “grand narratives” that “dismantle the distinction between freedom and necessity — between forging your own meanings and being receptive to one already installed in the world.”

The object of this excursion, however, is a dead end; Mr. Eagleton is showing us where modernist dogmas have left us. Characteristically, he introduces this point with a literary analogy before he advances philosophical argument for it:

“There used to be a debate in literary criticism about whether the meaning of a poem is somehow already there in the work, waiting for the reader to come and pluck it out, or whether it is something that we, the readers, bring to the poem. If it is we who invest the poem with meaning, then don’t we simply get out of it whatever we put into it? In that case, how could the poem ever surprise us, or make us feel that it is resisting the way we are trying to read it? There is an analogy here with the idea that life is what you make it.”

Ultimately, we cannot create ourselves ex nihilo, we cannot “start from scratch,” for “we are already plunged deep in the midst of meaning, wherever it is we happen to find ourselves.” “Any meaningful life plan which fails to accommodate the realities of kinship, sociality, sexuality, death, play, mourning, laughter, sickness, labour, communication, and so on is not going to get us very far.” These “universal aspects of human life” bulk so large in any individual life that, in the end, “Many of the central features of personal life are not personal at all.”

In the final chapter, Mr. Eagleton gives what turns out to be an extremely traditional answer to the meaning-of-life question: We attain our own happiness by loving those around us and being loved in return. As jazz musicians flourish independently in musical freedom, so we must exercise our own freedom to love each other and promote the flourishing of all. This is, as Mr. Eagleton points out, pretty much the answer Aristotle gave, or perhaps the answer he would have given if he had ever heard jazz.

This traditional, common-sense conclusion calls to mind the ending to “Monty Python’s” film treatment of The Meaning of Life: A talk-show hostess opens the envelope and says, “Well, it’s nothing special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

Mr. Eagleton probably would not mind the comparison; he includes two stills from the movie in his book and writes in his preface that he is trying “to treat a high-minded topic as lightly and lucidly as possible, while at the same time taking it seriously.” But as G.K. Chesterton recognized a century ago, “It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch.”

“The Meaning of Life” may be “light” relative to how much more a scholar like Mr. Eagleton might have said, but it is still a work that demands close attention from readers who are already well grounded in literature and philosophy.

Mark Grannis is a lawyer in Washinton, D.C.

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