- 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:

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