Two memoirs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Aug 11 14:07:05 MDT 2002

NY Times Book Review, Aug. 11, 2002

'The Gatekeeper': A Hymn to Intellectual Thought

A Memoir.
By Terry Eagleton.
178 pp. New York: St. Martin's Press. $19.95.

One morning, when Terry Eagleton is a boy, he makes a hole with his
spoon in his bowl of porridge. He expects a telling off for it -- ''It
was not a household in which one did anything without a point, unless
prayer is to be included in that category'' -- and is tentatively
delighted when the telling off doesn't come. Instead, his mother
encourages him to make the hole bigger, then takes the milk and pours it
in. To Terry's lifelong disappointment. ''The hole was just a convenient
way of pouring milk on my porridge. The playful turned out to be
pragmatic after all. There had been no Proustian epiphany. My porridge
was not my madeleine.''

Eagleton was born in 1943 in Salford, the famous ''dirty old town'' by
Manchester in the industrial northwest of England, into a family of poor
Irish Catholics. His family he remembers as ''cowed, daunted''; both his
brothers died as infants, and he himself suffered from chronic asthma.
Young Terry went on to get into secondary school, then Cambridge, where
he took high honors in English, and thence became a top professor and
prolific author, the closest thing the Brits have to a crowd-pulling
academic star. But this memoir is not an ''Angela's Ashes''-type wallow
in blarney-oiled tales of poverty, nor does it sing the stereotyped,
triumphalist old ballad of the scholarship boy. It's cleverer, more
witty and also very much more preachy. It's an apologia pro vita sua
from one of Britain's most unapologetic old New Left thinkers. And it's
a hymn to the enduring power and pleasure of intellectual thought.

Among scholars, Eagleton is known for being preternaturally quick and
productive, and as an enthusiastic, possibly compulsive, communicator.
Marxism is his thing, as a philosophy and as a critical method. In his
best work, and especially in his classic ''Literary Theory: An
Introduction'' (1983), still an efficient and entertaining primer to
structuralism and poststructuralism, Freudianism and post-Freudianism
and so on, he has a way of grabbing difficult abstract concepts by the
throat, as it were, forcing them to explain themselves in vivid concrete
images. There are jokes, some of them Wildean (Eagleton is a great Wilde
fan), some of them sophomoric. There's an irascible, attractive hothead
radicalism, and an overall sense of bounding warmth. Eagleton brings all
these qualities to ''The Gatekeeper,'' at the same time that the
historical materialist in him is using the memoir form, as he might put
it, to explore the conditions of their very existence. In other words,
''The Gatekeeper'' represents Eagleton attempting to explain in his own
way why he is the way he is; and if that sounds a little paradoxical,
well, that's just how autobiography works.


Chapter one:


'Fireweed': A Historian Recalls an Eventful Personal History

A Political Autobiography.
By Gerda Lerner.
Illustrated. 377 pp. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. $34.50

erda Lerner, the noted historian of women, has lived through interesting
times. Born in Vienna in 1920, she endured childhood in a flamboyantly
dysfunctional bourgeois Jewish household, where the women were at war, a
child could be neglected despite competitive fussing over manners, meals
and morals, and a loved governess could be sacked for discharging her
duties with tender flair. The child accordingly drew her first political
lesson: ''My childhood taught me the wisdom and effectiveness of
resistance and the necessity of skepticism toward the values of those
who made the rules.'' By 10 she had taken Captain Amundsen of the icy
wastes as her hero: fierce, solitary, independent, proud. But she also
yearned for comradeship, idealizing the poor and precociously
identifying with Austria's beleaguered Social Democrats. By
midadolescence she was working on the dangerous fringes of clandestine
political activity. Then came the Anschluss, and the Nazi assault not
only on socialists but Jews. Her father fled to a prepared bolt-hole in
Liechtenstein, and she and her mother were thrown into prison as
hostages against his return. They suffered serious privation -- even at
that early stage Jews were reduced to half-rations -- but Lerner's dream
of comradeship was realized in the shape of two young ''politicals,''
who managed cell life with breezy competence. Then this surreal regime
abruptly released her and her mother and allowed them to join her
father. Lerner has forgotten everything about that day of escape, but in
one of her few reflections on the subterranean workings of memory she
acknowledges a recurrent nightmare: a crucial journey endlessly impeded
or prevented through the malice of strangers and circumstance.

In April 1939 she left her dithering family behind and arrived in the
United States on the guarantee of an old boyfriend. After a brush with
the immigration authorities (she was 18; they asked her if she'd heard
of the Mann Act), and after the failure of the consequent marriage, she
began to revel in the immigrant experience: working for the minimum wage
she was at last one of the working poor, and legitimate heir to the
proud traditions of American progressivism. She met and married Carl
Lerner, who was to remain the love of her life, each being as
stiff-necked as the other. After an idyllic trip to Reno to secure the
necessary divorces, they moved from harsh New York to lush Hollywood,
where Carl's career as a film editor took off. Carl was a member of the
Communist Party. Even after her naturalization in 1943, Lerner's refugee
fear of ''the authorities'' made her hesitant, but Carl reassured her --
this was, after all, America! -- and in 1946 she joined the party and
immersed herself in political work. America was now her country: the
locus of her heart and hopes.



Louis Proyect

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