You Are What You Read, with Russell McCutcheon (Part 2)

A man standing on a ledge in a library looking for a book

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.

2. Name one of your favorite theory books.

the cover of Literary Theory by Terry EagletonWith my earlier career in mind, it would have to be Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), though I have the 1989 edition, which I bought in Toronto in January of 1991 (evident, again, from my dated front inscription). It too was a book recommended to me by Neil McMullin, and it makes sense to be dated a little later than my copy of The Sacred and the Profane, for (at least as I remember it now), I wasn’t dipping into theory until I’d confirmed that there was a project of some sort to be done on the widespread essentialist understanding of religion as socio-politically and historically autonomous. So having decided there was indeed a project here, at least as applied to Eliade’s one book, the challenge was to start reading as much of his work as I could, and to then be able to make the case that his work exemplified (though it didn’t necessary cause) much wider trends evident throughout the field, and then to come up with a set of tools to critique this approach and identify its practical implications. And that’s where Eagleton’s work came in—helping me to make the shift from seeing words and texts as inherently meaningful, as being in reference to objects in the world that we were talking about, to identifying the apparatuses necessary to signify these scribbles that we call letters, to read them as meaningful—to, as I might now say, operationalize them. Given that I was a sciences undergrad, I’d only taken the virtually mandatory first year English Lit course, with my thick two volume Norton anthology, so reading literary theory, much less the social theory I later came to read, was completely alien to me. Like others, I was knee deep in facts, in description, in learning the names of rivers and gods, so I have little doubt that I’d never really considered rhetoric or reading texts as tips of social icebergs, such that claiming religion was premised on a unique experience could be read as a doing social work or as evidence of a social situation and a social actor trying to accomplish something practical in the world (like advance an interest that had nothing in particular to do with the supposed content of his or her speech or writing). So bringing lit crit tools to bear on my reading of a scholar of religion—not my reading of a religious text, whatever that may or may not be, but to my reading of a scholar writing about religious texts and practices and institutions, etc.—was a bit of a leap for me; luckily, this book gave me an leg up. That such things stood out for me as,

[T]he so-called ‘literary canon,’ the unquestioned ‘great tradition’ of the ‘national literature,’ has to be recognized as a construct, fashioned by particular people for particular reasons at a certain time. There is no such thing as a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself, regardless of what anyone might have said or come to say about it. (11)

makes evident that my underlinings were driven by a search for tools applicable to an analogical situation, of writers claiming that that religious traditions were inherently religious, that tradition was just handed down and accepted, that an object of study, like meaning or experience, was, in and of itself, important and worth study, in distinction from all other things happening around it. While I’m sure Neil saw where I’d likely take my critique—hence his suggestion of reading this and not that, shaping my thinking—this was all new to me, of course. So you can understand how pleased I was to find more and more analogues as I read his critique of the presumed literariness of literature, such as his concluding line that: “The liberation of Shakespeare and Proust from such controls may well entail the death of literature, but it may also be their redemption.” As someone still often criticized for trying to kill Religious Studies, I’d recommend others read this book and mull over how re-envisioning our field (as we’ve been trying to do here at the University of Alabama and as being done by Culture on the Edge) may actually amount to its rejuvenation.

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