June 2007

Alexander C. Kafka

nonfiction

The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton

I was reading a thick, facile, ironic novel -- a several-year-old best seller about the Jewish Russian immigrant experience. Halfway through its 600 or so witty, self-satisfied, eclectically referenced, hubristically hip pages, I wasn’t connecting with it. It had been enthusiastically recommended to me, and, like someone who had waited 25 minutes for a bus, I knew that if I abandoned the project, the payoff would surely have come five minutes later, but I felt terribly impatient. I put it down.

I thought to myself, What I really want right now is a slim, profound, accessible volume that will tell me something about the meaning of life. That’s when, fortuitously, I spotted on my desk a slim, profound, accessible volume called The Meaning of Life, by the acclaimed theology-preoccupied British Marxist cultural critic Terry Eagleton.

Yes, I know. Nothing screams fun like a theology-preoccupied British Marxist cultural critic. But I’m here to tell you that -- the occasional inappropriate political dig aside -- this is a delightful, entertaining, enlightening, succinct book that actually delivers on its title, and all in 175 pages plus recommended reading and index.

It’s a self-help book of sorts, if you need help withdrawing from self-help books -- an anti-Secret, you might say. For it’s the kind of self-help book that will make you look long and hard at the words self and help and possibly book, until you realize the futility of the notions and go back to hermeneutic Square One. Like a good drill sergeant, it breaks down your every instinct and assumption about the meaning of life, then puts you through rigorous exercises in basic philosophy until you’re fit enough to come up with some sturdier ideas about the subject.

Eagleton, a skillful writer whose no-doubt lively lecture voice speaks from the page, spends much of the journey teasing us into thinking the work will ultimately be a practical joke. That is, some tired work-a-day shmo like myself picks up this book thinking, OK, finally, an answer, only to be persuaded that the question is futile and superficial, if not altogether meaningless. On my side, nothing more than nagging doubts about what it’s all about; a general, banal sense of disorientation; a hunger for useful distinctions, if not clear directions. On his side, a panel of skeptical experts including Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, who all question whether meaning has a meaning on various linguistic and metaphysical levels.

Then, even if you can get past the whole language problem inherent in meaning, there’s the moral one. Max Weber and Isaiah Berlin, for example, see various goals such as “courage, compassion, justice, and so on” as often incompatible and irreconcilable. To achieve one in most practical situations involves sacrificing another.

From there, Eagleton explores the history of the question -- how premoderns generally didn’t worry about the meaning of life because they were wrapped up in religious certainties. He considers how even the moderns like Kafka and Beckett, in their explorations of meaninglessness, harked back more or less implicitly to a template of normalcy in which meaning and some accompanying civility had a place.

For postmodern thinkers, not even those implicit normalcies existed, and the dearth of them was horrifying, liberating, or both. At least if meaning is contingent and subjective, than we can all invent our own meanings, whether in touchy-feely spirituality, sports fandom, a passionate anti-religiousness, or some other expression. But no, Eagleton finds those options unsatisfyingly narcissistic, arbitrary, smug, and/or silly. So an absence of meaning is no breeding ground for meaningful meaning either.

And, oy, as if the meaning of meaning and the moral morass weren’t obstacles enough, then there’s the whole definition-of-life issue. “’The meaning of life’ might well mean ‘what it all adds up to,’” writes Eagleton, “in which case childbirth and clog dancing would indeed have to be viewed as aspects of a single, significant totality. And this is more than one would expect even from the most shapely, well-integrated of works of art.” Generalizations are suspect, as are generalized abnegations of them, he contends:

Life is a gas, a bitch, a cabaret, a vale of tears, a bed of roses. This bunch of shop-soiled tags may hardly seem much on which to build a case. Yet the assumption that all metastatements about human life are vacuous is itself vacuous. It is not true that only concrete, particular truths have any force. What, for example, of the generalization that most men and women in history have lived lives of fruitless, wretched toil? This is surely more disturbing than the proposition that most people in Delaware have done so.

Eagleton ventures a couple of possible candidates for the meaning of life, among them happiness and love. Needless to say, he systematically pummels both concepts into existential submission, with a little help from Freud, and Aristotle and the philosopher Julian Baggini take some collateral damage along the way.

But just when I’m beginning to think I’ve been led, albeit charmingly, down the garden path and that maybe I should have stuck it out with the thick hipster novel after all, The Meaning of Life takes an interesting turn. I’m not sure one really could risk spoiling a book about the meaning of life -- after all, either it has one, or more than one, or none at all, right? Suffice to say that he strongly suggests, suspensefully late in the game, that it has one, that happiness and love might not be altogether irrelevant, and that it has much in common with jazz.

Moreover, Eagleton’s answer to the question -- if a question is really what you’d call it after his boisterous dissection -- strikes me, for one, as surprisingly satisfying. He cautions against elitist navel-gazing on such matters as the one he’s addressing. But whatever the meaning of life may include, considerations of it in such clever company could surely play a worthy part.

The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0199210705
200 Pages

Alexander C. Kafka edits essays on social sciences and the arts for The Chronicle of Higher Education, writes about books and the arts for newspapers and magazines, and blogs at rokovoko.blogspot.com.