Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton: these six words, which immediately sound more like Meaning of Life by Terry Gilliam, seem quite enough to make world-wide reviewers step into their cynical modes and ooze superiority. This is exactly what happened. Most reviews I have read infallibly begin with more or less moderate dozes of skepticism they felt before even reading this little black book of/on/about meaning. Although they mostly change their minds and give Eagleton a high grade, on my view, this instinctive cynicism betrays, as Jacob Golomb explains in In Search for Authenticity, pending existential Angst. A colleague of mine, a materialist critic, scoffed at the idea that a leftist like Eagleton would even consider writing such a ridiculous book. He said to me, “Some people seem to have a lot of free time.” I interpret this as suggesting there is nothing valuable or practical about Eagleton’s book, and this was said even before he even glanced at one single page of it. I cannot but feel this attitude resembles the attitude of Rushdie’s judges who claimed they did not need to read his work before they sentenced him to death. Anticipating reader response, Eagleton does not fail to bask in self-irony, apologetically calling his own project ridiculous, but yet as something he felt like doing.
One thing is clear, despite the modest scope and popular scientific format, Eagleton has done his research. The book is nicely structured and funny, yet very serious as well. Eagleton gives us a short history of meaning, which somehow does not seem much shorter than a short history of the universe. It is as if the beginning of the universe is the incipient point of the concern with meaning, because meaning (or purpose) is the answer to famous Heideggerian question: Why is there anything instead of nothing?
On my view, Eagleton’s passion is quite understandable. We can grow as cynical as we can stand, and refute meaning of life as the old ideological concern, yet at the end of the day (or should I say close to the end of one’s life, if not before) the question of meaning is unavoidable, as Rushdie says in The Ground Beneath Her Feet: “there’s no escape from the war of meaning.” Eagleton points out to the current historical circumstances, the rise of fundamentalism, neo-ideological conflicts, reshaping of global economy and what not.
If we have not quit the concern with meaning, considering it a meaningless endeavor, there is another heritage that Eagleton refers to, criticizes, and finally partly endorses: the heritage of existentialism. After taking up and dismissing famous contenders for the meaning of life, such as God and love, Eagleton suggests quite along existentialist lines that there is no one meaning of life, but rather meanings of life/lives. Refraining from modern individualism, Eagleton further proposes that meaning of life might be happiness and all that jazz. In fact, he suggests that meaning of life, as happy existence, is much like a jazz band, a community of free/authentic individuals. In other words, meaning of life (as happiness) is found in the existentialist notion of authenticity. This authenticity is far from absolutely individualistic. Authenticity, as one finds in works by Heidegger and Sartre (whom Eagleton mentions), is found in community, maybe what Jean-Luc Nancy called “inoperable community”, which is very much like Eagleton’s jazz band. To further tie Eagleton’s final idea about happiness-as-meaning to existentialism, I will mention Sartre’s idea that being authentic is to create the meaning of one’s life like “a saxophone note” (Nausea). This idea is furthermore rather close to the Nietzschean notion of an individual being as an artist of his/her life and at the same time being his/her work of art, perhaps a musical piece produced with respect to other members of a community, other players so to speak.
If you’d like to hear Eagleton being nervous promoting the book, visit YouTube.