The term “culture” has had a lot of heavy lifting to do over the last couple of centuries. Its definition is now so capacious that it can cover almost anything that humans beings do—making tea, making love, jury trials, mowing the lawn, church services, golf—which represent culture as a way of life. It can also describe sets of aesthetic artefacts—high culture, popular culture, national culture, counterculture. And at various times, it has been considered the binary opposite of nature and also of civilisation, but then at other times capable of replacing both. Is it elitist or the property of the common people? Can it be directed or is it unconscious? Is it crucial to our lives or a distraction from our real concerns?
In confident, jargon-free prose Terry Eagleton briskly sorts through culture’s contradictory history and offers illuminating accounts of the ideas of its various theorists including Edmund Burke, Johann Gottfried Herder, Thomas Arnold, TS Eliot and Eagleton’s Cambridge tutor Raymond Williams. (The chapter on Oscar Wilde adds little to the discussion at hand, but is a bravura analysis of the Irishman’s success and failure in life, art and English society. More Eagleton on Wilde would be very welcome.)
There are also polemical episodes where Eagleton, an intellectual bruiser par excellence, lays into some favourite targets, among them post-modernists and relativists. These attacks may sometimes be unfair, but they are always entertaining.