[Terry Eagleton is a prominent and prolific British literary theorist, as well as a public intellectual. He was raised in a poor, culturally deprived, Irish Catholic working class family in the dreary Northern English city of Salford. Against all the odds, and with language his only capital, he managed to gain admission to Oxford, where he flourished. In the passage below from his 2001 memoir, The Gatekeeper, Eagleton describes his Oxford tutor, who, though not a liberal in politics, struck Eagleton as a sterling example of the liberal mind, something that was new and strange to him then.]
Greenway was not a liberal. I once had a chat with his English-rose, jolly-hockey-stick-type secretary, in the course of which she wondered aloud what his politics might be. This said as much about her politics as his, since cudgeling one’s brains over his political views would be rather like regarding the ethnic origin of Louis Armstrong as a baffling mystery. But though he was not a political liberal, preferring order to freedom and espousing a fierce anti-egalitarianism, he represented my first furtive, fumbling, adolescent encounter with the liberal mind. I was an eighteen-year-old working-class Catholic, as certain as a speak-your-weight machine and as ignorant as a fish; he was a middle-aged patrician who knew an enormous amount but made a virtue out of agnosticism. I was an enthusiast of the pure ice, whereas he was a denizen of the rough ground. He seemed to derive an almost erotic frisson from not knowing what he thought, and would conclude some discussion with a wry, mock-defeatist “Oh, I don’t know,” pitched somewhere between intellectual humility and cavalier insouciance.
This shocked my dogmatic sensibilities almost as much as if he had finished every sentence with a dismissive “Oh, cock and balls.” Where I came from, there were all kinds of issues on which it was important to know where you stood, and not knowing was regarded as a deficiency rather than a virtue. But Greenway saw education more as an unfolding ignorance than an accumulating knowledge, and he was my first experience of those for whom truth is a fairly trifling affair. Today, they hang out on every English department corridor. For him, truth simply ground to a kill-joy conclusion the coruscating flash of mind upon mind, opinion on opinion. I rejected this at the time for the wrong reasons, but also for the right ones. The fact that he could afford to disregard how it was with the world, whereas others less privileged could not, hardly needed pointing out. Or rather, it needed pointing out only to the likes of him, as a piece of self-ignorance which underpinned his delight in ignorance. When he spoke in this fashion, I could see the Spanish maid and butler lurking dimly behind his discourse. Only later was I to learn that this was known as the doctrine of base and superstructure. Nobody I had ever met had amassed so much knowledge and been so little in need of it.
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