Can a Marxist Critic Be ‘Distinguished’?

When the word is actually appropriate, there’s no need for it.

 By Stephen Miller
 

In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Fintan O’Toole, an Irish literary journalist, writes of “the distinguished Marxist critic Terry Eagleton. ” How does one determine who is “distinguished”? In my view you can’t be distinguished if you are a Marxist critic, because Marxism is an ossified way of thinking. Perhaps Mr. O’Toole means that Mr. Eagleton, the author of more than 40 books, is distinguished because he is a well-known intellectual in Great Britain.

“Distinguished” is rather ambiguous. One dictionary defines it as “conspicuous excellence or eminence.” Another says it means “famous, renowned, celebrated.” But surely no one would call Kim Kardashian distinguished.

When was the last time you heard the word distinguished? Usage of the word has steadily declined since 1800, according to Google’s online dictionary. Sometimes a senator will say “I yield the floor to the distinguished senator from . . .” But it seems redundant to call a highly accomplished person distinguished. No one refers to “the distinguished scientist Albert Einstein. ”

The word is also alive and well mainly in the military and the academy. Each branch of the U.S. armed forces has medals for distinguished service. The Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal “is bestowed upon members of the Navy or Marine Corps who distinguish themselves by exceptionally meritorious service.” Only the U.S. Army has a Distinguished Service Medal that may be awarded to civilians, “with the express approval of the President in each case.” Robert McNamara received one soon after resigning as secretary of defense in 1968.

 

Terry Eagleton.
Terry Eagleton. PHOTO: GERAINT LEWIS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Many universities call a highly regarded professor a “distinguished professor.” According to Tufts, the title is “an honor reserved for senior faculty members who have made exceptional contributions to their disciplines, their students and the university as teachers and scholars who exemplify the best of Tufts.”

Mr. Eagleton currently holds the title of distinguished professor of English literature at Lancaster University. He has taught at leading universities around the world, but is his writing distinguished? Some literary figures, including the critic Denis Donoghue, would say no. Three decades ago Mr. Donoghue wrote about Mr. Eagleton’s book, “Literary Theory: An Introduction,” in the New York Review of Books. According to Mr. Donoghue, Mr. Eagleton transforms great novelists into unwitting victims of sociopolitical forces whose value is “merely symptomatic.”

Mr. O’Toole probably labeled Mr. Eagleton distinguished in part because he relishes his attacks on capitalism. Mr. O’Toole quotes an op-ed of Mr. Eagleton’s from 2007: “For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life.” In the piece, Mr. Eagleton waxes nostalgic about the 1930s. You know, the good old days, when writers sang the praises of Lenin and Stalin.

Did McNamara perform distinguished service? Many Americans would say no. Is Mr. Eagleton a distinguished thinker? Some writers and critics would say no. In politics and the liberal arts a consensus about who is distinguished is rare—and if there is a consensus the adjective distinguished is superfluous. Perhaps we should only use distinguished to honor exceptional men and women in the military.

 

Mr. Miller’s latest book is “Walking New York: Reflections of American Writers from Walt Whitman to Teju Cole ” ( Fordham, 2014).

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