T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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The London lawyer Anthony Julius is nick-named “Anthony Genius” in the British tabloids, and no wonder: The man is a prodigy. A successful commercial lawyer, he was hired by Princess Diana to negotiate her divorce from Prince Charles – which he did so successfully that in short order he was asked to represent Sarah Ferguson in her royal divorce, then (uh oh) Heather Mills.

Julius was retained by Penguin Books to defend Deborah Lipstadt when Holocaust denier David Irving sued her for libel. It’s extremely difficult to defend a libel case in Britain, but Julius fought and won, vindicating the writer’s right to call Irving what he is: a Holocaust denier, a liar, and a historical defrauder. (The story of the trial is told in a remarkable book by historian Richard Evans, Lying About Hitler, which I discussed here.)

Julius is also a man of more personal passions, including a passion for English literature, in which he took a Ph.D. In 1995, he published a revised version of his Ph.D. thesis as a book, TS Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form. The book was much praised and much criticized on both sides of the Atlantic at the time. I remember reading the reviews, thinking that Julius seemed to have the best of the argument, and then being busy with other things, moving on without actually reading the book that had generated so much literary controversy.

This spring, however, I happened to meet Julius in the course of other work. I was hugely impressed by him, as it would be impossible not to be, and when he presented me with a copy of the Eliot book, I made up for lost time.

It’s going to be difficult to explain to anyone much younger than myself what a colossal figure Eliot once was in the intellectual life of the English-speaking world. Today, even those who know Eliot as something more than the lyricist for “Cats” know him only as one Modernist poet among many, rather less fashionable these days than Wallace Stevens.

But in the decade after World War II, Eliot was much more than a poet: He was an oracle. Born in the United States, resident in Britain, author of a body of work that both encompassed all the past of European poetry and lamented the ruin and destruction of the 20th century, Eliot seemed the very incarnation of the humane culture the Allies had fought to defend. His 1948 Nobel Prize felt to many as much a part of postwar reconstruction as the Marshall Plan.

Eliot gained recognition as much from his work as a critic as from his poetry. He wrote in a style so apparently self-effacing, so apparently imbued with the very deepest learning, so closed and formal as to imbue with power and authority his lightest judgment. It took scholars many years of research to document that the learning was often bogus, the judgments often cavalier, and the modesty an adopted pose. In a comic autobiographical poem, Eliot himself warned the world that it might not like what it would encounter if it ever drew too close to him:

How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut.
And his brow so grim
And his mouth so prim
And his conversation, so nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If and Perhaps and But . . .
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
(Whether his mouth be open or shut.)

But for those who formed their opinion of Eliot upon the man’s own writings, before the biographers’ revelations became available, his prestige and influence were limitless.

Certainly that was true for me, and clearly it was true for Julius as well.

For readers like Julius and me, however, there was always this one baffling, saddening obstacle: the pungent disdain for Jews that arose from Eliot’s work.

But this or such was Bleistein’s way:
A saggy bending of the knees
And elbows, with the palms turned out,
Chicago Semite Viennese.

A lustreless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time

Declines. On the Rialto once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.
Money in furs. The boatman smiles,

Princess Volupine extends
A meagre, blue-nailed, phthisic hand
To climb the waterstair. Lights, lights,
She entertains Sir Ferdinand

Klein. Who clipped the lion’s wings
And flea’d his rump and pared his claws?

“The jew is underneath the lot” – meaning possibly not only despicably below everything, but also ominously behind everything, responsible for everything – in the form for example of that Sir Frederick Klein who may or may not have clipped the lion’s wings, here the lion of Venice, but also perhaps that other lion that would be present in the imagination of Eliot’s English readers, the British lion.

There’s little controversy that Eliot was an anti-semite in his attitudes and opinions through most of his early and middle life. An admirer of the ferocious French anti-semite Charles Maurras, Eliot like many interwar Rightists dreamed of a more cohesive and hierarchical society, united by common values and faith and accepted ranks and statuses. Eliot was no fascist. He had no use for fascism’s cult of violence and its celebration of irrationality. But he equally had no use for the presence in his idealized Christian society (as he explained in his 1933 lecture, “The Idea of a Christian Society”**[see below]) of Jews who doubted the truths of Christianity or the institutional claims of an established church. So much, as I said, is not seriously controverted.

There is some evidence that Eliot’s prejudices may have softened in response to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. But TS Eliot the human being is a deeply elusive character, and became only more elusive over time. As James Bowman quips, it is not for nothing that Eliot nicknamed himself “Ol’ Possum.”

As a critic, Eliot always urged attention only to the poetry, never to the poet. In his life, Eliot comported himself so as almost to force his readers to obey his urgings.

In this respect, Anthony Julius is a pre-eminent follower of Eliot. His study does not chiefly ask, “Was Eliot an anti-semite?” (although inevitably that question arises). It chiefly asks: “Was Eliot’s poetry anti-semitic?” And that question it powerfully answers: Yes, through a close and intimate reading of the poetry in the highest manner of the so-called New Criticism inspired by Eliot’s own example.

Julius’ conclusions have provoked angry criticism. Julius replies to those criticisms in a very lively afterword appended to the 2003 Thames & Hudson edition, which is the one I have.

The best of the negative responses rest its case on the following argument: In his poetry as in his life, Eliot avoided “speaking for himself.” His poetry, and especially his best poetry, is a compilation of voices, references, half-remembered pieces – the broken detritus of the integral western culture of the past, shattered by the 20th century, gathered in one place as a mournful funerary art.

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” Eliot wrote in “The Wasteland.” Just as St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, assembled out of marbles carved from vanished temples, can be “read” as a museum of Late Roman culture, so should Eliot be read.

Julius anticipates this claim, and offers this answer: Eliot’s poetry is very great. The poetry written in the years immediately after the First World War is also anti-semitic. (Julius suggests that Eliot abandoned anti-semitism in verse, if not in life, sometime around 1921.) Modern-day critics refuse to accept these two observations, Julius asserts, because they cling to the Matthew Arnold idea that great poetry is something ennobling, inherently high and virtuous. Accordingly, to the extent that poetry is imbued with feelings that are wicked and wrong, it must cease to be good poetry – and if the poetry is indisputably good, as Eliot’s is, then anything in it that is wicked and wrong must somehow be quarantined away from the poet himself.

Ironically, it is Eliot himself who most furiously debunked this Parnassus approach to literary criticism. He wrote in 1928: “poetry is not the inculcation of morals, or the direction of politics; and no more is it religion or an equivalent of religion.” It is Eliot’s own teaching that one can be a great poet of bad thoughts; a great poet and a bad man.

Toward the end of Anthony Julius’ study, he quotes a poem by the Jewish poet, Emanuel Litvinoff, read in Eliot’s presence at a literary meeting shortly after World War II.

Eminence becomes you. Now when the rock is struck
your young sardonic voice which broke on beauty
floats amid incense and speaks oracles
as though a god
utters from Russell Square and condescends,
high in the solemn cathedral of the air,
his holy octaves to a million radios.

I am not one accepted in your parish.
Bleistein is my relative and I share
the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page
in Sturmer, and, underneath the cities,
a billet somewhat lower than the rats.
Blood in the sewers. Pieces of our flesh
float with the ordure on the Vistula.
You had a sermon but it was not this.

It would seem, then, yours is a voice
remote, singing another river
and the gilded wreck of princes only
for Time’s ruin. It is hard to kneel
when knees are stiff.

But London Semite Russian Pale, you will say
Heaven is not in our voices.
The accent, I confess, is merely human,
speaking of passion with a small letter
and, crying widow, mourning not the Church
but a woman staring the sexless sea
for no ship’s return,
and no fruit singing in the orchards.

Yet walking with Cohen when the sun exploded
and darkness choked our nostrils,
and the smoke drifting over Treblinka
reeked of the smouldering ashes of children,
I thought what an angry poem
you would have made of it, given the pity.

But your eye is a telescope
scanning the circuit of stars
for Good-Good and Evil Absolute,
and, at luncheon, turns fastidiously from fleshy
noses to contemplation of the knife
twisting among the entrails of spaghetti.

So shall I say it is not eminence chills
but the snigger from behind the covers of history,
the sly words and the cold heart
and footprints made with blood upon a continent?
Let your words
tread lightly on this earth of Europe
lest my people’s bones protest.

A last word? Not quite, not for me anyway. Julius’ book inspired me to go open again the volumes of poetry I memorized as a young man, and that have resonated inside my hand for the past quarter-century. I found their hold upon me as strong as ever – even as his more strictly intellectual influence upon me, once so strong, has waned to zero. Inside one of the books I found a scrap of paper in my own handwriting, copying a verdict of the critic I.A. Richards I must have read long ago in some biography or critical text:

One has to forgive T.S. Eliot a good deal per page of his prose: so much ridiculous mock humility which is pretentiousness. How slow he must have been to grow up! Is this why his poetry is so good? Nearly all his prose is an amusing trail of logically incompetent manipulations of bogus information.

Maybe these words of Richards’ explain why so many Eliot scholars have so fiercely resisted Julius’ conclusions, no matter how decisively Julius wins each round. Eliot, the great flawed poet, arouses instincts of protectiveness in those inspired and moved by his poetry. Yet as Richards’ words also makes clear, there is something also disrespectful and condescending in this protectiveness. Perhaps it is Julius’ refusal to make excuses for the man or the ugly passages in his poetry – while equally refusing to abate a jot of the deserved admiration and respect for what is magnificent, profound, and moving in the poetry – that represents the truest appreciation and the highest respect.

**  ERRATUM: I meant of course, “After Strange Gods.” The error is mine, not Anthony Julius’.

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