Undesirable

Tom Paulin

  • T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form by Anthony Julius
    Cambridge, 308 pp, £30.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 521 47063 3

Looking at the University of Oxford’s Informal Guide to the English faculty’s lecture list for Trinity term 1996, I find that the Professor of Poetry, James Fenton, will give a lecture on 9 May entitled Eliot v. Julius. It would be improper of me to anticipate Fenton’s approach to Anthony Julius’s compelling study, but I would hope that he will not see fit to mount another repudiation of this brilliant, passionately concentrated ‘adversarial reading’ of Eliot’s work. I say ‘another repudiation’ advisedly, because Julius’s book was rejected by Oxford University Press on the grounds that it might prove ‘too controversial’. So much for scholarship, so much for free speech.

Hamish Hamilton, Fourth Estate and Harvard also sent the author letters of rejection – rejections that now seem compounded by the lack of attention which literary editors have given the book. I’ve seen brief notices in the Jewish Chronicle, the Hampstead and Highgate Express, the Evening Standard and a publication called New Moon. Instead of large reviews close to the publication date, there has only been this desultory attention which includes a notably foolish review by Gabriel Josipovici in which he states that he would happily trade ‘the whole of that impeccable philo-semite, Joyce (the darling of the politically correct), for just that one Sweeney poem of Eliot’s’.

This type of insidious put-down is hardly new, and in a sense it replicates the treatment Eliot accorded to a book published in 1936 by Victor Gollancz called The Yellow Spot: the outlawing of half a million human beings. The title-page reads:

                       a collection
   of facts and documents relating to three
      years’ persecution of German Jews,
                            derived
   chiefly from National Socialist sources,
    very carefully assembled by a group of
                       investigators.

             With an introduction by
         THE BISHOP OF DURHAM

The book was briefly and anonymously noticed in the Criterion, which Eliot edited, like this:

The Yellow Spot: The Outlawing of Half a Million Human Beings: A Collection of Facts and Documents Relating to Three Years’ Persecution of German Jews, Derived chiefly from Nationalist Socialist Sources, very carefully assembled by a Group of Investigators. With an Introduction by the Bishop of Durham. (Gollancz, 1936.) 8s 6d cloth; 5s paper.

    There should be somebody to point out that this book, although enjoying a cathedratic blessing, is an attempt to rouse moral indignation by means of sensationalism. Needless to say, it does not touch on how we might alleviate the situation of those whose misfortunes it describes, still less on why they, among all the unfortunates of the world, have a first claim on our compassion and help. Certainly no English man or woman would wish to be a German Jew in Germany today; but not only is our title to the moral dictatorship of the world open to question, there is not the least prospect of our being able to exercise it. More particularly, it is noticeable that the jacket of the book speaks of the ‘extermination’ of the Jews in Germany, whereas the title-page refers only to their ‘persecution’; and as the title-page is to the jacket, so are the contents of the title-page, especially in the chapter devoted to the ill-treatment of Jews in German concentration camps.

A number of Eliot scholars – C.K. Stead, Ronald Bush, Julius himself – believe that the review was by Eliot. Christopher Ricks doesn’t disagree with this judgment – whether or not Eliot wrote the review, he observes in T.S. Eliot and Prejudice, it has ‘the stamp of his approval and the stamp of his tone’. Calling the anonymous notice ‘shameful’, Ricks expresses the hope that ‘such cruelly self-righteous impercipience’ was later recognised by Eliot to be among ‘the things ill done and done to others’ harm which once he took for exercise of virtue’. Like Ricks, I had interpreted that admonitory statement about things done to others’ harm in ‘Little Gidding’ as an act of contrition by a great, self-torturing poet. Now, reading Julius, I feel a deep sense of shame at my interpretation of those lines which the compound familiar ghost speaks in the aftermath of an air-raid. Accurately calling T.S. Eliot and Prejudice an ‘honourable attempt’ to engage with Eliot’s anti-semitism, Julius shows the ways in which Ricks’s critically very intelligent and subtle work takes anti-semitism for granted, and by implication holds it to be an ‘undifferentiated hostility to Jews without history or discursive complexity’. Ricks’s study is honourable because it seeks to redress those critics like Denis Donoghue, whose indifference to Eliot’s anti-semitism makes them complicit in it, and it also forcibly rebukes the poet for his prejudices at a number of points in the argument. It is no part of Julius’s intention to dismiss Eliot and Prejudice, but he notes how Ricks’s essentially New Critical methodology limits his ability to place Eliot’s attitudes within their social and cultural context. In one of a number of forceful remarks about the practice of literary criticism, he argues that what still protects Eliot is the New Critical reluctance to engage with ‘what poems actually assert’, and the deconstructionist refusal to accept that poems, at least sometimes, ‘mean what they say’. (This last stricture hardly applies to Ricks.)

Reading that anonymous review of The Yellow Spot – I believe it is by Eliot – I was disturbed by its sinister dismissiveness. As Julius points out, the review ‘crawls with impatient distaste’ and wilfully refuses to do its subject justice. This indifference is compounded by the manner in which the book’s title is reproduced at the head of the review, so that the emphatically capitalised words suggest ‘the billboard announcement of a Victorian melodrama’, or the urgent canvassing of a ‘fairground barker’. As we can see by comparing the actual title-page with the review heading, the typography was a contribution by the Criterion. This is a striking and significant substitution: Eliot used the lower-case j to diminish Jews in ‘Gerontion’, but here employed upper-case to mock their suffering. Imagine the extra effort (the subtitle does not follow the dictates of house style) which went into typing those initial upper-case letters.

Eliot is suggesting the book’s contents do not justify the alarmism of its jacket or title-page. Yet in addition to the Nazi threats of genocide which it quotes, Eliot would have read this:

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