- 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:
of facts and documents relating to three
years’ persecution of German Jews,
chiefly from National Socialist sources,
very carefully assembled by a group of
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:
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 18 No. 10 · 23 May 1996
Tom Paulin (LRB, 9 May) remarks, of After Strange Gods: ‘the fact that Eliot never allowed it to be republished has been taken as a repudiation of his views,’ and previous critics, with apparent support from bibliographers, also write as though the book appeared in England only once, in 3000 copies in February 1934. Indeed, one might suppose that it would then have immediately caused embarrassment. In fact, there was a second impression in November 1934; a library accession stamp indicates that the copy before me was still for sale as late as August 1936. Any ‘repudiation’ was therefore by no means immediate.
University of Sussex
In discussing T.S. Eliot and anti-semitism, Tom Paulin appears detached from reality. It is surely no wonder that this book has been given ‘desultory attention’ when £30 are demanded for its 300 pages. Such outlandish prices are compelling many of us to seek out information on-line – or, in the case of Eliot, to buy the American edition of Christopher Ricks’s T.S. Eliot and Prejudice, widely remaindered in England for £5 or less.
Vol. 18 No. 11 · 6 June 1996
I’m concerned that the issue of T.S. Eliot and anti-semitism has so far produced only one brief and one trivial letter (Letters, 23 May). Surely LRB readers are interested in Anthony Julius’s study of the subject and have opinions they want to share on it and on the profound questions the book raises? It would be interesting to learn what Dr Julius thinks this tells us about the current state of British literary culture.
Vol. 18 No. 12 · 20 June 1996
If Tom Paulin is in need of more attention (Letters, 6 June), I am happy to oblige. I shall proceed by way of analogy. In Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock, published as late as 1938, the mobsters who run the Brighton underworld are Jewish, their behaviour and physical features described with Eliotesque repugnance. Around 1960 all this changed. No revised edition was officially published but the Jews were transformed overnight into Italian mafiosi. This sleight of hand is not very edifying. It is damaging to Greene as a writer because it suggests he fell back on prejudice and caricature to fill in the murkier corners of his canvas. But it does not indicate serious moral turpitude. It does imply, though, that, before the Holocaust made it unthinkable, anti-Semitism was a conventional prejudice, to which few gentiles gave much thought.
It should also be remembered that Jews were thought to stand for a number of undesirable social forces. For both Greene and T.S. Eliot, they were as casually associated with graft and usury as Italians are with organised crime today. I have never understood why prejudice against nations that have suffered persecution is thought shameful and offensive when the same prejudice against other nations is not. But it is certainly the case. One cannot imagine even a writer as enlightened as Tom Paulin devoting three pages of the LRB to anti-Italian feeling. Eliot’s anti-semitism is hateful to the modern reader who knows what the Jews have suffered and painful to his admirers (especially to his Jewish admirers). But prejudice is a failing most of us share with him. Paulin himself is no stranger to it. He is, after all, an admirer of Ian Paisley, whose bigotry has had far more effect than Eliot’s ever did.
I hesitate to respond to Tom Paulin because what I have to say about the subject of Eliot and anti-semitism is personal and anecdotal. I own a copy of T.S. Eliot’s poems stamped with the crest of St Paul’s School and given to me as a school prize. At the time I went to St Paul’s there was a quota for the entry of Jewish pupils: the school’s Christian orientation (it was founded by John Colet, the Dean of St Paul’s, in 1509) was reflected in the fact that scholarship pupils wore a little silver fish in their lapels – there were 153 of these fishes, the number hauled in by Peter in the miraculous draught of fishes (John 21:11). Many of these scholarship pupils were Jews. I had never experienced anti-semitism until I went to St Paul’s, where it was prevalent in a petty fashion. I am not saying that my life was blighted by it, but I remember it more vividly than most of my lessons. At the time the irony of receiving a volume of T.S. Eliot’s poems as a school prize, and at such a school, escaped me. But this was not the school’s doing. They did not foist the book on me – I chose it. I did so because my father, a devout Orthodox Jew, many of whose extended family died in the Holocaust, and who refused to set foot in Germany after the war, had passed on to me his deep love of Eliot’s poetry. I still cherish the truths that Eliot speaks (or chants, because his music is the inimitable thing). Perhaps what Julius says about Eliot is right. But it misses the point, and what Paulin says we must now all think about Eliot misses it twice over. A self-hating Jew is a sad sight. But a self-hating goy is truly pathetic. I’ve mislaid my little silver fish, but I still have my prize poems. I think my father was wise.
University College London
Tom Paulin’s article does indeed invite controversy, yet one of its most revealing comments appears to have been made almost in passing, as if it were itself uncontroversial. Speaking of Eliot’s anti-semitic poems he says that these ‘have been in practically continuous print since they were first published, yet there has been no protest at this, and little protest at the poems themselves’. The clear suggestion is that we should have protested against these poems remaining in print. But if we object to the availability of Eliot’s anti-semitic utterances, we presumably should seek, in one way or another, to render them unavailable. Paulin, of course, does not utter the word ‘censorship’. Indeed he waxes eloquent in the cause of free speech when castigating the ‘repudiation’ of Julius’s book by a number of publishers. But Paulin cannot have it both ways. He cannot deride timorous publishers who found Julius ‘too controversial’ while at the same time calling for restrictions on what he judges to be objectionable in Eliot – unless, like Eliot, he believes in tolerance, but finds that ‘a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated’.
Hands up any Eliot student who is not aware that the poet wrote ‘The Jew is underneath the lot’ or ‘Rachel née Rabinovitch/Tears at the grapes with murderous paws’. Perhaps I was peculiarly fortunate in my doctoral mentor, David Daiches, who was both a leading critic and, at times, a spokesman on anti-semitism. Any doubts I might have had about such lines, Eliot’s social views, or those, indeed, of other Modernists such as D.H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound or Virginia Woolf were informatively addressed in his seminars. Yet he always insisted that such writers were worthy of serious attention and discussion and were cultural touchstones of the century. So quite what ‘profound questions’ does Julius’s book now raise, some years after Christopher Ricks on T.S. Eliot and Prejudice or John Carey’s ‘populist’ attack on the Modernists in The Intellectuals and the Masses?
I imagine the scandale of Julius’s book owes much to Eliot’s one-time reputation as the ‘Pope of Russell Square’. But the canon (whichever) has been under attack in the literary academy for years, and Eliot’s disturbed and disturbing comments are scarcely scholarly news.
It was very gracious of Valerie Eliot to consult the records of the Criterion and to make available (in the TLS, for no apparent reason) the information about the authorship of the Yellow Spot review, discussed by Tom Paulin. It was admirable of her to do so, but unnecessary: the information is contained in the Criterion itself, both in the review and the journal’s index. What would be most useful to scholars would be for Mrs Eliot to make available the material that is not already in the public domain. It is, however, interesting that critics and scholars have chosen to continually repeat the allegation that Eliot wrote the ‘anonymous’ article and that it ‘had the stamp of his tone’.
The Criterion review of The Yellow Spot has been cited in discussions of Anthony Julius’s T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form by Paulin, Louis Menand, Valentine Cunningham and Craig Raine. All but Cunningham quote the entire review. Christopher Ricks also used this review in his T.S. Eliot and Prejudice. Ricks wrote: ‘By 1936, even more too late, Eliot was prepared to print in the Criterion an unsigned review which was armoured in fastidious unimagination and which – whether or not the review was by Eliot – had the stamp of his approval and the stamp of his tone.’ Menand wrote that ‘because it is the most explicit, this is the most appalling of Eliot’s refusals to engage with the reality of fascist anti-semitism.’
The section where the book reviews were located was towards the back of the journal. The Criterion titled this section ‘Books of the Quarter’. The first half of the section usually contained reviews of single titles and were signed with the full name of the reviewer. These reviews were indexed by title and by author at the front of the journal when it was bound by volume. Following this section, and still carrying the title ‘Books of the Quarter’ at the top of the recto page, came a section named ‘Shorter Notices’. These were also signed, but only with initials. Sometimes these were batch reviews, signed at the bottom of the last entry. By looking at the index it is usually possible to determine the full name of a set of initials because the writers often contributed other fully signed pieces. The editor assists the reader in this venture by avoiding ambiguity: when a reviewer shares the initials of another writer the second initial of the surname is included. Montgomery Belgion and Montgomery Butchart were frequent reviewers. When Butchart’s reviews appeared in ‘Shorter Notices’ they were signed ‘M. Bu.’ and Belgion’s were signed ‘B.M.’ The Yellow Spot was included in a batch review which covered 13 books. This batch was the first entry in the section and The Yellow Spot was the penultimate book reviewed in the set. The last book was Bastard Death: The Autobiography of an Idea by Michael Fraenkel. Below this review appear the initials ‘B.M.’ If we look at the index under ‘Shorter Notices’ we find ‘reviews by M.B. (for titles see B.,M.:), No LXI, p.756’. At the entry for B.,M. are listed 13 titles, including The Yellow Spot.
The problem of identifying the authorship would seem to have arisen from the practice of only indexing the longer notices by title, with the shorter reviews being indexed under the initials of the reviewer and then by title. This is then complicated by the 1967 reprint of the Criterion where the shorter reviews are indexed by title but the names of the reviewers have been removed (the body of the journal remains unchanged). But as batch reviews are not an unusual feature in a journal it is puzzling that the authorship went unnoticed.
Mr Paulin says that the book was ‘briefly and anonymously noticed in the Criterion’. Menand tells us that the ‘unsigned book notice’ ‘chillingly suggests’ that Eliot was indifferent to the fate of German Jews. This is clearly not the case, as Mrs Eliot has confirmed from the (unavailable) records of the journal. Raine is the only one to state that the review is ‘inadmissible evidence’ if we cannot prove Eliot’s authorship.
In addition to the wholesale claim that the review was anonymous is the assertion that the typography of the Criterion text is anti-semitic. All words in titles are capitalised in the Criterion house style, excepting conjunctions and non-initial articles. Oddly, four words in the 36-word subtitle of The Yellow Spot do remain lower-case – ‘chiefly’ and ‘very carefully assembled’ – but I fail to see how the presentation of these words adds to the presence of anti-semitism, and anyway, I doubt that Eliot’s duties as editor included selecting or setting the type. It has become traditional to attribute Eliot’s use of a lower-case ‘j’ in his poetry to an anti-semitic agenda. Paulin declares the typography of the review a ‘striking and significant substitution’, adding that Eliot ‘used the lower-case j to diminish Jews in “Gerontion”, but here employed upper-case to mock their suffering’, Only four words of the subtitle on the title-page are in upper-case, ‘German Jews’ and ‘National Socialist’, Are we meant to believe that Victor Gollancz is ‘mocking the suffering’ of the Jews? And what about Menand, who, when citing The Yellow Spot, creates a subtitle different from that on the title-page (and in upper-case)?
Paulin says that the subtitle contradicts house style. If he had looked at the next entry he would not only have seen the signature of the reviewer but also that house style is consistent: Bastard Death: The Autobiography of an Idea. The review immediately preceding the infamous review also follows house style in its subtitle. (The exception seems to be French titles where only initial words and proper nouns are upper-case.) But Paulin’s real contribution is the creation of a Kinetic Theory of Literary Criticism. After telling us that he was ‘disturbed by’ the review’s ‘sinister dismissiveness’ he then elaborates upon the difficulty of producing the sinister upper-case type. ‘Imagine the extra effort … which went into typing those initial upper-case letters.’ Does Mr Paulin believe that someone (Eliot?) produced the Criterion on a typewriter rather than with typeface and a printing press? Has literary criticism descended to the level that we analyse the kinetics of the keyboard? Shall we begin to examine the frequency of letters such as q, p, and b because of the musculo-skeletal activity involved in reaching them?
It was a mistake to believe that in the widely assumed absence of signature we could discern the authorship by the tone of the review. Ricks says that it has ‘the stamp of his tone’. I find this as remarkable as the alleged anonymity of the review. It is difficult to believe that Eliot would write, let alone start a review, with the phrase ‘There should be somebody to point out that this book …’ The tone of Belgion’s pieces is consistent and does not, I believe, bear any similarity to Eliot’s own very distinctive manner, ‘so nicely/Restricted to What Precisely/and If and Perhaps/and But’.
The ‘malignity’ Tom Paulin notes in Eliot’s work is not to be divorced from his view of society; it is not surprising that the mentality which produced The Waste Land, along with the horrifying ‘Dirge’ stanzas Paulin and Julius quote, could also have it, in the Egoist (5, 1918), that ‘the forces of deterioration are a large crawling mass, and the forces of development half a dozen men.’ One gasps at the blatant unfairness of Eliot charging Milton with lacking ‘that understanding which comes from an affectionate observation of men and women’.
If Tom Paulin is now so repelled by T.S. Eliot, on account of the latter’s anti-semitism, what has he been reading and teaching for all these years?
In complaining about there being ‘only one brief and one trivial letter’ as a reaction to his Eliot piece, Tom Paulin does not make it clear into which category mine fell. Either way, I can take heart. Brevity is precious enough in these correspondence columns, and Paulin can have little idea about ‘the current state of British literary culture’ if he feels that it is trivial to complain about the price of books. There are many of us who would like to discuss the questions raised by Julius but can hardly do so; even libraries balk at paying so much for a book, and the only discussion of it is likely to be among those who have received a copy for review.
Vol. 18 No. 13 · 4 July 1996
I have a challenge for Tom Paulin, who praises Anthony Julius’s ‘evident admiration’ for T.S. Eliot’s work (LRB, 9 May). Where, in Julius’s book, is there a single instance of ‘evident admiration’? Julius’s book is unrelentingly hostile to Eliot, and Danny Karlin is right to argue that it ‘misses the point’ (Letters, 20 June).
Actually, this missing of the point is often deliberate. We are told, for instance, this, about The Waste Land: ‘Take Jewish Vienna: while The Waste Land renders it “unreal” … the Cantos brood obsessively on it.’ We are supposed to infer some kind of silencing here: if Jewish Vienna is unreal, then Viennese Jews must be unreal. But Vienna is never marked as ‘Jewish’ in The Waste Land, and its unreality is the unreality it shares with ‘Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/Vienna London’. We are told that ‘The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock’ is ‘misogynistic’, and that ‘The Dry Salvages’ is ‘racist’ because it evokes the Mississippi thus: ‘Time the destroyer is time the preserver,/Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops.’ Julius comments: ‘Without censure the lines invoke the heritage of a commercial (‘cargo’) slave culture. This racism of poetry and prose [i.e. this poem and After Strange Gods] amounts to the adoption of the Confederate cause.’ This is a critic who will not let poetry merely describe; it must ‘censure’, must make ideological reparation for slavery.
There is much more in this dishonest book: a reading of some words of Eliot’s about Isaac Rosenberg which gives him the opposite meaning of what he says (Eliot praises Rosenberg for managing to retain his Jewishness as a writer; Julius claims that Eliot is praising Rosenberg for being able to write at all, and compares Eliot with Wagner’s ideas about Jewish composers in Germany); a reading of Eliot’s Nunc Dimittis poem ‘A Song For Simeon’ which claims it to be ‘another one of Eliot’s triumphs over Jews’. The only sentence of praise I can find in the book is this tight-lipped, gun-at-the-head concession: ‘It is in the Four Quartets, and not in his prose criticism, that Eliot’s conservatism finds its most considered, cogent expression.’ And what does Julius think of Eliot’s criticism, by the way? ‘At its best, it enlarged a particular tradition.’
This ‘evident admiration’ is similar in tone to Julius’s belief that the four poems in which Eliot’s anti-semitism appears are ‘charged’, ‘economical’ and ‘virtuoso’. In this context, we should judge as merely perverse, not ‘honourable’ (Paulin’s word), a critic who thinks that Eliot’s anti-semitism occurs at the heart of Eliot’s ‘greatest poetry’. Why should we believe such a claim from a critic who can find nothing good to say about the work of Eliot that is not harmed by anti-semitism? After all, we know what Julius thinks of Eliot’s ‘greatness’: very little.
I was touched by Tom Paulin’s plaintive call for responses to his positive review of Anthony Julius’s T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form; and amused at the responses it elicited. The current debate is to some extent the recrudescence of a controversy that spluttered for a while in 1988, the year of Eliot’s centenary, when a number of individuals, including myself, sought to distance themselves from what seemed an extraordinarily uncritical celebration of Eliot’s achievement. The debate was inconclusive because the main point – the coherence of Eliot’s anti-semitism within the context of his consistent prewar support for the ideas of Charles Maurras and the rabidly anti-semitic Action Française – was one that was not engaged with by any of Eliot’s hierophants. I am slightly bemused that critical debate has not proceeded much beyond that point in eight years.
Of the responses to Tom Paulin’s review, I thought that Danny Karlin’s took the biscuit. I am touched that his Orthodox Jewish father communicated his love of Eliot’s ‘music’ to Danny. My Jewish father, whose family was murdered in the Second World War, was appalled when I pointed out to him the high-minded amalgam of racism, misogyny and class prejudice that can be found in Eliot’s earlier poetry, and less than impressed by the later poetry, where Christianity seems devoid of compassion – except, that is, towards the poet. And this is what we are happy to induct our students into at A level? ‘Ever had the feeling you’ve been had?’ as Johnny Rotten inquired of his audience at the last concert of the (unreconstituted) Sex Pistols.
Anthony Julius’s deliberately adversarial book is cogent, well-informed and unsettling; it has a real case to make but frequently overstates it. His indictment of Eliot as an anti-semitic poet is based on the first three poems in the Ara Vos Prec collection of 1920, ‘Gerontion’, ‘Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar’ and ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’; plus ‘Dirge’ from the Waste Land manuscripts, which was unpublished until after Eliot’s death. Julius shows that figures in the first three poems – the squatting Jew (‘jew’ until 1963), Bleistein with his sagging knees and lustreless protrusive eye, Rachel with her murderous paws – embody some of the nastiest traditional topoi and clichés of anti-semitic rhetoric, whether or not Eliot was conscious of them. He has not, though, persuaded me that ‘A Cooking Egg’ is anti-semitic on the strength of the lines, ‘I shall not want Capital in Heaven/For I shall meet Sir Alfred Mond’. Julius claims that to imagine a Jewish financier in Heaven is to wish him dead, but the speaker is merely saying that one day both he and Mond will be dead and hopes they may meet in Heaven. ‘Dirge’ is the most sustained and unpleasant of Eliot’s anti-semitic poems; but its status is problematical, since he rejected it for publication.
Julius insists that the anti-semitic poems are among the triumphs of Eliot’s poetry, saying that art is not flawed by wickedness but can cohabit happily with it. That may be so, but I disagree about the quality of these poems. In a book on Eliot published in 1972 I argued that ‘Gerontion’ is too fragmentary and incoherent to succeed – and Julius seems to agree in an excellent reading of it – while the quatrain poems, imitated from Gautier under Pound’s influence, are over-ingenious and trivial, in a vein where Eliot was not at ease. Julius concedes that anti-semitism disappears from Eliot’s poetry (but not his prose) after 1922, and that there is no trace of it in his major works, The Waste Land, ‘Ash Wednesday’ and Four Quartets.
Julius rather uncomfortably combines the roles of judicious critic and hawkish prosecutor, and his zeal as the latter has led him badly astray over Eliot’s non-review of The Yellow Spot. Nevertheless, he has written an important book which demands discussion; Tom Paulin has done a useful service in drawing attention to it, although his excited account coarsens Julius’s argument. But the Thersites of Late Review has his own agenda to pursue, of putting down the mighty from their seats. A few years ago it was Virginia Woolf, in a lamentable TV programme that he made about her. Now it is Eliot, and most recently, Degas, whom Paulin has denounced as an anti-semite and (therefore?) a bad artist.
Jews, both individually and in community or communities, are as open as anyone else to criticism; and, like others, they must be prepared to take it. Much that is called ‘anti-semitism’ in modern discussions and polemics turns out, on inspection, to be merely criticism; and, like criticism of other targets, it is sometimes true and sometimes not. It is an astonishing weakness of Tom Paulin’s review that he shows no awareness of the insidious ambiguity of the term ‘anti-semitism’ or of the great damage done to the fabric of Western nations by Jewish interests during the last few hundred years.
Paulin accepts James Shapiro’s claim that ‘anti-semitism is closely linked to the formation of Englishness,’ but fails to see that an inevitable converse of this is that the defence of England may require not merely criticism but stronger actions to curb the anti-Englishness of Jewry. Certain of the pejorative references to Jews or Jewish influence in Eliot’s writings may well be legitimate and honourable defences of the England with which he chose to identify. In any case, a sensible defence of Eliot against the charge of anti-semitism is contained in Russel Kirk’s Eliot and His Age. Kirk points out that it was the secular Jew attached to the Golden Calf whose influence Eliot attacked in After Strange Gods and not the Jew attached to Moses. Kirk quotes a statement by Eliot that also remains pertinent: ‘I am not an anti-semite and never have been. It seems to me unfortunate that persons give that odious term such a broad and ill-defined definition.’
In my original and longer letter (Letters, 20 June) I referred to ‘the reviews by Paulin, Menand, Cunningham and Raine’. I was referring to John Cunningham’s piece in the Guardian and not, as you indicated, to Valentine Cunningham.
Vol. 18 No. 15 · 1 August 1996
John Betjeman used to take his teddy bear, Archie, to bed with him every night. The attitude of various literary critics to T.S. Eliot and other great artists seems similar – they want to cuddle up close and they become petulant at any sign of criticism, as Betjeman did once when Geoffrey Grigson dared to make mild mock of Archie. James Wood is petulant about Anthony Julius’s study of T.S. Eliot (Letters, 4 July), though Julius did not use his critique of Eliot’s anti semitism as a launching-pad for a denigration of his poetry. Instead, he places his admiration for the poetry on record – as I did, too, in my review of Julius’s study. Art is not a comforter, and though many of us look to it for solace and redemption, it need not, as Julius shows, necessarily perform that function As Bernard Bergonzi says in his letter, Julius’s study is ‘cogent, well-informed and unsettling’. Bergonzi disagrees with him about the quality of Eliot’s anti-semitic poems, arguing that ‘Gerontion’ is ‘too fragmentary and incoherent to succeed’, and suggesting that the quatrain poems are ‘over-ingenious and trivial’. I disagree and believe that ‘Gerontion’ is a deeply disturbing vision of postwar Europe which draws on Keynes’s loathing of the Versailles peace settlement to articulate the conditions which produced Nazism and the Second World War.
It is possible to argue that Eliot’s Keynesianism – The Economic Consequences of the Peace is a major source of The Waste Land – struggles nobly against the rancour that suffuses areas of his poetry. But Wood and the quite grotesquely embarrassing Danny Karlin with his silver fishes and his boastful self-regard seem incapable of making a proper defence of Eliot. They are still in bed with Archie.
Tom Paulin isn’t missing the point. Neither is Julius. The discipline of English Literature was first developed in colonial times to reinforce claims of the superiority of the Western cultural hegemony. It is now being foisted on our schools via the post-Dearing national curriculum for English. Eliot is one of the complicated and central voices of that hegemony. His racism is therefore something that matters to us all. The mix of Lady Di’s lefty, Tarantino-loving, divorce-settlement lawyer and a republican, lefty, Ulster Scot poet mixing it with this right-wing, anti-semitic, Anglo-Catholic, monarchical icon is clearly too heady a brew for many of your correspondents. But this is a key battle and goes to the heart of the war over what arguments about the curriculum and the canon are really about.
In Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, Gauri Viswanathan reminds us that the argument about English Literature, about its canon and about its curriculum, is necessarily as much an argument about things unseen and unsaid, about its submerged and excluded voices and about the powers out side the realm of literature, as it is about the displayed objects. Your correspondents vilifying Julius and Paulin are aware of this, just as they must also be aware of the subtle, committed and lithe oppositional momentum created by Paulin in recent years from within a ‘Puritan-republican tradition’. James Wood, Bernard Bergonzi and Nigel Jackson should take note that it’s from this perspective that Paulin is able to write with tender favour of Eliot’s healing vision of monarchical and republican traditions folded together, the war over, while simultaneously warning that our admiration of Eliot ‘ought not to make us collude with Eliot’s displacement of the major tradition of English political verse … we must be alert to the Burkean or High Anglican conspiracy which has so distorted literary history.’
Head of English
Thank you so very much for publishing Nigel Jackson’s letter. How rare it is to have attention drawn to, as he puts it, ‘the great damage done to the fabric of Western nations by Jewish interests during the last few hundred years’. My only quibble is why does he restrict himself to a couple of centuries? Surely he must agree with the opinion of Sigismondo de Contida Foligno, offered before 1512, that Jewish interests introduced syphilis to Europe? And were not these same interests responsible for the Black Death two centuries before that? And how can Mr Jackson forget the memory of poor William of Norwich, murdered by Jewish interests for his blood in 1144?
Nigel Jackson’s letter has the virtue of clarity, but may say more about his own views than Eliot’s. Jackson (on Russell Kirk): ‘Kirk points out that it was the secular Jew attached to the Golden Calf whose influence Eliot attacked in After Strange Gods – and not the Jew attached to Moses.’ But Kirk does no such thing He points out instead that Eliot sees ‘the secular Jew’ as not even attached to the golden calf, and quotes Eliot: ‘It is better to worship a golden calf than to worship nothing.’ The problem with us free-thinking Jews is that we don’t even worship the golden calf, for the casting of which our ancestors at least contributed their gold (Exodus 32:2-4). But perhaps Jackson is thinking of the golden calf as a symbol for avarice, for the desire for more gold? Eliot used it as a symbol for Communism, a slightly subtler gesture of anti-semitism, it may be.
Not to detract from Erik Svarny’s point regarding Eliot, Paulin and Karlin, but what Johnny Rotten actually said, as the Sex Pistols ground their way to the end of ‘No Fun’ at their final ghastly show at San Francisco’s Winterland, was ‘Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ – which, twenty years later, on the Filthy Lucre Tour, seems to have become their credo.
School of English and American Studies
Vol. 18 No. 16 · 22 August 1996
Apropos T.S. Eliot, Nigel Jackson speaks darkly of ‘the great damage done to the fabric of Western nations by Jewish interests during the last few hundred years’ (Letters, 4 July). Short of referring us to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, would he care to explain?
Vol. 18 No. 17 · 5 September 1996
I admire Tom Paulin’s strong readings, and I admire his willingness to unsettle reputations. But he could be right about Eliot’s anti-semitism while still being wrong about Anthony Julius’s book (LRB, 9 May and Letters, 1 August. Though it may seem odd to the likes of R.H. Marshall (Letters, 1 August), who appear to spend their lives in a fug of conspiracy theory about the canon, it is possible to find Eliot anti-semitic (which he surely was) while also finding Julius’s claim that Eliot ‘trained himself to be an anti-semite’ hysterical. In this context, it is not ‘petulant’ to point out that Julius’s book is misleading and incoherent.
It is misleading to complain, as Julius does, that The Waste Land, which mentions Vienna only once, ‘silences Jewish Vienna’. It is misleading to charge, as Julius does, that Eliot’s comment on Isaac Rosenberg – ‘The poetry of Isaac Rosenberg … does not only owe its distinction to its being Hebraic: but because it is Hebraic it is a contribution to English literature. For a Jewish poet to be able to write like a Jew, in Western Europe and in a Western language, is almost a miracle’ – is akin to Richard Wagner’s view when he said that a German Jew could never compose German music, but would always compose Jewish music. Wagner’s taunt is that the Jew will try to speak as a native but cannot help speaking as a foreigner, and that because of this, he will never produce anything great. But Eliot, who thought Rosenberg the greatest of the First World War poets, praises him for exactly the opposite quality; he praises him for the miracle of his self-preservation. And it is misleading to allege that Eliot’s poem ‘A Song for Simeon’, which is a version of the Nunc Dimittis, is ‘another one of Eliot’s triumphs over Jews’.
I am surprised that Paulin is so easily persuaded that Julius admires Eliot’s work just because he places that admiration ‘on record’. His book attempts a sustained erosion of Eliot’s quality as a poet. To observe this is not to want ‘to cuddle up close’ to Eliot. It is important because it leads Julius into incoherence, and unravels his entire thesis. His book makes two claims: 1. That anti-semitism is at the centre of Eliot’s work. 2. That anti-semitism is at the centre of some of his greatest work. Neither seems true: Eliot would not be cherished or even remembered today if we knew him only as the author of ‘Sweeney’, ‘Gerontion’ and ‘Burbank’. Julius’s argument that the three anti-semitic poems are great and important is disingenuous. For this is a greatness that Julius, far from being able to display or argue, cannot apparently find in the rest of Eliot’s work. And Eliot’s criticism? ‘At its best, it enlarged a particular tradition.’
Now this is senseless: Julius denies greatness or centrality to all the work that is non-anti-semitic, denies greatness to the work that most of us love Eliot for, while awarding importance, skill and centrality to the anti-semitic work. But what kind of ‘greatness’ or ‘centrality’ is this? The most that Julius can say about the anti-semitic work, despite his attempts to claim its quality, is that it is ‘charged’, ‘economical’ and ‘virtuose’. (These three words are repeated again and again.) This is a greatness and centrality manufactured by Julius, who needs it for his thesis. The greater the poems in which Eliot’s anti-semitism appears, the greater the anti-semitism in Eliot’s work, and the better things are for Julius’s argument.
Vol. 18 No. 18 · 19 September 1996
A footnote to Tom Paulin’s review of Anthony Julius’s T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form and the letters it provoked. When Perry Miller and I were putting together Major Writers of America, a large two-volume anthology for college students, at Harcourt, Brace in 1961 and 1962, the plan was to ask a scholar or critic to select and introduce each of the writers. To prepare the section for T.S. Eliot, we asked R.P. Blackmur. He agreed and responded in fairly short order with a list of what he thought essential. Miller agreed and I then asked Eliot whether he approved. Since Harcourt was Eliot’s American publisher, I was aware that such approval was necessary before Blackmur could proceed. Eliot was concerned, in permissions for college anthologies, that he not appear in too many such books at the same time and so kept his permission for such use quite low each year. Blackmur’s list included a characteristic passage from After Strange Gods (1934). Eliot objected, making it plain that because the selection from his work in the proposed anthology might well be seen as ‘official’, Harcourt having been his American publisher for so long, he did not wish the passage to appear. Blackmur, Miller and I regretted the loss because losing it diminished the representativeness of what Blackmur had done, but Eliot was quite within his rights as the copyright holder. A substitution was made and the anthology published. After Strange Gods was not a book Eliot wanted used in anthologies or reprinted by itself. The book exists in libraries, of course, and, once time extinguishes its copyright, may well be reprinted one day to continue its inexpungible damage to his reputation.