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Undesirable

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.

James Wood
Washington DC

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.

Erik Svarny
London W11

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.

Bernard Bergonzi
Leamington Spa

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.’

Nigel Jackson
Belgrave, Victoria

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.

Daniel Adamski
London W12


Anti-BJP

Reviewing a history of the New Statesman (LRB, 23 May) I made passing reference to its older namesake, the Calcutta Statesman, criticising its editorial attitude towards the Bharatiya Janata Party. Dharani Ghosh (Letters, 20 June) charges that in doing so, I merely paraded my ignorance, and overlooked the fact that the Statesman ‘has been an outspoken critic of the BJP’ since December 1992.

The over-compression of my single sentence allusion to the Calcutta paper did indeed mislead in one minor regard, and Mr Ghosh rightly corrects this. I referred to the Statesman adopting its pro-BJP stance ‘under the editorship’ of someone whom I deliberately did not name, but whom Mr Ghosh identifies as Swapan Dasgupta. Dr Dasgupta was not, as my wording inadvertently implied, the Editor-in-Chief but an assistant editor. I think I am right in believing, however, that he was a – if not the – crucial influence on the Statesman’s political line in the later Eighties.

On the more substantive, and far more serious, issue of the Calcutta Statesman’s politics: it has certainly become more critical of the BJP recently than it was in the late Eighties and early Nineties. What it has not done is display any clear recognition that the BJP, as a party explicitly based on religious sectarianism – what in India is usually called communalism – is different in kind from India’s other major political parties. On the contrary, the paper’s criticism of BJP religious bigotry has often seemed to this reader to be peculiarly muted.

In editorials during India’s recent election period, such phrases as ‘flawed perceptions’ were standard Statesman descriptions of the BJP’s views of Muslims and other minorities. To call this an understatement would be … well, an understatement. Much stronger hostile language was used about other major parties, especially the formerly ruling Congress. The Statesman argued firmly for the BJP’s right to lead a new government; this at a time when the other main parties were taking a principled stance against entering coalition with such a sectarian, illiberal body. A Statesman editorial proclaimed with apparent approval that the BJP’s rise ‘means that more people are seeking to found nationhood on religious identity. It also means that people are turning their backs on the Nehruvian nation-state’ – that is, on the secular democratic ideals of India’s founders. Those who believe, as I do, that such ideals remain India’s only hope, will think the Statesman a very odd and ambiguous kind of ‘outspoken critic’ of the BJP, and of communalism. I only wish Mr Ghosh’s description were more accurate than it is.

Stephen Howe
Oxford


Judges and Ministers

Participating in a dialogue with Lord Lester (Letters, 6 June) is a twisty business. He writes that I do not explain why I believe English judges are uniquely incapable of interpreting and applying a Bill of Rights. I expressed no such belief, nor anything like it. He writes that I do not explain why I regard judges of the European Court of Human Rights as better qualified to protect our basic rights without a contribution from our own courts. I expressed no such opinion, nor anything like it.

I ask him a straight question. Does he support the view, held by other of his fellow judges, that English courts, under an incorporated Bill of Rights, should be empowered to invalidate Acts of Parliament?

John Griffith
Emeritus Professor of Law, University of London, Marlow, Bucks


The Fighting Family

Harald Prins (Letters, 20 June) offers an intriguing comment on my review of the ideology of Revisionist Zionism. He suggests that since the Land of Israel claimed by the Revisionist Zionists as their God-given space on earth corresponds to the biblical kingdom of Judah, on the west bank of the River Jordan, they should focus on this area and leave the rest of Palestine to the Palestinians. He knows that this is a mirage. But his letter highlights one of the many contradictions of Revisionist Zionism. In fact, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his followers laid a claim not just to western Palestine but to the whole of mandatory Palestine, including Transjordan. But the claim that Britain partitioned Palestine in 1921 and thus cheated the Jews of a large part of their birthright is a complete myth. The east bank of the Jordan was never promised to the Jews. When the League of Nations endorsed the British mandate over Palestine in 1922, it specifically excluded Transjordan from the area allocated to the Jewish National Home. Yet the emblem adopted after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 by Herut, the forerunner of the Likud, was a hand holding a rifle on a map of Palestine which stretched over both banks of the River Jordan. A suitable tune to adopt would have been the Negro Spiritual ‘One more river to cross’.

Avi Shlaim
Oxford


Fact Czech

In my review of J.P. Stern’s The Dear Purchase (LRB, 20 June) I said that Peter Stern had collaborated with Tom Stoppard on his stage versions of Schnitzler and Nestroy. Sheila Stern tells me that my memory is at fault here. Tom Stoppard remembers discussing them with Peter Stern, one of whose pupils prepared literal translations of the plays, but that was the full extent of his involvement.

Daniel Johnson
London W12