Conrad and Prejudice

Craig Raine

  • Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1967-87 by Chinua Achebe
    Heinemann, 130 pp, £10.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 435 91000 0

‘Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist.’ This quotation is taken from ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’, a lecture delivered by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe as long ago as 1974 and now collected in Hopes and Impediments.

In City Without Walls, W.H. Auden included this squib:

Even Hate should be precise:
very few White Folks
have fucked their mothers.

A valid point, except that, in a sense, Auden’s plea for precision is vitiated by his easily explained misapprehension that ‘mother-fucker’ is an epithet exclusively applied to whites by blacks. Auden’s experience here – that of a slightly decrepit, nervous WASP on the lower East side – is eloquent in its way and perhaps explains his decision to return to Oxford and Christ Church: but it did not inform him (obviously) that blacks might use the word of each other. The general point, nevertheless, remains good. Only a theoretician with a propensity to automatism would cite it as an example of ‘unexamined discourse’ – a holier-than-thou formula usually invoked by moral pedants attentive not to the intended meaning but to their own narrow (if important) agendas. Let us count it a bonus that Auden’s particular encapsulation has the additional benefit of warning against the identification of one’s own point of view with objectivity. And, thence, with authority.

When Christopher Ricks’s T.S. Eliot and Prejudice was published at the end of last year, it attracted more than its fair share of dim-witted commentary, but perhaps the most stupid moment occurred in an otherwise well-meaning review by Dannie Abse in the Listener (1 December 1988). Dr Abse, usually the most modest of men, was, in this instance, adamantine in his Jewishness, and could be seen enjoying the access of authority which had accrued to him by virtue of his race and his presence, as a witness, when Emanuel Litvinoff charged Eliot with anti-semitism and was rewarded by hearing the ‘contrite’ Eliot describe Litvinoff’s awful denunciatory poem as ‘a good poem’. One might trust Dr Abse’s assessment of Eliot’s inner turmoil at this moment, were it not that elsewhere he shows himself capable of the most brusque judgment: ‘Leonard Woolf once remarked that T.S. Eliot was “only slightly anti-semitic”. I am reminded of that wise physician, Sir Adolph Abrahams, who, on his ward-rounds at Westminster, forbade medical students to utter the word “slightly”. “Either a woman is pregnant or not pregnant,” he would say. “She cannot be slightly pregnant, boy.” ’

I have two objections to this argument. First, Sir Adolph is surely wrong about pregnancy. ‘Slightly pregnant’ tells us immediately that the pregnancy is not advanced. As far as I know, the terms ‘early’ and ‘late’ are commonly used of pregnancy by gynaecologists, and I cannot see that ‘slightly’ is such an objectionable alternative to ‘early’. Secondly, Dr Abse’s analogy is false. There are clear differences of degree in anti-semitism.

Reviewing Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Eliot (LRB, Vol. 6, No 20), Professor Ricks began: ‘Peter Ackroyd has written a benign life of T.S. Eliot. Given the malignity visited on Eliot, this is a good deal.’ I turn, deliberately, from this last sentence to George Steiner – who, on a television programme last November, discussed the case of Eliot and that of Ezra Pound with Professor Ricks, Annie Cohen-Solal and Clive James. Professor Steiner began by discomfiting Ricks: there were, he remarked humorously, two attacks in the TLS which Professor Ricks, fresh from his transatlantic flight, would not have had time to come to terms with. A wan smile from Professor Ricks. And Steiner concluded, in a general attack on ‘feline caution’, that, while he could forgive Pound’s ‘crackerbarrel’ prejudice, others who had been more guarded deserved to ‘sizzle in hell’. The application to Eliot was unmistakable – as unmistakable as the adjective ‘crackerbarrel’ applied three times to Pound.

At the heart of the argument, Steiner completely flummoxed Professor Ricks by referring to a footnote in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. The context of Professor Steiner’s remarks was the culpability of silence after the Holocaust – a context in which Steiner’s sense of outrage harnessed Eliot to Heidegger: ‘We are now after Auschwitz, and I, reading Christopher’s book with immense profit, I was deeply disappointed that the great question – a text which does not appear in it (correct me if I’ve overlooked it) – it’s when all the photographs, the whole world is looking at the photographs of Auschwitz and Belsen in ’47, ’48, the man addresses himself centrally to what is culture, what is society, not only, like Heidegger, the only comparison I know, after ’45, the most terrible silence, a silence which I find intolerable, but a footnote for which we don’t have time, page 70 in the standard edition of Notes To, which kind of waffles about Jews and Christians perhaps having lived too close to each other so that the borderline got kind of messy and problematic. 1948 and there, I must say, I don’t know what to think.’

Ricks didn’t know what to think either. Hardly surprisingly, given the syntax of Professor Steiner’s insinuation, delivered in a tone pitched somewhere between utter conviction and feline regret. Ricks confined his reply to the more coherent argument that we cannot expect everyone to be a saint. Hardly surprisingly, too, because the footnote to which Steiner so confidently, if incoherently, appealed is, in point of fact, two footnotes. The footnote to which Steiner draws our attention here appears in the first edition of Notes Towards the Definition of Culture: ‘Since the diaspora, and the scattering of Jews amongst peoples holding the Christian Faith, it may have been unfortunate, both for these peoples and for the Jews themselves, that the culture contact between them has had to be within neutral zones of culture in which religion could be ignored: and the effect may have been to strengthen the illusion that there can be culture without religion.’

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