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:

After covering about 5 kms the car ... stopped and we were told there was some engine trouble. We were ordered to leave the car and line up on the side of the road.

    Suddenly we heard 4 shots in quick, succession, and crying and moaning. Then we were again bundled into the car and brought back ... The bodies of those ‘shot while trying to escape’ remained in the ditch until Monday afternoon, guarded by a few Storm Troopers. All four of them had been shot in exactly the same way: a revolver bullet through the jugular vein.

Untouched by this evidence of atrocity, Eliot also suggests that the chapter on the treatment of Jews in concentration camps is exaggerated. It’s shocking to think that Eliot might have read this book, which contains many photographs of Jews being humiliated, as well as reproductions of anti-semitic posters, slogans and cartoons, and then contemptuously dismissed the suffering it details. As Julius comments, this is a person who ‘does not know how to speak of the Jewish dead; he is without pity.’ After such knowledge, can there be forgiveness?

And yet the knowledge which Julius has amassed is not new – Ricks and many other critics have noted and discussed Eliot’s prejudices. The reference in After Strange Gods to reasons of ‘race and religion’ making any large numbers of free-thinking Jews ‘undesirable’ has often been quoted and censured, but the fact that Eliot never allowed it to be republished has been taken as a repudiation of his views. So too has a scene in the 1934 pageant play, The Rock, which presents a group of Blackshirts critically. But as Julius shows, the rejection of the Blackshirts’ prejudices is a rejection of anti-Christian paganism. The play is not a plea for modern Jewry – it is an endorsement of Christianity in ‘both its historical and supernatural forms’. The Rock is not Eliot’s Our Mutual Friend.

By detailing the scope of Eliot’s anti-semitic remarks and images, and by examining what several critical generations have made of them, Julius breaks down the protective barriers that have been erected around Eliot’s work. His argument is that indifference to the offence given by certain of his poems is, among other things, a failure of interpretation, and as he demonstrates, critical interpretation has to carry with it a knowledge of previous and conflicting arguments about Eliot’s work. The critic who gives Eliot credit for dropping anti-semitic verses from The Waste Land, the critic who commends him for not having tried to edit out of his earlier poems views which he later regretted, is carrying the weight of those developing arguments. There are critics who have found anti-semitism in the ‘Burial of the Dead’ section of The Waste Land, and in the phrase ‘sapient sutlers’ in ‘Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’, but where a more polemical writer would have gleefully enlisted them Julius does not. A combination of steely fair-mindedness and evident admiration for Eliot’s art makes his study read at times like a judge’s summing-up in a long and difficult case (Julius is a practising lawyer who is currently acting for Princess Diana in her divorce).

One of the most damning pieces of evidence is ‘Dirge’, the two verses which Eliot is sometimes praised for excluding from The Waste Land:

Full fathom five your Bleistein lies
Under the flatfish and the squids.
Graves’ Disease in a dead jew’s eyes!
     When he crabs have eat the lids.
       Lower than the wharf rats dive
          Though he suffer a sea-change
          Still expensive rich and strange.

That is lace that was his nose
    See upon his back he lies
(Bones peep through the ragged toes)
    With a stare of dull surprise
           Flood tide and ebb tide
           Roll him gently side to side
           See the lips unfold unfold
           From the teem, gold in gold
Lobsters hourly keep close watch
Hark! now I hear them scratch scratch scratch

Rereading these verses in the light of the insults detailed in The Yellow Spot, I realise that there is a subliminal or implicit anti-semitic rhyme on ‘squids’ and ‘lids’ which is similar to Kipling’s poem ‘The Waster’, where, as Julius points out, when ‘Jew’ is the expected word, Kipling substitutes ‘etc’.

The insult Eliot offers is layered and complex, because by placing the Jew underwater in ‘Dirge’ and ‘Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar’, Eliot makes literal the commercial cliché of bankruptcy: Bleistein has in every sense ‘gone under’. The very name ‘represents a financial diminishing; “Bleistein” means “Leadstone”, Eliot’s substitute for the more expected “Goldstein”. This name along with “Silverstein”, “Loanstein”, “Diamondstein” and “Sparklestein”, routinely appeared in American business jokes of the period. Jews were meant to be at home in commerce; Eliot’s “Bleistein” is not.’ The image of Bleistein’s gold teeth in ‘Dirge’ picks up the fondness Jews were supposed to have for that commodity. Bleistein is a commercial failure, however, who lacks even a pauper’s grave – a departure from the more usual fantasies of Jewish commercial power.

The trope appears again in the notorious lines in ‘Gerontion’:

And the jew squats in the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.

In the pre-1963 editions of the poem, the initial of ‘jew’ was printed in lower-case, part of Eliot’s belittling intention. His aim is to insult and exclude Jewish readers. As Julius shows, Gerontion’s Jewish landlord is ‘misshapen and cowering’, and therefore an object of contempt who is associated through the sibilants in the opening lines I’ve just quoted with Shylock: ‘And spet upon any Jewish gaberdine’. If the rented house in the poem symbolises postwar European culture, as I think it fairly clearly does, then the landlord represents economic power which is in fact powerlessness. Gerontion – the name means ‘little old man’ – is an embittered Struldbug meditating on the chaos of the postwar Continent. In an exemplary close reading of the poem, Julius shows how Eliot condenses a whole series of anti-semitic associations with leprosy and faeces. He also argues that it is a response to Browning’s ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra’, a poem which celebrates wisdom and welcomes old age. Indeed Browning emerges as one of the heroes of this study – along with the massive counter-example of Joyce; he exposed anti-semitism in his poetry and gave Jews voices where Eliot silenced them. Relentlessly Julius dissects the tissue of interconnecting prejudices and clichés which Eliot draws on in his verse. Yet he counts Eliot’s poems as one of anti-Semitism’s ‘few literary triumphs’ – a wryly disinterested judgment which raises some profound questions about the nature of art and about the redemptive ethic which informs a great deal of literary criticism. By enlivening fatigued topoi, Eliot gives a new malevolent life to stale rhetorical figures and enlarges the anti-semitism of the interwar period. Admitting that he cannot celebrate the poetry which issues from Eliot’s attitude, Julius concedes that ‘with great virtuosity’ the poet turns a whole cluster of vile clichés into art.

It’s here that we approach something intractable and frightening which lies at the diseased heart of European culture. George Steiner raised this matter some years ago when he observed in a letter to the Listener that the ‘obstinate puzzle’ is that Eliot’s uglier touches tend to occur at the centre of very good poetry. As Julius shows, neither Ricks in his comments on Steiner’s remark nor Steiner himself is able to resolve the problem because for them ‘art redeems.’ Both Symbolism and New Criticism hold that poetic discourse is ‘non-propositional and benevolent’. Here, it’s worth noting that the Unitarian culture in which Eliot was nourished placed a high value on the concept of ‘benevolism’, and his rejection of that ethic in his critical writing must be connected with his furious distaste for Unitarianism – which he linked with Judaism – and for liberalism. Yet there still remains the question of art’s capacity to redeem. How does Eliot the conservative Anglican answer it? As Julius demonstrates, he denied the redemptive nature of art in his 1928 Preface to The Sacred Wood, where he asserts that poetry is a ‘superior amusement’. Later in the same paragraph, he says: ‘And certainly poetry is not the inculcation of morals, or the direction of politics; and no more is it religion or an equivalent of religion, except by some monstrous abuse of words.’

There is something, I would suggest, both casual and significant about that colloquial or slightly ungrammatical use of ‘no more’, because it is a phrase which strictly demands to be followed by a clause beginning ‘than it is’ – e.g. ‘no more is it religion than it is secular music.’ In Eliot’s sentence it functions on one level as an intensifier – a weightier version of ‘nor’ – on another it means ‘no longer’. There’s just the faintest ou-boum sound to this, because Eliot is signalling almost invisibly that something is absolutely finished now. Poetry is not sacral or ethical or civic, it’s just a higher form of limerick. We’re close to Bentham’s equation – quantity of pleasure being equal – of poetry to pushpin. But as well as demoting poetry, Eliot also insisted on its diversity, and this opened up the possibility of a poetry of ‘scorn and deflation’ which made room for his quatrains.

As Julius notes, objections to those anti-semitic poems can stem from the rejected aesthetic of the constitutional benevolence of poetry, but they may equally derive from an objection to ‘works of defamation’. Hate poems are offensive, and the offence which Eliot’s give has been largely palliated or ignored for more than seventy years. I can think of no other modern writer whose prejudices have been treated with such tolerance. Those poems 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. Julius’s adversarial reading is therefore a long overdue act of critical justice. Because Eliot has so dominated this century’s poetry, and because his writings have been so central to critical practice and to English literature as an academic discipline, to subject him to this kind of investigation is to call a large part of our culture – root, branch and flower – into question. Eliot studies will never be the same post-Julius. His account must be read both for its sustained critical intelligence and scholarship, and as a means of extending one’s unease about the moral basis – if there is one – of Eliot’s work.

Discussing the ugliness of ‘Dirge’, Julius demonstrates how compounded the insult is:

Bleistein has become food for the sea creatures. This is horrible in itself. With the corpse’s popping eyes, the principal symptom of Graves’ Disease, we have already entered the realm of the gratuitous. Sufferers of the disease have a fearsome, startling appearance. They are wild-eyed and appear demented. The hideousness of their demeanour would be aggravated if their eyelids were torn away, for example by crabs. It is the peculiar horror of ‘Dirge’, that it celebrates the putrefying of Bleistein, achieved furthermore not by natural processes but by animal ravaging.

In refusing compassion or respect for the dead, Eliot is like Creon in Antigone. Bleistein has no terrestrial grave, because he has ‘no country’, and in gloating over me circumstances of his decomposition, Eliot also celebrates the condition of Jews as ‘stateless transients’ during extended periods of Europe’s history. Here, as in his dismissive comments on the murders described in The Yellow Spot, Eliot is indeed ‘without pity’ and demonstrates that he possesses the imagination of an anti-semite ‘in the highest degree’. Indifferent to the martyrdom of German Jewry, he allies himself both with anti-semites and with those who denied the reality of the persecutions in Germany. Discussing a footnote on the ‘illusion’ that there can be culture without religion, which Eliot added to the 1948 edition of Notes towards a Definition of Culture, Julius shows that three years after the liberation of the death camps ‘Eliot has learnt nothing. Too many free-thinking Jews are undesirable; contact between Jews and Christians is undesirable because it fosters a damaging illusion.’

With this denial of Jewish suffering goes the slashing of certain artistic sources which lie at the root of much of Eliot’s poetry. Thus The Waste Land’s violation of passages from Antigone, The Tempest and Ulysses, which are among its sources of inspiration, enacts the violation of Bleistein’s body. Eliot deforms those texts. As Maud Ellmann has noted, he ‘desecrates tradition’ at the opening of The Waste Land – twisting Chaucer on the sweetness of spring – and aims to steal and blasphemously deface the works he pilfers. Frank Kermode calls that seminal poem a work of ‘decreation’, and the figure that Eliot aspires to be is that of decreator. The poet is not now – is no more – godlike, but is instead a vandal, a criminal, an annihilator of all that’s made to a murderous thought in a dirty shade.

In arguing that Eliot’s choice of The Sacred Wood as the title for a selection of essays derived from Frazer, George Watson quotes the following passage:

In this sacred grove mere grew a certain tree round which ... a grim figure might be seen to prowl ... He was a priest and a murderer: and the man for whom he was looking was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain.

As Julius tersely states, Eliot is ‘the candidate, murderer and thief’.

To notice this is to begin to align the supposedly classical Eliot much more closely with the complex, late romanticism of Yeats. If, tediously, we have grown used to critical accounts of the ‘blood sacrifice’ that helped to found the Southern Irish statelet, it’s time we began to notice Eliot’s complicity in the prejudices and massacres which went to the founding of various national identities in Europe. As James Shapiro argues in a formidable recent study, Shakespeare and the Jews, anti-semitism is closely linked to the formation of Englishness. Eliot reinvented himself as an Englishman, and as part of that studied act of identity he used to wear a white rose on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, in memory of Richard III, whom he regarded as the last English – because Plantagenet – king. Coincidentally, Shapiro quotes from a popular postwar textbook, The Plantagenets, in which John Hooper Harvey states that the Jews engaged in a series of ‘most sinister crimes committed against Christian children, including murder (allegedly ritual) and forcible circumcision’. Harvey’s prejudices must have helped shape his interest in the Plantagenets, and so probably did Eliot’s. The immigrant writer felt that Englishness and anti-semitism were closely related, and he chose to echo sentiments which, it’s often alleged, were common among all classes in the country then.

As Sartre observes in a passage Julius quotes, ‘a destroyer in function, a sadist with a pure heart, the anti-semite is, in the very depths of his heart, a criminal. What he wishes, what he prepares for, is the death of the Jew.’ And as T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form shows, Eliot’s poetry ‘delightedly’ conceives of Jews as dead and ‘broods on the killing of women’. His misogyny is closely connected to his hatred of Jews: by making women Jewish – Rachel née Rabinovitch, Lady Kleinwurm and Lady Katzegg – he overcame them; ‘by subordinating them to Jews, he diminished them’. Empson in an essay in Using Biography and Julius in a comment on it argue persuasively that Eliot’s hostility to his father’s Unitarianism is one of the psychological causes of his hostility to Jews, but I think there is a deeper cultural base for it, in that a certain strain of conservative discourse tends to identify Judaism with Unitarianism and with other forms of Puritanism. One source, here, is Burke. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, two leading Unitarians of that period – Richard Price and Joseph Priestley – are attacked and anti-semitic prejudice is mobilised against their enlightened form of Christianity by ringing changes on the name of me meeting-house – the Old Jewry – where Price delivered his famous discourse ‘On the Love of our Country’ which praised the Williamite, American and French Revolutions and provoked Burke’s polemic. Burke attacks ‘money-jobbers, usurers and Jews’, and identifies Price’s writings on economics and statistics with Jewish business activities. He had a particular hatred of Lord George Gordon, who led the anti-Catholic Protestant Association and who converted to Judaism. In Reflections, he refers to Gordon, the instigator of the Gordon Riots, as ‘our protestant Rabbin’. He wants his readers to see reform and revolution as part of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy an organic, hierarchical society. Unitarianism and Judaism deny the divinity of Christ, and it is this denial which, at this late point in his career, incenses Burke who opposes business, science, economic theory and new ideas. Implicitly, he dismisses Joseph Priestley’s theory of matter as a form of energy by praising a sluggish lack of ideas and a sluggish social structure in Reflections.

I think, however, that this type of argument goes much further back. I have a hunch that Shylock is meant to be a satiric version of a Puritan businessman, and would guess that the Catholic Shakespeare is drawing on a prejudiced identification which must have been common in Elizabethan England. Certainly, the link is made in Charles I’s reign by a writer called Henry Blount, whom James Shapiro quotes in Shakespeare and the Jews. In A Voyage into the Levant, Blount likens Jews to radical English Puritans, saying that Jews have ‘light, aerial and fanatical brains, spirited much like our hot apocalypse men’. Eliot’s reading in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods would have made him aware that conservative, as opposed to radical, Englishness partly depended on this double repudiation. Unlike Yeats, who was entirely without anti-semitic feeling, and who asked not wholly to be absorbed by the breath of a different rose, the dark rose, Cathleen ni Houlihan, Eliot wanted to be completely drawn into the white rose of Plantagenet England. If Yeats, very properly, is criticised for his heady and emotional nationalism, it’s surely time that Eliot’s embracing of a destructive energy was given more critical attention? The question, Julius insists, is whether we accept that art is capable of ‘Gerontion’, ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’, ‘A Cooking Egg’ and ‘Dirge’, or surrender our claims to understand art’s ‘protean varieties’. For all its impressive scholarly detail, Julius’s study is only the beginning of a long process of revisionist criticism which should diminish the overwhelming, the stifling cultural authority which Eliot’s oeuvre has acquired. I have been reading him for more than thirty years, and teaching him for more than twenty – his work seems endlessly subtle and intelligent, many of his cadences are perfect, but there is a malignity in it which is terrifying. It’s so firm and so quiet, because like a true politician Eliot never apologises and he never explains.