T. S. Eliot and the Jews 2

All five poems were composed in the same brief period. Four are in the volume entitled Ara Vos Prec (the American edition is called Poems), published in 1920; and the fifth, the discarded “Dirge,” was probably written in 1920 or 1921, the years in which Eliot was trying, with much difficulty, to write The Waste Land, which he completed and published in 1922. There are very few references to Jews in Eliot’s poetry after 1922: the probable Jewishness of the vulgarians Klipstein and Krumpacker in the uncompleted drama Sweeney Ago- nistes (1926-27) is not especially salient, and the figure of Simeon, in “A Song for Simeon” (1928), is treated respectfully, in the tradition of Christian condescension toward the virtuous heathen.
But Eliot did discuss the Jews a number of times in his prose after 1922—most notoriously in a passage in After Strange Gods (1934) proposing that “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable” in the ideal community, but also in a number of less obviously inflammatory contexts. Julius considered these cases in a separate chapter, and he closes with a survey of the results of invitations to Eliot to “amend” his earlier remarks about Jews. He judged Eliot’s responses on these occasions to be confused, unconvincing, or inadequate. Julius took a more consistently hard line than Ricks did on the anti-Semitism in Eliot’s prose, but their assessments are roughly in agreement.
Julius frankly described his criticism as “adversarial,” and he was clearly determined to make, in the juridical sense, a case. His writing retains the flavor of the courtroom: there are long lists of citations (many drawn from Leon Poliakov’s four-volume History of Anti-Semitism), there is a considerable amount of arguing in the alternative, and sometimes, after the author has run through the law and the facts, he pounds the table. Julius described his book as “a work of resistance as well as respect.” This is an admirable approach, but there is something a little forensic about the way it was carried out—as though the law being the law, Julius felt he had a kind of professional duty to demolish every possible line of defense. Still, “the Spirit killeth, but the Letter giveth life.” It was Eliot himself who said that; so there is some poetic justice in the proceedings. There is critical justice, as well.
What was missing in Julius’s analysis is the etiology of Eliot’s anti-Semitism. Julius was not terribly interested in the reasons why Eliot wrote the things he did about Jews, or where he learned them—reasons why having an exculpatory tendency. The problem with leaving the history of Eliot’s opinions out of the account is that it implies the view that the anti-anti-Semites among Eliot’s readers seem to hold, which is that anti-Semitism is a trait some people are just born with, like dishonesty or a fear of high places—a kind of closeted wickedness. But the significant thing about Eliot’s anti- Semitism is that it was probably not primal or visceral; it was learned and, largely, theoretical. Julius was certainly right about what Eliot wrote, and right as well in the claim that Eliot’s general conception of the Jews, intellectually half-baked and morally negligent though it was, formed an integral and frequently neglected as¬pect of his thought. I think it was a relatively minor aspect: part of the reason it was so half-baked even as anti-Semitism was that Eliot didn’t give much attention to it, and in most of the poetry and al¬most all of the literary criticism it fades into insignificance. But it cannot be edited out of the general picture; and if the story of Eliot and the anti-Semites had been as well known as the story of Eliot and the symbolistes, if people had heard as much about Eliot and Charles Maurras as they heard about Eliot and Jules Laforgue, Eliot’s reputation in the decades following the Second World War, when his influence in the literary world was most powerful, would have been very different. Or at least (as Jake said to Brett) it’s pretty to think so.

The story of Eliot and the symbolistes goes like this. Eliot was in the Harvard Union one day in 1908, his senior year in college, when he happened to pick up a copy of The Symbolist Movement in Literature, by the English critic Arthur Symons. The book was, he said later, “a revelation.” It exposed him for the first time to the poetry of Verlaine, Rimbaud, de Nerval, and Laforgue. He ordered an edition of Laforgue’s poems, and his own poetic style was transformed almost overnight from an imitation of Tennyson, as read through the prism of Rossetti and FitzGerald, to the mordant, discordant, imag- istic style of Laforgue. Eliot’s first modernist poems, a series of urban landscape pieces culminating in the “Preludes,” date from this period.
Symons was a man of the nineties, a friend of Yeats (to whom The Symbolist Mowment in Literature, first published in 1899, is dedicated) and a disciple of Walter Pater. It was not an accident that Eliot gave his earliest modernist efforts a musical title; for musical- ity was the epitome of the Paterian aesthetic, and Symons essen¬tially invented the symbolist movement (the term “symbolist” was his own idea, with some assistance from Yeats) by imposing Pater onto nineteenth-century French literature.
Symons defined symbolism as the evocation of an unseen world beyond the world known to ordinary sense. Eliot accepted the definition and (characteristically) undercut it at the same time; thus, for example, the calculated dissonance of the fourth “Prelude”:
I am moved by fancies that are curled Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle Infinitely suffering thing.
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
In 1909-10 Eliot earned a master’s degree in literature from Harvard, and then spent the next year on his own in Paris, where he became close friends with a young Frenchman named Jean Verdenal, who would die in the war and to whom Eliot later dedicated his first book of poems. The intellectual celebrity of the day in Paris was Henri Bergson; Eliot attended his lectures in philosophy at the College de France, and underwent, in his own words, “a temporary conversion to Bergsonism.” Bergsonism was entirely compatible with Symons’s Paterized notion of symbolisme. It taught the existence of an interior life of feeling, radically different from the world known to the intellect, which we have access to only through “intuition.” And the key that opened the door to this inner experience was the image. “Many diverse images,” Bergson explained in “Introduction à la Metaphysique’’ (1903), “borrowed from very different orders of things, may, by the convergence of their action, direct consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized.” Eliot’s fourth “Prelude” was completed in Paris; “fancies that are curled / Around these images” is a Bergsonian idea in Bergsonian language.

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