T. S. Eliot and the Jews 5

Two years after that meeting, in the fall of 1916, Eliot, having decided to remain in England and needing money, taught a course in the Oxford University Extension program on “Modern French Literature.” His syllabus was essentially an outline of French antiromanticism: the reading list included L’Avenir de Vintelligence, Le Ro- mantismefrancais, and Babbitt’s Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912), which contains Babbitt’s own attack on Bergson. The following year marked the beginning of Eliot’s closest collaboration with Pound, which was inaugurated by a joint decision to react against what Pound called the “emotional slither” and subjectivism of free verse and imagism. This was the decision that produced the anti-Semitic poems of Ara Vos Prec, with their strict metrical patterning and their “impersonal” voice.
These poems—”Sweeney among the Nightingales,” “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” and the rest—are not dramatic monologues, because they are programmatically antagonistic to the very idea of self-expression as a literary value. They were written in deliberate reaction against “romantic individualism” and all its evils. Given the association of individualism, sensation, and “emotional slither” with women and Jews in the French criticism Eliot had been reading and teaching since 1910, it is not surprising to find the poems populated by figures like Rachel and Bleistein, Princess Volupine and Sir Ferdinand Klein, and the shadowy Strangers of “Gerontion”: Mr. Silvero of the “caressing hands”; Haka- gawa, “bowing among the Titians”; Fraulein von Kulp. For these are the “métèques”—in Eliot’s mind, the representatives of the very dissolution for which the ostentatious formal regularity of the poems in which they appear is the symbolic antidote. They are literally what the poems are trying to “contain.” When Eliot undertook this exer¬cise in “classical” poetic form, the alleged lubricity of Jews and women must have come to him as his natural subject matter.
A lustreless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time
Declines. On the Rialto once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.
In 1920, Pound, on a visit to Paris, picked up a book by Julien Benda called Belphegor. He admired it, and mailed a copy to Eliot in London. Pound must have recognized the book immediately as the equivalent in prose of the poems Eliot had just published in Ara Vos Prec. For Belphegor (1918) is an attack on cultural decadence in the familiar Maurrasian and Lasserrean mode. ‘‘Contemporary French Society demands that all works of art shall arouse emotion and sensation,” it complained; and it recited the familiar list of Rousseauian toxins: emotionalism, self-indulgence, and the craving for newness and originality.
Benda suggested several candidates as possible sources of cultural debility, among them the Jews. There are, he explained, two types: “the severe, moralistic Jew, and the Jew who is always greedy for sensation—speaking symbolically, the Hebrew and the Carthaginian, Jehovah and Belphegor [one of the biblical names for Baal], Spinoza and Bergson.” But the Jewish influence, he says, does not explain enough; for although French society has proved susceptible to the corrupting effect of the second type of Jew, it must have been corrupted already, or it would not have been susceptible. It is the classic anti-Semitic form of anti-anti-Semitism: the influence of the Jews has been exaggerated.
Benda therefore goes on to consider several anterior causes, in¬cluding “the entrance into French society of people of a different class, whose minds are in a state of nature (parvenus of trade, industry and finance, etc.).” But the crucial reason for the debasement of French culture, he says, “lies in the fact that it is entirely created by women”: “All the literary attributes exalted by contem¬porary aesthetics are those with which women are most highly endowed, and which form a kind of monopoly of their sex; absence of general ideas, cult of the concrete and circumstantial, swift and en¬tirely intuitive perception, receptiveness to sentiment alone, interest centered on the self. . . . Men … try to imitate the literature of their rivals. Alas! . . . There is a degree of unintellectuality and shamelessness to which they will never attain.”
Pound knew his man. Eliot responded enthusiastically, and asked for more Benda. A month later, he told Scofield Thayer, editor of the American literary magazine the Dial, that “Benda’s book is ripping,” and recommended that the Dial serialize the whole thing. (It did.) In 1922, when Eliot was starting up the Criterion, he eagerly solicited something from Benda. Benda eventually gave him a short essay, which Eliot ran in 1923 with a note calling Belphegor “one of the most remarkable essays in criticism of our time.” He later reviewed (unfavorably) the book for which Benda is now famous, La Trahison des clercs (1927), and took the opportunity to describe Belphegor as “an almost final statement of the attitude of contemporary society to art and the artist.” When Eliot went to work at Faber and Faber, he published an English translation of Belphegor, with an introduction by his old teacher Irving Babbitt. And in 1926, he announced in the Criterion the existence of a “classical” tendency, which the magazine would henceforth endeavor to represent, and recommended six books as exemplary: Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership, Georges Sorel’s Reflexions sur la violence, Jacques Maritain’s Reflexions sur Vintelligence, Hulme’s Speculations, Maurras’s L’Avenir de Vintelligence, and Belphegor. With the exception of Benda and the equivocal exception of Babbitt, every one of these writers had at one time or another been associ-ated with the Action Frangaise.

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