T. S. Eliot and the Jews

The question of T. S. Eliot’s attitude toward Jews provokes defensiveness whenever it is raised. For many people, to believe that Eliot was an anti-Semite is to discredit his po¬etry. What was striking about Anthony Julius’s T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, when it came out in 1995, was that although Julius deplored, bitterly, the anti-Semitism in Eliot’s poetry, he refused to regard it as a blemish on the poems. Julius thought that Eliot’s anti-Semitism was integral to his poetry, and that there is nothing in the nature of poetry that renders the anti- Semitism less anti-Semitic for being expressed in the form of poetry or that renders the poetry less poetical for including anti-Semitic ex¬pressions. “Anti-Semitism,” he wrote, “did not disfigure Eliot’s work; it animated it. It was, on occasion, both his refuge and his inspiration, and his exploitation of its literary potential was virtuose.” There is, to put it another way, no artistic difference between Blei- stein (in “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”) and the hyacinth girl (in The Waste Land). The one is as poetically realized as the other. Exposure to anti-Semitism is simply part of the experi¬ence of reading Eliot. When we bracket the prejudice, Julius thought, we miss the experience.
This was presented as an argument against Eliot criticism in general, but it was most pointedly an argument against Christopher Ricks, who had considered the problem of Eliot and anti-Semitism in a chapter of T. S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988). Julius regarded Ricks’s effort as an honorable failure, on the grounds that (to put it technically) Ricks tried to thematize the anti-Semitism in Eliot’s poems. A literary critic “thematizes” an expression when he or she weaves it back, so to speak, into the fabric of the poem, so that in¬stead of being an instance of what the poem “says,” it becomes an instance of what the poem “is about.” In Eliot’s poem “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” for example, we find the line “Rachel née Rabinovitch.” We can read this as the expression of a prejudice against Jews who change their last names to un-Jewish-sounding ones; but whose prejudice is it? In merely noting the change of name, the line does not ridicule or condemn the practice. We cannot even say with certainty whether Rachel is Jewish, or what her new name might be; it might also be Jewish-sounding. And when we place the line in the context of the rest of the poem, we see that it is one instance of a general paranoia, which takes in a “lady in a cape,” a “silent vertebrate in brown,” a “man with heavy eyes,” a “someone indistinct”—all descriptions that sound ominous but are perfectly innocent in themselves. Being heavy-eyed does not condemn a man to wickedness; your grandmother may possibly have affected a cape on occasion; we are all vertebrates; and so forth. At this point, the anti-Semitism has been thematized by being turned into an example of the general topic of “prejudice.” “Sweeney among the Nightingales” becomes a work “about” perception, or representation, or some other morally safe abstraction.
Julius was quite willing to concede that “Rachel nee Rabinovitch” may mock the paranoia of certain anti-Semites. But he re¬fused to assimilate this prejudice against Jews to other types of prejudice in the poem (the “prejudice” against ladies in capes, for example). And he refused to acquit Eliot of anti-Semitism in this case merely because the poet has managed to be superior to the big-otry his poem evokes. “Sweeney among the Nightingales” is not, Julius pointed out, a dramatic monologue; it has no fictional “speaker,” and critics who (like Ricks) attribute its anti-Semitism to a character are inventing literary entities for the purpose of getting Eliot off the hook. It is Eliot who summons up the traditions of the particular anti-Semitic slurs his lines evoke—even as he implies that the perniciousness of the Jews is not nearly as consequential as vulgar anti-Semites imagine:
The silent vertebrate in brown Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;
Rachel tide Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;
She and the lady in the cape Are suspect, thought to be in league;
Therefore the man with heavy eyes Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,
Leaves the room and reappears Outside the window, leaning in,
Branches of wistaria Circumscribe a golden grin.
The mouth full of gold-capped teeth, Julius pointed out, is a staple of anti-Semitic caricature. So are the “heavy eyes.”
Julius judged four poems besides “Sweeney among the Nightingales” to be anti-Semitic: “Gerontion,” which includes the line “the jew squats on the window sill”; “A Cooking Egg,” which refers to the Jewish financier Alfred Mond; “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” which contains a figure of evidently dubious pedigree named Sir Ferdinand Klein, a caricatural description of Bleistein (with a “protrusive eye”), and the line “The jew is underneath the lot”; and “Dirge,” a suppressed fragment in the original draft of The Waste Land, which is a lurid image of Bleistein drowned and which includes yet another association of Jews with exophthalmos in the line “Graves’ Disease in a dead jew’s eyes!” Julius’s procedure in each case was, first, to demonstrate that the references to Jews draw on specific traditions of anti-Semitic representation—bulging eyeballs, gold-capped teeth, leprous skin, rootlessness, parasitism, animality (“murderous paws”), and so forth—and, second, to show how intimately these insinuations and allusions matter to the sense of the poem as a whole.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*