Reviewed by Gregory S.
© 1997 Journal of English and Germanic Philology
Will the work of T. S. Eliot stand the test of time? It is something of a paradox that this writer who obsessed so much about tradition and the classics enjoyed such immediate fame and stature. It should not surprise us that Eliot's star has sunk of late, for we are just beginning to acquire the distance from him and his moment that we need for formulating a better judgment of his contribution. Anthony Julius has given that process a valuable aid in T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form. Julius makes great efforts to sustain an appreciation of Eliot's talents as a poet, even as he documents and explicates that poetry's expert manipulation of odious anti-Semitic clichés. The effect of his book, however, is to strengthen the argument of those who now see Eliot as a minor figure in all but his influence, much of which remains regrettable.
In this view, Eliot gained celebrity for a few well-turned experiments whose sensational qualities grew out of a twisted sensibility that became increasingly constrained and unproductive as he matured. Considering the objectionable content of the poetry and of the prose, this falling off of Eliot's cultural prestige is only to be greeted with relief. The sharpness of his literary wit often came at the expense of other people, particularly Jews and women, who he sensed as a threat to the orthodox but fragile identity he assembled for himself. This is not poetry that will continue to appeal to a large audience or exert lasting influence on poets of the future. I put the case in the extreme, perhaps, but had a critic of the 1950s predicted the state of Eliot's reputation today, he or she would probably have been greeted with a similar disbelief.
T. S. Eliot's anti-Semitism is not a new subject. It has been remarked upon and debated since the publication of his earliest poems and essays and been the subject of other recent critical studies. Yet, at least until now, Eliot's anti-Semitism has been routinely brushed off by almost all of Eliot's readers. What Anthony Julius's book helps to explain, then, is not so much the fact of Eliot's anti-Semitism but how Eliot and his readers explain away the anti-Semitism of his work. Eliot, writes Julius, was the kind of anti-Semite "who was able to place his anti-Semitism at the service of his art. Anti-Semitism supplied part of the material out of which he created poetry. I do not ask the biographical question: what made Eliot an anti-Semite? Instead, I ask: of what was Eliot's anti-Semitism made, and what did Eliot make out of anti-Semitism?" (p. 11). In the process, Julius also asks fundamental questions about our theories of poetry and of literature. These theories, which Eliot helped shape, stress the self-referential character and aesthetic objectivity of the work, and so disconnect literature from social and political issues, even those that appear in the work's own words. Such theories come in handy when readers wish to dismiss as irrelevant such things as a writer's anti-Semitism or misogyny or racism.
In his opening chapter, Julius presents an overview of critical arguments about Eliot's anti-Semitism, summarizes Eliot's career in regard to this topic, and briefly sketches the historical context of the variants of anti-Semitism found in Europe, England, and America at the dawn of the twentieth-century. Julius rebuts the argument that Eliot's writings merely reflected the anti-Semitism of his time: "Writing an anti-Semitic poem does not reflect the anti-Semitism of the times; it enlarges it, adding to the sum of its instances. Eliot's work contributed to the anti-Semitism of his times" (p. 33). Implicitly rejecting formalist theories of literature, Julius insists that literary works affect the ideas, values, and actions of people in the culture. Anti-Semitism is by definition a way of talking about and treating other people, and so anti-Semitic writing is not a reflection, but an essential part, of the practice of anti-Semitism.
In the three following chapters, Julius presents detailed textual explications of anti-Semitic elements in Eliot's poetry, particularly in "Gerontion", "Sweeney Among the Nightingales", "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar", "Dirge," "A Cooking Egg", and The Waste Land. At their best these commentaries add enormously to our understanding of these poems, as they provide elaborate glosses on tropes and phrases whose depth of anti-Semitic resonance the reader may not have appreciated. Thus in form the chapters resemble other indispensable books on Eliot in which scholars expend huge amounts of energy to run down sources and explicate nuances in what all agree are remarkably dense lines. In "Gerontion" for example, Julius spins out most of his analysis from the following lines:
"My house is a decayed house,
and the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds."
His challenge is to convince us that anti-Semitism is not simply a contingent piece in a catalogue of the speaker's anxieties, but fundamental to them, and in my judgment Julius succeeds. He does so in part by amassing a wealth of correspondent language and images from the history of anti-Semitic writing to contextualize Eliot's figures. "This poem," writes Julius, "has as its subject a man who loathes Jews. It is an anti-Semitic dramatisation of an anti-Semite. It is an example of what it represents" (p. 73). Eliot's anti-Semitism is of the patrician type, one of sneering disgust rather than violent fear or hatred. The allusion to Henry Adams in the poem should remind us of Adams's own rabid anti-Semitism, which he too employed in jeremiads about the decline of the West, the power of Jewish financiers, and the upsurge of the rabble. Crucial to Julius's case is his thesis that "Gerontion" does not dramatize the speaker's anti-Semitism as an object offered for us to criticize. Too much of this monologue's form and language works to engage our sympathy and identification with the speaker's disillusionment, which is saved from Romantic pathos only by the poem's irony and use of classical resources.
Julius is similarly successful in explicating the figure of "Rachel née Rabinovitch" in "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," and the lines "The rats are underneath the piles./ the jew is underneath the lot" from "Burbank." Again he demonstrates that anti-Semitism "is a way of imagining Jews, a pernicious, elaborate fiction, and not just a series of theorems about the Jewish people" (p. 97). (These rats, so traditional in the iconography of anti-Semitism, reappear transfigured by resistance in Art Spiegelman's Maus.) Julius concludes that The Waste Land closes out the period of overt anti-Semitic poetry in Eliot's career, though the following chapters on Eliot's literary and cultural criticism amply (and easily) demonstrate that anti-Semitism remained fundamental to Eliot's intellectual world-view. For Eliot it was sufficient to take cover in the assertion that since anti-Semitism was a "sin," and he was an orthodox Christian, ergo he was no anti-Semite. Looking past the characteristic Eliotic tendency to identify with saints, we can see this argument ignoring the long history of Christian anti-Semitism that Eliot inherits and reworks in such books as After Strange Gods and The Idea of a Christian Society. In his concluding chapter, Julius rightly zeroes in on Eliot's consistent refusal to take responsibility for his own anti-Semitic writings or to feel remorse for the pain and damage that such writings caused. Here Julius compares Eliot's case to those of Charles Dickens, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Paul de Man, each of whom uses a different strategy to mitigate or evade his own anti-Semitic writing. The cases of Pound and de Man are especially resonant for Julius, since they are also figures associated with the formalist and auto-referential theories of literature that Julius targets. The most provocative contribution of T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form lies in the challenge it poses to the dominant theories of literary art that Eliot helped to fashion, and which now appear more complicit with his bad faith on the subject of anti-Semitism than scholars have cared to admit.