Two Selections from the following review:
The New York Review of Books February 15, 1990 Review
Bleistein and Mr. Eliot By Michael Wood
T.S. Eliot and Prejudice by Christopher Ricks University of California
Press, 290 pp., $25.00
Against this we might argue, as Christopher Ricks does in his remarkable
book, that the senses of the word, even now and in English, are not
completely separate, and that it is easy to slip from one to the other.
Ricks recognizes the difference clearly enough by having a chapter
called "Prejudice" and another called "Anti-Semitism." The implication
is that prejudice is not always a horror; and that anti-Semitism is a
horror, and not merely a variety of prejudice or the only horror there
But Rick's overall argument invites us to keep the different senses of
prejudice well within sight of each other, if only because of the
complacency skulking in the promise of a pure separation-the complacency
of thinking. We have benign assumptions, traditions, principles,
convictions; they have gruesome prejudices of the sort only entertained
by bigots. The point is not just that rational thought plays a very
small part in either of these ways of seeing things, but that both sets
submit the supposedly free mind to large historical forces.
Ricks is oddly silent about these forces, about the conditions in which
prejudices (in either sense) thrive or dwindle or change. What's in a
name? Prufrock, for example. "The tax returns of J. Alfred Prufrock,
fine, but a love song does not harmonize with the rotund name," which is
"not only formal but unspeakable: no one, not even the most pompous
self-regarder, could ever introduce himself as, or be addressed as, J.
Alfred Prufrock." No one? Well, only people like J. Edgar Hoover.
"I'm in love." "Who's the lucky man?" "J. Alfred Prufrock."
Ricks's commentary is wonderfully funny here and very alert to what
Eliot is up to. We have just seen how unlucky the lucky man thought he
was. But what kind of community is implied in these certainties about a
silly name? Genteel Boston in 1910 (or 1989)? Some sort of early- to
mid-century mandarin axis between the American East Coast and the
English Home Counties? I'm laughing along with Eliot and Ricks, and I
don't mean to get solemn about poor old Prufrock-he is fictional after
all, as a character in Woody Allen might say. But there is an
interesting historical question about when and where such laughter is or
isn't forthcoming-as of course there is about all implementations of
consensus. Still, a critic can't do everything, and perhaps Ricks needs
to suspend the general question in order to catch, as he so brilliantly
does, the soft, subtle shuffle of particular prejudices at work.
Eliot's poems and plays, with few exceptions, do not promote Eliot's or
anyone's prejudices, but they often employ them.
I knew a man once did a girl in
Any man might do a girl in
Any man has to, needs to, wants to
Once in a lifetime, do a girl in.
Well he kept her there in a bath
With a gallon of lysol in a bath…
What did he do! what did he do?
That dont apply.
Talk to live men about what they do.
- "Sweeney Agonistes"
Any man claims our prejudiced assent, but doesn't really expect it
except on some strange wavelength where we (the men among us, and the
women willing to transpose the genders) may remember extreme fits of
anger or despair. Even then it's a long way from wants to to has to; and
the murderer himself has entered a form of death in life, where our
ordinary presumptions "don't apply." What is funny and frightening about
this passage is the way it parades prejudices, about women, violence,
action, death, without seeming to notice them. We ourselves are laughing
nervously because we think we may have spotted the prejudices-this is a
raw, stagy life we are looking at, a dark vaudeville-but are not at all
sure what to do about them. And of course a poem can triumph over
prejudice precisely by remembering it and placing it, as in the
equanimity of a promised death and transformation in a famous passage
(the example is Ricks's) in The Waste Land:
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
So let's not rush to see "Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians" (in
"Gerontion") as a bit of easy anti-Oriental prejudice on Eliot's part-at
least not without wondering about the ease of our own assumption that
Eliot is prejudiced, or without seeing that Hakagawa isn't "bowing
before his Titians," as Ransom rephrases it, or without remembering with
Ricks (a lovely bit of detective work) that the phrase "among the
Titians" comes from Henry James and describes Milly Theale in the
National Gallery in London.
Let's not be as sure as Stephen Spender is that "Fräulein von Kulp" (in
the same poem) is automatically meant to evoke a horrible night in an
Austrian hotel. Ricks wants us to see a "dual impulse" at work in
Eliot's poems, a "ministering to prejudice" that also alerts us to
prejudice; a use of prejudicial attitudes that converts rhetoric into
art and saves irony from its own complacency. It is the "double
enterprise of inciting both shrewd suspicion and a suspicion of such
shrewd suspicions." It resists both easy relativism and hardened
Eliot's strategy can catch us out in really uncomfortable (and then
liberating) ways, and Ricks himself has developed a critical equivalent
for it. I thought I knew where I was, for example, when I saw Ricks
confronting, quite early in his book, the notorious anti-Semitic
snatches in Eliot's poems: the squatting Jew in "Gerontion," Rachel née
Rabinovitch in "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," the sagging Bleistein
in "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar."
Ricks shows that the lines in "Gerontion" belong to the cracked and
angry speaker, not to the poet-they are among the "thoughts of a dry
brain" I glanced at earlier-and that Rachel's name is given to us in
very strange form, which doesn't tell us she has changed it to something
elegantly gentile (like Winthrop or Lowell or Eliot, Ricks suggests).
This, I thought, was beginning to look like academic whitewash: it
wasn't the poet, guv, it was the people and the language in the poems.
Beautifully done, and more than half-right, but whitewash all the same.
But then this supposed perception of mine turned out to be mere
prejudice, judgment leaping ahead of the text, since Ricks's discussion
of the third instance, the Bleistein poem quoted earlier, offers no
quarter and no defense:
A lustreless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto…
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.
This is not a miming of prejudice, it is the thing itself, the voice of
a culture enjoying its bigotry, delighting in dumping the familiar
blame. Bleistein eyeing the Canaletto cityscape is squalid and nasty
where Hakagawa among the Titians is merely funny and exotic. Of course,
the poem is hideously clever. Ricks says it is "irresponsibly cunning,"
the instance "quite differently objectionable" from the way the other
two are. They are objectionable as well, of course; there was no
whitewash. Ricks is not out to justify Eliot but to read him as closely
and as fairly as can be done. And if this activity cannot purge reading
of prejudice, it can help us to face whatever prejudices arise, from
whatever direction. It is because we can't read things absolutely right
that we must read them carefully; it is because prejudice won't just
vanish that we need to hold what prejudices we can to the light.