[Note. I of course disagree sharply with Julius's identification of
anti-zionism with anti-semitism, but otherwise his article is of some
interest to Eliot readers. cbc]
The poetry of prejudice
In 1995, Anthony Julius faced a critical storm when his book about TS
Eliot's anti-semitism was published. As a new edition of the book
appears, he argues that the issue is now even more relevant
Saturday June 7, 2003
I first read Eliot when I was at school. I came to the anti-semitic
poems shortly after reading The Waste Land. With the exception of
"Gerontion", these earlier poems struck me as mean-spirited and
malicious. I was upset, and surprised; they were not what I had
expected. I had been captivated by The Waste Land.
It was not until I was 30 that I returned to these poems. By then I had
completed an English literature degree at Cambridge, which had exposed
me to literary critical practices and preconceptions that in the
aggregate tended to promote the ideals of the disinterested reader and
the self-subsisting poem. While the reader who brought his prejudices to
the poem misread it, if the poem itself endeavoured to persuade the
reader of anything, it was something less than a fully realised literary
work. This, at any rate, was the received doctrine.
It meant both that Jews might misread poems as anti-semitic and that
anti-semites might versify their prejudices. But while, in some notional
way, it was thus conceded that poetry might be anti-semitic, it seemed
unthinkable that this could be true of Eliot's work. It was much more
likely that the Jews who found it to be anti-semitic were just
misreading it. Perhaps these readers were a little over-sensitive to the
possibility of insult or affront.
Whenever such misreadings were advanced, usually by readers outside the
universities, they would be met with a swift, and decisive, put-down.
These interpretations of the poetry were too limitedly Jewish, and
culpably insensitive to the specific properties of poetry (or so it was
implied). I went along with this for some time, and gave little thought
to something that had seemed to me, on my first exposure to Eliot, to be
an immense problem.
It was a book that mentioned Eliot only in passing that brought me back
to his anti-semitism. In Bernard Lewis's Semites and Anti-semites
(1986), a chapter bearing the simple, damning title "Anti-semites",
characterised Eliot as a typical Jew-hater, quoting lines from a poem
that places rats underneath piles, and "the jew" underneath the lot.
My immediate reaction was that this judgment was too perfunctory, and
that it was unjust. I felt this even though I too had once been troubled
by Eliot's anti-semitic poetry. Hence the research project that became
my book, TS Eliot, Anti-semitism and Literary Form. I wanted to
demonstrate that Lewis was mistaken. Five years on, in 1995, with the
book completed, I still believed Lewis to be wrong, though for a very
Eliot was not a typical anti-semite. He was instead an extraordinary
anti-semite. He did not reflect the anti-semitism of his times, he
contributed to it, even enlarged it. And with these poems he exhausted
anti-semitism's (very modest) poetry-making reserves. So he did not
persist in his anti-semitism as a poet. He did not repeat himself in
Implicit in his poetry there is indeed an aesthetic judgment that
anti-semitism must be enabling, and when not, is absolutely to be
prohibited. I believe that by as early as 1922, anti-semitism had ceased
to be a resource for Eliot's poetic imagination. And so he abandoned it,
though he continued to draw on anti-semitic themes in his critical
The conclusion startled me, even as I was reaching it. Still, while the
direction of the book's argument changed over the period of writing and
research, what remained constant was the conviction that the question of
Eliot's anti-semitism mattered. It needed to be addressed, in the proper
detail. However, this was not the consensus view. Most critical studies
neglected this aspect of the work.
One critic, for example, in a very patient, and indeed in every respect
but one a positively scrupulous, reading of one of Eliot's anti-semitic
poems, "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar," glancingly
commented, "the question whether [it is] anti-semitic is obviously not a
pressing one". Well it was pressing to me, and, as I thought, it was
likely to be pressing for many other readers too - and not only Jewish
What is more, I also thought that the question ought to be pressing for
all readers of Eliot's poetry, without limitation. I did not - do not -
quite understand how some are able to contemplate his anti-semitism with
indifference. It seems to me to be a failure of moral imagination, and
of interpretation too.
This does not mean that I read Eliot's poems as anti-semitic statements
by their author. I do not read them and then conclude: this is what
Eliot thought. Instead, I read them as being in themselves anti-semitic.
I am referring here, of course, only to the five poems that I identify
in the book as anti-semitic, not the whole of Eliot's poetic output.
These are the poems: "Burbank," "Gerontion," "Sweeney Among the
Nightingales," "A Cooking Egg," and the posthumously published "Dirge".
I regard Eliot's purpose in writing them to be the exploitation of
anti-semitic discourse, a view of them consistent with their limited
number, and with the comprehensiveness of their address of anti-semitic
preoccupations. Eliot's offence lies in his willingness to give offence,
in his deployment of anti-semitic language. Eliot's anti-semitic poetry
is very deft. In "Gerontion" he writes:
"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 poem "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" disavows the anti-semitic
fantasy of Jewish conspiracy. It both adopts and also limits
anti-semitism, and is the most poised of all Eliot's anti-semitic poems
(which is saying a great deal). It steers a course along the very line
that separates mockery of the vulgarity of anti-semitism and mockery of
a vulgar (because unnerved, and overstated) version of anti-semitism.
Anti-semitism is not a discourse rich in literary possibilities. Those
who draw on it mostly produce dross. But Eliot's poems are inventive and
resourceful and display his mastery over a heterogeneous mass of
material. These poems are derived from a cluster of clichés, conventions
exhausted by over-exposure. With great virtuosity, Eliot turns this
material into art. He compresses anti-semitism into powerfully charged
language, and thereby restores something of its menace and resonance.
His poetry is one of anti-semitism's few literary triumphs.
The book was read by some of my more hostile readers merely as an attack
on Eliot, and an attempt to denigrate him. This dismayed me; it was not
my intention to damage his reputation. It did not occur to me that there
might still be serious disagreement about the anti-semitic nature of
parts of his work.
One friendly reviewer of the book commented, "no one has ever doubted TS
Eliot's anti-semitism". He was wrong. Many of my more hostile readers
doubted precisely that, or held that I had overstated the anti-semitism
in Eliot's work.
It was said against me that by describing Eliot as an anti-semite I was
implicating him in projects of terror and murder. This was taken to be
terribly unfair to Eliot. The holding of anti-semitic views has become
more culpable since the second world war, apparently. This is partly
because it is thought the Holocaust for the first time exposed the
extent of anti-semitism's capacity to harm Jews, and partly because
anti-semitism is no longer a general feature of the times. It is now a
personal decision and not a prejudice unavoidably "in the air".
I think this is wrong. Anti-semitism continues to contribute to the
general "climate". It has not dwindled to a marginal, limited
phenomenon. Anti-semitic propaganda is in global circulation, both on
the internet and in printed form. Israel's very right to exist is
routinely challenged and the project of Jewish self-determination
denied. It is the wish of many to deny to Jews those collective rights
freely given to others (or urged for them). Jews are still being killed
for the fantasy offence of being Jewish. Moral resolution is still
required if one is not going to adopt anti-semitic positions.
It is a resolution that the most surprising people, in the most
surprising of contexts, continue to find themselves unable to show - I
am thinking, for example, of the recently reported remarks of Labour MP
Tam Dalyell, who said Tony Blair had been "unduly influenced by a cabal
of Jewish advisers".
To describe a person as anti-semitic is not to imply that he endorses
the crimes of the Nazis, still less is it to imply that he would be
capable of committing them himself. It is to imply, however, that he is
careless about the consequences of anti-semitic positions held by
others, and that he lacks the imagination to grasp where Jew hatred may
lead. Anti-semitism encompasses both drawing-room condescensions and
forest shootings. The drawing room anti-semite is not a murderer, but he
is an anti-semite.
Independently of the literary opportunities it offered to him, my guess
is that Eliot was drawn both to anti-semitism's vulgarities and to its
snobberies. He enjoyed ribaldry about Jews; he took comfort in contempt
for Jews. He was insensitive to Jewish suffering. Anti-semitism was an
aspect of a number of men whom he admired, too. But his was an
anti-semitism that was also compatible with cordial relations with
Eliot's anti-semitic poetry is deeply troubling. Writing my book, I was
searching for a way of respecting its integrity while recognising its
ugliness. I imagined a Jewish reader pushing one of Eliot's
Jew-despising poems away, affronted. I asked myself, how can this reader
be persuaded to return to it?
I propose an adversarial stance. One maintains one's relation with the
work, but argues with it. This is not a prosecutorial reading, but it is
one that acknowledges the offence to the reader. It does not suppress
the offence, or wish it away. But nor does it reject the work.
Indifference to offence given by these poems is a failure of
interpretation. They insult Jews, I argue. To ignore these insults is to
misread the poems. And if one is addressed as a Jew, isn't it reasonable
to respond as one?
We ought not to seek to outlaw Eliot's poems, but neither can we submit
to them. We should not ban them; but we must not abandon ourselves to
them. Instead we must contest that poetry, with strategies that
acknowledge both its value and its menace.
Refusing either to acquiesce in, or to rail at, Eliot's contempt for
Jews, one strives to do justice to the many injustices Eliot does to
Jews. This is what adversarial reading allows. It is an alternative to
two kinds of silence: the coercive silence of censorship, the passive
silence of the submissive reader. It combines resistance with respect.
A new edition of TS Eliot, Anti-semitism and Literary Form by Anthony
Julius, with a new preface by the author, is published by Thames &
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