Nancy and Ken,

I do not have a full reading of Gerontion, but maybe I can contribute to a discussion.

I've been thinking more about these 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.

Nancy focused me on the word 'estaminet', and how it had special meaning in WW1. Knowing that WW1 is an important image in "The Waste Land", and knowing TSE thought about publishing Gerontion as a prelude to TWL made me think about the connection of images in Gerontion to WW1.

The 'estaminet' reference got me thinking about one of the major horrors of WW1, the use of mustard gas on the front line troops. It's almost impossible to look up "mustard gas" in Google without immediately seeing the word "blistered" in the description of the effects of the gas. Mustard gas only killed 5% of people who contacted it, but it caused horrible and deeply painful blistering of the skin, as well as vomiting and diarrhea. There was no treatment other than to let the blisters run their course, which was to bandage the blisters ("patch") and let them heal and fall off ("peel").

So here's my thought:

The Gerontion lines are evoking parallel images. The first of the images is of a soldier who "spawned" in Antwerp (that is, like a lowly animal, impregnated a prostitute in some dingy estaminet in Antwerp, a city on the front lines), then got hit by a mustard gas attack in Brussels (another city on the front lines) and was blistered, and then was sent to London for treatment ("patched and peeled"). Even the word "squat" could refer to the diarrhea brought on by the chemical warfare.

In the second set of images, "overlaid" with the first set", the suffering soldier is given his answer in the form of a being who suffered even more than he did: the Jew, Jesus Christ. The images now are of a stained glass window, designed in Antwerp, manufactured (and blistered) in Brussels, and then repaired (as the solder is repaired) in London. The "squatting" this time is the image of the crucifixion, similar to the Burbank line, "a saggy bending of the knees and elbows".

In other words, perhaps TSE is convolving the images of a suffering WW1 soldier and the suffering Christ, convolving the suffering that humans inflict on each other and the salvation provided by God.

A reader in 1922 would probably have immediately associated "blistering" with the WW! Mustard gas attacks on the front lines, but a reader in 2011 is not thinking in those terms.

Just some thoughts.

-- Tom --


Date: Fri, 14 Oct 2011 11:44:25 -0400
From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: The Jew in Eliot's poetry (anti-semitism and objective correlative)
To: [log in to unmask]

On 10/14/2011 10:36 AM, Nancy Gish wrote:
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I agree with nearly all of Tom's position, but I cannot see any reason to identify "the Jew" as Christ. 

  For someone who has maintained in the past that Eliot was writing in coded terms, your inability here seems strange at best.  Tom had two possible points for consideration, so what agreeing "with nearly all" of it can mean when you don't agree that either point is even a possibility escapes me.

 The language is extremely negative, but this is the poet par excellence for whom the way up is the way down, the way forward the way back. That is not a technique;  it is a deeply held position. Whether The Jew's house is a church or the speaker's body in Gerontion, with The Jew squatting both in the stained glass window and in the eye (window to the soul) of the beholder (the speaker), it is all but crushingly obvious who that Jew is. To dismiss the fish symbology seems gratuitous. You may as well dismiss Christianity.

 Again, that otherwise sensitive, intelligent people can deny what seems so obvious, as admittedly many do, really puzzles me. When we were discussing this in 1998 I asked a friend who knew of Eliot only vaguely to read Gerontion, which she had not previously read, and with no other preparation or prompting afterwords I asked her what she thought of the Jew in the window. Without hesitation she identified it as an image of Christ. It wasn't even a question for her.   Now why do you suppose that would be?

 Ted Hughes notes in Dancer to God that Eliot wrote religious poetry in an age of unbelief.  I have to wonder if unbelieving is the ground of our knowing, and that accounts for many of our problems reading Eliot (and of course much more).

Ken A
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