October 29, 2003


After Strange Gods: a review of T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form by Anthony Julius (James Wood, New Republic)

T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite. Anthony Julius's program is to assert the centrality of Eliot's anti-Semitism in his thought. Anti-Semitism, Julius says, was Eliot's inspiration, his muse. He was that rare anti-Semite, one who was "able to place his anti-Semitism at the service of his art"; he "trained himself to be an anti-Semite." To conjure this centrality, Julius argues that anti-Semitism occurs at the heart of some of Eliot's greatest poems. Julius is brave and
occasionally right. His anger has the glow of righteousness. But it is the color of simplicity. His book is tendentious, misleading and unremittingly hostile. He has written an unstable book about an unstable subject; reading it is like watching a maniac trying to calm an hysteric. [...]

Throughout his book, Julius is in such a rage that he whales his evidence into compliance. Consider this comment by Eliot on the poetry of Isaac Rosenberg, a celebrated British poet who died in the First World War, and whom Eliot called, in 1953, "the most remarkable of the
British poets killed in that war": "The poetry of Isaac Rosenberg ... does not only owe its distinction to its being Hebraic: but because it is Hebraic it is a contribution to English literature. For a Jewish poet to be able to write like a Jew, in western Europe and in a western European language, is almost a miracle." Eliot's meaning is clear. Rosenberg was a distinguished English poet, but his particular addition to English literature was that he retained a Jewishness that was not assimilated; and this retention, within the pressure that the English poetic tradition exerts to surrender one's literary Jewishness, was almost miraculous.

For Julius, however, this is an anti-Semitic "libel" that allows "Jews an aesthetic sense, and thus a measure of creativity, but deriving only from Jewish tradition." He follows Eliot's quote with this paragraph:

Eliot's eccentric praise of the Jewish poet is consistent with his larger deprecations. "That a Jew can do this!" registers the surprise of the anti- Semite. What is it to write like a Jew? Richard Wagner explains: "The Jew speaks the language of the country in which he has lived from generation to generation, but he always speaks it as a foreigner." A Jew cannot compose German music; when he purports to do so, he deceives. The Jewish composer could only compose music as a Jew by drawing on the "ceremonial music" of the synagogue service, a "
nonsensical gurgling, yodelling and cackling." These "rhythms ... dominate his musical imagination"; they are irresistible. So while the talented Jewish composer is disqualified by his race from composing German music, he is disqualified by his talent from composing Jewish music. Rosenberg was luckier. He was able, by "almost a miracle," to write in English "like a Jew." The difference between Eliot's anti-Semitism and Wagner's is defined, on this point, by the possibility of this " miracle."

This is characteristic of Julius's method. A passage of Eliot's is dropped into a stream of vicious anti-Semitic crudity, in the hope that the waters will mix. Almost every page of this book, which lavishly flows with examples of the anti-Semitism of people other than Eliot, attempts this guilt by immersion. But Julius makes Eliot mean the opposite of what he is saying. Wagner claims that the Jew tries to speak as a native but always reveals himself as a foreigner. For this reason he is incapable of great work. But Eliot praises Rosenberg for precisely the opposite quality. Rosenberg has retained a foreignness which Eliot considers a contribution and a miracle of self-preservation.

If anything, Eliot implies that the Jew will always speak as a native, and that the struggle will be to speak as a foreigner. And Eliot is careful to suggest that Rosenberg's foreignness is not his only quality: "does not only owe its distinction to its being Hebraic." Julius reads the passage as if the phrase "like a Jew" were simply not in the text, as if the passage read: "For a Jewish poet to be able to write in western Europe and in a western European language, is almost a miracle."
This may be Wagner's belief, but it is palpably the opposite of Eliot's. Eliot is not praising Rosenberg for being able to write at all. The difference between Eliot's anti-Semitism and Wagner's anti-Semitism is not defined by the word "miracle"; it is defined by Eliot's not being, in this instance, anti-Semitic. At worst, Eliot's comment suggests a heightened awareness of Jewishness.

A critic who is inattentive to language in this way will not seem trustworthy, and Julius's book contains many bullied readings.

It's several years old but this was a brave review by Mr. Wood.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 29, 2003 7:25 AM

My impression is that Eliot's most anti-Semitic poem, "Blitzstein with a Baedecker," is also his worst.

Posted by: Steve Sailer at October 29, 2003 5:37 PM

Was Eliot anti-Semitic? Yes. Was anti-Semitism central to his thought and works? No.

Eliot's anti-Semitism was typical of his time and social stratum: relatively mild, non-obsessive, and confining itself mainly to vulgar abuse. The abuse is lightly scattered throughout his works: Bleistein, the landlord of Gerontion, and Rachel, nee Rabinovitch, are caricatures straight from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

To do Eliot justice, he could fairly nasty to other ethnic groups as well. Sweeny is a cartoon Irishman, inherently simian; the very title of one poem, "Sweeny Erect", is a reference to the joke (much repeated in Eliot's day) about the wheelbarrow being the greatest invention of all time because it taught the Irishman how to walk on two legs.

It would be foolish to deny his stature, but it should be recognized that he had a streak of vulgarity and that regrettably he allowed it to disfigure several of his poems.

Posted by: Josh Silverman at October 30, 2003 8:27 PM