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An Exercise in Memory

Eliot and the Jews: A personal confession.

We all know what cultivated people think about literary anti-Semitism. We say that great writers can be dreadful people, and that the twentieth century offers some choice examples. We add that Jews can also do bad things, such as talking about blacks in the way that gentiles can talk about Jews. And if we are very civilized, we recognize that Jews are likely to be especially, “understandably” sensitive about racial barbs. In any case—now comes the resigned shrug—anti-Semitism is so deeply ingrained in Western culture, even the best writers may succumb to it. (But must they? George Eliot didn’t, James Joyce didn’t.) And then we wonder how it is possible that writers we admire for their sensitivity, their warmth of responsiveness, can also indulge in anti-Semitic vulgarities.

What drives them—some competitive rage, some feelings of social dispossession, some fear of “the Other”? I came upon a possible clue while reading Warrenpoint, Denis Donoghue’s recent autobiography. He describes an incident in which Virginia Woolf, sharing a taxi with T. S. Eliot, put to him the terrible question: “What is the worst thing, quite the worst?” Eliot, who had reason to know, answered: “Humiliation.” To which Donoghue keenly adds: “I suppose the terrible thing about humiliation is the certainty that one is indeed a proper object of ridicule. While it is happening we can’t feel that it will pass, that it’s only a wretched moment.” In the recesses of the victim’s mind there must always be lurking a fear that he or she is “indeed a proper object of ridicule.” A writer of high refinement—the elegant lady devoted to pure literature, the cosmopolitan European claiming the heritage of the West—can share with the street thug a wish to humiliate a stranger simply because he is a Jew (or an Asian or a black or an Arab). Evidently it gives pleasure to make some people feel that “the ridicule will not pass.”

Over the years we have improvised some rough categories for the analysis of literary anti-Semitism. There is the nervous hauteur of patrician writers who feel that the social ground is crumbling beneath them, and there is the sullen primitivism of plebeians who resent anything that seems unfamiliar. The patrician Henry Adams wrote that Jews “make me creep” and that the atmosphere in Washington was “a Jew atmosphere.” America, he moaned, was becoming “a society of Jews and brokers, a world made up of maniacs wild for gold.” The plebeian Theodore Dreiser wrote that “if you listen to Jews discussing Jews, you will find that they are money-minded, very pagan, very sharp in practice. … “ Apparently there is some agreement between top and bottom: each is fixated on an image of Shylock.

Still, as I recall the years when I first approached the literary life of New York, which was then partly centered around Partisan Review, neither Adams nor Dreiser struck one as especially threatening. Adams, as he himself seems to have suspected, was a little nutty on the subject of the Jews, while Dreiser, when not writing novels, was the sort of ignoramus you could run into at any bar. Such received bigotry seemed inseparable from the culture of gentile America after the Civil War, and I knew no one who thought it likely that we would reach a time when this country would be free of the contaminations of bias. That, we felt, was simply the way things were; and anyway America had greater evils than anti-Semitism.

What did cause us pain—I speak here, uneasily, about the Jewish writers starting to publish in the late 1930s and early 1940s—were the passages about Jews in the work of the great modernist writers like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. About Pound, there were no problems. In the postwar years we went after him hammer and tongs. He had broadcast for the Italian Fascists during the Second World War, he had been openly anti-Semitic, and at least as a political thinker he figured as a provincial yokel to be treated with disdain. But if we roared like lions when attacking Pound, we mewed like pussycats when it came to Eliot. For Eliot was a poet greatly admired and a critic greatly respected. Eliot, as Delmore Schwartz called him, was our “culture hero.” We failed to find—this is a judgment of retrospect—a coherent and dignified public response to the troubling passages about Jews that lie scattered in Eliot’s work, passages far less virulent than those of Pound but quite bad enough.

Memory, of course, can be treacherous, but about this matter I believe my memory to be clear, and if I am mistaken there are friends who will hasten to correct me. I recall vividly several conversations with Philip Rahv, then the leading editor of Partisan Review, in which he denounced Eliot as an anti-Semite—and Rahv was notably gifted at denunciation. I recall quieter conversations with Delmore Schwartz, then a leading New York poet, who also criticized Eliot’s writings about Jews, though with stress on the pain that these caused him as an admirer of the poet’s work. Schwartz located Eliot’s attitudes toward Jews in a mixture of provincial American insecurities and acquired English snobberies, the latter a decorative overlay on the former.

So far as I can discover, however, neither the fierce polemicist Rahv nor the learned poet Schwartz published anything substantial on this matter, even though in the literary life of the Partisan Review group Eliot occupied a central place. Schwartz wrote three excellent essays on Eliot, but none mentions the anti-Semitism that he deplored in conversation. As for Rahv, in a symposium in Commentary in 1949, he did say that anti-Semitism “is integral to the kind of religiosity professed by writers like T. S. Eliot,” but then he added, “This can be said quite apart from the question of whether Mr. Eliot is personally infected with anti-Semitic feelings; that is not the issue.” Sorry, old friend, it certainly is the issue. Anti-Semitism could not have crept into Eliot’s work except insofar as he was “personally infected.” How much more forthright, in the same symposium, was a remark by Martin Greenberg: “Full participation and integration [he was quoting from Commentary’s opening statement] in a literary tradition is not one of the Rights of Man; it is not only Shylock and Fagin who debar me from it, but my own consciousness of being a Jew.” It took some time before most of us could say anything so exactly right.

The matter of Eliot and anti-Semitism is peculiarly difficult, since with a single exception his feelings about Jews do not emerge as blunt declaration, but are woven into some of his best poems. Such famous lines as “the Jew squats on the window-sill, the owner / Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp” (in the Collected Poems of 1936 “the Jew” appears as “the jew”) and “The rats are underneath the piles / the Jew is underneath the lot” (also lower-case “jew” in the 1936 collection) link the Jews with the social and moral squalor that Eliot found characteristic of modern life.

There is always the possibility, seized upon by some critics, to place, or even to justify, such lines as dramatic speech attributed to a fictional persona who should not, or at least need not, be identified with the author. But there is also a commonsense recognition that such a critical maneuver easily becomes a way of evading the likelihood that the poetic “speaker” (especially in poems where we hear no other voice) does indeed speak for the poet. In some instances it is hard to judge, and that is where a sense of critical tact should come into play. My own view is that these passages about Jews are too strategically located in Eliot’s poems to be regarded as merely incidental or as dramatic representations from which the poet can legitimately dissociate himself.

This, however, is a problem in literary criticism, which for the moment is not my main interest. My main interest is the response of Jewish literary people to writers who indulge in or brush against anti-Semitism. It was the fashion some years ago to say that we need not be concerned with the personal beliefs of writers, deplorable as these may sometimes be; those beliefs, it was said, become troublesome only if they form a significant presence in the writer’s work. Mimicking my elders, I used to say this too, but recently I have begun to wonder. Now I find myself as strongly offended by the explicitly anti-Semitic remarks of writers as I am by troubling representations of Jews in works of literature that, because they do appear in works of literature, must necessarily be ambiguous and open to multiple readings.

We have been trained, in modern culture, to take writers seriously, even to endow them with a special authority, and whether or not this is desirable, it prompts us to respond with peculiar intensity to their opinions. So whatever defenses might be urged with regard to the passages about Jews in Eliot’s poetry, I do not see how one can deny that there is a streak of bigotry in his book After Strange Gods (1934), where he writes that in his “ideal Christian society”:

The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable. There must be a proper balance between urban and rural, industrial and agricultural development. And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.

This notorious passage cannot be accused of a “spirit of excessive tolerance”; the remark about “free-thinking Jews” has no binding relation to what precedes or follows it, but comes as an irritable eruption. In his recent book T. S, Eliot and Prejudice, Christopher Ricks rightly calls the passage “instinct with animus.”

Perhaps out of shame or embarrassment, Eliot never reprinted After Strange Gods. In an exchange with a correspondent in 1940, he struggled to explain why he had singled out “free-thinking Jews” as a threat to his “ideal of Christian society”:

The free-thinking European, or American of European race, retains for the most part a good many of the moral habits and conventions of Christianity. If he does not retain them individually, still these habits survive to some extent in the community. The Jew who is separated from his religious faith is much more deracinated thereby than the descendent of Christians, and it is this deracination that I think dangerous and tending to irresponsibility. But my view does not imply any prejudice on the ground of race...

This was a defense that only made things worse. By which measure could Eliot estimate the amounts of deracination in Christians and Jews? What knowledge supported his assertion? Actually, his statement shows how little he knew about “free-thinking Jews,” many of whom keep a strong attachment to “the moral habits and conventions” of Jewish life, in part because memories of younger years exert a powerful hold upon them and in part because they know that, whatever their opinions, they remain quite as vulnerable to the assaults of bigotry as do religious Jews.

In his book Ricks has struggled, with a little too much ingenuity, to deal with Eliot’s writings about Jews. He discerns the presence of anti-Semitic “animus,” but he subordinates and assimilates it to a pervasive moral tendency that he calls “prejudice,” a blight from which no one seems quite free and which thereby tends to make everyone guilty. This argument readily serves, in turn, to mask or to ease the guilt of any particular individual. Prejudice as a common human predisposition, a usage of the eighteenth century, is here conflated with prejudice as racial bigotry, a twentieth century usage, and the result is that the deadliness (that’s just the word) of anti-Semitism comes to be modulated, consigned as it has been to an abundance of prejudice.

The subtle Ricks loses sight of the blunt object before his eyes when he writes: “Yet any simple confidence that Eliot’s line [about ‘Rachel née Rabino-vitch’ who ‘tears at the grapes with murderous paws’] is merely riding upon [anti-Semitic] prejudice has to acknowledge that such confidence would itself prejudice the matter.” What a not-simple reading of Eliot’s lines would be, it is hard to discover in Ricks’s book. His subtlety can also slip into silliness. “Presumably,” he writes with regard to Eliot’s remarks in After Strange Gods, “a rabbi does not believe that any large number of free-thinking Jews is desirable.” Well, it depends. I know a number of rabbis who are quite close to “free thinking” or who live in easy relation with “free-thinking Jews.” In any case, Ricks’s imaginary rabbis would respond very differently from Eliot, since, at the least, they would not be worried about terms of admission to “the ideal Christian society.”

Eliot was guilty of nasty intolerance when he wrote those sentences in After Strange Gods. Exactly how virulent or damaging his remarks about Jews are may be open to debate, but that they exude an unpleasant bigotry seems to me beyond doubt. To say this is not to question Eliot’s sincerity in writing some years later that “I am not an anti-Semite and never have been. It is a terrible slander against a man.” All one can say is that the evidence is there, in his poems probably and in his prose certainly.

I continue firmly to believe that Eliot was a great poet and a major critic. How to reconcile this opinion with the pain caused by some of his writings is a problem I do not know how to resolve. But I wish to return to the responses of the Jewish writers who began to publish in Partisan Review and similar magazines during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Why were we so hesitant (as I am convinced we were) to confront the matter of Eliot and anti-Semitism? I ask not to condemn anyone retrospectively, but to understand an experience in which I shared.

Many of us had made our way out of an immigrant Jewish culture that, often somewhat glibly, we took to be parochial. We felt embarrassed when “official” Jewish spokesmen hastened to attack gentile writers who had made slighting references to Jews or had presented Jewish characters unsympathetically in novels. We felt that such “official” responses betrayed not only a strained defensiveness—Rahv spoke of “overwrought Jewish nerves”—but also an insensitivity to literature. The young Jewish writers starting to appear in print between the late 1930s and the early 1950s wanted to discard narrow habits of response and to embrace universalist values. This desire was often prompted by the fact that some of these writers were also radicals hoping to shake off religious or ethnic burdens and to gain membership in the republic of letters—though it was no secret that this republic, like most others, harbored a good share of bias.

We—I, we, they?—were eager to find a place in the spacious arena of American culture, which was decidedly gentile in origins and tone. Were we to rise up in wrath before every anti-Semitic or supposedly anti-Semitic passage in American writing, especially in the writing of contemporaries, we might find this goal hard to achieve. Sometimes our muted responses to the nastiness that a number of American writers displayed toward Jews were merely a sign of opportunism. More often they betrayed a troubling discomfort.

The Jewish writers grouped around Partisan Review in those years saw Eliot as a central figure in modern culture, a writer of the highest literary intelligence. Eliot wrote poetry that seemed thrilling in its apprehensions of the spirit of the time, poetry vibrant with images of alienation, moral dislocation, and historical breakdown. If his vocabulary came to draw upon unacceptable doctrine, his sensibility remained intensely familiar. It is very possible that the power and the charm of Eliot’s poetry, which touched me closely as a young man, kept me and others from acknowledging the streak of bigotry in his work.

As critics throughout the ages have noticed, there is a seductiveness in art that can melt personal identity and weaken moral perceptions. (Art, wrote Tolstoy, is “an infectious activity.”) Indeed, that is one of the triumphs of art, as it may lead to sharpened awareness and perhaps even remold our sense of self; but by the same token, it can have, as in our century it has had, pernicious effects. Reading Eliot’s poetry a half-century ago I felt so strongly (if not always lucidly) attuned to its inner vibrations that I had little desire to be critical, especially of what might be passed over as a few incidental lines of bigotry. With a supreme hauteur, Eliot had made the journey from provincial St. Louis to cosmopolitan London. The New York writers could not match his hauteur, but perhaps they could negotiate a somewhat similar journey from Brooklyn or the Bronx to Manhattan. I doubt that this comparison occurred to many of the New York writers, but I am convinced that it figured in our feelings.

In those days the term “alienation” was much in fashion, part of the style of affirmed isolation that went with political and cultural radicalism. As Rahv wrote, “During the greater part of the bourgeois epoch—[writers] preferred alienation from the community to alienation from themselves.” Linking politics and culture, this proud rootlessness was seen as defining the posture of the independent artist or intellectual—and despite enormous differences of belief, especially after Eliot declared himself a devout Christian, it was this attitude that prompted us to feel a kinship with Eliot, a writer who was never quite at home in the world. There is still much to be said, I think, for this cultural style, unfashionable as it has become. Only after the Second World War, when the shock of the Holocaust was registered and we saw that none of our usual categories of thought sufficed to grasp its meaning, did I and others begin to look back with a certain questioning upon the style of alienation. Not exactly rejection, but questioning.

I began to suspect that my attachment to this style was rooted not only in a valid perception of cultural and political realities, but also in a more intimate confusion or blurring of identity. Let me illustrate by turning back to a seemingly trivial incident. When, green and nervous, I made my first visit to the office of Partisan Review and was told in a kindly way by Rahv to pick a book for review, I took down from his shelves an English translation of Sholom Aleichem’s stories. My choice made Rahv smile—whether he was signaling that we understood one another or that we should pretend not to. Decades later, I can see that the style of alienation, while it could be authentic, also entailed a multitude of personal alienations, confusedly abutting one another, which I was imposing on Eliot’s poetry. It was as if that poetry offered an enlarging—or distorting—mirror for my own feelings. Had Eliot known about all this, I am sure he would have denied any responsibility for my projections. Still, the poetry was there, it spoke with overwhelming force and the voice of truth, so that I made of it what I could or needed to.

What may also have contributed to the ambiguity of our relationship to Eliot’s writings was that we had inherited a Romantic notion that the writer should serve as a moral guide, even as “a creator of values.” We shared the belief, mostly implicit, that the poet as person was not to be distinguished from the person as poet, that the man who sat down to write was essentially the same as the writer we proceeded to read. Today there are more sophisticated notions about literary persona and authorial voice. But it was only to be expected that literary people bearing the stamp of Jewish ethicism and claiming a strong social awareness should have been drawn to the idea of the writer as moral guide.

Eliot was not just a great writer, he was, as Schwartz said, a “culture hero” who spoke for the mood of the moment. If not exactly a moral guide, he seemed to command, as few other writers of his time did, a profound awareness of the moral turmoil, the moral discontents that afflicted serious persons. We turned to him not so much for answers as for questions, and this too, I suppose, caused us to avert our eyes from aspects of his work that were unattractive. One of the few critics who saw this differently was Clement Greenberg, who kept issuing cogent warnings against “culture sickness,” the view that vicious acts and ideas should be tolerated when they are advanced by distinguished writers.

What, then, should have been done or said about Eliot and anti-Semitism? At the least, there might have been an open acknowledgment that the problem was intractable and caused us distress. Nothing could be “done” about Eliot’s “Jew” (or “jew”) spawned in Antwerp, that squalid cliché of the Christian centuries. Nor was it only a matter of protests, noisy or quiet. It was a matter of saying openly what we knew inwardly, that it was we, the “free-thinking Jews” who loved his poetry, toward whom Eliot could not indulge “an excess of tolerance.”

All of this delivers us to the thorny problem of the relation between the aesthetic and the ethical, about which it would be foolish to pretend that one can add anything significant in a few (or even in many) words. No doubt, on some ultimate plane, there are persuasive ways of reconciling the claims of the aesthetic with the demands of the ethical, or better still, of apprehending the interpenetration of the two. But in my own experience during this century of blood and fanaticism, the division between the aesthetic and the ethical continues to loom large, and I have become resigned to the conclusion that we have to live with the tensions that division generates. I remain “free-thinking,” but I keep within me enough of a Jew to suppose that if aesthetic perceptions and ethical judgments seem at times to clash, there cannot be many situations in which the ethical should not be given priority, for the very idea of civilization, whether “ideal Christian” or just humane, implies a hierarchy of values.