This is a very curious book. Its obvious mission is to relieve T.S. Eliot’s reputation of the charge of anti-Semitism, yet the intellectual strategy it adopts as a means of accomplishing this unachievable—and, in fact, unachieved—mission is one that so distends the concept of “prejudice” as to render it supererogatory. Christopher Ricks is too honest and intelligent a critic to engage in any wholesale denial of anti-Semitism in Eliot, yet his elaborate attempts to explain it tend, for the most part, to be attempts to explain it away, to drain it of its patent virulence and redefine it as an understandable, if not quite forgivable, example of the kind of prejudice we are all said to be guilty of to one degree or another. The result is not only a failure to illuminate the role of anti-Semitic sentiment in Eliot’s work but something even more troubling—a refusal to deal seriously with the one aspect of Eliot’s writing in which anti-Semitism is absolutely integral: that which is addressed to the poet’s vision of an ideal society. In a book on T.S. Eliot and Prejudice, this is a remarkable dereliction of critical duty.

Eliot’s views on society have long been a problem for admirers of his poetry and criticism. They are clearly a problem for Christopher Ricks, and one can easily understand why he should wish to avoid having to deal with them in any systematic way. That subject is, in its political implications, an ugly one—no uglier, perhaps, than W.H. Auden’s social views in his Communist period (“the necessary murder,” etc.), but very ugly all the same; and Auden had the grace and good sense to repudiate his support of those views once he came to understand their true meaning. This, of course, Eliot never did. He simply—all too simply, alas—upheld a somewhat more sanitized version of his social philosophy until the time came for him to drop the subject altogether. When called upon to clarify the anti-Semitic element in his social thought, Eliot only succeeded—as Ricks well understands—in making matters worse.

Indeed, Ricks cites from Eliot’s correspondence some examples of this ill-judged exercise in self-exculpation that have not heretofore come to light. They make painful reading, and do nothing to alter our longstanding impression of a writer in the grip of an idée fixe that, as history unfolded on its murderous course, became a burden and an embarrassment. Yet about the place of that idea in Eliot’s social thought and about the nature of the thought itself, Ricks has amazingly little to say. In this respect he resembles a great many other critics who have written admiringly about Eliot’s poetry. But to write a book called T.S. Eliot and Prejudice and not face up to the disfiguring prejudices that are central to Eliot’s social thought is, at the very least, an eccentric endeavor. For this book is not, primarily, a study of Eliot’s poetry.

That we are in the presence of an eccentric, because oblique, effort at moral exculpation is made abundantly evident in the opening chapter of T.S. Eliot and Prejudice. This is devoted to an analysis, and to other critics’ analyses, of the poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and of the book, Prufrock and Other Observations, which upon its publication in 1917 established Eliot as one of the leading poets of his time. An entire subsection of the chapter—“Talking of Michelangelo”—is focused on the famous lines

In the room the women come
    and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Much fuss is made over the way this couplet has been read—or rather, in Ricks’s view, misread—by a good many of Eliot’s critics, among them such distinguished figures as John Crowe Ransom, Hugh Kenner, and Helen Gardner. All of them, Ricks argues, have wrongly assumed that in these lines, which are repeated in the poem, Eliot was ridiculing “the women” in question. Of this, Ricks now insists, we cannot be sure. “For all we know, as against suspect (perhaps justifiably, but still),” he writes in a characteristic formulation, “the women could be talking as invaluably as [the art historian] Kenneth Clark.”

This strikes me as utter nonsense—the poem would be a very different poem if we were to believe that some deeply informed and illuminating discussion of Michelangelo was in progress—but it is essential to the point Ricks wishes to establish at the outset of T.S. Eliot and Prejudice. This is that “What none of the critics will own is how much their sense of the lines is incited by prejudice.” Ricks thus straightaway introduces the issue of prejudice against women, but not, as we might suppose he would, given the evidence, in order to establish Eliot’s culpability on a roster of biased beliefs that would take us well beyond the subject of anti-Semitism. Eliot is more or less cleared of the charge of prejudice against women, but we—Eliot’s readers—are not. Ricks’s purpose is to indict us for mistakenly assuming that Eliot’s lines were intended to ridicule their female subjects. And given the kind of feminist fury that now attends any suggestion of bias against women, in or out of literature, Ricks knows very well that he can count on this allegation—which, I repeat, is brought against us, Eliot’s readers—to dwarf and somehow defuse the issue of anti-Semitism, the subject of the very next chapter of the book. To the extent that he accepts Ricks’s analysis of prejudice in Eliot’s critics, the reader of T.S. Eliot and Prejudice will be obliged to regard himself as the villain of the tale as he turns his attention to the chapter on “Anti-Semitism.”

This entire gambit, designed to put Eliot’s critics on the defensive, if not in the dock, does not inspire much confidence in the disinterestedness of Ricks’s approach to his difficult subject. The strategy adopted in the opening chapter, which concentrates on picking holes in the arguments of other critics while giving Eliot the benefit of every doubt, is repeated and indeed extended in the chapter on “Anti-Semitism,” which somehow contrives to leave us with the impression that on this subject it may, after all, be Eliot who is the injured party. Again, Ricks is not so foolish as to deny Eliot’s anti-Semitism. He even goes so far as to speak of its “injustice.” But he is equally concerned about an alleged injustice that has been done to Eliot in this matter. In his role as liberal ombudsman, adjudicating the case brought by himself against Eliot’s critics alongside the case for and against Eliot, Ricks takes every opportunity to remind us—Eliot’s readers—of our supposed prejudices in reading him.

Thus, about the well-known lines in “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,”

Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murder-
    ous paws

Ricks writes as follows:

Yet any simple confidence that Eliot’s line is merely riding upon [anti-Semitic] prejudice has to acknowledge that such confidence would itself prejudice the matter.

That we are not entirely wrong in suspecting an anti-Semitic prejudice in Eliot’s lines, Ricks is willing to grant; but this, in his view, has to be weighed against the alleged prejudice we bring to the reading of the lines:

This is not to deny that it is natural to suspect [an anti-Semitic motive], or even that it is right to suspect [such a motive]; but it is wrong to put it to oneself that one knows rather than suspects, and this matters because of the relation of prejudice—of which Eliot stands accused—to suspicion.

Ricks restates the point again and again. About an anti-Semitic passage in the posthumously published manuscript of The Waste Land, he writes:

Yet even here, in confronting what is probably the darkest variant reading in Eliot, . . . it is crucial that resistance to an injustice perpetrated by Eliot should not issue in an injustice to Eliot.

He then gives us what I believe can be said to be a summary of his position on the whole question of T.S. Eliot and anti-Semitism:

Usually in considering Eliot’s “uglier touches” of anti-Semitism, the immediate matter is to judge how gravely the anti-Semitism is to be deplored. But the emphasis in this present consideration is rather upon two prior points: what exactly in Eliot’s words is to be deplored, and why exactly it is to be deplored. Such an emphasis is in danger of being altogether too patient with impatient injustice, but the neglect of these attentions is in danger of visiting upon a great injustice an injustice which though lesser is pernicious.

It is with this warning about a “pernicious” injustice we may be guilty of in judging Eliot that Ricks turns to After Strange Gods, the lectures delivered at the University of Virginia in 1933 in which Eliot made his most programmatic statement about the position of the Jews in an ideal society. Ricks quotes the notorious passage:

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 freethinking 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.

There then follows an exercise in sophistry which I cannot bring myself to summarize. Suffice it to say that grounds are discovered for believing that the sentence about “free-thinking Jews” may be “more defensible” or “less indefensible” than “it will seem if one does not scrutinize one’s indignation at it.” Besides, Ricks argues, who can really say “what it is to be a Jew”? The Encyclopaedia of the Jewish Religion, published in 1966, is invoked for the purpose of informing us that “Presumably a rabbi does not believe that any large number of free-thinking Jews is desirable.” Ricks duly acknowledges that “the point about ‘free-thinking Jews’ is instinct with animus,” yet much of the remainder of this chapter on “Anti-Semitism” is devoted to finding other targets for criticism—Gore Vidal, Ezra Pound, George Orwell, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Leon Wieseltier, among others. The arguments become fussy, picayune, convoluted. Everyone is claimed to be guilty of something, and Eliot is found, in any event, to be less guilty than Pound. (Mercifully, we are not accused of any “injustice” to Pound on the anti-Semitism issue.) We are then invited to consider the larger issue of “Prejudice,” which is the ostensible subject of Chapter 3.

_____________

 

As neither that chapter, which takes us less than halfway into T.S. Eliot and Prejudice, nor the remaining chapters, which contain some of the best literary criticism in the book, add anything significant to our understanding of Eliot’s anti-Semitism or to Ricks’s analysis of it, I do not propose to discuss them here. Something needs to be said, however, about Ricks’s method—as distinguished from his strategy—in dealing with Eliot’s anti-Semitism. It is, for the most part, an Empsonian method that pays very close attention to words while steadfastly keeping its distance from both the pattern of thought the words themselves are used to articulate and the current of history they so clearly reflect. Ricks has an impressive gift for the kind of microanalysis of words that he appropriates from the criticism of William Empson, and it allows him to score many points in his disputes with other critics who are sometimes less attentive to the exact meaning of words than he is. But all this scoring of points is, in the end, an arid enterprise, for it illuminates very little about the nature of Eliot’s thought—particularly that aspect of his thought that bears most directly on his anti-Semitism. This is a matter on which Empson offers no help at all.

_____________

 

I consider Eliot a great poet and an even greater literary critic, but he was not, in my opinion, either a very valuable or a very original social thinker. All of his writings on social questions have to be seen, I think, in relation to that larger pattern of utopian and/or collectivistic thought that held so great a part of the European mind in desperate thrall in the aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. Whether it came from the revolutionists on the Left or the reactionaries on the Right or some ghastly amalgam of both, what united this pattern of thought was its abiding hostility to the ethos of liberal democracy, which was believed to be spiritually bankrupt and politically impotent.

To this development, which inflicted upon our century so many of its horrors, Eliot made no significant contribution, but it nonetheless affected him deeply. It induced in him that yearning for a closed society and an organic culture that was nowhere to be found in the world he inhabited—a yearning, moreover, that the dynamics of modernity were every day making it more and more impossible to see realized without recourse to the politics of totalitarianism. That Eliot came perilously close to advocating such a politics in After Strange Gods is not a fact that can be denied, but by the time that book came to be published in 1934 its political sentiments were already overtaken by events in Germany. Which is no doubt why Eliot never allowed the book to be reprinted. Still, he never gave up on his dream of a Christian society that would serve, if only in theory, as an alternative to what he regarded as the social and spiritual decadence that was already upon us in the Western democracies.

Eliot was by no means alone in this recoil from the modern world and the chaos it portended: and in the ideal Christian society he conjured up as a panacea for our earthly woes, he was as much of a utopian and collectivist in his thinking about social and cultural alternatives as any Leninist or fascist. Fortunately for him—and for us!—there was no political movement readily available in the Western democracies to which Eliot felt able to attach this utopian yearning. Unlike Pound, he did not in fact become a convert to fascism. His idea of a Christian society remained just that—an idea, which in the course of time and under the pressure of events was found to be so distant from the realities of history that it more or less evaporated as an object of thought.

_____________

 

In the context of his social theory, Eliot’s anti-Semitism was certainly a coefficient of his idea of a closed Christian society. In the poetry, however, where his anti-Semitism is more powerfully stated, it is an expression of something more conventional, even commonplace—a deep but essentially unquestioned distaste for, even a horror of, the kind of deracinated cosmopolitanism that he and so many others looked upon as a sign of social and spiritual decay. The irony is, of course, that Eliot was himself an outstanding example of the deracinated cosmopolitanism he so much feared and despised. As a polyglot expatriate American who had severed his native roots in order to make his way in an alien society that was deeply opposed to the modernism he practiced as a poet, Eliot found himself as much at odds with the culture and politics of his adopted country as he believed himself to be with those of his homeland. He was, in other words, that most familiar of 20thcentury figures—a rootless intellectual who was at the same time a modernist opposed to modernity. The distinction that separates Eliot from the vast class of alienated intellectuals to which he otherwise belongs—and belongs precisely because of the relation in which he stands to modernity—was his ability to make great poetry out of the situation in which he found himself. It was because his poetry spoke so directly and so eloquently of his own conflicted thought and feeling about the world as he found it that it made such a powerful impact upon his readers, for it gave inspired expression to a view of modernity widely shared and widely despaired of.

That the Jews—whether “freethinking” or not hardly mattered—were for Eliot a symbol and touchstone of the modernity he so desperately wished to repeal is not to be denied. In the end Christopher Ricks’s effort to subsume the plain fact of the matter under some larger etiology of “prejudice” fails in its mission of exoneration.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link