Saturday, 6 March 2010
Some reflections on Julius: lifting carpets
It is the new, expanded, edition I have been reading, the one in which Julius addresses fourteen different forms of objection to his book. I find the book generally convincing, the arguments well marshalled and properly referenced.
Essentially then, Julius takes those parts of Eliot's poetry and prose that make direct reference to Jews, and some that make an indirect reference to them by way of cultural stereotype, and demonstrates that these are anti-Semitic. That is not difficult nor is it new. What is new, or what seems to me personally of chief interest as new, might be summed up as follows:
a) The understanding that Eliot's anti-Semitism is not of the simple traditional type, though it does overlap with it, in that it embraces a view of the Jews as sordid, subhuman and below contempt, while rejecting the view of them as omnipotently clever, devious and powerful - in other words it is about Eliot's specific response to Jews ("don't stone them just keep them out of the club");
b) that Julius rejects the argument that Eliot was writing at a time of anti-Semitism and that he should therefore be excused because he couldn't be expected to be different from everyone else;
c) that he proposes the argument that anti-Semitism, in Eliot's case, is not incidental, but a productive, creative trope; that it isn't just a rehash of common themes as above, which could not produce poetry, since rehashes, by definition, don't, but that it actually drives the nature of the poetry;
d) the book pursues its objectives with a perseverance and intensity so scrupulous that its very intensity is an aspect of the case.
I am grateful to him for pointing out (a), and, it is true, I myself have often overlooked the most violent forms of anti-Semitism in Eliot by recourse to (b). It is (c) and (d) that I find myself thinking about.
Lifting the carpet
Julius attacks not so much Eliot's poetry or prose, not even Eliot the man, but rather the establishment critics who have been, in his view, far too ready to sweep the question of Eliot's anti-Semitism under the carpet. So he lifts the carpet. It is a logical time for such carpet-lifting since there is a rise in broadly - sometimes very sharply - anti-Semitic tropes in the press here and elsewhere, and it is salutary to point this out. Whether Israel (the only Jewish state in the world) is text or pretext in this is far too complex to argue here, and in any case, I just don't know. What I do know is that some of the tropes applied by both right and, most disappointingly, the left, are perfectly indistinguishable from those employed by the far right in the thirties about Jews in general. These are not innocent tropes. I also know that violently anti-Semitic acts have been on the increase in the UK, in Europe and in South America, for some time and show no signs of declining.. That is all I want to say about this now, but it is, I believe, part of the intensity I refer to in (d) above, though that is not made manifest in the book so there is a carry-over intensity in the argument that seems to proceed from elsewhere.
That intensity is faintly shocking - I mean faintly shocking for me, not, I want to stress, in the intensity of what is being said, but in its relentlessness. I have always taken Eliot to be a very complex person. However Eliot proposes anti-Semitic stereotypes, for instance, he does not offer a heroic, racially-pure, counter- type. There is no Siegfried in the picture. There is a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas, and in Gerontion (one of the chief evidences in the case,) there is only an old man in a dry month being read to by a boy. If there is a corruption in progress, it is a long process of self-corruption. Readers of the poem can never feel assured of the positive: it is a world of negatives, with moments of breathtaking beauty that are never entirely to be trusted.
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes. (Gerontion)
It is the general sense of corruption, danger, insecurity and decay in the context of the visionary transforming moment that grabbed me in the first place, and continues grabbing me, in Eliot. His Jews are a part of an entire world that manages to lodge itself in the psyche with continuous freshness.
On the other hand the insults against a 'race' of furriers, financiers, and other 'protozoic slime', such as Bleistein remain loathsome, and should remain loathsome to any human being, not only to Jews. Turn the epithet to any other group, including your own, and that will be obvious. If it isn't, examine your conscience.
Antipathy and contempt are not foreign to poetry. I think the great Hungarian poet, Ágnes Nemes Nagy, drew much of her creative energy from her hatred of those who ran Hungary in the first flowering of her talent, those who dismissed her as a bourgeois individualist and blocked not only her own path to development but of those who shared her sense of the world. She hated even more those who had, in her eyes, sold out to them. The poetry does not specifically go out to attack them, but its sheer drive owes much to such frustrated energy diverted into other channels.
I have never minded the visceral when it has acted in a creative, transformative way, especially when, as in Eliot's case, I believe, it includes itself in its visceral shudder. I am far more readily turned off by the dogmatic, the consciously ideological, the stupid and calculating use of the visceral. When it comes to the visceral - or let's call it the comprehensively visceral - terms like 'anti-Semitism' and 'misogyny' become awkward (Julius often couples the two as if using the latter by way of shield, I unworthily suspect). Poetry is not to be tidied up into its component ideologies. Ideology is not its primary source. I am pretty sure Julius knows that and that his case (c) proceeds from that.
These few paragraphs have chiefly addressed points (c) and (d), and there is much much more to be said on both, but this being a blog post, I'll leave this here for now and may come back to it.