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.


Desmond Swords said...
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Desmond Swords said...
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Desmond Swords said...
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Desmond Swords said...

Thanks George, I took down the above drafts and posted them into a Merrie England - blogpost at Global Poetry News.

I just watched the first ten minutes of, Black Genocide in 21st America, and something one of the talking heads spoke, I wrote it down:

'It is the stupidity of man to think that he can do evil, even some monstrous evil and it won't have any backlash on himself. But of course it seldom works that way, and the moment he figures that out, he starts looking for a way to avoid the repurcussions of what he's done. This is what happened with Slavery.'

They begin by talking about Eugenics, a word coined by Charles Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton, a Quaker aristocrat whose family fortune through the slave-trade, banking and gunmaking, left this child-genius free to devote his life to cerbral pursuits and, very much influenced by his cousin's work, was spurred on into addressing the important sociological issues of the day, the Negroe issue.

His generation of innately superior Englishman, devoted their lives to trying to give scientific reasons for a beleif that their 'race' of rich white Europeans, are born with a capacity for being civilized, that somehow other human beings who don't look like them, are not.

It is laughable now that people so seemingly clever and civilzed and educated could have deluded themselves as they did. But their racist beliefs were accepted then as the correct scientific, sensible ones superior to all others.

This is the intellectual milleau Eliot entered on stepping through the quads in Boston and taking his place in the world as a scholar of philosophy and language.

The generations immediately prior and at the turn of the 20C, could not conceive their parents and themselves as not the civilized intellectuals they agreed they were, thick money obsessed delusionists when it came to the question of defining what's Human. Their whole structure of thought and minds were programmed from birth to hold some (now disproven) truths about race to be self-evident. Darwin opened a Pandoras box for the rich people who had made money from convincing themselves human beings who do not look like them could be sub-human property, owned by those whose pusuedo scholastic false-flag operator offspring, eager to not face up to what we know now as the truth about Slavery, were keen to prove there was a sliding scientific scale of civilized worth, with apes at the bottom and the pure-bred English gentleman at the top, represented by a King or Queen.

'At some period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world...The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state...and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla.'

Charles Darwin.

There was a longer original title to the book that changed a world, originally it was:

'On The Origin of Species, by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races In the Struggle for Life.'

(my emphasis)

As we know, later editions eliminated that phrase, but the fact is, the people who cause the problems with evil and greed, are the ones who generally get to write the version of the world we, at any one phase in our history, are told that's what being civilized is. But it's getting better, all the time, with hope spread through the new democracy of interent and media which connects us all.

'love' - is the wordverification

Mark Granier said...

'Turn the epithet to any other group, including your own, and that will be obvious. If it isn't, examine your conscience.'

Problem is, anyone who needs to undergo such an examination is probably beyond salvation (practically speaking).

Reread Gerontian; beautiful language, musical, beguiling and rhythmic, very haunting. And quite bewildering, despite the various little potted critiques I came across on my google-dander. It is ventriloquism, the voice of a distinct persona, so not necessarily Eliot's. But no doubt Eliot's ideas are in there, just as surely as Pound's rant about 'Usura' is the sound of everyday Pound-on-the-pulpit. Gerontian is convincing as language, as an eloquent 'wrestle with words and meanings', but the Jew squatting on the windowsill brings in (for me) a wholly alien note. No matter how 'cultured' and world-weary the voice, when it strays into that territory I feel as removed from its apparent beliefs as I did when I worked on a building site in Dublin and our foreman (who was otherwise very intuitive and intelligent) suddenly remarked: 'Hitler did us all a favour.' I was flummoxed, as if the light had abruptly turned uniform grey.

George S said...

I read your three earlier comments, Desmond, following the racist demo. Some of those people are thick, some misguided, some harbouring resentments against all kinds of things, some just plain awful. You find them everywhere, in every country, especially in hard times when there are reasonably large identifiable minorities.

Eugenics and genetic determinism were pretty common too. Socialists like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells held such views. For Darwin, I suppose, it was part of the pattern of struggle and as devoid of moral content as the fate of newts and bears. I suppose biological determinism wouldn't have come unnaturally to those who held with religious determinism.

I live in some hope, Mark, that those who may benefit from asking themselves questions of conscience may sometimes be enabled to do so - it sort of follows from the lack of sympathy for determinism of any sort.

Julius's argument is that the jew (small j) squatting on the windowsill, spawned in some estaminet, is not a blemish on the poem: he is part of the force driving the poem. His argument is that anti-Semitism in Eliot is structural, not incidental.

I do see what he means but I don't find it makes much difference to my view of Eliot because I am, and always have been, prepared to find irrational antipathies in people - or, rather, to discover an incomplete rationale that completes itself in contempt or hatred. It's the incompletion that gives me hope.

Not every illness, in other words, is a mortal illness.