Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

T.S. Eliot and the Jews

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David P. Goldman has an interesting essay of literary criticism in First Things, which begins:

There recur in the work of ­T. S. Eliot two obsessions that make one cringe: his Jew-­hatred and his contempt for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The first is sometimes excused as a reflection of ambient prejudice, the second as critical crankiness. In fact, these obsessions have a common source. The characteristically Jewish contribution to Western literature is the tragicomedy, which reached one of its peaks in Hamlet. Just as he disliked the Jews in general, Eliot rejected what might be termed the Jewish sensibility in culture.

None of this would concern us if Eliot were not the author of some important poems and even more important lines. There is no question about Eliot’s rank among the leading English-language poets of the past century, nor about his critical acumen. The issue is the end to which he directed his ability.

If the canonical definition of anti-Semitism is hating the Jews more than is absolutely necessary, the word surely applies to Eliot. One finds the stray smirk about Jews in the verse of ­Belloc and Chesterton, but Eliot, as Anthony ­Julius observed, makes Jew-hatred into art. No other poet employed so great a talent to elicit as much loathing as Eliot did in the “Bleistein” poems. First published in 1920 and reprinted in all subsequent editions of Eliot’s poetry through 1963, “Burbank with a ­Baedeker: Bleistein with a cigar” depicts a “­Chicago Semite Viennese” tourist on the Rialto Bridge in Venice, a nod to Shylock. He is less than a rat: “A lustreless protrusive eye / Stares from the protozoic slime. . . . The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot.” Eliot revisited ­Bleistein in his masterwork, The Waste Land. The passage was dropped from the initial printings on the advice of Ezra Pound, who thought it too inflammatory, but it appeared posthumously in the annotated edition:

Full fathom five your Bleistein lies
Under the flatfish and the squids.
Graves’ Disease in a dead jew’s eyes!
When the crabs have eat the lids
Lower than the wharf rats dive
Though he suffer a sea-change
Still expensive rich and strange.

This reverie over a Jewish corpse parodies the tender account of the drowned Phlebas (“who was once handsome and tall as you”) that appears elsewhere in The Waste Land.

There have been any number of anti-­Semites among the important poets, but none evinces quite so much hatred—not Lope de Vega when he needles Cervantes over his Jewish heritage, nor Quevedo when he mocks Gongora’s long nose and alleged aversion to bacon, nor Shakespeare in depicting ­Shylock, who suffers and bleeds like all men. Eliot gloats over the piscine eyes of a crab-eaten Jewish corpse, lampooning Ariel’s Song in The Tempest. An antipathy upon which a talented poet lavishes such invention goes beyond mundane bigotry.

Eliot’s Jew-hatred was racial. It was not (as Harold Bloom claimed) “simply a mark of the authenticity of his Neo-Christianity.” This is evident from his imagery, full of horror at the stereotypical appearance of Jews, and is explicit in his 1933 lecture, “After Strange Gods.” In it he claimed:

The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely 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.

The juxtaposition of the words “race” and “undesirable” as they apply to Jews had a distinct meaning in 1933. Eliot’s Victorian antecedents held no such views. On the contrary, Matthew Arnold named Heinrich Heine the true heir of Goethe (whom he thought the best modern poet and second only to Shakespeare), praising in particular Heine’s Jewish-themed poems “Princess Sabbath” and “Yehuda ­HaLevi.”

It is generally assumed that anti-Semites hate Jews not for what Jews actually are, but for what they imagine Jews to be. That was true of Ezra Pound, who imagined that Jews were usurers responsible for social crisis and war. Eliot, by contrast, hated the Jews for what they really are. In particular, he abhorred Jewish irony. Jewish humor has many facets, but its ultimate source is the paradoxical encounter of infinite God and finite man, in which there always lurks an element of the absurd. This is sharpened by the ironic distance inherent in the experience of exile. For two thousand years, the Jewish people have looked askance at the countries they inhabit. But even in their homeland they have understood themselves as spiritual strangers and sojourners in a fallen world. This is an existential dislocation, the knowledge that one is out of joint with a disordered world.

That brings us to Eliot’s other obsession. He published three attacks on Hamlet between 1919 and 1932, each stating a new reason to hate it. One is reminded of Aesop’s fable of the wolf whose shifting accusations against a lamb are easily refuted and finally irrelevant. Eliot’s first sally, “Hamlet and His Problems,” pronounced the play “an artistic ­failure” on the grounds that Hamlet lacks convincing ­motivation—is it revenge, or guilt over the behavior of his mother, or something else that Shakespeare does not quite clarify? Drawing on the dodgy scholarship of J. M. Robertson, Eliot argues that ­Shakespeare had revised and mangled an earlier revenge drama by Thomas Kyd. His 1927 essay “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca” scolds Shakespeare for having the wrong philosophy. Years later, Eliot conceded that these two early efforts were marred by “callowness” and a “facility of unqualified assertion which verges, here and there, on impudence.”

Eliot’s mature statement on Hamlet appears in his 1932 Harvard lectures, in which he denounces ­Shakespeare for violating the . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s both interesting and illuminating.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2021 at 1:58 pm

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