Clive Wilmer says recent attacks on TS Eliot have been disproportionate and ignore the ubiquity of anti-Semitism before the Holocaust. Eliot was a man of his timesby Clive Wilmer / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in August 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Every so often an academic controversy spills out into the public arena and becomes an urgent matter of concern. One thinks of CP Snow and FR Leavis and the two cultures, or Stephen Hawking and the mind of God. It is healthy that this should happen; too often the arts and sciences are removed from the real issues of life.
TS Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form by Anthony Julius is an abstruse work of literary criticism; it would have gone unnoticed if it had not so painfully exposed the dividing line between art and morality. Eliot is regarded as the greatest poet of our century. Most casual readers of poetry imagine great poets to be champions of decency and humane values. Less casual readers have long been aware that Eliot was a reactionary, whose thinking includes what appears to be anti-Semitism. However, the literary outlook that prevailed in his day has for the most part kept him above criticism. The language of poetry, we used to be told, is not like other language. It is “non-propositional.” So if Eliot’s Burbank with a Baedeker says offensive things about Jews, no one need feel offended. The utterance is a dramatic one and, if the poem is any good, it will be undermined or modified by irony. If it is not so undermined, the language has become propositional and the poem is a bad one.
There has always been unease in the literary world at the disgust expressed by Eliot in his description of Jews, but even that could be deflected. The Jew in Gerontion is a symbolic figure: he stands for something else, so Eliot’s disgust is directed at something else.
To the extent that recent criticism exposes such evident cant, I am in favour of it. To the extent that it damages the imaginative range of poetry, I am against it-especially when the act of critical analysis becomes the excuse for a witch-hunt. The Julius book has inspired an impressive public response and sides have been taken by important poets: Craig Raine, Tom Paulin and James Fenton. Some of these articles have been scrupulously cautious in their judgements, but there have also been blatant instances of coat-trailing self-advertisement.