T.S. Eliot and the Art of Prejudice

English: T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday ...
English: T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday afternoon in 1923 by Lady Ottoline Morrell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“T. S. Eliot and Anti-Semitism”.
Gregory S. Jay
Journal of English and Germanic Philology

The more you flip through the history of belles-lettres, the more the anti-Semitic cockroaches scuttle out from behind the pretty facades of literary celebrity. Gregory Jay’s superb review of Anthony Julius’ 1995 work T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and the Literary Form manages to stomp on a fair handful of fine English writers. While Eliot, as the most open Jew-baiter among the Victorian scribes, is the focus of the book and the review, he was by no means alone. Jay points out that Charles Dickens, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Paul de Man each had to use “a different strategy to mitigate or evade his own anti-Semetic writing.”

Outing anti-Semites is all good sport, to a point, but if all we do is wave a flag around and say “hey, these guys hated Jews (or women, or African Americans, or Chinese),” we’ve accomplished nothing more than to soak another hate-filled artist in his own bile. In order for these outings to have some kind of meaning, we have to contend with two related questions.

The Hate-Filled Artist As A Young Man

First, we have to ask whether the art can be judged in isolation from the artist. There is a school of literary theory that supports this point of view, and that in turn has led to the canonization of writers like Dickens and Pound (not to mention Henry James and H.L. Mencken.) What is important, we are told, is not that these men were prejudiced and full of hatred-deftly-concealed. What is important is to judge these works independently of the failures of the artist, and indeed without reference to social and political issues.

To their credit, Julius (the author) and Jay (the reviewer) both question this thesis (what Jay calls “aesthetic objectivity,”) suggesting that instead the artifact must be examined in its context. They do not call for the de-canonization of the authors or their works. Rather, what I believe they seek is an examination of the works and their authors in toto, an act which I suspect will cause us to lose the taste for some yet gain interest in others.

There are obviously two schools here: judge the art by itself, or judge it in light of the author and his or her context. You could make an argument that the former school offers a chance for more unadulterated judgment, and you may be right. For me, though (and I’m probably showing my plebeian roots, here,) purity comes at a cost of completeness. My wife and I bought a painting from an artist in his Santa Barbara gallery about a year ago. We loved the painting for itself, a simple California landscape rendered in the style of 19th century English plein-air landscapes: Santa Barbara county with a Cornish feel. What made it more appealing, though, was learning of the artist’s English provenance and training. Here was California rendered through the eye and the hand of a Briton. For us, as Californians returning to our home state after decades abroad, the joy of the painting was thus deepened.

Vincent Van Gogh is not a lesser artist because of his madness, nor is Pablo Picasso for his womanizing. Yet the knowledge of those facts about these painters adds something essential to our appreciation of the art. Artists and theorists may not like that truth, but they cannot change it.

Knowing an artist’s bent and learning of its origins, I have an opportunity to appreciate the art through a filter. This fellow didn’t like Jews, this is why, this is how it shaped his writings, and now I can evaluate the work in that context. With Eliot, knowing his background, we recognize the anti-Semitism spewing out of poems not as an artistic depiction of someone who hates Jews, as the creation of a passion unshared by the artist to offer a portrayal (which would be high art, indeed); but as mere vitriol in verse. Spewing hate in iambic pentameter doesn’t raise the hate to art: it lowers the art into the gutter.

Dickens and other writers who attempt to contain their prejudices, by contrast, offer us a different opportunity. Is there hatred built into these works, however subtly? Is it of a piece with the thinking of the day? Or has the artist managed to expunge prejudice from his work, and to what end?

What Then Must We Do?

The second question follows from the first. Knowing that these authors are flawed in their hatred and prejudices, do we then read them? Or do we shun their works is inherently flawed or diseased? When is it acceptable to read the works of someone deeply, irredeemably prejudiced against you, and when is it appropriate to scorn them? And when is it appropriate to toss the book aside and spend time reading something else, canons be damned?

I have struggled with this question for years, and the best answer I have come up with is this: read it all, let your brain sort it out. I’d read Eliot in a heartbeat, just as I read Voltaire, Jack London, Charles Dickens, H.L. Mencken, Malcolm X, Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler (Mein Kampf), Mao Zedong, and the works of dozens of other less-well known writers with prejudices against me. We are intelligent beings, capable of holding a thought in our head and following its logic, even if we disagree with it, and in the end not be unduly influenced. This is what it means to read critically, and it is just as important to know why you disagree with someone as it is to know that you disagree.

At the same time,  following on from the first question above, we owe it to ourselves to be informed about the authors whose work we read. To be erudite, after all, somehow implies we are not duped through ignorance.  It is our very need to read widely that makes knowing the author and his/her context essential.

Read Eliot. Know he is a man of virulent hatreds. And then ask yourself – “how does what I know about the man change the way I see his art, and why?” If it makes no difference, then it doesn’t matter. If it makes a difference, then it is essential to the appreciation of the form.

One thought on “T.S. Eliot and the Art of Prejudice

Add yours

  1. I’ve been very appreciative of Eliot’s poetry for a long time. Much of his prose seems like it was written by someone totally different than whoever wrote the poetry. Perhaps some of that poetry was inspired (or even guided) by a “higher power”… and that “higher intelligence” uses people, even though they’re flawed. We, if we are truly honest, are all flawed. Prejudice really stinks though, IMHO!

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