Self-centred myth maker

T. S. Eliot
January 19, 1996

This book is liable to raise considerable controversies, not for its contents, for no one has ever doubted T. S. Eliot's antisemitism, but for its emphasis on one aspect of Eliot's poetry which to many readers seems irrelevant. Much depends on the reader's own convictions as to the part that poetry plays in the traditions of the community. Some readers may indeed consider antisemitism as part of western culture and therefore take for granted a certain antisemitic element in the arts, either openly or by implication. Such a position may conceivably be implied in Eliot's own famous essay, "Tradition and the individual talent".

Reviewing this book, I became more aware of my own ambivalent position regarding Eliot's antisemitism: first as I am a Jew myself, second because I have taught Eliot's poetry to Jewish students, and third because these students live in a Jewish state. Throughout my decades of teaching Eliot to Israeli Jewish students. I remarked their general indifference to his many hostile references to Jews.

I also discovered the native Israelis' complete ignorance of antisemitism, something they rarely if ever experienced personally, a mere abstraction. The wars fought between Israelis and Arabs were not based on race, they were fought between nations. This is why we never indulged in detailed discussions of Eliot's obviously negative attitudes towards Jews and Jewishness.

In addition, I am what Julius calls a "Leavisite", one who looks at Eliot's poetry as poetry, not as a form of Weltanschauung. Leavis's approach was at all times based in the poetic tradition of England. The question of moral value only arose in relation to the poetry that gave it expression. Although Leavis raised objections to certain aspects of Eliot's poetry, he never denied Eliot's greatness as a maker of myth and he used Eliot's work to give shape to a contemporary mythology. The appearance of the Jew in Eliot's poetry was, for Leavis and many students, mainly a metaphor for the decline of western civilisation which became a major component of Leavis's myth of modern poetic tradition.

Eliot was evidently a very self-centred man with little compassion. There is no hint of the horrors of the Holocaust in his poetry. Neither is there any allusion to the fate of countless other poets. This is especially true of poets of Jewish extraction, some of whom deserved a Nobel prize no less than Eliot. I refer particularly to Osip Mandelstam, who died in a Russian labour camp, and to Paul Celan, who committed suicide out of despair at his intolerable position as a victim of the Holocaust writing in the German language.

Yet this is a well-written and ably researched book on one aspect of Eliot's poetry that, although not fundamental, enables the reader to form an opinion both of his greatness as a poet and of his limits as a man.

Alex Aronson was emeritus professor of English literature, Tel Aviv University, Israel. He died in December 1995.

T. S. Eliot: Antisemitism and Literary Form

Author - Anthony Julius
ISBN - 0 521 47063 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 308

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