The great and not so good

November 15, 1996

Suman Gupta argues that a writer's racism does affect his or her literary status.

The debate that followed the publication of T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, an attack on Eliot's anti-Semitism by Princess Diana's divorce lawyer Anthony Julius, appears to have receded into oblivion a bit too quickly. A hasty and familiar liberal consensus - that yes, Eliot was anti-Semititic, yes this is visible in his writings, but no, this does not make him a bad poet - has brought it to a premature conclusion.

That consensus was confirmed by the poet and academic Tom Paulin, Oxford professor of poetry James Fenton and is shared by Anthony Julius himself. Analogous positions have been reiterated all too often in the recent past: from "Ezra Pound was fascist but a great poet", to "Paul de Man was an anti-Semite but a great critic". Unfortunately, convenient as this position is, the debate cannot be allowed to conclude on such a note.

The very fact that the Eliot and anti-Semitism issue has again stirred the literary establishment suggests that larger issues are at stake. The ethos of the modern English literary canon may have to be re-examined. Eliot is not alone. There is a suspicion that the charge of anti-Semitism - or broadly, racism - may displace a large number of so-called "great" modern English writers from the increasingly multicultural canon of writings in English. For, irrespective of all assertions to the contrary, a writer's racism does affect his literary status.

Among the modernists not even the best-intentioned are above question. One could reconsider James Joyce, for instance: the creator of Leopold Bloom. Surely Joyce sympathised with the Jews, it is argued. We know he identified with them because all Jews in Europe have been in perpetual and painful "exile'' for thousands of years and Joyce had chosen "exile'' for himself; he shared with the Jews their respect for the written word; he had written a poem which begins, "What colour's Jew Joyce''. And yet there have been little murmurs of doubt also, usually by Jewish Joyceans, and hidden away in scholarly journals. There are reassuringly scholarly bits and pieces which indicate that Leopold Bloom was a Jewish stereotype, probably modelled along lines inspired by the work of psychologists Otto Weininger and Krafft-Ebing, who argued in favour of the degenerate Jewish type. Didn't Joyce know what Weininger and Krafft-Ebing were about?

One might begin to get concerned when one realises that Frank Budgen's The Making of Ulysses contains statements like the following: "The Jew sometimes hates the Gentile, and the Gentile occasionally hates the Jew but, religious and political differences apart, there exists also a physical chemical repulsion and this is felt only by the Gentile for the Jewish man, and is experienced by neither kind of menfolk for Gentile or Jewish women, nor, it seems, by the Jew man for his Gentile opposite number, nor by Gentile or Jewish women for males of the other race." Joyce approved Budgen's book.

The floodgates need to open. To raise questions about the integrity of any one modernist inevitably raises questions about the rest, and about our own comprehension of modernity. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that there was an"intertextual dynamics'' in the creation of modernism, that it was a kind of "corporate enterprise'' initiated by the "Men of 1914'' (Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T.S.Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Richard Aldington). It is accepted that Ezra Pound was a central figure. We all know that the evocation of Ezra Pound is disquieting. His virulently anti-Semitic Rome broadcasts rankle.

And this process of reconsideration would expand towards the 1930s. We have to wonder why the sincerely liberal George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London does not give names to the Jews who fleetingly appear there, and why are these Jews always placed in the position of being oppressors. We have to recall that in his apparently sympathetic portrayal of Bernhard Landauer in Goodbye to Berlin Christopher Isherwood deliberately reconstructed the personality of the real Wilfred on whom the character is based. He added on the stereotypical oriental fatalism and passivity of the Jew. Isherwood had the courage to admit this in Christopher and His Kind: "'Isherwood' stresses the 'oriental' aspect of Bernhard. In this case, the epithet seems to refer to the Chinese. But Christopher had a prejudice, at that period in his life, against another oriental race, the Hindus. He found something repellent in Hindu humility and passivity and the arrogance he felt that it concealed."

If one stretches the point one might begin to wonder why Wyndham Lewis's The Jews, Are They Human? seems to be almost a book of sound liberal principles. And so on.

None of these re-examinations of the social-cultural value allocated to these "great'' modernist writers, and therefore to the modernist consciousness and movement itself, can be conducted without implications for aesthetic and literary evaluation. Ultimately all evaluative acts are social. The division between aesthetic and social evaluation which generally allows the "great'' modernists like Eliot to retain their reputations as writers untarnished, despite their depleted social stature, is not acceptable. The "great'' modernists should not be given to students as "great'' any longer - they provide for us neither social-cultural nor aesthetic-literary models.

Suman Gupta is lecturer in English at Roehampton Institute, London.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments