The great strength Anthony Julius’s book (first published in 1995) is also, in a way, its weakness: Julius does not linger on Eliot’s motivations, his influences, or his reception, but instead focuses, almost to the point of exhaustion, on how Eliot used anti-Semitism – its images, its ways of thinking, its resonances – to make poems. The skill with which he did this, Julius argues, makes these poems a contribution to the anti-Semitic imagination, not simply a product of it.
The author is a barrister not a poet or a critic. He picks his ground carefully. Later in life, Eliot protested that as a devout Christian he could not possibly be anti-Semitic, since anti-Semitism was theologically unsound. That a little glance at history proves that far from the case is not the point: Eliot was deflecting the charge onto his own character, and away from the poems. Julius, rightly, does not fall for the trap.
As Julius puts it, many of Eliots early poems ‘exclude’ Jews by presenting them as objects of disgust and deirision. The truth is I have never been able to read the Collected Poems without them leaving a bad taste, even before I knew about the views expressed in Eliot’s other writing. Poems like ‘Gerontian’ and ‘Burbank with a Baedeker’ squat at the beginning of the book, inevitably colouring the rest. Even reading ‘The Wasteland’ I am always waiting for some coy hint that Jews are responsible for the state of the world. It never comes, but only because Ezra Pound, of all people, excised an interlude known as ‘Dirge’, which depicts Bleistein’s corpse decaying beneath the Thames. The phrase ‘neither gentile nor Jew’ remains, though, and I find it hard to read the word from Eliot without hearing a sneer.
T. S. Eliot, anti-Semitism and literary form is an uneven book. Partly this is a matter of style: Julius does not really have any. He reads best when he is dissecting naïve notions about poetry’s intrinsic lack of content, the idea that if a text includes an argument or a statement, or is morally suspect, then it is not a ‘true’ poem. (Critics have argued that the poems cannot be anti-Semitic, because no good poem could be). Sometimes it takes an outsider to treat arguments like these with the short shrift they deserve. Yet Julius will also riff for pages on the implications of a particular line or image, and while this is part of his method, it is hard to follow and often feels overcooked: it is not necessary to believe that Eliot understood or meant every single unsavoury implication of ‘Rachel nee Rabinovitch’ with her ‘murderous claws’ to believe he knew exactly what he was doing by putting her in the poem.
When the book came out, it caused a storm. But it was a storm which, as Tom Paulin observed in the London Review of Books, went nowhere. Instead, in the press – and in the LRB’s letter pages – the issue settled swiftly into the familiar and largely irrelevant question of whether or not Eliot’s other poetry could be enjoyed guilt-free (in effect, whether or not he should be cancelled).
If that reception says something about literary culture in Britain, it can also partly be attributed to the book. Julius does not go into any depth about what writing anti-Semitic poems might have meant for Eliot’s development as a poet, or for his influence as a writer and public intellectual: there are tantalising hints about the importance of defacement and ugliness to modernism, or about Eliot’s conflicted notion of himself as an intellectual. There is even a suggestion that anti-Semitism might have been necessary to Eliot’s own conversion to Anglicanism, in that it offered him a world-view with the Jew at one extreme, representing everything Eliot detested about modern society, and the Christian at the other (the English Christian, too, Paulin would stress). But the threads are never picked up.
There is more to say about the connection between anti-Semitism and Eliot’s reactionary modernism, and how appealing that world-view was to writers and readers here and in the US before and after the war, and still is. But in the absence of these questions, the debate about the book slipped into clichés. As far as I can gather, the critical reckoning Paulin was calling for twenty-five years ago never got going.*
* As an example of how low the reception of Julius’s book sank, the LRB published a letter in response to Paulin wondering whether Eliot was right about the Jews after all. It is a bucket of nonsense, but I will quote the worst bit: “It is an astonishing weakness of Tom Paulin’s review that he shows no awareness of the insidious ambiguity of the term ‘anti-semitism’ or of the great damage done to the fabric of Western nations by Jewish interests during the last few hundred years.” You can read the article and responses here.