By Anthony Julius. Cambridge University Press. $49.95. Reviewed by Evelyn Toynton
On hearing that someone has written a book on the anti-Semitism of T. S. Eliot, one may be tempted to respond with a groan. We've already seen Mark Twain slammed for his racism and Willa Cather censured for not caring enough about the plight of the American Indian; is every writer in the canon to be accused of injustice to one minority group or another?
In the case of Eliot, the allegation seems particularly ominous, a further sign, if one were needed, that nothing is any longer sacred. For so long, he had seemed unassailable--the high priest of high art, the last true monument and authority in English letters. As the radical innovator who was also the inheritor and conservator of all of Western culture, he was literally worshiped by other poets, whose biographies and memoirs are full of tales of their adulation of him. His critical pronouncements in his essays took on the weight of judgments from on high, while toward the end of his life even the general public treated him as they did Einstein, flocking to greet him at airports and lining the streets to cheer him. So strong was his aura of cultural sainthood that it seems presumptuous to approach him in anything but a spirit of awe.
And yet the reverence Eliot has been accorded has always entailed the refusal to acknowledge certain uncomfortable facts. Perhaps chief among these is the curiously nasty tone of much of his poetry. Whereas Yeats's manifold hatreds are passionate, even exultant, Eliot's voice, in all but the greatest of the poems that pre-date his conversion to Anglicanism, is full of sour revulsion, as mean-spirited as it is magisterial. Though The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock achieve a note of elegiac despair, most of the early work does not aspire that high; its prevailing tone is one of nauseated loathing, not all of which seems ascribable to the post-war disillusionment of his generation.
Which brings us to the question of what might be called the pathological elements in Eliot's work. Perhaps cowed by his own dictum that "the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates," or perhaps because they are so intent on what is difficult in his work that they fail to see what is obvious, few critics have ever remarked on its disturbing psychological subtext. Thus, his admirers have praised the "dense allusiveness" of a poem like "Sweeney Erect," its "concern for upholding the classical tradition," while ignoring the fact that it is absolutely crawling with sexual repugnance:
Gesture of orang-outang
Rises from the sheets in steam.
This withered root of knots of hair
Slitted below and gashed with eyes,
This oval O cropped out with teeth:
The sickle motion from the thighs
Jackknifes upward at the knees . . .
And other poems of this period are equally permeated by hatred of the flesh, not in a religious sense--religion came later, would seem to have been his escape from the condition of horror--but in a way that seems downright embarrassing: the poet is telling us something he doesn't know he is telling.
Given all this, what seems unfortunate about Anthony Julius's book, which has been much acclaimed, is not so much his...