T. S. Eliot and Prejudice, by Christopher Ricks'
This is a very curious book. Its obvious mission is to relieve T.S. Eliot’s reputation of the charge of anti-Semitism, yet the intellectual strategy it adopts as a means of accomplishing this unachievable—and, in fact, unachieved—mission is one that so distends the concept of “prejudice” as to render it supererogatory. Christopher Ricks is too honest and intelligent a critic to engage in any wholesale denial of anti-Semitism in Eliot, yet his elaborate attempts to explain it tend, for the most part, to be attempts to explain it away, to drain it of its patent virulence and redefine it as an understandable, if not quite forgivable, example of the kind of prejudice we are all said to be guilty of to one degree or another. The result is not only a failure to illuminate the role of anti-Semitic sentiment in Eliot’s work but something even more troubling—a refusal to deal seriously with the one aspect of Eliot’s writing in which anti-Semitism is absolutely integral: that which is addressed to the poet’s vision of an ideal society. In a book on T.S. Eliot and Prejudice, this is a remarkable dereliction of critical duty.
Eliot’s views on society have long been a problem for admirers of his poetry and criticism. They are clearly a problem for Christopher Ricks, and one can easily understand why he should wish to avoid having to deal with them in any systematic way. That subject is, in its political implications, an ugly one—no uglier, perhaps, than W.H. Auden’s social views in his Communist period (“the necessary murder,” etc.), but very ugly all the same; and Auden had the grace and good sense to repudiate his support of those views once he came to understand their true meaning. This, of course, Eliot never did. He simply—all too simply, alas—upheld a somewhat more sanitized version of his social philosophy until the time came for him to drop the subject altogether. When called upon to clarify the anti-Semitic element in his social thought, Eliot only succeeded—as Ricks well understands—in making matters worse.
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