Eliot, Lawrence & the Jews
It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning.
—T. S. Eliot
Notes towards the Definition of a Culture
Whenever traces of anti-Semitism appear in writers of major importance, I suspect that most readers are inclined either to dismiss the whole matter as an inconvenient but incidental prejudice of the author, or, alternately, to respond in mere indignation and, by so doing, to assume that hostility toward Jews is everywhere the same, without significant differences in nuance, motive, or general orientation. However, what a writer has to say about Jews, carefully considered, can sometimes provide a key to underlying aims and even methods in his work, and an insight into his relation to the larger culture around him. To suggest something of the range of the phenomenon, I would like to consider symptomatic works by two English moderns at opposite poles—T. S. Eliot, the Christian conservative militantly defending an ostensibly older idea of European culture, and D. H. Lawrence, the evangelical pagan attacking some of the basic values of Christian Europe.
Especially since Lawrence rarely touches on Jews in his fiction with English or European settings, it may seem peculiar that in Kangaroo, a novel set in Australia, he should make one of the chief protagonists a Jew and repeatedly draw our attention to the character’s Jewish identity. But the choice, as we shall see, has its own logic, given the nature of Lawrence’s concerns. This oddest of Lawrence’s novels, more preachment and spiritual rumination than novel, records the encounter between a thinly-veiled autobiographical representation of Lawrence and Benjamin Cooley (the Kangaroo of the title), the Jewish charismatic leader of a bizarrely sectarian party with a vague, perhaps ominous, program for redeeming Australia. In the meandering course of the novel, amidst that mixture of claptrap and insight characteristic of Lawrence, reflections on Jews are made by the narrator, by the Lawrencean protagonist Richard Somers, by other characters from both the political Left and the Right, and almost none of it is what one would call complimentary. Nevertheless, it takes some sorting out to see precisely what the novel it trying to do with the Jews. As a clear example of how not to proceed, of how an average liberal reader responds to the first signs of literary anti-Semitism, let me quote a few lines on this novel from John Harrison’s recent survey of political attitudes in Lawrence, Eliot, and others, The Reactionaries:
He equated democracy with the rule of Jewish financiers, and he even “gradually came to believe that all Jews, and all Celts, even whilst they espoused the cause of England, subtly lived to bring about the humiliation of the great old England.” It needed a Jew, he said, to produce the “last step in liberty,” the Theory of Relativity, and like Lewis, Pound, and Eliot, he believed the whole liberal-democratic tradition to be essentially Jewish in nature. Kangaroo, the representative of this tradition, is himself a Jew. He did not mention men like Einstein by name alone; they were “the Jew, Einstein,” or “Marx, the Jew.”
All this is appallingly careless. It makes Kangaroo look like a ranting anti-Semitic tract, which is far from both the intent and the effect of the novel. The subject of these supposed opinions is Richard Somers, not D. H. Lawrence, and though Lawrence himself admittedly tends to blur distinctions between the two, one is hardly entitled to attribute the opinions of a fictional character to the author without the slightest modification. Thus, when Harrison, with no indication of transition, writes, “like Lewis, Pound, and Eliot, he believed the whole liberal-democratic tradition to be essentially Jewish in nature,” the real antecedent of “he” has shifted from Somers to Lawrence. In point of fact, Lawrence did not believe this, and it even misrepresents the position of the protagonist of Kangaroo. Richard Somers associates democracy and patriotism with commercialism and industrialism, and these in turn he sometimes conceives in the image of the Jewish financier, but he does not equate democracy with the rule of Jewish financiers.
Lawrence, we recall, was often preoccupied with notions of racial characteristics and inbred cultural heritages, involving northern Europeans (by no means a positive type in his view), Mediterraneans, black Africans, Australians, Mexicans, Gypsies, Celts, and, of course, Jews. It is almost a matter of course that a Lawrence protagonist, considering the Jews, should connect them with the qualities of driving materialism and disembodied intellectuality that Lawrence himself felt were pervading modern civilization, though Somers also attributes other, rather surprising “racial” characteristics to the Jews, as we shall see in a moment. Finally, it is patently absurd to speak of Kangaroo as the representative of the “liberal-democratic tradition” when the novel clearly presents the movement he leads as a variety of fascism. “I want to keep order,” says Cooley with italic emphasis, “and that you can only do by exerting strong, just power from above.” A moment later, he continues in the tones of a Grand Inquisitor: “Man needs to be relieved from this terrible responsibility of governing himself when he doesn’t know what he wants, and has no aim toward which to govern himself. Man again needs a father—not a friend or a brother sufferer, a suffering Saviour.” The fact that a reader of even middling intelligence could describe this political outlook as liberal-democratic can only be explained through the blindness of automatic liberal preconceptions: the twin-headed monster of anti-Semitism and reaction is imagined to be everywhere the same, and since Lawrence dislikes Jews, he must invariably associate them with liberal democracy, which he also dislikes. It would not occur to a writer like Harrison that Lawrence could at once hold Jews in contempt and be powerfully attracted to them, or that he could ultimately reject fascism, for all his cult of “the mystery of lordship,” because the fascist idea profoundly violated the proud separateness that was sacrosanct to him, and he sensed that the true nature of fascism was—to borrow J. L. Talmon’s telling phrase—“totalitarian democracy.”1
This brings us back to the central puzzle of the novel itself: why on earth should Lawrence choose a Jew as the charismatic leader of a fascist movement? A moment after Somers’s ironic description of the Theory of Relativity as the “last step in liberty” (which is said, by the way, in a spirit of friendly banter to Cooley, who he already suspects is a Jew), he reflects on Kangaroo’s racial identity: “Surely . . . it is Jewish blood. The very best that is in the Jewish blood: a faculty for pure disinterestedness, and warm, physically warm love, that seems to make the corpuscles of the blood glow.” To this Somers adds another unspoken comment, the aggressive paradoxicality of which should be duly noted: “The man had surely Jewish blood. And he was almost purely kind, essential kindliness, embodied in an ancient, unscrupulous shrewdness.” Kangaroo exerts considerable magnetism over Somers, yet the Englishman is finally repulsed by the Australian and his political philosophy. Ostensibly, much of what Kangaroo preaches should appeal to a Lawrence hero: he speaks “in the name of living life,” and has set his face against “anti-life,” denouncing the obscene ant-heap of modern civilization. Yet Somers soon realizes that Cooley’s doctrine, which he understands to be ultimately Jewish, is death to him.
It is easier to see what Kangaroo is all about if one simply recognizes that it is essentially a religious novel and not a political one. Though there are allusions to post-religious Jews who are sensed as a potentially subversive influence in the modern world, the real importance of the Jews in the novel is as the living source of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Thus, Somers says of the Celts—elsewhere, as we have seen, likened to the Jews—that “they remember older gods, older ideals, different gods: before the Jews invented a mental Jehovah, and a spiritual Christ.” The Jews, then, are the ultimate adversary not because of an international Jewish conspiracy to subvert European values but, on the contrary, because the Jews are the source of European values which, in their highest fulfillment, alienate man from his natural world by leading the life of the psyche out of the body through the conduits of intellect and spirit. Although Somers repeatedly speaks of Jehovah and Christ, he is far from following the traditional Christian opposition between the Old Testament God of wrath and the New Testament God of love. Rather, in his own division of Old Testament intellect and New Testament spirituality, love permeates both Laws, love is the essentially Jewish way to redemption, and love asphyxiates, because it is eros ideologized, cut off from its roots in the physical world, reduced to a gospel whose bearer presumptuously violates the order of nature by insisting that he can embrace mankind in godlike compassion. It is this love that the Jewish message of redemption would pour over humanity like treacle, thus denying the individual his individuality, denying him both his connection with and aloneness in a primal world of nature deeper than love. “I know your love, Kangaroo,” Somers says in a central renunciation of the new Jewish gospel. “Working everything from the spirit, from the head. You work the lower self as an instrument of the spirit. Now it is time for the spirit to leave us again; it is time for the Son of Man to depart, and leave us dark, in front of the unspoken God: who is just beyond the dark threshold of the self, my lower self.” Lawrence’s language shows an even more pronounced tendency in this novel than elsewhere in his fiction to adopt biblical cadences and biblical imagery; and this is perfectly appropriate because the book is a new gospel conceived as a radical revision of the old.
The first great religious revelation, as Lawrence views it, came to the West through a people preoccupied with getting God in the head, with subjecting all of life to the rule of will, and love itself to a regimen of will. (This last notion, as a matter of fact, is not so far-fetched: it could be supported by a host of rabbinical statements as well as by biblical injunctions.) The piping insistence of the conscious will falsifies love, deceives man by making him believe he can assume the identity of a God fashioned in his own image, and finds its ultimate issue in a fascist doctrine preaching power from above in the name of a willed love of humanity. The Jew, in whatever sphere he moves, embodies both “essential kindliness” and “unscrupulous shrewdness” because his relationship to life is hyperconscious: with the disposition of will, one can train oneself to kindliness, though never to the deeper impulse of passion; with a will constantly on guard, one responds to enemies not in anger or hatred but with the fine cutting-edge of shrewd calculation. In Lawrence’s own doctrine, on the other hand, man could be fully man only by renouncing the vision of his own coercive godliness, by slipping out of the constrictive grip of his human will and lapsing into a larger awareness of the magical animal world to which he belongs.
What Kangaroo does in effect is to raise the subconscious European archetype of the Jew as father to the level of conscious theological critique. Benjamin Cooley, as we have seen, casts himself as a benevolent All-Father to his future people, and he is ideally suited for this role precisely because he is a Jew. When it is said of Somers’s wife toward the end of the novel that she “left Europe with her teeth set in hatred of Europe’s ancient encumbrance of authority and of the withered, repulsive weight of the Hand of the Lord, that old Jew, upon it,” one can see the serious point of cultural criticism in the remark, however much it may seem merely an unpleasant anti-Semitic slur out of context. For Kangaroo is a long, incensed argument against God the Father, and in the Western imagination God the Father stubbornly remains a Jew.
Lawrence’s general outlook bears some resemblance, of course, to the neo-pagan current of German anti-Semitic ideology that attacked both Judaism and Christianity as corrupters of an indigenous Teutonic spirit, but the resemblance is mainly superficial. Lawrence lacks the essential ingredient of a nationalist mystique: all Europeans, Gentiles and Jews, are equally subjected to his scathing criticism, and he attacks what Europe—Christians and their Jewish spiritual forebears—has made of itself, without imagining a pristine breed of Northern heroes corrupted by a race of Oriental interlopers. He is not impervious, moreover, to the intrinsic appeal of the Jewish character and the Jewish spiritual way, as he understands them—Kangaroo, their embodiment in the novel, is a man of bizarre but very genuine personal charm, and the novelist, in the end unable wholly to exorcise him, must resort to killing him off before the conclusion of the book. Though Lawrence thinks we have had a good deal too much emphasis on reason in our culture, he is not, in the German proto-Nazi style, unreservedly anti-rational, and the real thrust of his criticism is directed not against reason but the hypertrophied will. It is precisely that critique of will that sets him inalterably apart from fascism, that makes his use of the Jews seem not altogether arbitrary, and that abides, after half a century, as a probing, still unanswered indictment of individual and collective life in Western culture. Careful consideration of the way Lawrence treats Jews and comments on them can help us see these aspects of his novel, and where its deeper intent lies; on the other hand, a stock response of censure or dismissal to the specter of anti-Semitism will only deflect a reader from what the writer is trying to say.
T. S. Eliot clearly brews a very different cup of literary tea from the ingredients of religious prejudice. It is tempting to shrug off all the anti-Semitism in Eliot’s poetry as the purely reflexive prejudice of his cultural milieu and therefore of no particular importance in assessing his work. Explicit anti-Semitism in the poetry, after all, is limited to “Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar,” to the notorious image in “Gerontion” of the squatting Jew “spawned in some estimanet of Antwerp,” and to two or three passing innuendos in the Sweeney poems. Yet I would contend that the vehement energy of repulsion one encounters in Eliot when he does mention Jews bears reflection, and that the Jews do in fact constitute a crucial test-case for his conceptions of European culture and the nature of literary experience. “Burbank with a Baedeker,” then, is not an aberration, as the one Eliot poem wholly devoted to an anti-Semitic subject, but rather it spells out underlying assumptions about poetry, tradition, and modern culture that are operative even when he is not at all concerned with Jews. As such, the poem deserves a careful reading.
For a relatively short poem, it has a rather long epigraph, which we might ponder because it offers at once an image of what Venice will mean in the body of the poem and a model—virtually a self-parody—of the poetic technique Eliot uses here and elsewhere.
Tra-la-la-la-la-la-laire—nil nisi divinum stabile est; caetera fumus—the gondola stopped, the old palace was there, how charming its grey and pink—goats and monkeys, with such hair too!—so the countess passed on until she came through the little park, where Niobe presented her with a cabinet, and so departed.
The intended immediate effect of all this is obviously to impress the reader with a sense of unintelligible jumble, of a collage of snippets and bits and fragments of things, involving some sort of confusion between regal dignity and foul animality or perhaps eroticism; in this way, the whole passage recapitulates the latter fate of Venice, once a splendid center of European culture.
The epigraph is entirely composed of quotations, and a reader with a retentive memory may recall several of them. The clause with the gondola stopping by a grey and pink palace is from the first approach to the Bordereau palazzo in James’s The Aspern Papers, a story of how great art gets mixed up with sordid commercialism by an interloper in Venice. “Goats and monkeys” is an expletive used by the enraged Othello, that hapless soldier of Venice. Straining a little, one might even recall that “with such hair, too” appears at the end of Browning’s “A Toccata of Guluppi’s,” a poem that uses Venice as an image of the transience of human things: “Dear dead women, with such hair, too—what’s become of all the gold/Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.” Only the energy of a professional annotator, however, is likely to uncover the source of “Tra-la-la” in Gautier’s poem, Variations sur le carnivale de Venise (allusion here surely on the brink of a dubious joke!), or the original setting of the whole last unit (“so the countess . . .”) in the stage directions of a masque by Marston, or the Latin tag (“Nothing but the divine is permanent; the rest is smoke”) inscribed around the base of a guttering candle in a Mantegna painting of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. The epigraph, then, comes close to being a reduction to the absurd of the technique of the poem, which in eight brief stanzas alludes to three different plays by Shakespeare, to Homer, Horace, Ruskin, and one wonders what else.
Now, it is a commonplace to explain Eliot’s mosaic method of composition—which he did not entirely abandon even as late as the Four Quartets—by referring to his need to reproduce formally the spiritual ruins of modern life, those devastated ruins against which the poet could only shore up fragments. I would like to suggest that this density of discontinuous allusion also has another function in Eliot’s poetry, which is to invoke the whole range of the European cultural tradition in a way that suggests the tradition is at once universal and esoteric, impenetrable to the outsider. The Jew in this regard is important to Eliot as the archetypal outsider, a European who is not a Christian, which for Eliot is a virtual self-contradiction. Let us see how this imagination of exclusion works itself out in the body of the poem:
Burbank crossed a little bridge
Descending at a small hotel;
Princess Volupine arrived,
They were together, and he fell.
Defunctive music under sea
Passed seaward with the passing bell
Slowly: the God Hercules
Had left him, that had loved him well.
The horses, under the axletree
Beat up the dawn from Istria
With even feet. Her shuttered barge
Burned on the water all the day.
But this or such was Bleistein’s way:
A saggy bending of the knees
And elbows, with the palms turned out,
Chicago Semite Viennese.
A lustreless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time
Declines. On the Rialto once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.
Money in furs. The boatman smiles,
Princess Volupine extends
A meagre, blue-nailed, phthisic hand
To climb the waterstair. Lights, lights,
She entertains Sir Ferdinand
Klein. Who clipped the lion’s wings
And flea’d his rump and pared his claws?
Thought Burbank, meditating on
Time’s ruins, and the seven laws.
Burbank, presumably an American tourist, at least manages to be mock-heroic, abandoned, like Shakespeare’s Antony, by the god Hercules, after an assignation at a small hotel with Princess Volupine, whose name may suggest both pleasure and wolfishness. Aristocracy has gone all to pieces: the title of princess, in fact, might be no more than an ironic epithet for a whore, who hurries on from Burbank to entertain a rich Jew as spuriously noble as herself—for how could a genuine Sir Ferdinand be Klein? Bleistein is thrust into the poem against a context of allusions he would not understand, from which his alien background and nature irrevocably exclude him: Antony and Cleopatra, Greek mythology, a Homeric chariot of the sun, an echo of Horace’s image of death beating “with equal foot” on the roofs of rich and poor, an evocation of Enobarbus’s splendid description of Cleopatra sailing down the Nile, and then the sagging, grubby figure that is hopelessly incompatible with all this—“Chicago Semite Viennese.” Bleistein is a merchant of Venice—“on the Rialto” is a phrase from the play—conceived with a nastiness unlike anything in Shakespeare. Having made his money in the characteristically Jewish fur trade, he continues, ratlike, to gnaw away the underpinnings of a once resplendent European city, of European society itself. If Shylock was accorded his moment of humanity when he could cry out, “Hath not a Jew eyes?,” Eliot would seem to answer that the jew—lower-case “j” to suggest it is like the name of some odious animal—has only such eyes as bulge like dull bubbles out of protozoic slime, not civilized eyes that can really see a landscape by Canaletto, a religious painting by Mantegna, the architectural beauties of Venice, the ironic allusions of a poem by Eliot.
Eliot’s treatment of the Jews is, I believe, symptomatic of a general dysfunction of humanistic values operating in his work, for all its virtuosity and its power. It may help to see these larger implications in perspective if we recall that Venice had been used by poets as a symbol of transience and the decline of European grandeur for almost two centuries before the writing of “Burbank with a Baedeker.” Eliot is, to my knowledge, the first important writer to introduce the Jews into the picture, indeed, to attribute the final decline of Venice to them—for the clear answer to Burbank’s question of who clipped the mighty winged lion of Venice is Klein, Bleistein, and Company. A glance at some earlier images of a fallen Venice will suggest what this innovation means in terms of the poetic act and the poet’s imagination of European culture. In the fourth book of the Dunciad, Pope sends his prototypical modern fop on a grand tour of the Continent, where, to climax a series of sites of cultural decadence, the young tourist visits “chief her shrine where naked Venus keeps,/And Cupids ride the Lion of the Deeps;/Where, eased of Fleets, the Adriatic main/Wafts the smooth Eunuch and enamoured swain.” Pope, too, imagines a Venetian lion stultified, not by the machinations of rapacious foreigners but by the unrestrained sensuality of the Venetians themselves. Classical Italy for Pope, with a remembered Rome of the Augustan age at its hub, is the model of a fully achieved European culture, embodying values of discipline, order, responsibility, public service, magnanimity. In this modern Venice, all of the values of the Latin-speaking peoples have been subverted; and so the machinery of the pastoral tradition—mythological ornamentation and elegant poetic inversions, soft breezes wafting enamored swains—is cunningly used to expose an anti-pastoral reality of license and perversion.
For the English Romantics, Venice is both the locus of a once magnificent Renaissance art (as in Eliot) and the image of proud freedom crushed under modern tyranny (but Eliot was not interested in republican politics). Wordsworth, in his sonnet “On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic,” invokes the city as “the eldest Child of Liberty.” The sestet of this sonnet might be instructively set alongside the conclusion of “Burbank”:
And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life has reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great, is passed away.
Against this sense of reverence for human greatness passed, Eliot’s tone seems thin and self-indulgent, something between a whine and a sneer. “Men are we,” says Wordsworth, and it is precisely this awareness of shared humanity in the face of the transience of men’s achievements that gives his poem resonance. An implicit sense of “men are we” is what is most essentially lacking in Eliot’s poem, which makes clear that European greatness is the property of an elite, and that humanity is not to be accorded so readily to everything that walks on two legs and can smoke a cigar.
Eliot’s introduction of an outsider as the principal agent of decay radically shifts the balance of moral meaning in the idea of decline. In order to focus the nature of this shift more sharply, I would like to consider one stanza from Byron’s great lament over fallen Venice at the beginning of Canto Four of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
Statues of glass—all shivered—the long file
Of her dead Doges are declined to dust;
But where they dwelt, the vast and sumptuous pile
Bespeaks the pageant of their splendid trust;
Their sceptre broken, and their sword in rust,
Have yielded to the stranger: empty halls,
Thin streets, and foreign aspects, such as must
Too oft remind her who and what enthrals,
Have flung a desolate cloud
o’er Venice’ lovely walls.
In contrast to Eliot, who approaches the broken grandeur of the past obliquely and ironically through a jigsaw pattern of allusions, Byron imagines the subject directly in evocative elegiac imagery, the rhythm of decline echoing hauntingly in the falling music of the verse. Byron’s file of dead Doges declined to dust makes Eliot’s pseudo-aristocrats seem like a flimsy satiric invention, for of the two poets, it is Byron who persuades us that he really knows what aristocracy means. Against Byron’s strong sense of present emptiness and his vividly symbolic evocation of greatness shattered, “Time’s ruins” at the end of the Eliot poem looks like an abstraction, no more than a traditional poetic phrase appropriately placed by an expert dealer in phrases. But the difference between Byron and Eliot is most crucial in the different identities of the intrusive stranger in the two poems. Byron’s reference is historical and political: Napoleon had delivered Venice to Austria in 1797, and so the capital of what had once been a Mediterranean empire was now subject to the very real domination of a foreign imperial power. In the passage from Byron, poetry engages history; in Eliot, it instead conjures with distorted myths about history, for the Jew as the interloper who has subverted Venice, or Europe, is a fantasy of collective paranoia, while the driving commercialism of Venice is very much a home product, from the origins of the city in the Christian Middle Ages to modern times.
The apparition of the threatening stranger in Venice brings to mind an invocation of Venice as an image of decline in a work published just eight years before “Burbank”—Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Mann, too, is concerned with large questions of European culture and values, but his Venice represents a pole of overripe sensuality, joined with the lust for gain, which is not smuggled in from without but is intrinsic to European experience and to human nature, however it may be suppressed: “this was Venice, this the fair frailty that fawned and that betrayed, half fairy-tale, half snare; the city in whose stagnating air the art of painting once put forth so lusty a growth, and where musicians were moved to accords so weirdly lulling and lascivious.” We might note that in Mann’s story the demonic stranger, who at first seems to be alien and unknown to Aschenbach, the archetypal European, turns out to be a projected image of Aschenbach’s own suppressed sensuality, a phantasmagoric inner view of Aschenbach himself. One could not come further from Eliot’s vision of the stranger as an utterly alien, pestilential creature penetrating from without into the fastnesses of the European city to gnaw at its foundations.
What i would like to stress in all of this is not that T. S. Eliot had abhorrent ideas about Jews but rather that the ideas he did have about Jews, seen in a perspective of literary history, reveal the defensive strain, the self-consciousness, and finally the externality of his relationship with European culture. There is, I suspect, an element of excessive awareness of tradition as an idea in all of Eliot’s affirmations of its importance in his criticism, something that smacks of converting tradition into a literary ideology instead of naturally participating in it and using it, as poets like Pope, Wordsworth, and Byron were able to do. People who shrilly insist on the uniqueness of their own identity are likely to be insecure about it; groups that must forever affirm their own exclusiveness are almost certain to have inner doubts about their coherence or collective validity. It is no accident that the most extreme form of exclusivist nationalism in Europe developed in Germany, the country composed of a congeries of smaller states where a historical unity of national consciousness was most in question. Both Deutschtum as a political ideology and Eliot’s Christian Europe as a cultural program needed, first, the myth of an ideal past—the Teutonic era and the Christian Middle Ages, respectively—as a prop, and, then, an external enemy, the Jews, to define through opposition their own unsure sense of identity and to explain the fallen state of their present culture. I do not mean to say that Eliot was actually close to Nazism; as a matter of fact, he came to oppose it firmly because of its pagan nature, and he certainly was prepared to make many discriminations and qualifications in viewing the Jew as the symbol of European decadence that would have been beyond the ken of fascism. Nevertheless, the structural analogy between the two is instructive.
The hyperconsciousness with which Eliot ideologizes a tradition and makes himself part of it is observable in the peculiar nature of his poetic achievement. He is a master, but finally a master ventriloquist, speaking in a score of different voices, ingeniously orchestrated, but never fully in a voice of his own. There is almost everywhere something excessively cerebral about the way he uses the poetic tradition, as though he had studied it minutely without ever completely assimilating it. The Waste Land is a poem of stunning virtuosity, but one has only to compare its use of the myth of death and rebirth with Milton’s handling of the same mythic materials in Lycidas to see the difference between a poet who has absorbed the tradition, can freely imagine through it, and one who consciously contrives poetry out of the tradition. Eliot’s poetry, to be sure, has its marvelously moving moments, even when it is most synthetic, and I don’t want to suggest that he should be written off as “minor.” The sense of connection, however, with a real, living humanity is shrunken in him, and because of it he strains and stretches to make himself one with a Western literary tradition that, before all else, expresses just that sense of connection. One suspects that in Eliot an impaired sense of community with the living and the dead is compensated for by the enunciation of Christian community as a program, and by a poetic technique that substitutes an intricate network of insider’s allusions for the natural assumption of shared culture and shared humanity. Eliot is often viewed as the paradigmatic poetic spokesman of his troubled period, but it may be equally appropriate to see him as a symptom of the trouble. In any event, his case illustrates how attention to the role of anti-Semitism in a writer’s work may lead to a clearer apprehension of his imaginative world. If the Jews have a historical destiny, it is to be at the crossroads of trouble, and that destiny has been fulfilled time after time not only in the realm of geopolitics but also in the Christian imagination.
1 Denis Donoghue, in his admirable review of The Reactionaries in these pages (August 1967), offers analogous examples of careless reading.