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T. S. Eliot’s Anti-Semitism: Does It Matter?

IN THE PREFACE TO HIS STUDY OF ELIOT’S ANTI-SEMITISM (1995), Anthony Julius says:

‘. . . anti-Semitism beguiles, not just demagogues . . . but also creative artists of the highest quality. This usually surprises us, because we tend to sentimentalise our great writers and often think better of them than they deserve. Expecting our poets and novelists to be moral, we are blind to the amorality of their imaginations.’

One cannot but consider the enormous ramifications of the issue that Julius raises. Eliot is one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. For instance, the opening line of The Waste Land - ‘April is the cruellest month . . .’  – is so oft quoted that it has almost become a cliché.

Again, with his Nobel Laureate in Literature (1948) and numerous other literary accolades, Eliot is unmatched in his fame. His haloed status in literature is comparable to that of two other literary stalwarts, Samuel Johnson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Thus, Anthony Julius’ point about the ‘immorality of the imagination’ takes on a particular significance in Eliot’s writing.

Anti-Semitism was a crucial part of Eliot’s vision of a glorious Christian civilisation, which he felt was corroded by liberalism, of which the Jews were a decisive factor (his published lectures, titled After Strange Gods, 1933). Eliot’s anti-Semitism infused his writings and was a key component of his artistic vision. Piecing together his under-lying ideology from the rather crabbed hints and suggestions in the body of Eliot’s poems and prose writings, the main strands of his anti-Semitism are as follows:

In Eliot’s eyes liberalism is a conspiracy hatched by the Jews to get themselves out of the ghetto and insinuate themselves into mainstream society by dissolving the bonds of race and religion that hold society together. So, Jews are vermin who cause disease to the body of the main Christian Civilisation. He uses metaphors of disease and vermin for Jews.

Here are a few extracts from his poems where the Jew is vilified:

Dirge (unpublished part of Waste Land)

‘Full fathom five your Blestein lies
Under the flatfish and the squids
Graves’ Diseases in a dead jew’s eyes! . . .’

Gerontion

‘. . . My house is a decayed house,
And the Jew squats on the windowsill, the owner
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London . . .’

Burbank with a Baedeker
Bleistein with a Cigar

‘. . . On the Rialto once,
The rats are underneath the piles
The Jew is underneath the lot . . .’
  
Does Eliot’s anti-Semitism matter?

How do we reconcile our appreciation of the works of a great poet or writer with the amorality of their imagination?

Do you think that such racist views disqualify the work of a poet/writer from greatness?

Should we boycott a poet’s/writer’s work because of his/her repellent views?

– Golden Langur
 
 

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