T. S. Eliot Is Not Obliged To Love Me

Big Thinking Classics Jewish Politics

T. S. Eliot is not obliged to love me. The topic of anti-semitism comes up often when this great poet and literary critic is mentioned, but I think it's a sign of our chronic over-sensitivity that we consider it a moral felony of the highest order for a poet to be a snob. T. S. Eliot has the right to hate whoever he wants.

He never hurt anybody, and I never saw any evidence that he wanted to. I love his work, his Dante-esque vision, his moral seriousness, his (yes) sense of humor. If he met me, maybe he'd hate me because I'm a Jew. He'd probably also hate me because I'm a modern American hipster slacker, a fast-food eater, a casual dresser. Who cares? It doesn't mean he wanted to Holocaust me to death.

I've read his biography, and this book gave me reason to think I wouldn't have much to say to him either. Hell, I don't talk Latin. By all accounts he was a walking pill, a fact he even alludes to in his own poem "How Unpleasant to Meet Mr. Eliot":

How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut.
And his brow so grim
And his mouth so prim
And his conversation, so nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If and Perhaps and But ...
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
(Whether his mouth be open or shut.)

The excellent film about Eliot's life his sad marriage Tom and Viv doesn't make him seem very likable either (though Willem Dafoe is very appealing as young Tom). So T. S. Eliot and I are going to agree to hate each other's guts, but I sure do love his poetry and his critical essays. We just wanted to let you know that we've worked it all out.

* * * * *

I exhausted myself writing yesterday's post (a thorny one, about Jewish identity, the Holocaust and the moral lessons of history), so I may not be making good sense tonight. This is a topic I have a lot to say about. It's not hard for me to write about Jewish identity -- it's sometimes hard for me to stop.

I'm glad that the conversation on yesterday's post (a response to a Harold Bloom article) is continuing in my comments section, and I'm very flattered that Jewcy Magazine asked me if they could run the piece on their lively website devoted to modern Jewish culture. I said yes, of course. Some people are already calling me a misguided idiot over on the comments section there, so this could get out of hand before the night is done.

Elsewhere, Bloom's controversial piece is getting batted around by Andrew Sullivan and Jeffrey Goldberg over at the Atlantic Monthly blogs. Not too surprisingly, I think Sully calls it better.

Regular blogging will resume tomorrow.

10 Responses to "T. S. Eliot Is Not Obliged To Love Me"

by Nardo on

I think the same thing holds true for Eliot as it does of Pound, who was arguably much worse in his anti-Semitism, the really good stuff worth reading and putting into the canon is that which does not contain the prejudices. Prufrock is genius, Bleistein is mere whimsy at best. On the whole Eliot was more insensitive than anything else, he wrote drivel about black people too.

I would classify T. Stearns Eliot as a country-club anti-Semite: when faced with the invitation of Jewish contact, he would curl his lip and like Bartleby, say "I would prefer not to." I think you are correct to believe he would hate you more for being a modernist/post-modernist than because of your religion or ethnicity. Oddly enough Pound could be friends with Zukofsky, who was (for a time) both Jewish and a Marxist.

They're closing ten branch libraries in NYC, a monstrous proposal. What will happen? Nothing good. Either they will be shuttered--libraries shuttered (they may as well start harvesting the trees in Prospect Park for timber)! Or, since the NYPL is asking people to write to Bloomberg and Quinn (how ironic can we get?) they of all people will "save" them. The demagoguery is already out of control. Soon, people won't even be able to find out what the Nuremberg Laws were much less how relevant they are to today's moment of dispossession. I suggest that everyone stop making so much sense.

In reconciling yourself to an artist's work and the artist, that's about the best you can do. T.S. isn't going to change his mind just because your curl your lip at him. Just don't put him on a pedestal and believe that he walks on water. He's really walking on the ashes of your Jewish forebears.

by Steve Plonk on

I, too, like T.S. Eliot's work. He spoke to me especially about "the straw men".
I realize Eliot had his shortcomings--as do we all.

(Oh, incidentally, I noticed that your "Action Poetry" archives have fallen behind. I realize it takes time to catch them up. March and April of 2010 are not posted yet. I have some readers who've asked about my work which is scrolled off page now. Just thought I'd let you know people are eager to see the archives. Thanks in advance for your continuing to preserve them.)

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the reminder on Action Poetry archives, Steve! Fixing it right now. I had done some work to make this automatic, and I had stupidly believed that the automated archiving was in effect. Apparently it's not.

Agreed -- and, I think, with the comment by Bill Peschel. I also, for example, like Knut Hamsun's "Hunger"; it's a searing book. But he was clearly a despicable person, and I am comfortable keeping the two separate. It is a different matter when the art -- or the philosophy, in the still heavily debated case of Heidegger -- serves discriminatory or destructive ends, like with Leni Riefenstahl. There we must tread more carefully.

by frsh on

The point is that it is wrong to hate Jews just like it's wrong to hate Palestinians or anyone in the world. So T.S. Eliot was a jerk not because he hated Jews, but because he hated.

And if someone throws a stone at you, you don't get back at that person by shooting them with a shotgun. So the attitude of Israel towards Palestine is absolutely wrong and against the most sacred words of the prophets of Judaism.

Isaiah 56,1-8

Hosea 5,5-7

Hosea 6,1-11

by noone on

"T. S. Eliot has the right to hate whoever he wants."

WHOMever. It's WHOMever.

Of course we are allowed to hate whoever we want, but only if its politically correct. In the present atmosphere of Islamic appeasement its correct to hate Jews, but no one dares to hate Saladin, or Uthman or Mehmet II or for that matter nobody can doubt the wisdom of Edward Said, but of course we can rail against Bernard Lewis.

'Intellectuals' favor 'freedom' only if it doesn't enrage the truly dangerous. And of course it takes nothing to mock the weak and the powerless.

Questions like these often feature in discussions at the T.S. Eliot International Summer School in London. Anyone interested in attending this year's session (10-17 July) may want to visit the website at http://ies.sas.ac.uk/events/TSE/index.htm. Lectures and seminars by the best scholars in the field of literary modernsim (including Marjorie Perloff, Hermione Lee, Ron Bush and David Chinitz) are coupled with lively discussions, poetry readings, a walking tour of Literary Bloomsbury and excursions to Burnt Norton, Little Gidding and East Coker. The Summer School will be formally opened by Tom Stoppard.

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