Friday, June 6, 2014

After Strange Gods, Everybody Knows T.S.Eliot was a...

“Everybody knows Eliot was a misogynist, anti-Semitic fascist ….”

That “everybody knows’ is both ubiquitous and invidious. It absolves the speaker, or writer, from the need to scrutinize the evidence, or even to apply his or her own intelligence to the issue.  No matter how distant from any rational consideration of the evidence, it can be endlessly reiterated because it’s something ‘everyone knows’.  It becomes a password into the society of the “Right Thinking”, a not so secret handshake.  And moral outrage, usually where it has no consequence or real time function, is such a popular activity for those who like to feel important.

Use ‘Everybody Knows” and you can congratulate yourself on your own smug moral superiority. You can have the right opinion without doing the hard work of thinking it through for yourself.

This bunker mentality in literary criticism is widely prevalent and I think intellectually indefensible, unless you believe in censorship and thought control. The critic sits in a little bunker spotting the ideological flaws of the poem or poet and shoots it down from a distance. It’s an automatic reflex and no thought is required.  

The real evil in such a methodology, in the 'everybody know'….is that the critic never has to examine his or her own assumptions:  Everybody Knows.

So, yes, Eliot made statements in his writing and his poems that were Anti-Semitic. If you were interested in that issue I’d recommend reading, thinking about, and then rereading Christopher Rick’s T.S.Eliot and Prejudice. Me, I think all forms of racism are abhorrent, I knew people who remembered the signs in England:  “no dogs or Irish”.  

The women in most of Eliot’s poems do not resemble the women I know, and I don’t share his revulsion.  I’m fairly sure I think his politics were repulsive: his idea of a hierarchal well-ordered Christian society with people like himself running it and making rules for the rest of us sounds remarkably like a parody of the Middle Ages at their worst. 

But, if you’re interested in poetry and poems and poets, I think you can go through all that and find a great deal that is thought provoking in what he said about poetry and poets and poems.  

And I’m still not convinced that the politics of a particular poet need necessarily be taken into account when reading the poems. I think it varies from case to case and person to person. I think what you read, and what you find offensive, is a personal call. It’s your responsibility, as a thinking adult, to make up your own mind, he said, addressing an imaginary reader, and it has nothing to do with what ‘everybody’ else thinks, or should think, or thinks you should be thinking.  

I refuse the idea that someone else has the self-appointed right to tell me what or how to think or what or how to read.

Case in point. After Strange Gods. 

It’s a weird performance. God alone knows what the original audience must have thought. And yes, some of the major evidence for Eliot’s Anti-Semitism is found in phrases he made in these lectures. But I wonder how many people have read them?  
Anyway, having just reread them, I still think this is priceless:

Pound’s hell, in the Cantos, Eliot points out, consists of: politicians, profiteers, financiers, newspaper proprietors, and their hired men, agents provocateurs, Calvin, St Clement of Alexandria, the English, vice-crusaders, liars, the stupid, pedants, preachers, those who do not believe in Social Credit, Bishops, lady golfers, Fabians, conservatives and imperialists: and ‘all those who have set money-lust before the pleasures of the senses’. It is, in its way, an admirable Hell, ‘without dignity, without tragedy’.  At first sight the variety of types –for these are types, and not individuals- may be a little confusing; but I think it becomes a little more intelligible if we see at work three principles, (1) the aesthetic, (2) the humanitarian, (3) the Protestant. And I find one considerable objection to a Hell of this sort: that a Hell altogether without dignity implies a Heaven without dignity also. If you do not distinguish between individual responsibility and circumstances in Hell, between essential Evil and social accidents, then the Heaven (if any) will be equally trivial and accidental. (p43)

I’ve quoted this at length, partly because it’s enjoyable, partly because the last sentence seems so worthy of consideration, and because it sets up the next sentence, which is not only a fair criticism of Pound but a fair warning.

‘Mr. Pound’s Hell, for all its horrors, is a perfectly confortable one for the modern mind to contemplate, and disturbing to no one’s complacency: it is a Hell for the other people, the people we read about in the news appears, not for oneself and one’s friends’(p43).

The idea that you can strip literature of all that is disturbing, that we should only read what is ideologically approved, or that we judge it solely on whether or not we are supposed to like its version of the world: whether that version be perceived to be Left wing, Right wing or Chicken Breast, is a simple denial of the power of literature to startle us, by showing what it would be like for us, not “other people”, to step out of the bunker of our own certainties and find ourselves in Hell.

1 comment:

A.E.M. Baumann said...

I can't say I've ever cracked ASG. Could be wrong, though. And the Ricks I haven't read. Though, I have Julius's T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, which is just what you describe: bad scholarship and bad critical reading bent toward the effort of proving the desired point.

It is strange how people have difficulty realizing that a person's politics often have nothing to do with the person's creative (or philosophical) works. Yes, sometimes they are intimately tied together. But the more aesthetic the modality of the work, the less politics can function within it. Do people know the politics of even the smallest percentage of the authors they read?

Would they want to?