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Authors: Louis Menand

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Holmes’s disinterestedness has its unappealing side. He (like many turn-of-the-century progressives) was a believer in eugenics—a belief that underwrites his most notorious decision, the majority opinion (there was only one dissent) in
Buck v. Bell
(1927) upholding the constitutionality of a Virginia law permitting involuntary sterilization of the “feebleminded.” “I felt I was getting near to the first principle of real reform,” he told Laski after writing the opinion.
The immediate basis for Holmes’s enthusiasm was the work of Thomas Malthus, which he read with what was, for him, an unusual degree of assent. But the belief had its roots in his experience in the Civil War, where he had been wounded three times, and where he believed that he had seen human nature in its elemental state: a war of pure aggression, in which one group of people made its view prevail by murdering those who disagreed. (This belief is why Edmund Wilson, who held exactly the same opinion, made Holmes the hero of
Patriotic Gore
, his book on the literature of the Civil War.) He never stopped regarding naked force—the will to power, to give it a nineteenth-century name—as the brute actuality at the bottom of all human transactions. “Every society rests on the death of men,” he liked to say.
He thus could not see why if society, in order to make its view prevail, could call on its best citizens to sacrifice their lives (as the North had done in the Civil War), it could not also “call upon those who already sap the strength of the State”—in this case, the woman sterilized under the Virginia law, Carrie Buck—to suffer “lesser sacrifices,”
such as sterilization.
The legal error seems plain today: Carrie Buck’s involuntary sterilization
violates an individual right of privacy which we have generally agreed to recognize, and which expresses the same respect for other people that informs our understanding of the principle of free speech. But Holmes did not think of the principle of free speech as an acknowledgment of the rights of individuals, and the notion of a right to privacy had barely been articulated—it was certainly no part of constitutional law—when he wrote his opinion in
Buck v. Bell
. The philosophical error in Holmes’s decision is easy to see, though. It arises from the belief that the way of the universe must necessarily be the way of the human world—the idea that what people do, once all the mystification and self-deception have been stripped away, is only a fancy version of what amoebas do. This is the classic reductive philosophy of the late-Victorian secular mind, which is, of course, the kind of mind Holmes had. It replaces the believer’s supernatural picture of the universe with a materialist picture that is, in its own way, equally fantastic.
Few people maintain such a view without cheating on it a little in order to go about the ordinary business of life; but Holmes made it a point never to cheat, and he erected his fidelity into an ideal of conduct and of thought. He felt strongly, for instance, that his old companion William James’s sympathetic interest in religious experience had prevented him from facing up to the way things are. “His wishes led him to turn down the lights so as to give miracle a chance,” he complained to a friend in 1910, the year of James’s death.
The austerity of this vision helps to explain the impression of dazzling superficiality which Holmes’s writing, almost always magnificently lucid and aphoristic, leaves us with. He read, all his life and in every field: he read
Das Kapital;
he read Casanova’s memoirs (twice); he read
The Sun Also Rises
. He approached each new book with the same persistent curiosity, and even when he was disappointed or bored (as he was when, late in life, he reread Hegel), he finished almost everything he started. (
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
was, he claimed, a rare exception.) His correspondence is filled with his remarkably acute reactions to what he read, and one experiences the same perfect openness of mind in the uncluttered prose and intellectual tolerance of his most celebrated judicial opinions.
But it all amounted, for Holmes, to an endless, fascinating, beautifully empty diversion, since at the bottom of every passionate belief and noble expression he saw the same armies of the night, fighting the same eternal war. There are, one comes to feel, only two spheres in Holmes’s thought: the glittering toy store of art and ideas, and the darkling plain of Fredericksburg and Antietam. Most of us spend our lives in a middle world, in which beliefs matter to us for reasons better than the fact that they happen to be ours. This is the world that William and Henry James tried to write about. Holmes lived in that world, too, of course, and he must, each day, have felt its reality urgently enough. But it seems for him to have been largely inarticulable. The inner life was one of the few things about which Holmes had nothing to say.
he question of T. S. Eliot’s attitude toward Jews provokes defensiveness whenever it is raised. For many people, to believe that Eliot was an anti-Semite is to discredit his poetry. What was striking about Anthony Julius’s
T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form
, when it came out in 1995, was that although Julius deplored, bitterly, the anti-Semitism in Eliot’s poetry, he refused to regard it as a blemish on the poems. Julius thought that Eliot’s anti-Semitism was integral to his poetry, and that there is nothing in the nature of poetry that renders the anti-Semitism less anti-Semitic for being expressed in the form of poetry or that renders the poetry less poetical for including anti-Semitic expressions. “Anti-Semitism,” he wrote, “did not disfigure Eliot’s work; it animated it. It was, on occasion, both his refuge and his inspiration, and his exploitation of its literary potential was virtuose.”
There is, to put it another way, no artistic difference between Bleistein (in “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”) and the hyacinth girl (in
The Waste Land
). The one is as poetically realized as the other. Exposure to anti-Semitism is simply part of the experience
of reading Eliot. When we bracket the prejudice, Julius thought, we miss the experience.
This was presented as an argument against Eliot criticism in general, but it was most pointedly an argument against Christopher Ricks, who had considered the problem of Eliot and anti-Semitism in a chapter of
T. S. Eliot and Prejudice
(1988). Julius regarded Ricks’s effort as an honorable failure, on the grounds that (to put it technically) Ricks tried to thematize the anti-Semitism in Eliot’s poems. A literary critic “thematizes” an expression when he or she weaves it back, so to speak, into the fabric of the poem, so that instead of being an instance of what the poem “says,” it becomes an instance of what the poem “is about.” In Eliot’s poem “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” for example, we find the line “Rachel
Rabinovitch.” We can read this as the expression of a prejudice against Jews who change their last names to un-Jewish-sounding ones; but whose prejudice is it? In merely noting the change of name, the line does not ridicule or condemn the practice. We cannot even say with certainty whether Rachel is Jewish, or what her new name might be; it might also be Jewish-sounding. And when we place the line in the context of the rest of the poem, we see that it is one instance of a general paranoia, which takes in a “lady in a cape,” a “silent vertebrate in brown,” a “man with heavy eyes,” a “someone indistinct”—all descriptions that sound ominous but are perfectly innocent in themselves. Being heavy-eyed does not condemn a man to wickedness; your grandmother may possibly have affected a cape on occasion; we are all vertebrates; and so forth. At this point, the anti-Semitism has been thematized by being turned into an example of the general topic of “prejudice.” “Sweeney among the Nightingales” becomes a work “about” perception, or representation, or some other morally safe abstraction.
Julius was quite willing to concede that “Rachel
Rabinovitch” may mock the paranoia of certain anti-Semites. But he refused to assimilate this prejudice against Jews to other types of prejudice in the poem (the “prejudice” against ladies in capes, for example). And he refused to acquit Eliot of anti-Semitism in this case merely because the poet has managed to be superior to the bigotry
his poem evokes. “Sweeney among the Nightingales” is not, Julius pointed out, a dramatic monologue; it has no fictional “speaker,” and critics who (like Ricks) attribute its anti-Semitism to a character are inventing literary entities for the purpose of getting Eliot off the hook. It is Eliot who summons up the traditions of the particular anti-Semitic slurs his lines evoke—even as he implies that the perniciousness of the Jews is not nearly as consequential as vulgar anti-Semites imagine:
The silent vertebrate in brown
Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;
She and the lady in the cape
Are suspect, thought to be in league;
Therefore the man with heavy eyes
Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,
Leaves the room and reappears
Outside the window, leaning in,
Branches of wistaria
Circumscribe a golden grin.
The mouth full of gold-capped teeth, Julius pointed out, is a staple of anti-Semitic caricature. So are the “heavy eyes.”
Julius judged four poems besides “Sweeney among the Nightingales” to be anti-Semitic: “Gerontion,” which includes the line “the jew squats on the window sill”; “A Cooking Egg,” which refers to the Jewish financier Alfred Mond; “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” which contains a figure of evidently dubious pedigree named Sir Ferdinand Klein, a caricatural description of Bleistein (with a “protrusive eye”), and the line “The jew is underneath the lot”; and “Dirge,” a suppressed fragment in the original draft of
The Waste Land,
which is a lurid image of Bleistein drowned and which includes yet another association of Jews with exophthalmos in the line “Graves’ Disease in a dead jew’s eyes!”
Julius’s procedure in
each case was, first, to demonstrate that the references to Jews draw on specific traditions of anti-Semitic representation—bulging eyeballs, gold-capped teeth, leprous skin, rootlessness, parasitism, animality (“murderous paws”), and so forth—and, second, to show how intimately these insinuations and allusions matter to the sense of the poem as a whole.
All five poems were composed in the same brief period. Four are in the volume entitled
Ara Vos Prec
(the American edition is called
, published in 1920; and the fifth, the discarded “Dirge,” was probably written in 1920 or 1921, the years in which Eliot was trying, with much difficulty, to write
The Waste Land
, which he completed and published in 1922. There are very few references to Jews in Eliot’s poetry after 1922: the probable Jewishness of the vulgarians Klipstein and Krumpacker in the uncompleted drama
Sweeney Agonistes
(1926—27) is not especially salient, and the figure of Simeon, in “A Song for Simeon” (1928), is treated respectfully, in the tradition of Christian condescension toward the virtuous heathen.
But Eliot did discuss the Jews a number of times in his prose after 1922—most notoriously in a passage in
After Strange Gods
(1934) proposing that “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable”
in the ideal community, but also in a number of less obviously inflammatory contexts. Julius considered these cases in a separate chapter, and he closes with a survey of the results of invitations to Eliot to “amend” his earlier remarks about Jews. He judged Eliot’s responses on these occasions to be confused, unconvincing, or inadequate. Julius took a more consistently hard line than Ricks did on the anti-Semitism in Eliot’s prose, but their assessments are roughly in agreement.
Julius frankly described his criticism as “adversarial,” and he was clearly determined to make, in the juridical sense, a case. His writing retains the flavor of the courtroom: there are long lists of citations (many drawn from Leon Poliakov’s four-volume
History of Anti-Semitism),
there is a considerable amount of arguing in the alternative, and sometimes, after the author has run through the law and the facts, he pounds the table. Julius described his book as “a work of resistance as well as respect.”
This is an admirable approach,
but there is something a little forensic about the way it was carried out—as though the law being the law, Julius felt he had a kind of professional duty to demolish every possible line of defense. Still, “the Spirit killeth, but the Letter giveth life.” It was Eliot himself who said that; so there is some poetic justice in the proceedings. There is critical justice, as well.
What was missing in Julius’s analysis is the etiology of Eliot’s anti-Semitism. Julius was not terribly interested in the reasons
Eliot wrote the things he did about Jews, or where he learned them—reasons why having an exculpatory tendency. The problem with leaving the history of Eliot’s opinions out of the account is that it implies the view that the anti-anti-Semites among Eliot’s readers seem to hold, which is that anti-Semitism is a trait some people are just born with, like dishonesty or a fear of high places—a kind of closeted wickedness. But the significant thing about Eliot’s anti-Semitism is that it was probably not primal or visceral; it was learned and, largely, theoretical. Julius was certainly right about
Eliot wrote, and right as well in the claim that Eliot’s general conception of the Jews, intellectually half-baked and morally negligent though it was, formed an integral and frequently neglected aspect of his thought. I think it was a relatively minor aspect: part of the reason it was so half-baked even as anti-Semitism was that Eliot didn’t give much attention to it, and in most of the poetry and almost all of the literary criticism it fades into insignificance. But it cannot be edited out of the general picture; and if the story of Eliot and the anti-Semites had been as well known as the story of Eliot and the
, if people had heard as much about Eliot and Charles Maurras as they heard about Eliot and Jules Laforgue, Eliot’s reputation in the decades following the Second World War, when his influence in the literary world was most powerful, would have been very different. Or at least (as Jake said to Brett) it’s pretty to think so.
The story of Eliot and the
goes like this. Eliot was in the Harvard Union one day in 1908, his senior year in college, when he
happened to pick up a copy of
The Symbolist Movement in Literature,
by the English critic Arthur Symons. The book was, he said later, “a revelation.”
It exposed him for the first time to the poetry of Verlaine, Rimbaud, de Nerval, and Laforgue. He ordered an edition of Laforgue’s poems, and his own poetic style was transformed almost overnight from an imitation of Tennyson, as read through the prism of Rossetti and FitzGerald, to the mordant, discordant, imagistic style of Laforgue. Eliot’s first modernist poems, a series of urban landscape pieces culminating in the “Preludes,” date from this period.
Symons was a man of the nineties, a friend of Yeats (to whom
The Symbolist Movement in Literature
, first published in 1899, is dedicated) and a disciple of Walter Pater. It was not an accident that Eliot gave his earliest modernist efforts a musical title; for musicality was the epitome of the Paterian aesthetic, and Symons essentially invented the symbolist movement (the term “symbolist” was his own idea, with some assistance from Yeats) by imposing Pater onto nineteenth-century French literature.
Symons defined symbolism as the evocation of an unseen world beyond the world known to ordinary sense. Eliot accepted the definition and (characteristically) undercut it at the same time; thus, for example, the calculated dissonance of the fourth “Prelude”:
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
In 1909—10 Eliot earned a master’s degree in literature from Harvard, and then spent the next year on his own in Paris, where he became close friends with a young Frenchman named Jean Verdenal, who would die in the war and to whom Eliot later dedicated his first book of poems. The intellectual celebrity of the day in Paris was
Henri Bergson; Eliot attended his lectures in philosophy at the College de France, and underwent, in his own words, “a temporary conversion to Bergsonism.”
Bergsonism was entirely compatible with Symons’s Paterized notion of
. It taught the existence of an interior life of feeling, radically different from the world known to the intellect, which we have access to only through “intuition.” And the key that opened the door to this inner experience was the image. “Many diverse images,” Bergson explained in
“Introduction à la Métaphysique”
(1903), “borrowed from very different orders of things, may, by the convergence of their action, direct consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized.”
Eliot’s fourth “Prelude” was completed in Paris; “fancies that are curled / Around these images” is a Bergsonian idea in Bergsonian language.
It also during this year abroad, in the summer of 1911, that Eliot finished “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—a poem which he wrote, he later claimed, as a Bergsonian. He returned to Harvard in the fall and began the graduate studies in philosophy that led to his dissertation on the British philosopher F. H. Bradley. In 1914, he went to England on a Harvard fellowship, and it was there that he met Ezra Pound, to whom he showed “Prufrock.” Pound was stunned. (Eliot was unable to return the compliment. He regarded Pound’s verse, he told his friend Conrad Aiken, as “touchingly incompetent.”)
Pound was not a Bergsonian, but he had been heavily influenced by Bergson’s leading disciple in England, the journalist-philosopher T. E. Hulme. Hulme had translated the
“Introduction à la Métaphysique”
into English in 1913, and he had been busy for a number of years before that trying to derive from Bergsonism a theory of poetry—a theory in which experience might be represented by the equivalent of what Hulme called “a language of intuition.”
It is always a little hard to know with Pound just what the intellectual bases for his enthusiasms are, but he must have recognized in “Prufrock” an extremely witty exercise in the sort of poetry Hulme had been talking about. Pound had already been peddling his own knock-off of Hulme’s theory, which he called “imagism,” and he was quick to make Eliot a protégé by undertaking to promote his work.
This favor Eliot did return; he seems to have gotten over his indifference to Pound’s poetry rather quickly.
Eliot finished his dissertation in 1916, but he had already decided on a literary career rather than an academic one. He remained in England, becoming an assistant editor at the little magazine the
, which Pound had made into the flagship of the imagist movement. He and Pound continued to collaborate, experimenting with different metrical forms. In 1921, Eliot wrote the famous essay in which he praised the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century—Donne, Herbert, Marvell, and so on—for “trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling,”
and in which he proposed that the only modern equivalent to their poetry was the poetry of the French
Corbière and Laforgue. The next year, with Pound’s editorial help, he published
The Waste Land
, a poem organized in the five-part string-quartet structure he would later use for
Four Quartets
, and in which his own favorite passage was the thrush’s water-dripping song, in Part V—a passage of sheer verbal musicality.
This is roughly the account of Eliot’s development that informed the first major critical treatments of his work—in I. A. Richards’s
Principles of Literary Criticism
(1924), Edmund Wilson’s
Axel’s Castle
(1931), F. R. Leavis’s
New Bearings in English Poetry
(1932), and F. O. Matthiessen’s
The Achievement of T. S. Eliot
(1935). The story is useful for explaining what all those critics were almost exclusively interested in explaining, which is how poems like “Prufrock” and
The Waste Land,
which seemed to set conventional literary decorum on its head, could be read and appreciated. The story is not useful for explaining what, beyond a general despair about modern life, Eliot’s poetry might be expressing, because it takes into account only the aesthetic influences and leaves most of the intellectual influences out.
BOOK: American Studies
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