T.S. Eliot and the Culture of Critique, Part One of Two


“My house is a decayed house,
And the Jew squats on the window-sill”
T.S. Eliot, Gerontion, 1920.

In a previous article I explored the nature of academic ethno-activism in the deconstruction of the cultural legacy of Ezra Pound. The article adopted the approach of a broad overview, emphasizing the scale of successive critiques and, to some extent, illuminating the psychology of those whose caustic attentions had been aroused by the interplay of Pound’s genius and politics. It was argued that these individuals exhibited a psychological duality of both attraction and hatred. The academic activists drawn to figures like Pound were “appalled because they perceived an unjustified critique upon their ethnic group, and they perceived this critique all the more keenly because of their ethnocentrism. They were impressed because they appreciated, and were threatened by, the talent of their target, often despite themselves. The ‘attraction’ arises from the desire to deconstruct and demean that talent, and thus avenge or assuage the critique.”

Although the previous article fulfilled its purpose of providing a succinct overview of the forms of the critical assault on ostracized cultural figures, in this article I wish to present a more thoroughgoing treatment of the psychology underpinning these forms. Included also are reflections on what this reveals about “anti-Semitism” as it exists in the socio-cultural consciousness of strongly-identified Jews. In order to explore this matter on a deeper level, and to keep our material fresh, we now turn our attention to the academic deconstruction of Pound’s associate, and fellow Modernist poet, T.S. Eliot.

The focus of this piece is not to explore the life and work of Thomas Stearns Eliot, but a brief biographical outline may be necessary here for newcomers to the man and his poetics. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri in the Fall of 1888 to a well-established family that traced its origins first to Boston and, deeper in memory, to England.  He did not enjoy robust health as a child, an important factor in prompting the youngster to pursue adventure in the world of literature rather than the one outside. Eliot soon developed a precocious interest and ability in the written word. He began a degree in philosophy at Harvard in 1906, excelling in his studies and leaving with a B.A. a full year before his classmates. After a series of short teaching and research fellowships, the young American prodigy took up residence in Oxford, England in 1914. Oxford struck Eliot as distasteful, bland, and numbingly ordinary, and he soon gravitated towards the faster pace and less polished energy of London. It was during one of many social skirmishes in the English metropolis that Eliot encountered the extravagant persona of Ezra Pound. This pair of highly talented individuals were an incendiary combination. In particular, the slightly older Pound possessed the kind of social drive and charisma that the more retiring Eliot lacked; while Eliot’s poetics were considerably more within the intellectual reach of the masses. Each man eschewed the petty and competitive jealousies that have consumed many artists. Art was primary. The young scholar from Missouri was willing to accept Pound’s criticism, and Pound quickly and unselfishly set to work promoting Eliot socially and professionally. The result of this relationship was the emergence of some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century.

By the time of his death in January 1965, Eliot had secured an almost legendary status within literary culture and also, following his 1927 formal reaffirmation of piety, within the culture of the Anglican Church. During his life he acquired with remarkable regularity a succession of major awards and honorifics that included, but was not limited to, the Order of Merit, the Nobel Prize, the Hanseatic Goethe Award, the Dante Gold Medal, and the American Medal of Freedom. As a measure of his significance to his adoptive nation of Britain, on the second anniversary of his death, Eliot was commemorated by the placement of a large stone in the floor of Poets’ Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey.

Dissent from this almost unanimous praise was exceedingly rare, and serious criticism of Eliot, either on a personal or professional level, was considerably slower in gaining momentum than was the case with Pound. This was due primarily to the greater heights that Eliot had ascended to within the cultural establishment, and the fact that Eliot’s more anodyne socio-political views were more readily digestible to this establishment than Ezra’s awkward history in Fascist Italy. For these reasons also, Pound presented himself as a more appealing and necessary immediate target to a growing number of Jewish academic activists who had by the early 1970s become embedded and influential as gatekeepers in the field of academic and commercial literary criticism. Eliot was thus the subject of only a handful of glancing blows and aspersions during the two decades following his death; the same twenty year period that saw Pound reduced from a figure of significant cultural appeal to one quarantined and ultimately exiled from mass literary appreciation.

Eliot’s immunity from concerted Jewish critique began to break down in the 1980s with the publication of Bernard Lewis’s Semites and Anti-Semites (1986). Notwithstanding the fact that Lewis is not strictly speaking a literary scholar, as a Jewish intellectual influential in framing a popular understanding of ‘anti-Semitism’ Lewis was more effective than any other academic activist, to that point, in making the smear adhere itself more readily to the person of T.S. Eliot. To Lewis, certain of Eliot’s poems indicated that the artist was a malicious proponent of mere anti-Jewish tropes, especially that of the Jew as “corrupting parvenu.”[1]

By casually including Eliot among a litany of more well-known critics of Jews, and against the backdrop of his own myopic interpretation of anti-Semitism, Lewis was effective in tarnishing Eliot’s name to a certain degree. However, the greater significance of Lewis’s work was that it inspired a young academic named Anthony Julius to take up the cause with gusto. Julius would subsequently produce by far the most bitter, controversial, and lasting academic indictment of Eliot, his T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, published in 1995. It is in this work that we seek to more fully understand the psychology and mentality behind the culture of critique so prominent among Jewish intellectual activists.

Anthony Julius is not a stranger to the Occidental Observer, but he bears further scrutiny. Still a lawyer with Mischon de Reya, the Jewish-founded law firm at the heart of the legal challenge to Brexit, Julius (now 60) was occupied for a significant period of his early career with literary rather than legal concerns. Julius is an excellent example of a strongly-identified Jew, and he would probably concur with my contention that he has demonstrated a commitment to the defense and advancement of Jewish interests throughout his life. Of primary interest for the present discussion are two questions: where did this commitment arise, and how does it inform his worldview? In this regard, one doesn’t need to look far into Julius’s biographical and professional writings to reach the conclusion that a significant part of this identity and activism has been informed by his immersion in a cultural and familial environment that bred suspicion of non-Jews bordering on paranoia.

In Julius’s case, suspicion of non-Jews appears to have been imparted culturally and generationally, particularly via his father and paternal grandmother. In the brief autobiographical introduction to his Trials of the Diaspora (Oxford University Press, 2012), Julius writes that his grandmother corresponded frequently with her brother in South Africa, and that this communication was always “a limited set of variations on a single theme: they had been lucky so far, but disaster, to be inflicted on Jews by the Gentile world, was imminent.”[2] He continues that “though my grandmother never spoke in a hostile way about non-Jews, it was always clear when it was a non-Jew about whom she was speaking. The tone would invariably have a quality of wariness, as if she was concerned she might be overheard. She took it for granted that Jews and Christians were divided by unbridgeable differences. If she wanted to indicate that a person was Jewish, she would say that he was ‘unserer‘ (‘one of us’); if Gentile, she would use ‘zeyricher‘ (‘one of them’).”[3]

The inter-generational and intracultural transmission of Jewish hostility towards Gentiles, and in evidence here, certainly deserves more thorough treatment. It should suffice to state here that its roots in religion, social structures, cultural expressions, and group dynamics mean that it is likely to be commonplace within the organized Jewish community. Indeed, such attitudes bring to mind prominent Bush administration neoconservative Elliott Abrams’ acknowledgement that the mainstream Jewish community in America “clings to what is at bottom a dark vision of America, as a land permeated with anti-Semitism and always on the verge of anti-Semitic outbursts.”

In a form of psychological osmosis, Julius imbibed this worldview throughout his childhood, gradually developing a strong, and by now impervious, concept of himself as belonging to a victimized, blameless, and superior in-group. Such conceptions would in turn lead to the nurturing of embryonic and intense feelings of persecution. Indeed, it may be considered an axiom that senses of persecution and ‘anti-Semitism’ are so crucial to this mode of Jewish identity that even if hostility to Jews was totally absent, it would have to be fabricated. This need for ‘anti-Semitism’ is so strong that even in times and locations of overwhelming comfort, Jewish ethno-activists have been known to ‘seek out’ allegedly hidden or concealed persecutions.

This was clearly the case with Julius, who was raised in an affluent home and found himself, without hindrance, studying English literature at Cambridge University in 1974. While his fellow students opened their minds to a world of literature, Julius chose to place himself, in his own words, “among those Jews who have sought out anti-Semitism.”[4]

A corresponding feature of the sense of persecution is often a strong tendency towards aggression. Such personality traits were extremely prominent in Julius’s generation of aspiring Jewish intellectuals. In The Professionalization of History in English Canada (2005), Donald Wright notes that between the 1940s and early 1960s many WASP academics were taken aback by the aggressive and highly antagonistic attitude of their Jewish students. In just one example, a Canadian academic named Frank Underhill included in one student report the following comments: “He is a Jew, with a good deal of the Jew’s persecution complex, and this makes him unduly aggressive and sarcastic in discussion and writing.”[5] The comments could just as easily have referred to Julius, who would be tireless in attack.

Even very early in his studies Julius began writing about Jews and instances of alleged anti-Semitism in English literature, producing venomous critiques of a series of English writers. He writes in Trials of the Diaspora that he became part of a “radical faction”[6] which emerged in the humanities in the 1970s, the same period that witnessed the birth of a vicious reaction against Ezra Pound and a swathe of the Western canon. Like many of the Jewish intellectuals gaining influential positions across academia in the 70s, he recalls that he was heavily influenced by his reading of “Freud … and the line of Western Marxist thinking that can be traced from the Austro-Marxists through to Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School.”[7] His faction “staged confrontations” with supporters of rationalism in his faculty at Cambridge, and the group’s idiom was “one of critique rather than celebration.” He adds that “there was a politics attached to this set of positions.”[8]

Having completed his degree at Cambridge, Julius began a PhD program at University College London under the supervision of the South-African born Dan Jacobson (1929–2014). It is far from atypical that a Jewish ethno-activist would seek out the company, tutelage, and co-operation of another, and in this respect Jacobson was a true guru. By the time Julius came under his wing, Jacobson had a considerable pedigree in ethnic activism. Much like the case with Julius, the Guardian reported after Jacobson’s death that “his relationship with his inherited Judaism was intense.”

Jacobson was raised, like Julius, in the wealthy home of Jewish capitalists, with the added novelty that Jacobson’s parents cherished dubious tales of having fled Eastern European “pogroms.” In truth, Jacobson’s father had emigrated from Lithuania as part of a broader, economically-motivated migration. In the case of Jacobson’s family in particular, the attraction to South Africa was found in the depression of the diamond industry in the earliest decades of the twentieth century, especially severe in diamond-dependant towns like Kimberley. Jacobson’s father, far from being a penniless “refugee,” was a capitalist of some means, and he was savvy enough to buy a promising Kimberley butter factory from a non-Jew who had been forced into bankruptcy by local debt merchants. Having grown up in very comfortable surroundings, this young scion of the persecuted race moved to Britain in his 20s.

In a pattern that should now be increasingly familiar, Julius’s future mentor thereafter produced a series of aggrieved and subversive novels dealing with racial politics in South Africa that bore all the hallmarks one might expect of an ethno-activist. His first two novels, The Trap (1955) and A Dance in the Sun (1956), postured as anti-Apartheid moral fables, while The Evidence of Love (1960), is described charmingly by the Jewish Virtual Library as the “story of an interracial love affair set against a background of hatred.”

After a career producing such works, along with swathes of literary criticism, by the mid-70s Jacobson was handling the project of his final PhD student – Anthony Julius. Jacobson’s Guardian obituary states that it was “largely through Jacobson’s tireless campaigning that Julius’s TS Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (1995), one of the most controversial critical books of the 90s, saw print.” A key feature of Jewish ethno-activism is of course that it is almost invariably an intensely co-operative form of socio-cultural action. The publication of the most stinging assault on the legacy of T.S. Eliot was the product of such co-operation — the co-operation of two wealthy and privileged Jews who nevertheless harbored intense feelings of persecution and hostility towards the celebrated cultural achievement of the ‘zeyricher.’

We arrive then at the content, substance, and deeper meaning of Julius’s critique of Eliot. Because of Julius’s helpful habit of inserting autobiographical information into his writings, the observant and perceptive reader is able to discern the work’s impartiality at a very early stage. Julius carries his sense of persecution on his sleeve. He writes in his Introduction that he encountered “mean-spirited and malicious” references to Jews in the poetry of Eliot at the age of 14, and that this left him “upset.”[9] Julius displays a brief, lucid self-awareness when he describes this youthful reaction as full of “wounded dismay and affront … too limitedly Jewish,”[10] but he errs in implying shortly thereafter that he has since overcome this “limitedly Jewish” approach to the work of Eliot.

In truth, Julius never escapes this approach and, despite all claims to impartiality and academic rigor, the work is riddled with references to Eliot’s “wounding,”[11] “discriminating,”[12] and ultimately “anti-Semitic” oeuvre. The work we now turn to is a quintessential contribution to the culture of critique.

Go to Part Two

[1] B. Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice (New York: Norton & Co, 1999), p.93.

[2] A. Julius, Trials of the Disapora: A History of anti-Semitism in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), xvii.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, xxi.

[5] D. Wright, The Professionalization of History in English Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), p.95

[6] Ibid, xxii.

[7] Ibid, xxi.

[8] Ibid, xxii.

[9] A. Julius, T.S. Eliot, anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003), p.xi.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, p.1.

[12] Ibid, p.2

34 replies

Comments are closed.