Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Some iconic figure utters views that could be construed as racially prejudiced. Critics weigh in with appalled attacks, and heated defences which claim that the opinions have more to do with class or culture than ethnicity. Then it turns out that the alleged bigot might not have said what we assume they did; or, if so, that the meaning depended on the context... and so, interminably, on. Welcome to the world, not of downmarket reality TV, but of modern literary scholarship.

Celebrity Big Brother followers will now grasp a little of what those of us who have kept an eye on the critical fortunes of T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Philip Larkin et al have to endure. These debates do matter, because at their heart lies the vexing question of how, and if, an author of greatly humane creative works can at some level espouse stupid and destructive bigotry.

For all the wrangles, some literary giants have always managed to rise above this dismal fray. James Joyce, notably, stands tall as a generously tolerant hero. Yet, all too often, pride seems to override principle in these quarrels, with both prosecution and defence far too eager to prove personal virtue via their proxies on the page.

The poet Craig Raine's new study of T S Eliot (Oxford, £12.99) inevitably whips up these turbid waters. In many ways, it offers an admirable synthesis of the case in Eliot's favour that Raine has mounted over many years. Raine's consistent view of Eliot as the peerless poet of the unlived life, the "buried" life, threads through some elegant and pointed readings of the works, from Prufrock and The Waste Land (which proves him "a great cartographer of the ear's outbacks and jungles") to Four Quartets, with their sure-footed "management of the mystical". Terse and even harsh judgements on the leaden plays ("acts of exposition, not of embodiment") and the "over-prized" axioms from the critical essays show that Raine, for all his admiration, is no Eliot idolater.

Yet then there comes a 30-page appendix in which Raine takes issue with the allegations of anti-Semitism directed at Eliot over the decades but, above all, by Antony Julius in his 1995 book TS Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Literary Form. This "appendix" turns out to be no vestigial organ but the thumping, troubled heart of a book that fails to find any house-room for Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Raine's defence of Eliot ranges from the rock-solid (he didn't even write a review, seeming to slight the mistreatment of German Jews, attributed to him) to the fragile (hopefully calling "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar", and its foul stereotypes, "not an anti-Semitic poem, but a poem about anti-Semitism") to the positively flaky. He tries to equate Eliot's notorious disapproval of societies with "any large number of free-thinking Jews" - in the 1933 lecture series After Strange Gods - with current Labour and Conservative immigration policies.

Raine, it's plain, protests too much. He had another option: to accept and deplore Eliot's earlier anti-Semitism, and to honour the signs of his later repentance. Letters from the time of the Lady Chatterley trial in 1960 (when Eliot was a reserve defence witness) suggest that the poet thought that, at the period of After Strange Gods, he was a much sicker man than DH Lawrence - chief target of his scorn. Eliot's letters remain, controversially, unedited after 1922, and Raine often notes that "We don't have all the evidence".

Indeed not. In the meantime, the fret and fury aroused by poets and their (alleged) prejudices indicates that racism is business that stays emotionally unfinished in every corner of our culture. "We have not reached conclusion," as "Gerontion" puts it, "when I/ Stiffen in a rented house" - whether it's the house of arcane textual analysis, or of vulgar prime-time spectacle.