Great Art from Bad People

The New York Review of Books has just brought up that old conundrum of how to deal with the personal evil of great artists. This time around it is the anti-Semitism of T.S.Eliot, the most influential English language poet of the 20th Century. But he is just one of numerous major artists whose moral character was often in inverse proportion to their artistic talent.

"A Different T. S. Eliot" is a book review-essay by the venerable Edward Mendelson, the leading W. H. Auden scholar. Mendelson writes, "For much of the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot's pronouncements on literature and culture had the force of a royal command... When Eliot died in 1965 much of his authority died with him... His detractors wrote entire books setting out the evidence against [Eliot for anti-Semitism], while his defenders replied with books that denied the evidence or explained it away." Mendelson thinks moral self-rebuke is "the hidden theme of the poems in which Eliot simultaneously disdained Jews and confessed his own absolute spiritual failure." Oh... so it's o.k. then because Eliot's opinion of himself was no higher than his opinion of Jews? This is just more explaining away, and Mendelson thinks it permits him to end his piece on a cute note about Eliot's erotic poems to his second wife.

Actually, T. S. Eliot's anti-Semitism was even worse than some of his detractors maintain, (who are often too deferential to the feelings of conservatives or indulgent of their own residual hero-worship). Eliot's anti-Semitism was pathological, and that can be proven with a single image. The Nazis' propaganda film The Eternal Jew famously compared Jews to rats. Decades earlier, Eliot had already compared Jews to rats in "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar:" "The rats are underneath the piles./ The jew is underneath the lot." But the passion of his hatred for Jews caused Eliot to reach much farther down the evolutionary scale than rats. Also in "Burbank/Bleistein" is this about a Jewish tourist in Venice: "A lustreless protrusive eye / Stares from the protozoic slime / At a perspective of Canaletto." That "protozoic slime" goes beyond "disdain," as Mendelson twice describes it, and certainly beyond the "genteel" anti-Semitism excused by Eliot's conservative defenders. That "protozoic slime," especially in the context of his other varied anti-Semitic writings, is pathological.

And Eliot was unrepentant, never issuing an apology or retraction, formal or informal, even after the Holocaust. Nevertheless, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. Today, there is a literary tradition of slippery evasions concerning Eliot's anti-Semitism and not just from conservatives protecting their own. In 1988, Christopher Ricks published T.S. Eliot and Prejudice, in which he described Eliot's anti-Semitism as ''queasy resentful feelings toward Jews.'' In The New York Review of Books, the premiere intellectual forum in the world, with impeccable leftist credentials, Michael Wood's review, like the book itself, performs a lawyerly tapdance around guilt. They both include hair-splitting definitions of "prejudice" and Wood even drags in the OED.

In 1996, Anthony Julius (whose day job was divorce lawyer for Diana, Princess of Wales) published his Phd thesis T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, and it was a stink bomb lobbed through the window of the literati tea party. According to London Review, the book had difficulty finding a publisher, with Oxford University Press even admitting it was "too controversial," and then it had difficulty getting reviewed. (The New York Review of Books gave it an eminently fair review.) In The Guardian, Julius wrote: "Eliot... did not reflect the anti-Semitism of his times, he contributed to it, even enlarged it... With great virtuosity, Eliot turns this material into art... His poetry is one of anti-Semitism's few literary triumphs."

The long list of similar problems with major artists includes: Wagner's famous anti-Semitism; the brutal homophobia of Proust, a closeted homosexual; Picasso's sexism; and closer to home, the fierce racism of Walt Whitman. Artists who have reached into our deepest recesses, possibly changed our lives, can be anything from moral monsters to just creeps. And of course many have their apologists. However this contradiction is eventually resolved, collectively and individually, denial must first be purged from the process.