T.S. Eliot and Prejudice
“The question of anti-Semitism in Eliot is important,” Christopher Ricks says in his much-discussed new book, “exactly because it cannot be isolated for discussion; it entails the larger, though admittedly not more intense, question of prejudice in general.” We may feel the question of anti-Semitism in Eliot would be important even if it could be isolated for discussion, particularly if we have some of Eliot’s more prejudicial images, of the kind literary scholars often prefer to forget, hanging in our minds. Like the following, from “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”:
The rats are underneath the piles. The jew is underneath the lot.
But Ricks is right to insist on the complex context, and on the tangled nature of the question. It may help if we approach the subject rather stealthily, through an example of our own. How much prejudice lurks in these lines from Eliot’s early “Portrait of a Lady”? Is prejudice the right word for what we find here?
We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole
Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and fingertibs…
Certainly “the latest Pole” and “transmit” seem to suggest a derogatory view of a concert fashion, a long series of Polish pianists all billed as possessing a special, perhaps even racial, intimacy with the works of Chopin. There may be a casual implication about Poles in general too: would “the latest Frenchman” have quite the same sniffy effect?
But who is speaking? Someone who scoffs at the fashion (“through his hair and fingertips” is openly sarcastic) but goes along with it—more, someone for whom such dabbling in dubious culture seems to be a habit, since the Polish concert is a mere instance (“let us say”). And his companion goes on to make even more spurious claims on Chopin’s acquaintance:
“So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul
Should be resurrected only among friends
Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom
That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.”
“Soul,” we note, rhymes comically with “Pole,” and suggests that all those sensitive folks are much the same, in spite of their affected bids for difference. The speaker at least is skeptical about all of them, but his skepticism may itself be a prejudice, the mask of a fear rather than the sign of an independent mind at work. The poem, which appears just before Eliot’s own “Preludes” in Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), ends with the thought that the affected companion could discreetly die “some afternoon,” like a consumptive ingénue out of Laforgue, and thereby make the speaker’s skepticism seem a weakness rather than a protection, a failure of feeling far worse than affectation. He would then be left,
sitting pen in hand
With the smoke coming down above the housetops;
Doubtful, for a while
Not knowing what to feel or if I understand
Or whether wise or foolish, tardy or too soon…
Would she not have the advantage, after all?
“Have the advantage” manages to be both petty and scared. “After all” echoes Prufrock’s repeated worries (“And would it have been worth it, after all”) about women, bare-armed, scented, alluring, indifferent, daunting—although his women-friends are not going to die, merely ignore him, or tell him he has got things wrong:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say: “That is not it at all, That is not what I mean at all.”
If these men and women had been Laforgue’s, they would have felt younger, and they would have been afraid of getting hurt. They would also be grieving for their missed chances. Eliot’s characters of both sexes seem prematurely aged, are mainly afraid of being tricked or trapped—they don’t mind being foolish on purpose, but they are desperately afraid of being deceived—and they don’t know what they have missed, or even if they have missed anything. It is a world of guesswork and suspicion, littered with ifs and conditional clauses, a world where almost nothing is known.
We often forget what a brilliant satirist Eliot was, and the objects of satire in these early poems are almost always postures or suppositions. “Cousin Harriet, here is the Boston Evening Transcript“: every word rustles with assumptions. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” the old man Gerontion asks in Poems 1920, but there is a bitter irony here. We may have the terrible knowledge of the coming of “Christ the tiger,” but the rest of what we think we know seems mere prejudice, a collection of jerky images and disorderly propositions: “Tenants of the house, / Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.”
I keep speaking of prejudice, but is that the name for what is going on here? It is in its older, broader sense, the sense defended by Hans Gadamer in Truth and Method: the preliminary or tentative judgment one makes, rather than the rigged verdict. We regularly make judgments before all the facts are in; often have to, and sometimes the very idea of “all the facts” is utopian. This doesn’t mean we can’t change our minds when we have further facts. But the modern sense of the word “prejudice,” at least in English, is harsher and more violent than this, and means a judgment arrived at in complete indifference to the facts.
There is a case, I think, for sticking to this sense of the word, and using notions like preconception, assumption, inclination, bias, set of associations, etc., for the other sense. When Gadamer suggests that the business of understanding involves distinguishing “the true prejudices…from the false ones,” we can accept the implication that not everything we value is rational, or discussable, or susceptible to scientific proof, but true prejudices still seems very strange. Wouldn’t a prejudice that was true cease to be a prejudice, even in the broadest sense, and become something else, like a good guess, or generous belief?
Against this we might argue, as Christopher Ricks does in his remarkable book, that the senses of the word, even now and in English, are not completely separate, and that it is easy to slip from one to the other. Ricks recognizes the difference clearly enough by having a chapter called “Prejudice” and another called “Anti-Semitism.” The implication is that prejudice is not always a horror; and that anti-Semitism is a horror, and not merely a variety of prejudice or the only horror there is.
But Rick’s overall argument invites us to keep the different senses of prejudice well within sight of each other, if only because of the complacency skulking in the promise of a pure separation—the complacency of thinking. We have benign assumptions, traditions, principles, convictions; they have gruesome prejudices of the sort only entertained by bigots. The point is not just that rational thought plays a very small part in either of these ways of seeing things, but that both sets submit the supposedly free mind to large historical forces.
Ricks is oddly silent about these forces, about the conditions in which prejudices (in either sense) thrive or dwindle or change. What’s in a name? Prufrock, for example. “The tax returns of J. Alfred Prufrock, fine, but a love song does not harmonize with the rotund name,” which is “not only formal but unspeakable: no one, not even the most pompous self-regarder, could ever introduce himself as, or be addressed as, J. Alfred Prufrock.” No one? Well, only people like J. Edgar Hoover.
“I’m in love.” “Who’s the lucky man?” “J. Alfred Prufrock.” Inconceivable.
Ricks’s commentary is wonderfully funny here and very alert to what Eliot is up to. We have just seen how unlucky the lucky man thought he was. But what kind of community is implied in these certainties about a silly name? Genteel Boston in 1910 (or 1989)? Some sort of early- to mid-century mandarin axis between the American East Coast and the English Home Counties? I’m laughing along with Eliot and Ricks, and I don’t mean to get solemn about poor old Prufrock—he is fictional after all, as a character in Woody Allen might say. But there is an interesting historical question about when and where such laughter is or isn’t forthcoming—as of course there is about all implementations of consensus. Still, a critic can’t do everything, and perhaps Ricks needs to suspend the general question in order to catch, as he so brilliantly does, the soft, subtle shuffle of particular prejudices at work.
Ricks is a critic who is always at his best when he makes things difficult for himself; he tends to get a little fussy when the going is easier. He is good at finding difficulties, though, as when he offered to demonstrate (in Milton’s Grand Style, 1963) a great writer’s subtlety when everyone else was talking about his ungainly power; or to show (in Keats and Embarrassment, 1974) that even awkwardness may be a form of grace. But he has never before made things quite so tough for himself and for us as he does now, in T.S. Eliot and Prejudice. The result is a book that is literally haunting. You can’t stop thinking about it, even when you feel it’s wrong; even (especially) when you don’t know why you feel it’s wrong.
The book falls off a little in its second half. Ricks has generous and intelligent things to say about the middle and later Eliot, particularly about the wonderful “Marina,” Eliot’s “most loving poem,” Ricks says, a place where even the Deadly Sins “are dissolved; they are not denied but they become without substance in the graced air of the poem.” But on the whole the Eliot who escapes from prejudice also escapes from Ricks, who is so persuasive about the relation between animosity and animation.
Ricks suggests that “categorizing and prejudice in Eliot’s poetry” may be “issues that are as responsible for his greatness as for his rare lapses from greatness.” “As responsible for his greatness” is a very large claim indeed, but Ricks’s later suggestion that “the terms of prejudice…constitute one aspect under which Eliot’s poetry may be seen” seems a little mild, from what Ricks writes:
Once you think about prejudice you are taken into a great deal of and about Eliot—into the nature and boundaries of his imagination. Reciprocally, once you think about Eliot, you are taken into a great deal of and about prejudice, including how inadequately so momentous a matter has been thought about and argued about.
Ricks is certainly right about Eliot’s early poems, which are curiously expert on the subject of prejudice in the broader sense, and often uncomfortably close to it in the harsher sense. Right too about the course of Eliot’s poetic career in this respect. Of “The Hollow Men” (1925), for example, Ricks says,