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,…
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