16/04/2007

vulture complacencies

Craig Raine - T.S. Eliot

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In his fierce, extraordinary, essentially wrong-headed study T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (CUP, 1995), Anthony Julius considers a fourfold 'aesthetic speculation', the second element of which

...is the conviction that art has an ethical dimension. One aspect of this conviction is the belief that the poet is a superior human being because, by the fruits of his creativity, he enhances freely the quality of human life. The writing of poetry is an act of supererogatory goodness for which the poet should be honoured.

Over ten years have passed since the publication of his book, and Julius's attainder of the poet T.S. Eliot still bites, and still the scandal of Eliot's evident unwillingness to subscribe to such a redemptive ethic – principally in his earlier work – gibes and scolds critics into asking questions about what literary criticism is for. The Pope of Russell Square was perhaps ripe for de-throning: Eliot was a reactionary with suspect political leanings, he urged an extinction of personality when egoism and unfettered self-expression have become our chief psychological mechanisms, he championed, in his prose, royalism, Catholicism and tradition – very much the kind of concepts to make liberal academics foam at the mouth. Critics who make a thing of attempting 'adversarial' readings of canonical authors probably do so from many motives. (While I don't wish to question Julius's integrity or the depth of feeling involved – T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form began life as a PhD thesis - it's fair to say that a dissertation on floral imagery in the verse of William Collins wouldn't have had quite the same career-forging impact...)

The soundest of replies to Julius's work, it seems to me, comes from the critic James Wood in a review reprinted in The Broken Estate: “His book is tendentious, misleading, and unremittingly hostile. He has written an unstable book about an unstable subject; reading it is like watching a maniac trying to calm a hysteric.” Wood argues that Eliot's anti-semitism is, in fact, dogmatic Christianity's anti-semitism; and stems more from doctrinal conflict between the two traditions than from private psychopathology. He also takes Julius to task as a critic 'inattentive to language ... [who] will not seem trustworthy,' and for the 'bullied readings' that strew the work. Julius invests so much in his thesis that the poetry itself must be 'evidence', and evidence contaminated not only by the putative anti-semitism but, at another remove, by the will-to-indict that grimly animates the book. Wood suggests that the poems most compromised – those most often cited as proof of Eliot's anti-Semitism: 'Gerontion', 'Burbank with a Baedecker: Bleistein with a Cigar' – are minor works, maimed by their moral ugliness. Light verse, then, pitched by the emigré Eliot at what he imagined were the standard attitudes of his cultured English readership: Eliot's adoption of a fashionable salon anti-semitism is of a piece with his chameleonic mimicry, as a displaced American incomer on the make. By comparison with his masterpieces – and Wood singles out The Waste Land as chief among them – these lesser poems are excrescences, and to a certain extent, irrelevances. As for the poetry 'enhanc[ing] freely the quality of human life', Wood has this to say, of what can be found in Eliot's finest, most searching work: “It is the knowledge that far from the public rooms, far from the forms of life ('not to be found in our obituaries'), far from society itself with its cruelties, is a loneliness whose brutality is stronger than our powers, and which enforces on us gentleness, sympathy, and control... Give. Sympathize. Control. Eliot's anti-Semitic verse obeys only the last command of that austere triad.” Broadly correct, Wood's argument appears as much a call for clear-headedness and some degree of perspective as anything else. Notwithstanding Tom Paulin's aggressively denunciatory take on Eliot's thinking, Notes towards a Definition of Culture is by no manner of means The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In her 1988 centenary essay, Cynthia Ozick describes, for a young, Jewish admirer of Eliot in the Forties and Fifties, the sublimity of the poetry's effect :

What was Eliot to me? He was not the crack about 'Money in furs,' or 'Spawned in some estaminet in Antwerp.' No, Eliot was “The Lady is withdrawn/In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown” and “Then spoke the thunder/DA/Datta: what have we given?” and “Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose”; he was incantation, mournfulness, elegance; he was liquescence, he was staccato, he was quickstep and oar, the hushed moan and the sudden clap. He was lyric shudder and roseburst. He was, in brief, poetry incarnate; and poetry was what one lived for.

Poetry as a kind of mana, perhaps. But this is Ozick's account of her younger self and the germinal encounter with Eliot's work. She adds the rider - “..it is now our unsparing obligation to disclaim the reactionary Eliot.”

Literary Modernism itself nowadays stands revealed as a thoroughly unpalatable tissue of elitism, right-wing intolerance and fascist-fancying; and, whereas the philo-semitic, cosmopolitan Joyce currently enjoys heroic status among the academic Left, his contemporaries, from Virginia Woolf to Lawrence to Pound and Eliot, are all in bad odour. With the likes of Tom Paulin on the case, who shall 'scape whipping? The 'supererogatory goodness' Julius instances seems incompatible with the ill-humoured, petit bourgois snobbery of the Bloomsbury set. Its critics meanwhile plume themselves as virtuous souls; while failing singularly to appraise the work in toto. This is a tributary to Craig Raine's oft-stated frustration at the “desire to arraign artists on exclusively moral grounds, the desire to annihilate rather than administer complicated justice, the desire to consider only the faults and ignore the virtues and the achievements.” The impulse clearly is political, and with their hullooing cry of 'ecrasez l'infâme!', the proponents of this school of criticism risk throwing the poetry out with the bathwater.

In a review of Peter Ackroyd's 'benign life' of Eliot, Christopher Ricks refers to the 'malignity visited on Eliot,' adding, “Fair-minded, broad-minded and assiduous, here is a thoroughly decent book.” No inconsiderable thing. Ricks offers a delicate caveat in the conclusion of his remarks on Eliot's anti-semitism in T.S. Eliot and Prejudice: “It is unimaginable that anyone could ever judge these matters exactly right, or speak of them without a single failure of tone, or be alive fully to justice and mercy. The minefield stretches on all sides, and being innocent – or not particularly guilty – will not save any commentator (and certainly not any commentator on T.S. Eliot) from being blown up.” Raine would say, in the final analysis, we simply do not know. There are the marred poems, quoted to rags, there are the passages in Notes towards the Definition of Culture, there are anecdotes and personal witness; innuendo about Eliot's first marriage, dark grousings about the sexual content of unpublished juvenilia (the King Bolo poems). The matter has been thoroughly canvassed.

At a guess, I'd hazard that Raine's new monograph on Eliot was to some degree inspired, provoked by a need to retrieve Eliot from the slanderers and scholarly Dogberries, and restore the best poetry – beautiful, enigmatic – to a kind of critical justice. Those who thrive on eye-catching ad hominem slights (Larkin has come in for much the same treatment in recent years), equally slight the poetry. Indifferent to the thematic core of the work – Raine attempts to identify it as 'the buried life' – and their judgement skewed by a distaste for its essential religiosity, Eliot's high-minded detractors have lost sight of the fact that a lifetime intervenes between Prufrock and other Observations and Four Quartets. Those with the great good fortune always to enjoy sunny mental health, to espouse impeccably liberal opinions, who adore their wives and have never behaved spitefully – even-handed and magnanimous in their dealings with everyone they've ever known – might well find the psychic writhings set forth in Eliot's satires distasteful. An early prose-poem like 'Hysteria' will indeed get hackles rising: “As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill... lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat...” Misogyny! Sexual disgust! From the crooked timber of humanity, baby, nothing straight was ever made..

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“In the end,” Raine writes, “we are left with the poetry. It speaks to any attentive reader... It is for [the] verbal gifts that we read Eliot's poetry. This is the light, the radiance cast by the poetry itself.” Elsewhere he makes scratch-notes for an aesthetic: “Good writing is criticism of life: it describes, selects, contemplates defining features, beauties, flaws; it puts reality on pause; it searches the freeze-frame; it is an act of measured consideration, of accurate re-presentation.” Raine always insisted that Poetry would be radically impoverished if only those parts of experience that are somehow edifying – that we find positive and affirming - were included. (Anthony Julius – 'the ferret of all forms of prejudice', as James Wood calls him - has a chapter titled 'The Aesthetics of Ugliness', and you can well imagine Raine using the phrase to quite contrary ends. For Raine, 'ugliness' – banality, the grubby, the deformed – has as great a claim to poetic legitimacy as Apollonian perfection.) Raine's critical practice encourages a retreat from the biographical, from the historical – the words on the page should be our first consideration; the penumbra of ideological associations set aside. Two earlier collections of prose – Haydn and the Valve Trumpet and In Defense of T.S. Eliot – show Raine to be most comfortable with the short range essay-review. As a poet, Raine is a miniaturist, and conjures into language the bristling particularity of the phenomenal world, Nabokovian transparent things. As a critic, he reserves his most unqualified praise for those poets who do much the same, abolishing the gulf between word and thing.

T.S. Eliot, by comparison with studies by Ricks, David Moody, Denis Donoghue inter alia, suffers an interpretative thinness; as a critical performance, it feels weary and perfunctory, an academic commission written with the left hand. Conceivably so flimsy because it scants the deeper issues manifest in Eliot's work, Raine's book appears to have been intended as a 'reader's guide', for undergraduate consumption, sketchily gesturing towards the possibility of large contentious themes while withdrawing – albeit suavely – from them. It's rather touching that Raine – affected by the 'vulture complacencies' – believes that Eliot's achievement can be raised from the muddy plimsoll-line of his ill-wishers' assaults, that we can return, after the labours of Julius, to a state of readerly innocence. My best self wishes it were so...

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