Religious and regional rivalries, breeding even genocidal prejudice, have bedevilled history
“O Bachchoo let’s define narcissism
Did the fellow see himself through vanity’s prism?
Or did he, when gazing at the surface of the stream
Think that the world’s injustice was a dream,
A nightmare from which he would soon awake
He was only human — give the guy a break!”
— From Yunani Bahaana, by Bachchoo
Since I was introduced to modern poetry in my late teens, I have been addicted to the verse of T.S Eliot. I don’t much care for Ezra Pound. I read, even then, that Pound was locked up for Nazi sympathies and that Eliot was accused of anti-Semitism. I hadn’t at the time read their biographies.
I was aware that in Gerontion Eliot wrote: “And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner.”
It did appeal to me as unfair because the Jew in the poem is the only character — others are mentioned — portrayed cruelly. It’s not a crime to be a landlord but a window sill seemed a peculiar place to squat.
At the same time, I read Sweeney Amongst the Nightingales. In its final verses it displays the compelling musicality of Eliot’s poetry combined with unique memorable images:
“The host with someone indistinct/ Converses at the door apart,/ The nightingales are singing near/ The Convent of the Sacred Heart,/ And sang within the bloody wood/ When Agamemnon cried aloud/ And let their liquid siftings fall/ To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.”
What puzzled me about this poem were the earlier lines: “Rachel nee Rabinovitch/ Tears at the grapes with murderous paws”.
Why is some poor girl, eating grapes, characterised as having “murderous paws”?
I didn’t miss the fact that her name characterised her as Jewish. So why?
And now a fresh biography of T.S. Eliot, among other things, catalogues his anti-Semitism in distressing detail. Eliot: After the Waste Land, by Robert Crawford, reproduces the statements Eliot made, publicly, in letters and to friends. The statements he made in print and verbally to people who reported them are disgraceful manifestations of irrational hatred, symptoms of the dementia of prejudice.
Here are a few samples: “Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable in society”. And then: “Why is there something diabolic about so many Jews?”
And after Hitler’s genocide: “To suggest that the Jewish problem may be simplified because so many may have been killed off is trifling: a few generations of security and they will be as numerous as ever.”
In Prufrock, Eliot says: “Time for you and time for me,/ And time yet for a hundred indecisions,/ And for a hundred visions and revisions,/ Before the taking of a toast and tea.”
No indecision here — having read these quotes, would I invite the unpleasant Mr Eliot to take a toast and tea? Rhetorical question!
Religious and regional rivalries, breeding even genocidal prejudice, have bedevilled history and been the shame of it. In my boyhood in Pune in western India, there was a community of Jews who had fled Iraq and settled in Mumbai, Pune and other cities. I went to school with their boys and one of my best friends was George Iny. We went to an Anglican school and the only anti-Semitism I came across was in history books.
Not that there wasn’t antagonism and prejudice directed against certain communities. One of these was the Sindhi community — Hindus who had fled Sindh which was handed over to Pakistan when India was partitioned in 1947. The Hindu Sindhis, driven from their homes and lands, lost everything and millions arrived as penniless refugees in India. The community proudly redeemed itself and built a life for itself. And yet there was a prevalent undercurrent of resentment at their arrival and even at their hard-earned prosperity. I never understood it.
And now the researched revelations on Eliot’s views and opinions pose a dilemma. We live in an age — or is it just a decade? — of “cancellation”. Some schools and universities refuse to read Harry Potter because J.K. Rowling doesn’t believe that transwomen are really women. She hasn’t physically attacked any transwomen, but has simply made her opinion known. Unlike the anti-Semitism of Eliot, which emerges in a couple of lines and phrases in his oeuvre, Rowling’s opinions on transgender don’t seem to have in any way crept into her popular, magical work.
There are other writers, painters, singers and artists of different sorts who are proven criminals and whose crimes are not reflected in their works. It is absolutely right that, if they are alive, they should be behind bars for these crimes and not on university platforms.
But what shall we do about Eliot? Should his work be banned from schools and universities? Should his books, which have been sold in their millions, be publicly burnt? I can understand a Jewish school doing both but have to admit I won’t be burning even his collected works as I have found in it some of the profound satisfactions that poetry offers.
An what then of Charles Dickens who, in a letter to a friend after the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence?) of 1857, advocated the genocide of the Indian “Hindoo” race. For good measure, he also openly despised Americans. Shall we stop reading his brilliant novels?
Can we not separate the dancer from the dance?