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Michael R. Stevens

The Bones in Mr. Eliot's Closet

Rediscovering the patron saint of all the flawed and haunted seekers of modernity.

T. S. Eliot has probably been given as much media attention in the past five years as he was given in his entire lifetime. But fame, as we all know, is not necessarily a good thing. For admirers of Eliot, the most recent wave has been decidedly bittersweet. His prestige is still apparent, most prominently in his selection by Time magazine as "the poet of the century." But a dark cloud has settled firmly over his reputation. Though Eliot has no apparent skeleton in his closet—such as the pro-Nazi articles which the late "Father of Deconstructionism," Paul de Man, wrote as a young Belgian journalist during World War II—he does have a motley pile of bones, which several recent critics have attempted to reconstruct into various forms.

Unlike de Man, Eliot has long been a thorn in the side of the liberal intellectual establishment. That Eliot was a conservative in almost every aspect of life he himself admitted in the famous preface to his 1928 book of essays For Lancelot Andrewes: "Meanwhile, I have made bold to unite these occasional essays merely as an indication of what may be expected, and to refute any accusation of playing 'possum. The general point of view may be described as classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion." Such an agenda, dismissed by many of Eliot's contemporaries as merely anachronistic, is taken by our own contemporaries as utterly damning.

Among the most provocative and widely discussed indictments of Eliot is Anthony Julius's book T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form. In an irony that Eliot perhaps would have appreciated, it was a trick of pop culture that brought Julius's dissertation work, published by Cambridge in 1995, into prominence. In his day-job, Julius was the attorney who represented Princess Diana in her divorce suit with Prince Charles. If the massive settlement he effected for Diana is any indication, he is a good lawyer (and perhaps the wealthiest literature Ph.D. in the world!). If the case he has constructed regarding Eliot is any indication, the lawyer's craft does not always translate well into that of the literary critic.

What one first intuits from Julius's tone is that the conversation regarding Eliot is already closed. Not only does he posit anti-Semitism as a strong theme in Eliot's work; he further sees this bias as the trope that dominates all of Eliot's thought. Now, it is undeniable that several of Eliot's early poems (all dating from around 1920) have anti-Semitic references, most notably "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar"; an excised portion of The Waste Land entitled "Dirge"; and the opening of "Gerontion," where "the Jew squats on the window sill."

Equally undeniable, and more troubling, is the fact that, well after his 1927 baptism into the Anglican Church, Eliot remarked in a lecture at the University of Virginia in the spring of 1933 (in ill-timed correlation with Hitler's assumption of dictatorial powers in Germany), that "reasons of race and religion make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable" in a Christian culture. The poetic glosses seem to be the product of the ill-conceived period bias that often beset Eliot as a young poet. The lecture remark, reprinted in the volume After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, seems a painful theoretical expression of the logical ends of Eliot's nascent cultural theory.

But from such problematic moments it is a long stretch indeed to Julius's portrait of Eliot as an obsessive anti-Semite—and to the astonishing "judgments" of Eliot that were pronounced in passing, almost casually, in reviews of Julius's book. So, for example, Frederic Raphael in The Weekly Standard: "What we shall never know, luckily for us and, I suspect, for his reputation, is what posture Eliot would have struck in a London as providentially subject to the Nazis as occupied France was."

Julius himself never goes that far, but his own faulty reasoning certainly invites such conjecture. He attempts to use The Criterion, the quarterly review which Eliot edited from 1922-1939, in order to prove that Eliot's enmity to ward the Jews bordered on complicity with the Nazis. He cites a harsh review that appeared in The Criterion in 1936, demeaning the account, in the book The Yellow Spot, of atrocities against Jews in German concentration camps. Julius now admits to having been mistaken in assuming Eliot's authorship of the review (Eliot's widow came forward recently to identify the author as Montgomery Belgion). However, he still claims a deep culpability for the editor:

Drawn elsewhere to examples of martyrdom—Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral, Celia in The Cocktail Party—Eliot's willingness to publish this ugly review suggests that he was blind to the martyrdom of German Jewry. Certainly, in the whole period from the Nazi seizure of power to the closure of the Criterion, he did not publish a single article or review correcting the false impression given by Belgion of life (and death) for Jews under Nazism.

In his sweeping indictment, and the further implication of complicity in the Nazi mistreatment of Jews, Julius goes awry. The actual testament of The Criterion in the thirties is decidedly anti-Nazi. Probably Eliot's most direct criticism of Nazism was in regard to its dangerous assault on the place of the Christian Church in the social order (an issue increasingly central to his thought), and one finds an unexpected hero in The Criterion reviews of the mid-thirties in the figure of the great Protestant dissident Karl Barth. Through Julius's obsession with the crassness of the review of The Yellow Spot, he misses the whole direction of Eliot's practical socio-political concerns.

Kenneth Asher comes closer to pinning down these socio-political concerns in his book T.S. Eliot and Ideology. Asher sees Eliot's early attraction to the proto-Fascist ideas of Charles Maurras and his organization L'Action Francaise, as the enduring and dominant feature in Eliot's development, spiritual and otherwise. Indeed, it is no accident that Eliot's famous pronouncement in the preface to For Lancelot Andrewes is an echo of an early manifesto from the newspaper of L'Action Francaise, published around the turn of the century (a formula that included the necessity of anti-Semitism in the mix). Eliot had also made a very public defense of Maurras, in the pages of The Criterion, when the Frenchman was condemned by the Vatican in 1926 for espousing and promulgating a form of Catholicism which valued the Church's political function while denying Christ. Eliot's odd rejoinder to the Catholic apologist Leo Ward was to proclaim:

I may say also that I felt a reluctance to meddle with a matter that concerns another nation than mine. What decided me was Mr. Ward's suggestion that the influence of Maurras, indeed the intention of Maurras, is to pervert his disciples and students away from Christianity. I have been a reader of the work of Maurras for eighteen years; upon me he has had exactly the opposite effect. This is only the evidence of one; but if one can speak, is it not his duty to testify?

Asher makes a very shrewd observation regarding Eliot's resolution of these difficulties:

But Eliot, again showing his genius for assimilation, has quietly adopted the essence of the Catholic case against Maurras: politics (and art), properly understood, must be ultimately in the service of Christianity. The religiously based communitarianism that Eliot evolves in the thirties and forties represents his at tempt to relocate Maurras's conservative revolution on this firmer ground.

This is tightly argued, but I would venture to alter just a few of Asher's terms, in light of my own understanding of the profundity of Eliot's turn to Christianity. What Asher calls "assimilation" I would term "winnowing," because I see the process more as a sifting out of those notions, in all his influences, which Eliot deemed useful in developing what would become his neo-medieval social vision. This, of course, assumes that heterodoxy would be left as chaff. To ex tend the metaphor, I see The Criterion as the threshing-floor whereupon this process was exercised.

The second term I would alter is represents. The idea would be more accurately expressed by includes, since Asher's fundamental problem is one of priority. He wants the Maurras connection to be at the heart of Eliot's post-conversion project, in a way much clearer, though still analogous, to Julius's desire that Eliot's "exclusionary biases" be seen at the heart of his Christian ideology. But Eliot's "religiously based communitarianism" owes much more to the primitivist economics of A.J. Penty, the medieval-centric notion of European history offered by Christopher Dawson (both contemporaries whom Eliot featured in The Criterion of the thirties), and the social vision of Dante than it does to Maurras.

This problem of priority comes out most clearly when Asher is being most careful about his emphases, in the conclusion to his book:

I am not labeling Eliot an ideologue because I happen to dislike the particular triumvirate of institutions he em braces, nor because I consider him deluded and somehow primitively pre-Nietzschean for entertaining the possibility that his values may be true ones. Where a critical note occurs in these pages, it is provoked instead by his tendency to displace and even camouflage the true locus of his concerns in the name of the higher goods he espouses. In this regard, his essay in praise of Machiavelli is instructive. To be fair, perhaps we, with a longer experience of the abuses of social and cultural engineering, are more understandably suspicious of such strategies. Yet surely Eliot, who devoted so much thought to social cohesion, might have seen—as Orwell did—that the Platonic lie, even in the relatively rare instances when it is noble, erodes the very fabric it would preserve.

Asher, despite his care to objectify his concerns, seems to fundamentally misunderstand what Christian redemption does to one's vision of this world. Nietzsche's criticism of Christians as always having one foot in the next world has a flip side to it, a positive and conciliatory possibility, the very possibility which Eliot locked onto in his neo-medieval vision of cultural transformation. In other words, there is a sense in which the "Platonic lie," the Myth of Er which Socrates proposes at the end of The Republic, has been transmuted into the realm of reality by the redemption of Christ. Eliot's priority, then, becomes the promulgation of such a vision, using whatever intellectual corollaries will fit, and exhibiting, far from any Machiavellian root, a thorough-going vulnerability to the Realpolitik of this world.

It is, after all, in the struggle with the consequences of both doubt and faith that Eliot's poetic voice seems to resonate most clearly and deeply. Perhaps that is why Martha Cooley's novel The Archivist is more satisfying, in its assessment of Eliot's impact and influence, than the indictments drawn up by Julius and Asher. Because it assumes from the very start that Eliot is a flawed and haunted figure in our literature, the novel allows him to function in the role for which his poetry is tremendously adequate: as patron saint of all the flawed and haunted seekers of modernity.

Cooley has woven Eliot deep into the fabric of the work, both explicitly and implicitly. The archive of her title is none other than Eliot's mysterious correspondence with Emily Hale, the American woman with whom he had initiated some intimacy as far back as his college days, and who was his correspondent and confidante until the late forties. Eliot's wife Vivienne, institutionalized for over a decade at Eliot's behest, died in a fire in 1948, clearing the way, it seemed, for Eliot to marry Hale. But, at the crucial moment, Eliot chose to cut her off, and burned all of her letters to him, begging Hale to do the same with his letters. Her decision, perhaps more an act of vengeance than of literary stewardship, was to donate the letters to an academic collection in 1957, with the caveat that they not be opened for 50 years. And thus the situation now stands, with both the fans and foes of Eliot eagerly awaiting the distant revelation.

Cooley's ingenious twist is to make the fictitious librarian in charge of the Hale letters an analogue to Eliot himself, part of a triangular relationship which mirrors Eliot's own. The archivist and narrator, Matthias Lane, is an aging, reticent man, confronted by a female graduate student half his age, who insists that she must see the Hale letters in order to understand Eliot's relationships with Vivienne and Emily.

What strikes the reader about this graduate student, Roberta, is that she seems earnestly to desire the humanity of the letters, the pitch of emotion and suppression which they promise; there is nothing of the purely antiquarian in her. Such a longing illuminates a rarely expressed but important reason why Eliot's poetry is still compelling: even in our confessional age, the emotional nakedness of this legislator of impersonality is shockingly powerful.

As the narrative unfolds, shifting restlessly between present and past, Matthias's late wife Judith appears as perhaps the central character of the novel. Judith is many things in the complex analogy which Cooley creates: foremost, she is Vivienne to Matthias's Eliot. Like Vivienne, she becomes increasingly mentally unstable, is institutionalized, becomes by turns vindictive and imploring with her husband, and dies in the asylum. But Judith is also a Jew, haunted by the death of her parents in a pogrom in Russia, haunted by the inexplicable Holocaust, haunted by the inescapable terrors which Matthias, a goy, cannot feel. This fictional Jew finds in Eliot's Christian poetry, in Four Quartets, shards of hope and healing in the midst of a desert of pain. In fact, the Quartets play a major role in the novel, bringing Matthias and Judith together through their mutual fascination with Eliot's voice.

Judith's death, by suicide, in the first days of 1965 (Eliot himself died on January 4, 1965), inclined Matthias not toward emancipation but toward reclusion. But Roberta reawakens him to the use of poetry and to the resonance which one poet's life can offer, one interpreter of life's traumas and failures. As for Matthias's way of repaying Roberta, well, I cannot in good conscience give the ending away. It takes the weight of the whole narrative to make that ending coalesce.

We are left finally with a sense of Eliot's importance, not as a model political theorist nor humanitarian nor chaste and ethereal thinker nor even congenial neighbor; he seems to have been flawed in every category. But his flaws, or rather his recognition and expression of the flaws of human existence, made for beautiful and meaningful poetry.

When I teach Eliot to my students, I like to finish by mulling over a line from the final section of "Little Gidding," the last of the Quartets and practically the final lyric poetry of his career: "Every poem is an epitaph." Usually the students get it: for the artist, the art is the intended legacy, the definitive statement to the world. If this is so, then Eliot deserves to be remembered not for what he may have hidden and obscured, but rather for what he certainly gave and revealed.

Michael R. Stevens is assistant professor of English at Cornerstone University.

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