Thursday, August 9, 2012

"After strange gods"

R.R. Reno observes that "many, many influential writers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries harbored anti-Semitic sentiments," among them T.S. Eliot:
.... Eliot believed that human beings flourish best when subject to the authority of a specific tradition. It’s an idea he gave the most forceful expression to in AFTER STRANGE GODS, a series of lectures he gave in 1933. In those lectures, “tradition” has blood and soil connotations, and in a passing comment Eliot expresses the concern that “free-thinking Jews” undermine organic communities and their authoritative traditions.

The charge that Eliot’s entire poetic and critical project is implicated in anti-Semitism reflects a much larger modern liberal syllogism. Commitments to authority leads to authoritarianism, which gets expressed politically in Fascism, and leads to the gas chambers. Put in less dire terms: a commitment to authority necessarily involves drawing lines. Some things are “orthodox,” to use Eliot’s term, and some “heretical.” This is inherently “discriminatory,” and reinforces our malign tendency toward ethnocentrism, and etc. In this way of thinking, the charge of anti-Semitism is meant as a synecdoche. It points to the authoritarian consequences of a larger commitment to authority. The same often holds for charges of patriarchy, colonialism, and homophobia. To assert a normative claim–this is good, that is evil–that’s the fundamental crime.

Put in these broad terms the modern liberal outlook seems crazy, because it denies any strong moral claims. It’s a denial we saw in literary studies when the very idea of a canon was criticized and rejected. But modern conservatism, which Eliot represented and tried to theorize, really does present a problem. Where does the “free-thinking Jew” (or for that matter any heterodox person) fit into a world organized around orthodoxy? ....
Russell Kirk, who wrote a book about Eliot, addressed the question of Eliot, After Strange Gods, anti-Semitism, and tradition in a Touchstone essay from 1991:
.... Fifteen hundred copies of the first edition were printed in New York; no later edition has been published in this country. Why have these lively lectures been virtually suppressed? Chiefly because of an aside on page 20. There Eliot is discussing the conditions necessary for a tradition to develop and survive, with particular reference to Christian tradition and to Virginia. For tradition to endure, he remarks,
The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background, and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.
.... [T]his alleged “anti-Semitism” was merely an illustration of the principle that a culture—which arises from a cult—cannot well abide two radically different religions. It would be equally true that a community of orthodox Jews would be distressed and resentful, were they to find themselves beset by a Comus’s rout of free-thinkers nominally Christian. The religion, or anti-religion, of the “free-thinking Jews” that Eliot had in mind was not Judaism, but rather secular humanism....

There being nothing more in the pages of After Strange Gods about Jews, whether free-thinking or orthodox, it is absurd to cry anathema and to keep from others’ eyes this outspoken little book. Does literature have an ethical end? Should books be judged by the moral suppositions they implicitly affirm or deny? Do Good and Evil matter? And may the operations of the Evil Spirit (capital letters Eliot’s) be discerned among us in the twentieth century? May they be descried, indeed, among men of letters whose talents are high and whose private characters are commendable? These questions are raised perceptively in After Strange Gods.

As orthodoxy had been Samuel Johnson’s doxy, so was she Eliot’s, in 1933 and so long as he lived. .... [more]
The full text of After Strange Gods can be found here.

T.S. Eliot and Anti-Semitism » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog, Touchstone Archives: T. S. Eliot On Literary Morals