Tag Archives: ts eliot

Emanuel Litvinoff and the nature of TS Eliot’s antisemitism

Emanuel LitvinoffIt completely passed me by that Emanuel Litvinoff had died in 2011.

Unfortunately for a writer who wrote many plays, novels and poems, he seems to be mostly remembered for his incredible poem To T.S. Eliot, an attack on Eliot’s antisemitism, which he amazingly read out in front of Eliot himself at the ICA in 1951. Previously an admirer, he was horrified when poems such as Gerontion and Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar were reprinted in 1948 in his Selected Poems. There is little doubt of the antisemitic content of these poems; they are downright nasty:

“And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner [of my building] / Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp.”
– Gerontion

“The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs.”
Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar

It’s always a shame when a writer is remembered primarily for something he probably wishes he had never had to write in the first place. Especially so since most of his novels seem to be now out of print. His memoir of Jewish East End life, Journeys Through a Small Planet has a Penguin Modern Classics edition that I’ll be making sure to get my hands on.

Looking at the history of Eliot’s antisemitism and political/religious trajectory is interesting in itself. There is no doubt that Eliot was a reactionary in the Tory tradition. You could call him a ‘very English’ reactionary, but I generally hate the self-mythologising ‘very English’ label the English like to apply to anything that paints us in a good light. A Very English Civil war, a Very English General Strike, blah.

Of course, Eliot was not English, but he was desperate to firmly root himself in English society, especially upper-class society. The most obvious expression of this is certainly his conversion from the Unitarianism of his childhood to Anglicanism, identifying not only as a member of the Church of England but as an Anglo-Catholic. Then in its heyday, Anglo-Catholicism is a branch of the Anglican church that retained the most Catholic aspects of worship from the Elizabethan Settlement; sacraments, incense, veneration of Mary, confession, and even Latin Mass in some instances. Traditionally, it disdains the Protestant, or ‘low church’, aspects of the Church of England, and sees itself as part of the continuous church founded by the early Christians. Unsurprisingly, many of the original adherents to Anglo-Catholicism in the mid-19th century, known as the Oxford Movement, converted to Catholicism itself, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, who continued to write poetry as a Jesuit priest. Many High Church Anglicans in recent years have also converted, unhappy with the modest attempts at liberalisation in the CofE.

Devotional image of Charles I, from the Eikon BasilikeHigh Church Anglicanism has always been the embodiment of the traditional English establishment, and none more so than in Eliot’s time, when the aristocracy still existed as a viable economic class. Toryism, the political wing of Anglo-Catholicism and the precursor to modern conservatism, growing out of the Royalist faction of the Civil War, was clearly where Eliot found himself most at home. He stated that he was a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic [sic] in religion”. As if to amplify his reactionary politico-religious credentials, he was a life member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, an Anglo-Catholic devotional society that venerates Charles I.

The essence of the modernism that Eliot portrayed in The Waste Land, that general unease associated with complete collapse of absolutes and the assumed survival of the political and social order, led him to embrace a totally pre-modern form of conservatism. The royalism of the Cavalier and Jacobite tradition, the religious conservatism, and in the vein of all European reactionaries since the French Revolution, the suspicion of materialism, capitalism, liberalism, and democracy. Eliot’s radicalism was one of traditional, authoritarian, paternalistic hierarchies.

In this embrace of the political and religious tastes of the inter-war aristocratic classes, it would almost be surprising if somebody like Emanuel Litvinoff had not had to write a poem denouncing Eliot for his antisemitism, which was hardly a rarity among the pre-war aristocracy.

The British Union of Fascists had many prominent aristocratic patrons, and was flocked to by the sons of Earls and Barons, although many eventually were turned off by the ‘unseemly’ violence endemic at their meetings. David Redesdale, father of the Mitfords, was notorious for his antisemitic views. While sections of the aristocracy were actively sympathetic to fascism, in particular Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the anti-democratic, traditionalist, religious absolutes of High Toryism often expressed themselves in casual, or not so casual, antisemitism during the inter-war years.*

TS EliotThere have been defences of Eliot, which are as predictable as nightfall when any great artist turns out to have held unfavorable opinions, or to have done something that might make them a flawed human being. Terry Eagleton counters this very well:

“Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children? Eliot’s well-earned reputation [as a poet] is established beyond all doubt, and making him out to be as unflawed as the Archangel Gabriel does him no favours.”

Despite having felt ‘nervous’ when he saw Eliot enter, Litvinoff finished reading his poem at the ICA in 1951.

So shall I say it is not eminence chills
but the snigger from behind the covers of history,
the sly words and the cold heart
and footprints made with blood upon a continent?
Let your words
tread lightly on this earth of Europe
lest my people’s bones protest.
To T.S. Eliot

Eliot reportedly said afterwards, “It’s a good poem. It’s a very good poem.”

Having dispatched Eliot, Litvinoff later led high-profile campaigns against official antisemitism in Soviet Russia and, expressing the universality of his belief in human dignity, his last novel, Falls the Shadow, written during the 1982 Lebanon War, was set in contemporary Israel and is critical of Israeli policy towards Palestinians.

Like many obituaries and short biographies of Litvinoff, this post has ended up saying more about Eliot than him. When I’ve got a hold of Journeys From a Small Planet I’ll write something for the man himself.

*check out European Aristocracies and the Radical Right, 1918-1939, by Karina Urbach.



Filed under arts, books, literature, Uncategorized

Waugh, Pound, and political modernism

While undertaking a long voyage – we’re not sure when or where to – Evelyn Waugh was forced, against his better judgement, to enter the second-class restaurant of his ship, and upon entering exclaimed, ‘My God, you can just smell the poverty, can’t you?’

Waugh had been a bully at school, and the writer and diarist James Lees-Milne called him ‘the nastiest-tempered man in Britain’. He was a conservative, both before and after the war, and believed in the ‘natural’ separation of servants and masters. He also saw inequalities in wealth as natural, and attacked the post-war Labour government of Clement Atlee. He believed the Catholic Church to be the last bastion of defense against a ‘Dark Age’ to be ushered in by the burgeoning welfare state. Waugh’s political opinions contributed to his reputation of being a snob, taking any opportunity he could to sneer at the lower classes.

Waugh’s work and political views were informed by an era of aristocracy, a class of English society all but descimated by the Second World War, and a view of society fixed in an Edwardian mindset of unapologetic class dominance, the abolishment of which was neither possible nor desirable. Nowadays, views such as these would rightly be thought unacceptable by most people, but when looked at alongside the political opinions of some of his contemporaries, Waugh’s pale from voraciously reactionary to a comfortable English conservatism based on a sneering elitism not wholly uncommon at the time.

A strangely large proportion of these contemporaries come from the ranks of the English and American expatriate modernists, who seem to have had a particular affinity with the radical right-wing, and often identified with outright fascism. There are a couple of notable exceptions. Ernest Hemingway was associated with the anti-fascist left for much of his life; he reported on the Spanish Civil War from the republican side, narrating and co-writing the screenplay of the loyalist propaganda film The Spanish Earth, and For Whom The Bell Tolls is a sympathetic portrayl of a republican guerrilla group during the war. Virginia Woolf, in keeping with the liberal and pacifist ethos of the Bloomsbury Group, expressed anti-war and anti-militarist views throughout her life, and penned the markedly anti-fascist long essay Three Guineas, asking, among other things, ‘How should war be prevented?’.

On the other side, the story of Ezra Pound is probably the most familiar. Having spent the previous three years in Paris, where his championing of up-and-coming writers such as Hemingway, James Joyce, and T S Eliot cannot be understated,  he and his wife moved to Italy in 1924. While in Italy, Pound quickly became enamoured with fascism. Mussolini had been in power for two years, after the fascists’ successful March on Rome in the autumn of 1922. He became convinced that Jews and ‘international usury’ had been the cause of the the First World War, and became so involved in spreading the ideas of fascism that one biographer was of the opinon that no other American or English poet had been so politically active since William Blake.

He travelled to America as what can only be described as an unofficial emissary for Italian fascism, meeting congressmen  and senators to convince them to foster closer relations with Mussolini’s Italy. He carried this on until the beginning of the war, and even met Mussolini at one point, who seems to have been wary of Pound’s intentions, although he received a copy of Cantos XXX, which he described as ‘entertaining’. He wrote anti-semitic articles for the Italian press, as well as for Action, a newspaper owned by the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley. He wrote that President Roosevelt represented ‘Jewry’, and began a habit of signing off his letters with ‘Heil Hitler’.

With the outbreak of war, he petitioned American politicians to keep America out of the war. Beginning in 1935, after apparent reluctance on the part of the Italian government, Pound was given permission to broadcast on Radio Rome, on which he made his now infamously anti-semitic and pro-Axis tirades throughout the early years of the war. He was in Rome when the Allies invaded Italy, and after fleeing the city was captured by partisans, who handed him over to the Americans.

He was interned in Italy for the rest of the war, and in November 1945 was arraigned in Washington DC on a charge of treason. He was found guilty, and institutionalised until 1958. Upon his release he recanted publicly on his past, while continuing to express anti-semitic beliefs in private. That same year he emigrated again to Italy, giving a fascist salute to photographers on his arrival in Naples.

Another modernist who openly expressed her admiration for fascism, and actively participated in spreading it was Gertrude Stein. She supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and after the outbreak of war in France in 1940 she was involved in translating articles written by Marshal Pétain, leader of the Vichy regime, whom she also compared to George Washington. Some have tried to write off her stance regarding fascism as one of expediency, being a foreigner and a Jew in Nazi-occupied France. This, however, does not explain her bizarre claim prior to the outbreak of the war that Hitler should have won the Nobel Peace Prize, in her words for,

‘removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany. By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left element, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace … By suppressing Jews … he was ending struggle in Germany’ (New York Times Magazine, May 6, 1934).

Others held opinions bordering on eugenics, WB Yeats declaring that, ‘Sooner or later, we must limit the families of the unintelligent classes’, a thought echoed by DH Lawrence, “Let all schools be closed at once. The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write”.

DH Lawrence was another titan of the literary right-wing, and although he never become an outright fascist, this could be more down to timing. Lawrence died in 1930, before Hitler, Franco, and Europe’s pre-war fascist heydey. He wrote of his opposition to democracy, liberalism, socialism, and egalitarianism, and in letters he exchanged with Bertrand Russell around 1915 he disparages trade unions, and voices his opposition to enfranchising the working class. He also wrote against the French Revolution; Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity being a ‘three-fanged serpent’, and supported the idea of an absolute dictator to replace democracy.

Although he lived in Mussolini’s Italy and was not overly impressed with fascism there, it wouldn’t exactly have been surprising to see him embrace fascism had he lived another ten years to see it grow in power. The philosophical underpinning of fascism, the hostility to democracy, opposition to any attempts by the working class to assert themselves, and opposition to the ideas of the French Revolution – which all ideas of modern democracy and egalitarianism can be traced back to, as well as a yearning for dictatorship, are all apparent in Lawrence’s views.

In some less extreme examples, TS Eliot termed himself a, ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic [sic] in religion’, and was a life member of the reactionary Society of King Charles The Martyr. And F Scott Fitzgerald had some interesting, if apparently apologetic, views on race, writing in 1921 after an unhappy trip to Europe,

‘The negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race. Already the Italians have the souls of blackamoors. Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter’.

And then, seeming to abhor his own reactions, qualifies this with, ‘My reactions,” he wrote “were all philistine, anti-socialistic, provincial and racially snobbish’.

The views of many of those mentioned above often run parallel to a hostility or fear of the working class, or ‘common man’, and a desire to see him kept out of, or removed from, the cultural and political sphere. Especially in the remarks from WB Yeats and DH Lawrence quoted above regarding ‘limiting’ the families of the ‘unintelligent classes’, which we can clearly take to mean the lower classes, and the closing of schools for the ‘great mass of humanity’ who should ‘never learn to read or write’, we can see an obvious fear of various historical trends which at the time were fairly recent revelations. The schooling of all children, regardless of wealth, increasing literacy rates, self-education by working class people, and on the political side, the rise of European social democratic parties, as well as the spectre of increasingly powerful trade unions, working class unrest and communism across the continent, materialising in the revolutions in Russia (1905, 1917), Germany (1918-19), and Spain (1936), as well as the Biennio Rosso, or Two Red Years, in Italy between 1919 and 1920, after which the Italian bourgeoisie wholeheartedly embraced fascism.

This mistrust of an increasingly powerful working class, who with their increasing prominence in political life would bring with them an increasing prominence in cultural life, could be explained as the root of anti-democratic feelings among many European writers. This fear is apparent in Joseph Conrad, who was oppossed to democracy, ‘I have no taste for democracy’, and made his feelings towards the ‘common man’ obvious in his attitude to socialism, which he characterised as, ‘infernal doctrines born in the continental backslums’.

To Yeats and Lawrence, the working classes were to be kept out of the way, and if forced to confront them, they should be looked down upon, and if necessary, stamped upon. They saw themselves as living in precarious times, which they were, tasked with the protection of a culture of which they saw themselves as the elite, to be barricaded at all costs from the hands of the increasingly powerful ‘unwashed’. If fascism stood for order out of the chaos of unrest and the clamour for political and democratic freedoms, then it would find support among the cultural hierarchy. Modernist literature was particularly susceptible to this, with its emphasis on individualism, the aesthetics of beauty, and opposition to relativism and any ideas of equal value in art, leading to a hierarchical and automatic rejection of the perceived ugliness ugliness of popular, or working class culture. The growth of democracy was seen to be the vehicle for this shift in power, especially apparent in Europe, and it is no surprise that many exponents of this high cultural elite found it necessary to either stand on the right and sneer and laugh at the ‘common man’, as Evelyn Waugh did, or fully embrace politics of a more dangerous, and anti-democratic quality.


Filed under literature