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T. S. Eliot

The only excuse I can imagine for David P. Goldman’s taking up the shopworn claim that T. S. Eliot was an anti-Semite (“T. S. Eliot and the Jews,” March) is that, having been repeated so many times before, it might as well be repeated again as one of the unexamined prejudices of our culture. Goldman’s argument is couched like a Russian nesting doll: Eliot was an anti-Semite; Eliot’s reading of Shakespeare suggests discomfort with Hamlet as a problem play; a related kind of problem play is the tragicomedy that Goldman interestingly identifies as, in part, a Jewish contribution to Renaissance culture. The parts hang poorly together, which, in this case, is good, because Goldman’s account of Eliot’s anti-Semitism and Eliot’s long, critical engagement with Shakespeare do not stand up to scrutiny, while his central, and more interesting claim, does.

Goldman mistakenly assumes that Anthony Julius’s controversial book brands Eliot an anti-Semite on the strength of five references to Judaism in his poetry. However, Julius in fact shows that Eliot makes use of anti-­Semitic tropes in those five places, and leaves open what the relationship of those tropes may be to Eliot’s convictions as a man.

That there are anti-Semitic references to Jews in Eliot’s poems of the 1910s is clear enough. They serve a curious purpose. The young Eliot looked at nineteenth-century literary criticism and found that all it talked about was the sincerity and emotional power of the poet as the genesis of great poetry; he saw that literary criticism’s sentimentalism had little if anything to do with actual poems, and did nothing to indicate the way in which poetry feeds the whole human person, including the intellect.

He wished to counter this literary criticism, which was to be understood not so much as a faithful study of poems as an ideological imposition upon them. The problem was, the young ­Eliot had only written one unqualified success of a poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred ­Prufrock.” Formally, it derived much of its structure from French symbolism, but as content—being a poem about a young man so thoroughly trapped in the desire for strong emotions that he renders himself incapable of any actual emotions, except that self-referential yearning—it was as purely sentimental an affair as could be imagined.

How does one prove that poetry is about more than mere feeling, if one’s own poetry is a dramatization of an adolescent’s feelings about his own feelings? Eliot did so by writing deliberately dispassionate vers de société. In a handful of poems, he composed tetrameter quatrains that were dense of matter, objective in their treatment of society, and whose poetic persona was not that of a man who feels but of one who sees through the emotions of others with the eye of the social critic.

The resulting poems are, to the ­unsympathetic reader, a series of exercises in condemning social types: the innocent American abroad, right out of Henry James; the decadent heiress of a declining house; the lusty Irishman at the bordello; and, last but not least, the money-loving Jew. As Julius suggests, Eliot’s guilt here lies not in a personal animosity against Jews, but in his willingness to paint, as it were, anti-Semitic images alongside myriad other social types. Eliot’s purpose in the poems is to show that the poet can be sociological rather than psychological in a narrow, emotional sense. In this, he is a success. We may condemn his indifference in making use of so many tropes, including anti-Semitic ones, but it is his indifference rather than any specific, strong prejudice on his part we should condemn.

Ronald Schuchard, the editor of Eliot’s complete works, has convincingly shown that the references to Judaism in “Gerontian” admit as strongly of sympathy for the fate of Jews in the First World War as they do of supposed anti-Semitism. He has also shown that Eliot’s reference to “free-thinking Jews,” in the lectures called After Strange Gods, seems to follow from Eliot’s engagement with an American Jewish friend who wished American Jews would set aside their religious belief in favor of the religion of American democracy. Eliot opposed secularism in every form, including the secularization of Christianity and Judaism that became for a time America’s civil religion.

Eliot’s relationship to ­Shakespeare changed over many decades. One consistent concern was to save ­Shakespeare from overly subjective, romantic, and sentimental interpretations, wherein the tragic hero becomes a “little Nietzsche” who affirms his own identity despite the world collapsing around him. Another concern was to understand how the meaning of Shakespeare’s plays could be so “layered” and what it entailed for Shakespeare’s vision of the world. Eliot relished this complexity and exploited it in his own plays, where we see multiple levels of meaning jostling against one another. Tragicomedy is simply one instance of such “layering,” and one that Eliot hardly rejected thanks to some kind of hygienic fear of Jewish contamination. To the contrary, his first, incomplete play, Sweeney Agonistes, is a farce with violent, tragic implications about the career of human lust, while his first complete play, The Rock, mixes the elevated psalmody of reflections on the history of revealed religion with the dialect comedy of the London music hall. Eliot savored the blending of high and low, the comic and the tragic. That is one reason he so admired Dante.

Anti-Semitism is simply not a helpful interpretative tool for understanding Eliot. It is irrelevant in any case to Goldman’s central claim that Jews gave to European literature some essential wisdom about life as tragicomic.

James Matthew Wilson
villanova university
villanova, pennsylvania

David P. Goldman’s “T. S. Eliot and the Jews” rightly argues that ­Eliot’s anti-Semitism is not merely an ­unfortunate failure of taste (“­Rachel née Rabinovitch / Tears at the grapes with murderous paws,” for one instance), nor is it a temporary moral blindness (no “free-thinking Jews” wanted in a proper society). John Buchan, best known for Thirty-Nine Steps, apologized for the mere creation of a fictional character in one novel who was anti-Semitic; not much more than a peep from Eliot for his non-fictional self, not even during the later correspondence initiated by Groucho Marx. As Goldman notes, Ezra Pound advised Eliot to remove some disgusting lines from The Waste Land. Ezra Pound! Enough said.

However, I do have one critique: My problem is with the notion of Hamlet as “tragicomedy.” Of course, Goldman is using the term as conventionally defined in literary studies, namely as a work that evinces both comic elements, such as the grave-digger scene in Hamlet, and tragic elements, as in practically everything else. What’s wrong with the conventional definition is that it implicitly judges a scene (or two) and the “everything else” to have the same weight, which they surely do not. The commonsensical reader or ­audience will hear tragicomedy to mean a work that is potentially tragic but ends in comedy, which Hamlet does not. It would make more sense for literary definers to invent “comitragedy,” even at the expense of inventing an uglier (but more accurate) sound. But my problem is not merely a syntactic objection.

Kenneth Burke, in a provocative section of Attitudes Toward History (1937), made a profound distinction between “comedy” and “humor.” In a comic work, the protagonist, faced with a serious (and potentially tragic) situation, rises to the occasion and meets it with a heroic magnification of his or her efforts, thus assuring that all ends well. Burke is short on examples, so I suggest (in spite of its title) Much Ado About Nothing—in which there is plenty of much ado and no nothing. A humorous work, on the other hand, “takes up the slack between the momentousness of the situation and the feebleness of those in the situation by dwarfing the situationthere having been nothing much to be done to assure that all ends well. I suggest A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

An analogy: Although Burke was talking about literature, he could well have been discussing economics. Occasionally, economists tell us the economy will overcome inflation, unemployment, recession, what-have-you, by the verve, flexibility, imagination, whatever, inherent in the system. That’s comedy. Occasionally we are advised the economy will overcome only apparent difficulties that are merely temporary fluctuations and in the long run exaggerated. That’s humor. So economics is essentially a comic to humorous discipline that knows that, with effort and patience, all’s well that ends well.

But in tragedy—whether it’s called tragedy or miscalled ­tragicomedy—neither heroic magnification nor dwarfing of the situation can bring about an “all’s well.” That’s why any comic moment in a tragedy (and there’s such a moment even in Sophocles’s Oedipus the King) is merely “comic relief,” ­unessential to the work itself even if it gives the audience a moment to catch its breath. I wonder if anyone would feel comfortable calling ­Oedipus a tragi-comedy.

The situation in a comic work can be overcome by the heroic magnification of the protagonist’s efforts (as inflation, for instance, can be overcome in the economy). But the situation in a tragic work cannot be overcome—is unresolvable—no matter how heroic the magnification of effort, because it is not merely social or political, but reflects the way things are, that is to say, it is ontological. No comical resolution is possible. Tragicomedy is merely “un-humorous” comedy.

Samuel Hux
city university of new york
new york, new york

David P. Goldman replies:

Professor Wilson argues that T. S. ­Eliot’s Jew-hatred is merely one among many “tropes” critical of contemporary types, including Irishmen and expatriate American writers. Granted that Jews weren’t the only people that Eliot disliked, they nonetheless are the only people described as lower than rats or depicted as crab-eaten corpses. There are degrees. And I would give Eliot a pass for his swipe at “secular Jews” in After Strange Gods had he not also said, in 1933, that “race and religion combine” to make them “­undesirable.” These facts were central to my argument, which Wilson fails to address.

Professor Hux objects that “the commonsensical reader . . . will hear tragicomedy to mean a work that is potentially tragic but ends in comedy, which Hamlet does not.” But that is just what I argued: Hamlet does indeed conclude with comedy, albeit of a very dark variety. Shakespeare’s audience would not have known whether to laugh or cry when ­Fortinbras arrives on the corpse-strewn ­proscenium to possess the throne of Denmark. Hux thus ignores the central claim of my essay: What is most tragic in Hamlet is simultaneously comic. That is an accomplishment of a few great works of literature, including Goethe’s Faust and de Rojas’s Celestina.

It also is found in many Jewish jokes. One (told by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin) might serve as an illustration: Sometime in the 1960s, ­Rabinowitz is trudging through the snow to his apartment in Moscow when a limousine careens around the corner and ejects a large package from the back seat. Rabinowitz goes to investigate: The package is a badly beaten man. He looks closer—it’s his friend Epstein, with whom he survived Auschwitz! Rabinowitz says, “­Epstein, it’s me, Rabinowitz, from Auschwitz!” A blissful smile plays across the bloodied face, and Epstein sighs, “Ahhh—­Auschwitz!”


I read with appreciation Matthew Lee Anderson’s essay “The Biblical Case Against IVF” (March). I agree that human life has inherent dignity, and I abhor abortion. I also appreciate ­Anderson’s desire for couples ­pursuing IVF to consider the spiritual ramifications. Yet as a Christ-­follower who has spent decades working through the theological issues associated with IVF and helping others do likewise, I find some of his assertions troubling.

While IVF, like natural conception, can be laced with immoral decision-making, couples can do IVF in a Christ-honoring way—from sperm collection to respecting the embryo to standing in awe of God’s design. Anderson describes natural conception as having a mysterious quality “that beckons us to accept new life as gift rather than a technical project.” But is it not uncharitable to characterize Christian couples as doing the latter? They do view human life as a profound gift. Their high view, and not a low one, is precisely why they endure spiritual, emotional, marital, financial, and ethical struggles to seek the best environment in which creation can take place.

While I believe failure to honor the image of God at the beginning of life is a problem, I disagree that it “is made easier when Christians participate in the systems and structures that empty the origins of our lives of the awe and wonder of procreation,” if Anderson means to include IVF couples as those who do such emptying. IVF for all its human ­intervention still explodes with divine mystery. Will the DNA align? Will the embryo find its way to hostile space or nestle into the womb? Will my child’s cells continue to ­divide? The embryo’s creation, attachment, and growth are enshrouded in mystery. A natural birth is a miracle; but so is an IVF one. Indeed, most people I know who have an IVF child describe him or her as their “miracle baby.” A child is still woven in secret in its mother’s womb when fertilization has been aided by IVF.

Couples can approach IVF in ways that honor the image of God and the dignity of human life, all while embracing mystery and viewing children as gifts rather than projects. IVF is not for everybody. But IVF can be done in a way that affirms life and brings glory to God, both in its means and its ends.

Sandra Glahn
dallas theological seminary
dallas, texas

Matthew Lee Anderson replies:

I’m grateful to Professor Glahn for her comments. While she kindly acknowledges what we have in common, where we part is (naturally) of more interest. Glahn makes an eloquent appeal to account for the subjective intentions and states of couples who pursue IVF. Surely, she pleads, they also see life as a miracle.

They do indeed, and have reason to: The human beings who are formed through in vitro fertilization are also created by God. Still, the impetus toward technical efficiency is inextricable from in vitro fertilization: Eggs and sperm are evaluated and selected. Embryos are graded in order to determine which has the best chance of becoming a baby. IVF began and continues to “improve” through research that destroys human embryos. Regardless of the purity of their hearts, parents who choose such means become complicit with them. The logic of technique cannot be expunged by appealing to the good intentions of those who would benefit from it. The costs of participating in that technique are high for the communities that do so: By making childlessness a problem that requires “medical” attempts to overcome it, IVF inherently pathologizes inf­ertility and obscures the fact that the Lord gives—and does not give—the gifts of children as he wills.

Moreover, such a standard eviscerates the norming power of Christ’s conception by the Holy Spirit within the womb of Mary for Christian ethics. It is perhaps surprising that we should look to the unrepeatable act of God in the Incarnation for assessing the grounds of our own births. But an ethic that takes its cues from the gospel—an evangelical ethic—can do no less. Glahn’s own suggestion that the child formed in IVF is still “woven in secret” in the ­mother’s womb is true, in one sense—but that “weaving” does not include conception. God knows the child who is ­created through in vitro before they are formed in their mother’s womb—but so do the lab technicians and doctors whose job it is to create the conditions for that child’s beginnings. To affirm this is to alienate both the mother and child from that experience that our Lord and Mary have—and that, until 1978, every human being has enjoyed.

From one evangelical to another: Our movement thrives because we emphasize the heart. Yet that emphasis sometimes leaves us susceptible to what was once called “worldliness.” IVF is just one such case. Short-­circuiting the task of moral reasoning with appeals to experience is a position to which all evangelicals should say an unequivocal “no.”

Graham Greene

I am not sure that my biography of Graham Greene, published in the U.K. as Russian Roulette and in North America as The Unquiet ­Englishman, has had a more thoughtful review than the one Dan ­Hitchens wrote for First Things (“Dark Greene,” March). I seldom feel grateful to a reviewer—I did this time.

Reasonably enough, Hitchens was struck by the sadness of the story, dwelling upon Greene’s unrequited search for a stable set of beliefs, for happiness and fidelity in love, for a political practice that rejected the materialisms of left and right. In so many ways, this novelist inhabited a world of doubt and failure, and yet produced novel after novel in which Christian belief seems “urgently contemporary, a living, active thing.”

I was amused and touched by the suggestion that at times the biographer “would like to slap the novelist on the back and tell him to stop being so hard on himself.” I did feel that way, and it affected how the book was written.

Formally diagnosed as manic ­depressive (bipolar), Greene was often afflicted with excessive sexual drive, extreme irritability, restlessness, and habits of risk-taking, hard drinking, and drug abuse. There is another ­dimension to the disease, as modern research tells us “that between 25% and 60% of ­individuals with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide at least once in their lives and between 4% and 19% will complete suicide.” I find it hard to square such statistics with the habit of some ­commentators to condemn him as a reprobate and others to celebrate him as a jolly rogue.

Although Greene withdrew from the sacraments for about thirty years as his promises of amendment came to seem empty, he attended Mass and continued to pray at night. Whatever happened in those dark hours, it kept him alive. In later years, when the temptation to suicide receded, he said it was his faith that preserved him.

Graham Greene did not go in for happy endings, yet I think he ­provided one with his own life. It was just a matter of dying in his bed of natural causes.

Richard Greene
university of toronto
toronto, ontario, canada

Dan Hitchens replies:

My thanks to Richard Greene for his generous response—and for taking in good part my slightly teasing comment about his affection for his subject. No doubt this authorial sympathy is one reason for the book’s success in telling its absorbing tale. Peter Kreeft, if I remember rightly, said that he had never known a good philosophy course taught by an academic who disliked the philosopher he was ­expounding—or a bad course taught by a fan.

I can’t go quite as far as R. G. in absolving G. G.: There is, for me, something chilling in the novelist’s abandonment of his wife and (so much of) his faith. But when it comes to Greene’s culpability, the last word has to go to the priest in Brighton Rock: “You cannot conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the . . . appalling . . . strangeness of the mercy of God.”

Le Carré

It’s always enjoyable to read Samuel Goldman, even amid disagreement (“The Spymaster,” March). My estimate of John le Carré (whom ­Goldman judges as not “in the first rank of ‘literary’ novelists”) is different from his (I think le Carré was superb), but reasonable people can ­differ on such matters. Where I draw the line is Goldman’s drive-by assessment of Len Deighton as “a mere scribbler of airport thrillers.” My fear is that some bright young subscriber to this magazine might take Goldman’s judgment as authoritative without ever having read Deighton. Perhaps First Things could commission a piece that would introduce the author of The Ipcress File, Bomber, and the Bernard Samson series to such younger readers (also gladdening the hearts of old ones like me).

John Wilson
wheaton, illinois

Samuel Goldman replies:

John Wilson and I must agree to disagree with regard to Len Deighton. Although I have read and enjoyed ­Deighton’s work, particularly the Samson series, I don’t think he ever claimed or attempted to blur distinctions between genre and literary fiction in the manner that makes le Carré’s best work so rewarding (and his less successful efforts so often frustrating). There is sufficient honor in writing effective thrillers, whether they are read on an airplane, on the beach, or in a comfortable armchair. Indeed, that is a greater accomplishment than most of the dull, self-­consciously serious novels that pass unnoticed through the bookshops. But this is likely a matter of personal affinity more than authoritative ­criticism. I encourage any “bright young subscriber”—and indeed anyone else—to try the books and judge for themselves