May 2, 2008

Emanuel Litvinoff — “To T.S. Eliot”

Posted in Poetry at 4:55 pm by The Lizard Queen

To T.S. Eliot

Eminence becomes you. Now when the rock is struck
your young sardonic voice which broke on beauty
floats amid incense and speaks oracles
as though a god
utters from Russell Square and condescends,
high in the solemn cathedral of the air,
his holy octaves to a million radios.

I am not one accepted in your parish.
Bleistein is my relative and I share
the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page
in Sturmer, and, underneath the cities,
a billet somewhat lower than the rats.
Blood in the sewers. Pieces of our flesh
float with the ordure on the Vistula.
You had a sermon but it was not this.

It would seem, then, yours is a voice
remote, singing another river
and the gilded wreck of princes only
for Time’s ruin. It is hard to kneel
when knees are stiff.

But London Semite Russian Pale, you will say
Heaven is not in our voices.
The accent, I confess, is merely human,
speaking of passion with a small letter
and, crying widow, mourning not the Church
but a woman staring the sexless sea
for no ship’s return,
and no fruit singing in the orchards.

Yet walking with Cohen when the sun exploded
and darkness choked our nostrils,
and the smoke drifting over Treblinka
reeked of the smouldering ashes of children,
I thought what an angry poem
you would have made of it, given the pity.

But your eye is a telescope
scanning the circuit of stars
for Good-Good and Evil Absolute,
and, at luncheon, turns fastidiously from fleshy
noses to contemplation of the knife
twisting among the entrails of spaghetti.

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.

—Emanuel Litvinoff, 1973
(written c. 1950)

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27 Comments »

  1. Fredrik said,

    Thanks a lot for posting this! Much obliged.

    • justicegirl said,

      What the hell is that supposed to mean?

  2. Mary said,

    The form of this poem is better than its sense.
    Mr. Litvinoff wrote rather good poem with wrong meaning.

    TS Eliot, being greater master than Litvinoff himself, actually never wrote anything really anti-Semitic. Even his Jewish publishers never felt any bad in his early poems. Yes, he mentioned some unsympathetic Jews in his poems – as well as very unsympathetic Englishmen – but who (and when?) has said that all the Jews on earth are angel-like? They are just humans, and every human being is not perfect. So how could Litvinoff write, or think, that expressing dislike to a bad Jew in a poem Eliot ‘abused’ all the Jewish people in the real world? Why should we blame Eliot for portraiting some bad Jews if he never said that he think all Jews bad?

    The second important thing here is Litvinoff’s misunderstanding of national fate. It is true that every serious tragic event that happens to a generation affects the following generations; in a sense, the martyrdom of Jews in Holocaust reflects in Jewish history and culture and self-consciousness until today. But in no way it means that the modern Jews, as any other nation, are sanctified by the blood of their martyrs and cannot be therefore criticized in any way in any case. A nation cannot be absolutely saintly or absolutely sinful; and those who were slaughtered in Holocaust were not the redeemers of the present and future sins of those now living. So with all respect for sufferers (about whom Eliot in fact never wrote a bad word), we must understand, that criticizing a bad Jewish person now, we do not touch the untouchable, do not spit on his or her dead kinsmen’s graves. When the meaning of critics is not the nationality, but the bad behaviour or bad personal qualities, there’s no place for demonstration of an abused national feeling as Mr. Litvinoff did.

  3. ELIO ZAPPULLA said,

    Those interested in the question of whether T.S. Eliot’s poetry reveals anti-semitism on the poet’s part would do well to read Anthony Julius’s exhaustive study of the subject: “T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form” (Cambridge UP, 1995). The accusation against Eliot is very difficult to deny.

    • Jason Rothery said,

      Craig Raine does a descent job of refuting/elucidating many of Julius’s examples (Appendix I: Eliot and Anti-Semitism, T.S. Eliot – Lives and Legacies). You’re quite right, however, in the sense that the *accusation* is difficult to deny, as are so many accusations where the burden of proof falls to the accused. Eliot himself said “I am not an anti-Semite and never have been. It is a terrible slander on a man.” Leonard Woolf, Eliot’s friend and Jewish himself said: ‘I think T.S. Eliot was slightly anti-semitic in the sort of vague way which is not uncommon. He would have denied it quite genuinely.’

    • Christopher Ricks’s T.S.Eliot and Prejudice looks at Eliot in greater detail and with greater nuances. Much of the prejudice is in his readers, not in Eliot. One problem is whether someone in an antisemitic culture who reflects he attitudes of that culture, however ironically, is himself antisemitic.

  4. Nod Nod said,

    Why would anybody sane/wise take Anthony Julius seriously on any matter?

  5. No question about it, TS Eliot was right to mutter that Litvinoff’s poem T S Eliot was good poetry. In the sense that it cleverly shadows Eliot’s own poetic voice in that rather exquisite style, and yet somewhat superiorly disdainful manner. And yet in Eliot, the whip, where necessary, lashes; as absolutely does Litvinoff’s in his whipping of the whipper in his poem. Question is: was Eliot being lazy in dandified “abuse” of Jews, as per the time? Well, he caught a tartar here! Let’s admire both poets! Especially since, from Israel, currently, some treat Arabs in a manner reminiscent of how Jews were treated. What pity! And yet imagine the meeting this week in the ether, twixt Bostonian Brahmin and Whitechapel Jew! 

  6. [...] most acclaimed poem, To T.S. Eliot, was the result. In a famous reading of this poem given at the opening of the Institute of [...]

  7. I think that many of you underestimate how endemic anti-semitism was among the British upper class, and many of the “cultured class”, both before and after the Second World War. Eliot was a very intelligent man, and a close friend of Ezra Pound, who openly embraced the political creed of anti-semitic fascism; it is ridiculous to suggest that Eliot didn’t understand the context within which he was writing at the time. Litvinoff’s disgust was rightly prompted by the fact that Eliot then included his anti-semitic poems, without comment, in his Selected Poems published after everyone knew what the Nazis had done to the Jews in Europe. It’s sad that there are still people around striving to justify that.

    • Roger said,

      The important diference between Elkiot and Pound is that Eliot didn’t embrace the political creed of anti-semitic fascism. In fact, Eliot opposed fascism. Eliot’s own antisemitism- like that of most Americans and Englishmen of the time- was religio-social and religious and cultural, not racial and exterminatory. Bad enough, but different in kind, not degree, to that of the nazis.

      • I didn’t suggest that Eliot embraced fascism, but rather that he was intellectually and morally dishonest and reprehensible, and that his closeness to Pound confirms that he cannot be excused on the basis of “naivety”. By the way, let’s remind ourselves what he said in “After Strange Gods”: “What is still more important [than cultural homogeneity] is unity of religious background, and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”

        Straying off the topic, my candidate for Eliot’s most fatuous pontification is “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason”.

      • Let’s also remind ourselves that Eliot said After Strange Gods was the product of a serious mental and emotional crisis and would not allow it to be republished. In what way was Eliot ‘intellectually dishonest’- or are you saying he wasn’t actually antisemitic but merely pretended to be? Eliot was also acquainted with and praised the Stalinist Hugh MacDiarmid- does that mean he was also guilty of supporting stalin’s crimes?

        ‘Straying off the topic, my candidate for Eliot’s most fatuous pontification is “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason”.’
        This isn’t Eliot’s; it’s Beckett’s.

  8. Judith Rich said,

    Only a person deep in denial would protest that Eliot was not anti-Semetic. Unfortunately/fortunately he was so much more. A comment in his Selected Poems would have done much to mitigate his guilt. The fact that he did not choose to do so makes his arrogance and cold heart all the more apparent.

    • Roger said,

      ‘A comment in his Selected Poems would have done much to mitigate his guilt.’

      Would it, if guilt there was? The word sent forth can never be recalled. As Ricks points out there is a complexity to Eliot’s poetry which makes antisemitism questionable.
      After Strange Gods, which contains unequivocal antisemitism, Eliot did not merely apologise for but refused to allow to be reprtinted.

  9. “The word sent forth can never be recalled” – what is this vacuous blather? So, any “complex poet” can say anything, however disgusting, and remain guilt-free? Is that what you think?

    • “The word sent forth can never be recalled”
      Once you’ve said something you can’t unsay it, my ignorant friend. If you’re discussing Eliot it is useful to know the bible.
      In fact there are two separate questions: was Eliot antisemitic? and are his poems antisemitic? If you were capable of reading without frothing at the mouth you would notice that the ‘antisemitic’ poems are complex and put forwardconcepts that aren’t necessarilk y Eliot’s. No doubt tou think Browning was a fake medium because he created Mr Sludge and that Iago is Shakespeare’s self-portrait.

  10. The tone of some of the comments is becoming unpleasantly acerbic. Nod Nod dismissively and impolitely asks, “Why would anybody sane/wise take Anthony Julius seriously on any matter?” (Naughty, naughty.) I would. I have little doubt that Eliot did not like Jews; on that point, Julius is very convincing. To me (and I am not Jewish), Eliot’s prejudice is nauseating, difficult to forgive, reprehensible in one so learned. But then, Eliot never asked to be forgiven for it. Hardened sinners rarely explore or comprehend the nature or degree of their sin, as we are shown by Dante, whom Eliot, himself a fine, if tarnished, poet revered but, alas, did not heed because of his arrogant pride.

    • Roger said,

      Well, Julius himself is aomething of an obsessive.
      Variant on an old joke: Three people wrote books on elephants: an Englishman wrote How to Hunt Elephants, the Frenchman wrote La Vie Sexuelle de l’Elephant, Anthony Julius wrote The Elephant and Antisemitism.
      Antisemitism was a commonplace of Eliot’s time and he was undoubtedly affected by it, but to simply say the poems are antisemitic is simple-minded and dishonest. The lines quoted from the poems are all within a context and we certainly aren’t meant to unequivocally approve of what the poems say or seem to say.
      That was why Eliot suppressed After Strange Gods ,I think- because it was a personal expression and one he rejected.

      • Good grief! The tone of these comments is hardly elevated by accusations of simple-mindedness and dishonesty! Why must the discussion descend into personal insult? In any case, to say that “anti-semitism was a commonplace of Eliot’s time” is hardly an acceptable defense of Eliot’s use of stereotypical anti-Jewish images but is, if I may say so, intellectually lame and morally pathetic. Eliot wrote in the twentieth, not the fifteenth, century. How can one possibly defend a writer of Eliot’s stature who uncritically, mindlessly went along with — and even embellished — wholly repugnant ideas of this sort? Why must we overlook this glaring defect? Why should we? I am appalled by this flabby defense of the indefensible. It was the passive acceptance of anti-semitic notions by so many Germans (and the blind eyes of people like Eliot) that led to the horrors of the 1930s and 40s. it is the obligation of any thinking person — especially those, like Eliot, in positions of great influence — to try to eradicate, not passively accept or repeat, dangerously prejudicial ideas. I am appalled by the flaccid acceptance of Eliot’s undeniable moral error. Anthony Julius is absolutely correct, and I am pleased that he is “obsessive,” for about such evil ideas one can hardly ever be too obsessive. Julius, whom Camus would no doubt have praised as an “engaged” writer, is probably motivated, and justifiably so, by a sense of outrage, a sense of righteousness, for which he is greatly to be commended, not criticized.

      • What personal insults? Where have i said Julius is dishonest? He is painfully- simple-mindedly, you might say- honest, which means he does not consider Eliot’s poems as they are- complicated and nuanced. Julius rwads poems as if they were legal documents. Someone who has said- as Julius has- that criticism of Israel is a form of antisemitism is certainly obsessive, Unfortunately antisemitism- in differrent forms- was as commonplace in the twentieth century as the fifteenth and even more murderous.

        “How can one possibly defend a writer of Eliot’s stature who uncritically, mindlessly went along with — and even embellished — wholly repugnant ideas of this sort? ”
        Exactly where did Eliot do any of these things? In his poems it is not T.S. Eliot in person who is speaking, nor are we supposed to accept uncritically or simple-mindedly the attitudes of the poems. There are a few brief, shocking remarks in several hundred pages of poems, so they are worth looking at carefully in their context rather than dismissing as not worth examining.

        “It was the passive acceptance of anti-semitic notions by so many Germans (and the blind eyes of people like Eliot) that led to the horrors of the 1930s and 40s. it is the obligation of any thinking person — especially those, like Eliot, in positions of great influence — to try to eradicate, not passively accept or repeat, dangerously prejudicial ideas”
        Actually, in he 1930s Eliot made several attacks on the nazis and antisemitism. It wasn’t” passive acceptance of anti-semitic notions”, but enthusiastic acceptance of antisemitism- a very different variety to the social and religious antisemitism of Eliot’s background- that “led to the horrors of .the 1930s and 40s.”

        “Julius, whom Camus would no doubt have praised as an “engaged” writer, is probably motivated, and justifiably so, by a sense of outrage, a sense of righteousness, for which he is greatly to be commended, not criticized.”
        Righteousness or self-righteousness?

  11. [...] I am the Lizard Queen! noses to contemplation of the knife twisting among the entrails of spaghetti. [...]

  12. ella shapiro said,

    Oh my, so much erudition, I almost hesitate to point out the obvious. As a child whose Mom survived Auschwitz and whose Dad made it back from Siberia may I say: One is either adding fuel to the fire or dousing it with water. Nothing else matters. Nothing.

  13. Here is the insulting comment: “…to simply say the poems are antisemitic is simple-minded and dishonest.” This comment is directed either at Julius (to whom you claim, however, not to have directed it) or at other readers. If you are not directing the insults at Julius or us commentators, then whom, pray, are you calling simple-minded and dishonest ? I am baffled.
    Like Eliot, you seem unaware of the negative effect that your unacceptable words may have on your readers. And, perhaps, like TSE, you see no need to take them back. Fine, but at least don’t deny that you used them or that the were aimed at someone!.
    Most Germans did not actively oppose anti-semitism in the decades before 1933 but passively allowed it to exist; later, in the 30s and 40s, under Hitler, many followed the lead of the Nazi regime by actively engaging in anti-semitic verbiage and behavior.
    As to how often Eliot used anti-semitic images in his poems — what difference does the quantity make? To do so once was enough. People have lost their reputations (and/or jobs) for making only one prejudicial remark. His failure to apologize for or repudiate the images and his decision to republish the poems without excising the offensive language speaks volumes.
    No one writes in a vacuum. We live in an era when many are extremely sensitive (I applaud them) to prejudiced comments and will no longer tolerate them (hooray!), and, yes, many of us will object to the existence of such comments from earlier times.
    Many who do not understand why some of us react viscerally to prejudiced remarks perhaps have never experienced prejudice themselves. Some of us have. It’s not pretty, and it leaves large emotional scars, let me tell you. I intend to speak out about it when I encounter it, and I shall do so whenever I can, including right here.

  14. [...] a memoir, and several novels. But history might remember him most for one poem, “To T.S. Eliot,” a lambasting and inspired statement against the titular [...]

  15. [...] and of the occasion when the English Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff, upbraided Eliot in verse in the master’s presence, before an admiring crowd. Litvinoff, as I, as any reader of English [...]


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