The mortal sublime

wastelandscoverMore Guardian stuff here as Jeanette Winterson does a long piece about T S Eliot:

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

Good. She got that one right. But then we reach the thorny question of Eliot’s politics:

His conversion to Anglicanism and his increasing religious conviction are a stumbling block for many people coming to his poetry. Religion is unfashionable, and Eliot is thus viewed as untrustworthy. I suspect that the religious question is often a convenient way out of grappling with the difficulty of the poetry. Denis Donoghue, a critic I admire, even when I am disagreeing with him, sensibly refutes the religious hoo-ha when he says, ‘it should not be impossible for readers to imagine certain convictions that they don’t otherwise feel’. Eliot’s supposed antisemitism is an even bigger problem for some readers. Reams have been written about it, just as with Wagner, the conclusion being, I think, that such an ugly prejudice must fatally weaken the work. But it’s not the case that flaws in the human being necessarily weaken or infect the work. If that were so, given the lives, tensions, contradictions, murderous intent, wife-battering, drug taking, suicidal mania and dangerous affiliations of many of our great artists, there would be little work left of any value. I do not find Eliot guilty as charged of antisemitism; he was not his friend Ezra Pound, though even Pound, at the end of his life, movingly apologised to Allen Ginsberg. Just as movingly, the Jewish Ginsberg still revered the fascist writer, forgave him even, because he recognised the value of Pound’s work, poet to poet. Whether or not my view of Eliot’s antisemitism is the correct one, the work is splendid.

On anti-semitism. It is possible to recognise, and denounce, Eliot’s anti-semitism while still acknowledging his genius. This is exactly what Anthony Julius does in his study of anti-semitism in Eliot’s poetry. Only some of Eliot’s poems are anti-semitic – Gerontion, Sweeney Among the Nightingales – but it takes wilful stupidity not to recognise the prejudice in these works. Winterson’s assertion that ‘I do not find Eliot guilty as charged of anti-semitism; he was not his friend Ezra Pound’ brings to mind this passage from Julius:

Pound has a strategic significance in Eliot apologetics. He draws the fire. (The rule appears to be: one may place Eliot among anti-semites only if the object is to establish how very unlike them he is.) Yet a case could be made that, in their comparative effect, it was Eliot’s anti-semitism that did the greater damage.

And yet the anti-semitism does not invalidate the poetry:

Anti-semitism is not a discourse rich in literary possibilities. Those who draw on it mostly produce dross. But Eliot’s poems are inventive and resourceful and display his mastery over a heterogeneous mass of material. These poems are derived from a cluster of clichés, conventions exhausted by over-exposure. With great virtuosity, Eliot turns this material into art. He compresses anti-semitism into powerfully charged language, and thereby restores something of its menace and resonance.

His poetry is one of anti-semitism’s few literary triumphs.

Yet Winterson can’t recognise that Eliot was both an anti-semite and a genius: can’t piss and whistle at the same time. She even turns Pound’s half-arsed recantation to Ginsberg (‘the worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-semitism’) into a ‘moving apolog[y]’.

Eliot’s low politics were typical of his time. His way of thinking – reaction, racism, isolationism, anti-secularism, anti-liberalism, pro-faith – represents the worst of British society, but it is a way of thinking that is swinging back into fashion on both left and right. Today Jews are called Zionists and the Great Decline dates from the 1960s rather than the industrial revolution, but Eliot fits right in with contemporary discourse.

In particular, Winterson seems to agree with his view that transcendence can only be found in Bronze Age ideologies:

I said earlier that poetry finds a language for our inner reality; it does, but the ‘shafts of sunlight’ Eliot understands are intimations of . . . well, he would say God, and I can’t, quite, but I can say something nearly as bad for Dawkins-types, such as the kick of joy in the universe. There’s more to it, anyway, than our own small realities, inside and out. It used to be called the Sublime.

And does it not occur to Jeanette Winterson that the sublime can be found in actual reality, in the beauty of the physical world, the appreciation of art and sport, the company of comrades and the arms of lovers, rather than in some bullshit ideation of ‘transcendence’? Does it not occur that the sublime is the mortal sublime?


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