The poetry of T.S. Eliot is just the right salve to grease the aging process. Snaking himself into the machinery of existence, like Charlie Chaplin shot through an enormous maze of gears, Eliot applies his lyrical truth to the rusty flywheel of life. “Old men ought to be explorers/Here or there does not matter.” Yup.
Though Eliot has a problem. He was an anti-Semite, and wrote poems mocking Jews, most notoriously “Burbank with a Baedecker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” where he clamps a perfumed hankie to his nose and shudderingly cringes:
“But this or such was Bleistein’s way/A saggy bending of the knees/And elbows, with the palms turned out,/Chicago Semite Viennese./A lustreless protrusive eye/Stares from the protozoic slime.”
Ouch. You don’t need a master’s in literature to figure that one out.
It gets worse.
“The rats are underneath the piles/The Jew is underneath the lot.”
Into the dustbin of history with Eliot, then? Off the shelf, in that one-strike-you’re-out purity in vogue nowadays? Umm, no, at least not for me. I love Eliot, and find him a comfort and a guide, the vile bits notwithstanding. How? Because literature, like life, is complicated, and once you start tossing out authors and artists with some loathsome aspect to their resume, the shelves and walls empty rather quickly.
And no, I’m not joining FoxWorld, clutching at myself and keening because the Dr. Seuss estate announced Tuesday they are pulling half a dozen of his lesser works from publication for containing dated caricatures. I get what they’re trying to do: keep the Seuss money machine humming away. It’s called capitalism. Every company refreshes the product line by ditching old models and adopting new ones. Books go out of print every day.
Just as Fox plays to its audience by running a 24-hour-a-day electronic haunted house where liberals and M-I-N-O-R-I-T-I-E-S leap out, go “boo!,” and try to pull away their adored blankie of white privilege, so the Seuss estate, like any large corporation, reads the room, sees the whole multicultural thing manifesting itself more and more, and is battening down the hatches to survive the cultural storm. Why endanger the huge sales of “The Lorax” to keep a third-rater like “If I Ran the Zoo” in stock?
This obvious business sense flies past those hot to deny the existence of racism and paint themselves as the true victims, as bigots always do, attempting to justify their fear and hatred.
You should read my email, their oyster minds turning a grain of fact into a big shimmering pearl of paranoid crazy.
“Glad the Biden administration is going to keep my grandkids from reading the evil Dr. Seuss books. When does the Seuss book burning start? Can’t wait.”
Oh boo hoo. Being prejudiced is all about narrowing your world by viewing it through the keyhole of your terrors. And in an oddly parallel way, cancel culture does the same thing, confining the gatekeeper in a strait jacket of indignation. Those ready to banish Abe Lincoln because of something he said on the stump in 1858 would negate a key part of the American experience, operating on the naive notion that the world is divided between good, non-racist people, who get to stay, and bad, racist folks whom we can identify through their failures and banish.
That isn’t how life works. In the real world, everybody of every race, religion and creed struggles under the burden of prejudice — some a little, most a lot.
Eliot’s anti-Semitism doesn’t harm me; it harms him — well, not the man personally; he died in 1965. But it undercuts his reputation, and that’s a good thing. To remove “Bleistein” from Eliot’s collected work would only pretty up a bigot. It must be there — just as Eliot must be here — though it isn’t why I read him.
I read him because of passages like the one in “Little Gidding,” where Eliot pauses to digress: “Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age/To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort/First, the cold friction of expiring sense...” Then a dozen entirely true lines until he gets to this: “From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit/Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire/Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.”
Mmmm, nice. I can’t imagine arranging your life so you merely stagger from wrong to wrong, decrying this and that, marooned on your own little island of self-assigned certitude, tossing the stuff you don’t like into the sea. It’s the stuff you don’t like that can teach you the most.