Saturday, May 1, 2010

Fascism and Modernism

"The development from Imagism in poetry to Fascism in politics is clear and unbroken." (Donald Davie, Purity Of Diction In English Verse, 1952.)

Pound, Eliot, Yeats: the three giants of first generation English language modernist poetry. Pound, late-in-life, recants his anti-semitism, saying to Allen Ginsberg at Spoleto, 1965, it was a "suburban prejudice" and, referring to The Cantos, "I botched it." Eliot, worse, was clever and pernicious, and he never recanted, but reaffirmed, cf. his letters to Leslie Fiedler.

In After Strange Gods (1934), Eliot wrote: "Reasons of race and religion make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable." He did omit this sentence in a reprint after WWII, but "Gerontion" and "Burbank..Bleistein" confirm his prejudices and embody them in his poetry, sneeringly. The best biographyof TSE is Carolyn Seymour-Jones' biography of Vivienne, which brings everything into the light of day, including his same-sex affairs, and his role in committing his wife to an insane asylum (probably, she suffered from Tourette's) and keeping her there, perhaps not just for reasons of his social embarrassments, but also to spend her inheritance, because she was declared incompetent. Also, as the major acknowledged arbiter of literary taste in Britain, with politics far to the right of, say, Philip Larkin, TSE wielded enough power to keep William Carlos Williams, for example, first published in the U.S. in 1909, out of the mainstream of UK publishing until 1964, one year after Williams's death. Eliot was keen as well to keep heterosexual poets well away from Faber and Faber, and other major publishers.

Marcus Klein, in his book Foreigners (1981) was the first to point out the extremes of Eliot's anti-semitism, and Anthony Julius devoted an entire book to the subject: T.S. ELIOT, ANTI-SEMITISM AND LITERARY FORM.

But et tu, Willy?! W.J. McCormack, Chief Librarian, Edward Worth Library, Dublin (and formerly Prof. of Literary History, Goldsmiths' College, U. of London) has written a most condemnatory text, BLOOD KINDRED: THE POLITICS OF W.B. YEATS. Yeats was never exactly "liberal" in his political views, but for the most part he managed to keep his politics out of his poetry; however, as is pointed out in his Letters it is clear what his real feelings were. He supported the 1930's German race laws passed at Nuremberg in 1935, and even went so far as to accept an award from the Third Reich, the Goethe-Plakette, from Oberburgermeister Krebs in 1934. He wrote ballads for the Blue Shirts, supported Mussolini in an interview in the Irish Times, describes democracy as "muck in the yard" during the Spanish Civil War, and refers to a "Negro girl who lived near Sligo" in his childhood, noting "she is among those our civilization must reject." (On The Boiler, 1939, p. 266) Writing to Olivia Shakespear about Germany in 1934, he says "what looks like emerging is Fascism modified by religion. This country is exciting."

As McCormack points out: "Irish paramilitary politics has displayed a steady right-wing bias, even when the rhetoric was socialist." Then there were the war years, and an alliance between the IRA and Nazi Germany. Yeats wrote of "Judaism's disappearance from the historical backyard of Christianity" Despite schoolmaster Deasy's comment in Ulysses alluding to Jews in Ireland, that we "never let them in" Jewish people were in 1943 10% of the population of Dublin and Cork. Never was there a public statement from Ireland on the issue of persecution in WWII. Orwell favorably reviewed Indian scholar V.K.N. Menon's THE DEVELOPMENT OF W.B. YEATS , a book pointing out the sinister side of Yeats' politics.

"He gave comfort to democracy's enemies, to decency's enemies, to the enemies of art and culture" writes McCormack, and continues "he was fascist on (for me) too many occasions. Perhaps the hurtfulness of this judgment should be tempered by the qualification that, on many of these, he was fascist by doing nothing (p. 433). He declines to act because he cites "the Irish nation as his one and only loyalty."

The Rest Is Noise as Alex Ross titles his his interesting study of the politics in and of modern music (2007).