Farrukh Dhondi | Should we stop reading writers whose opinions are truly offensive?

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Religious and regional rivalries, even fueling genocidal prejudices, have plagued history

“O Bachchoo let’s define narcissism
Has the individual seen himself through the prism of vanity?
Or did he, looking at the surface of the stream
Think the injustice of the world was a dream,
A nightmare from which he would soon wake up
He was only human – give the guy a break!

— From Yunani Bahaana, by Bachchoo

Ever since I was introduced to modern poetry in my late teens, I’ve been addicted to TS Eliot’s verses. I don’t like Ezra Pound very much. I read, even then, that Pound was locked up for Nazi sympathies and that Eliot was accused of anti-Semitism. I had not read their biographies at the time.

I knew that in Gerontion Eliot wrote: “And the Jew squatted on the windowsill, the landlord.”

This seemed unfair to me because the Jew in the poem is the only character – others are mentioned – portrayed cruelly. It’s not a crime to own, but a windowsill seemed like a strange place to crouch.

At the same time, I read Sweeney among the nightingales. In his final verses he displays the compelling musicality of Eliot’s poetry combined with uniquely memorable imagery:

“The host with someone indistinct / Converse at the door apart, / The nightingales sing near / The Convent of the Sacred Heart, / And sing in the bloody wood / When Agamemnon cries aloud / And drop their liquid sieves/ To stain the stiff and dishonored shroud.

What intrigued me in this poem are the first lines: “Rachel née Rabinovitch/ Tears of grapes with murderous paws”.

Why is a poor girl, eating grapes, characterized as having “murderous paws”?

I did not miss the fact that her name characterized her as Jewish. So why?
And now a new biography of TS Eliot, among others, lists his anti-Semitism in distressing detail. Eliot: After the Waste Land, by Robert Crawford, reproduces statements made by Eliot, publicly, in letters and to friends. The statements he made in writing and verbally to those who reported them are shameful manifestations of irrational hatred, symptoms of the dementia of prejudice.

Here are some examples: “Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable in society.” And then: “Why is there something diabolical about so many Jews?

And after Hitler’s genocide: “To suggest that the Jewish problem can be simplified because so many may have been killed is meaningless: a few generations of security and there will be as many of them as ever.

In Prufrock, Eliot says, “Time for you and time for me,/ And time again for a hundred indecisions,/ And for a hundred visions and revisions,/ Before toasting and tea.

No indecision here – after reading these quotes, would I invite obnoxious Mr. Eliot for a toast and tea? Rhetorical question!

Religious and regional rivalries, even fueling genocidal prejudices, have plagued history and brought it to shame. In my childhood in Pune, western India, there was a community of Jews who had fled Iraq and settled in Mumbai, Pune and other cities. I went to school with their boys and one of my best friends was George Iny. We went to an Anglican school and the only anti-Semitism I encountered was in the history books.

Not that there hasn’t been antagonism and prejudice directed against certain communities. One of them was the Sindhi community – Hindus who had fled Sind which was handed over to Pakistan during the partition of India in 1947. The Hindu Sindhis, driven from their homes and lands, lost everything and millions arrived as penniless refugees in India. The community has proudly redeemed itself and built a life for itself. And yet, there was an undercurrent of resentment upon their arrival and even their hard-earned prosperity. I never understood it.

And now the sought-after revelations about Eliot’s views and opinions pose a dilemma. We live in a time – or is it just a decade? — ‘cancellation’. Some schools and universities refuse to read Harry Potter because JK Rowling doesn’t believe trans women are really women. She did not physically assault any transwomen, but simply made her opinion known. Unlike Eliot’s anti-Semitism, which emerges in a few lines and sentences of his work, Rowling’s opinions on transgender people do not seem to have crept into his popular and magical work in any way.

There are other writers, painters, singers and artists of all kinds who are proven criminals and whose crimes are not reflected in their works. It is only right that, if they are alive, they are behind bars for these crimes and not on university platforms.

But what are we going to do with Eliot? Should his work be banned from schools and universities? Should his books, which have sold millions, be publicly burned? I can understand a Jewish school doing both, but I have to admit that I won’t even burn his complete works because I found there some of the deep satisfactions that poetry offers.

And what then of Charles Dickens who, in a letter to a friend after the Indian mutiny (or the first war of independence?) of 1857, advocated the genocide of the Indian “Hindu” race. For good measure, he also openly despised Americans. Are we going to stop reading his brilliant novels?

Burn them?

Can’t we separate the dancer from the dance?

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