A Flaw in the Icon
`THE dove descending breaks the air/ With flame of incandescent terror/ Of which the tongues declare/ The one discharge from sin and error." By nearly any accounting, such lines by T.S. Eliot, taken from his "Four Quartets," reflect an incandescent genius. Eliot and his compatriot Ezra Pound redefined poetry in the 20th century. Yet what is one to make of Eliot's use, in one of his poems, of an ugly anti-Semitic reference? Or of Pound's support for fascist Italy in numerous radio broadcasts? Can and should one still respect genius if it is twinned with prejudice or bias?
For several years, the stature of many "giants" of the modern world of art, culture, intellect, and academia has been challenged by scholars on grounds of prejudice and bigotry. A recent conference at Boston University noted the anti-Semitism of literary critic Paul de Man, philosopher Martin Heidegger, and theologian Geoffrey Kittel, along with Pound, Eliot, and others.
The critiques are similar to those a decade ago examining views and attitudes among "great" men and women about gender and race. The subject derives naturally from increased interest in the academic world and on campus in issues of equality and pluralism, and how this interest is reflected in the curriculum, and the "canon" of works studied.
Members of the Jewish community are rightly concerned that dominant intellectual figures not be uncritically apotheosized and put on a pedestal. It is simply good education that a clearer view of the faults and failures of men and women be presented. Ideas have consequences. Thus when a cultural icon such as composer Richard Wagner embraces the hate-engendering theories of Frederich Nietzsche, they must in some regard be held accountable.
In the current academic climate, however, such "giant killing" has become rather the fashion, instead of an exception. It may be going too far to recommend, as some have, that thinkers and artists be introduced with a "warning label" or dismissed as "tainted geniuses."
Students also must learn tolerance. To expect that great men and women should have lived entirely above the cultural biases of their time is naive and unrealistic - which is not to excuse that bias. Discernment must be taught, too, between types of bias. The mild snobbish condescension of an Eliot should not be uncritically compared with the active Nazi sympathies of a Paul de Man. There's a certain self-righteousness about trashing genius that must be recognized. The tendency on campus can be to write off in a wholesale fashion everyone "tainted."
What's significant is that these thinkers, despite their brilliance, still fell prey to prejudice and bigotry. The lesson, therefore, may be how deeply ignorance and moral blindness can run. That's a lesson for all to learn. From Washington to the West Bank, and from Brazil to Beijing, brilliance is no substitute for brotherhood.