54. T.S.E. T.S.E. – The Bite of the Anti-Semite (Opinion Catcher)

Unique edition
2” x .75” diameter (cylinder)
2” x  24” opened
3” x  4” box with message paper
Bologna, Italy and Skowhegan, Maine 2007

This is an interactive project based on reading, specifically on the reactions of the reader when he or she encounters pejorative language or hate speech. This work could have focused upon any kind of racism, or homophobia or misogyny or another prejudice, as opposed to anti-Semitism. The idea is not to “out” offensive or prejudiced authors – the object is to try to understand how different people respond to what they read. Are they offended? Do they reject that author categorically, or just that particular play or poem? Or do they choose not to teach that specific author or play to their students? Or do they choose not to collect that author’s works? Or do they separate the author from his or her works entirely, choosing not to consider the author as a human being with a history and a biography.

Perhaps in the end I chose anti-Semitism in literature because it has such an ancient tradition(as does misogyny). And it is part of my personal experience with reading, which sparked the project.

My senior year at Brown University I had a student job in the bindery of the John Hay Library. I was fascinated by the books that came in for repair, or instead to receive protection through tailor-made clamshell boxes. One of these volumes was a slim, crimson leather gilt volume of Ezra Pound’s poetry. Initially I was attracted to some of the pithy verse inside. A few weeks later, I read some poems of his that turned my stomach, and learned of his fascist broadcasts. I had no interest in the work of Pound after that. Although he is listed as an author in my piece The Fettered Lettered(2007), about literature created in prison or insane asylums(Pound wrote in both).

T.S. Eliot  and Rudyard Kipling were the next authors I became aware of for their anti-Semitism. I began to take note of how academics varied in their approaches to these and other authors with anti-Semitic content in their works. College interns of mine from Brown’s creative writing program studied Ezra Pound quite a bit as an important part of modern poetics. Yet Yale professor and author Harold Bloom doesn’t include Pound in his book on genius, remarking on his hateful aspects, but does include T.S. Eliot in his pantheon of genius. Conversely, a very prominent poetry collector I know in the United States  will have nothing to do with Eliot’s work.

I had been working on an installation project based on the many drafts of The Wasteland when I was confronted with some of the specific examples of Eliot’s anti-Semitism, partly tied to his misogyny. Focusing on the idea of wastes, I realized why his middle name is so important. Any author would notice T.Eliot  was toilet spelled backwards. T.S.E. then occurred to me as appropriate on several levels to address anti-Semitism in literature: the idea of the disease-carrying fly, the tsetse. In addition, one of the biblical plagues is of flies. Tsetse also sounds a bit like tzitzit, the knotted fringe at the corners of the Jewish prayer shawl, or tallit, which some traditions hold to be a reminder of the commandments in the Torah. The knotted blue and white threads probably also originated as protection against the evil eye.

The “flypaper” is created from a linen strip rendered sticky and yellow through a yellow pigment mixed in an encaustic base. The project deals with potentially caustic language, but encaustic was an ancient art supply used by the Egyptians in the Ptolemaic period. The portraits of the mummified corpses, wrapped in linen strips, were painted with pigments mixed with wax and applied to wooden panels placed at the mummy’s head. I used the pigment “Verona yellow” which evokes not just the traditional color of flypaper but also the 19th century novel “The Jew of Verona” by Antonio Bresciani. Squares of tissue paper sponged with a gray fly-wing motif are meant to be exhibited near the flypaper so that participants can write their opinions about a certain work or author, or what may or may not have offended them. The next step would be to crumple up the tissue paper into a tiny, fly-like mass and stick it onto the flypaper. The flypaper has some authors and titles printed onto it through transfer printing to help jog the memory. These names include Shakespeare, Dickens, Charles Lamb and Virginia Woolf, with titles of works considered.

Egypt is the land from where the Israelites began the Exodus. Crumpling up the message and sticking it on the flypaper might suggest the action of leaving messages at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

This project is a unique edition at the moment. I will continue to have conversations and conduct email interviews with a variety of people, academic and non. It is the beginning of what I hope will be a fruitful dialogue on the topic of reading. I am not sure what will be discovered, or even if it will be useful. But I am curious to gather different views, perhaps providing clues why some people are wounded by what they read, while others are impervious, or at least do not condemn authors for their words. In the meantime, I have donated T.S.E. T.S.E. to Tate Library, a public collection in London, where many of the cited authors lived.

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