Cats, Old Deuteronomy, …and Sugar Coated Anti-Semitism?!

Cats, Old Deuteronomy and… Sugar Coated Antisemitism?

Cats, Old Deuteronomy and… Sugar Coated Antisemitism?

I have a few confessions to make…

The first one being that I’m slightly intoxicated while writing this. I know it’s still only Tuesday at the moment, but my week has started off so much more hectic than I anticipated and I just really needed a drink.

When I started this site in 2014, little did I know that Cats would return to theatres all over the world. Little did I also know that the SEO skills that I’d been bragging about since I started my self-employed business in copywriting/editing/translating actually paid off that much that people from all over the world would find my blogs when googling information about the musical. It’s something you hope for of course, but to actually see it being realised is quite another thing.

For the last couple of months I received several e-mails and personal messages on social media asking me when I would continue my blogs series on Cats. Why did I stop writing about it? Was I bored with the subject? Was everything okay personally?

To immediately answer these questions: I’m fine. Even more so, business wise things are going pretty well for me right now. And no, I’m not bored with Cats, far from it actually. Although I must admit that I’ve been dreading to write this chapter for quite a while now, for reasons I will come to later in this blog.

Some of you might remember the intro I wrote in my 2014 blog “Rauzer: A ‘Typically Dutch’ Children’s Book, part 1”, in which I stated that I had to go look for a part-time job next to my writing job as I was broke as fuck at that moment. Well, I did exactly that: I got an extra job.

For the second part of 2014 and all of 2015, I worked as a domestic carer for elderly and less abled people at one of the bigger care companies in the Netherlands. Sure, it meant that I had to dust, vacuum, and scrub toilets, but also that I met many wonderful people and learned a lot about my town’s history, not to mention the numerous cleaning hacks I acquired over time. I loved that job and I loved my clients. And I also loved the fact that it came with so much free exercise that I could quit the gym and eat whatever I wanted. Being someone whose primary job pretty much consists of sitting behind a computer, at home, alone, my second job was a welcoming change.

So that’s basically where most of my time and energy went to over the past year and a half. And why my blog output has been so low since then.

Unfortunately the Dutch government didn’t love my second job as much as I did and made other plans…

It’s a long and complicated story that I won’t bore you with here, but the fact of the matter is that they made outrageous budget cuts in elderly care. The result being that the company I worked for is now on the verge of bankruptcy and was forced to let me and about 300 of my co-workers in Groningen go last December, and another 53 in January. Hundreds of elderly and less abled people in this city are now expected to depend on the help of family and volunteers. Meaning for many that they are simply stuck at home desperately waiting for anybody willing to pick up the slack. On top of that, another care organisation in the north announced last week that they are forced to close five of their homes (including one that specialises in patients with dementia) and two of their day centres over the next six months, firing 142 staff members immediately and leaving many others in uncertainty.1

News like this genuinely pisses me off. The Netherlands used to be known for having one of the best care systems in the world. But over the last 10 years or so, things have changed dramatically, and it only seems to be getting worse. Especially in elderly care. Homes are forced to leave residents unwashed and in their pyjamas for days because they are understaffed, and there has been an enormous increase lately in elderly people being committed to the ER with severe burns and broken bones, because they are expected to live at home longer than they actually can.

It’s an outrage. Nobody should be treated like this, let alone people who have literally built up the country from scraps after WWII destroyed nearly everything. It’s unfair, it’s mean, it’s inhuman.

And in the meantime my former colleagues and I are left in the bureaucratic hellhole maze that comes with filing for unemployment benefits. So since January, most of my days have looked pretty much like this:

So now you see why I needed that drink.

Speaking of treating the elderly with the respect they deserve…

The Jellicle Cats seem to do that a lot better than the Netherlands. Just look at the reactions when their Jellicle leader Old Deuteronomy takes to the stage:

The reverence! The welcomeness! Even the usually reluctant Rumtumtugger bows to him in honor!

I have to admit that this part of Cats really pulls at my heartstrings every time I watch the musical in full. Which really shows, once again, what a great talent Andrew Lloyd Webber actually is. He manages to make this song so endearing and emotionally overwhelming that you tend to forget these Jellicles are, in fact, hailing their executioner.

But the fact that the Jellicles welcome their scythe swinging master with unearthly adoration isn’t even the thing that is most off here. Going back to these songs a few years ago, having gained a master’s degree in English literature and one semester of Theology in the meantime, I immediately noticed something peculiar: why is this cat named after a book from the Hebrew Bible?

Which brings me to my second confession:

I dreaded the day that I had to write this. But if I want to continue this series in a proper manner there’s no way around it anymore: there’s a big elephant in this blog that needs to be addressed, and people who have studied Eliot’s work and life (or are at least a bit familiar with it) probably know what I’m talking about…


There, I said it. (Aaaaaaaaand cue the comments…)

The topic of anti-Semitism in T. S. Eliot’s work is a complicated one. Not because people disagree on whether it’s there — the evidence for that is actually pretty clear (that is to say: it’s clearly there in his earlier poems) — but because the question still remains whether Eliot was an anti-Semite (and a racist in general) himself.

Thomas Stearns Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1934). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Thomas Stearns Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1934). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, Eliot’s earlier work has been under debate since the end of WWII, when his poems from the 1920s that contained numerous negative reflections on Jews were reprinted without any alterations, comments, or apologies whatsoever only shortly after the Holocaust.2

It’s not hard to understand why so many responded with outrage. Excerpts like “My house is a decayed house, /And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner, /Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp, /Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.” (“Gerontion” l. 7-10, 1920), and “The rats are underneath the piles. /The jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs.” (“Burbank” l. 22-24, 1920), certainly reflect the anti-Semitic sentiment that was overly present in the 1920’s quite clearly. Which obviously wasn’t something most people wanted to be remembered of so shortly after the gruesome experiences of the Second World War.

But was Eliot simply capturing the sentiments of the times in which he wrote these poems? Or did he actually share these feelings of resentment towards the Jewish people? Some of Eliot’s friends certainly did, the most notable of them being the poet Ezra Pound. But Eliot had many Jewish friends as well. And one must also take into account that anti-Semitism and the Jewish stereotype had been overly present in British literature for centuries at that point in time3 (the best known examples being, of course, Charles Dickins’s Fagin in Oliver Twist and Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice), and that intertextuality is a key feature in Eliot’s work.

As I said earlier, it’s a complicated topic. One that has occupied the minds of numerous scholars for decades, and that will probably continue to fuel many debates over the next couple of centuries. And although, in theory, this means that I could therefore go on about it here for a long time as well (hell, I could probably write a couple of books about it, there’s enough to be said), let’s return to Old Deuteronomy for now. This blog is getting long enough as it is…

A magistrate with a “placid and bland physiognomy”

Let’s forget the musical’s sweet music for a moment and take a look at the original poem from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which was published in 1939:

Old Deuteronomy’s lived a long time;
….He’s a Cat who has lived many lives in succession.
He was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme
….A long while before Queen Victoria’s accession.

The Book of Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish Torah. (And yes, it’s also in the Old Testament.) Next to telling the story of the last forty years that the Jewish people wandered in the desert, setting the law code for the Children of Israel, and ending with Moses’ death, it is also known for including the Shema. The Shema is one of the most important and sacred verses in the Thora, which still serve as the definitive statement of Jewish identity today.4

Manuscript of Septuagint with 8 fragments of the Book of Deuteronomy, 2nd century BC (author unknown). Papyrus Rylands 458, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Manuscript of Septuagint with 8 fragments of the Book of Deuteronomy, 2nd century BC (author unknown). Papyrus Rylands 458, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Wikipedia is of opinion that Old Deuteronomy was named after the Book of Deuteronomy because the cat and the book share the element of law, calling the character a “magistrate”.5 The problem is however that Wikipedia seems to refer solely to the character as he is portrayed in the musical. The Old Deuteronomy from Eliot’s poem is far from a magistrate, but I will come back to that in a moment.

What is particularly interesting is that Eliot added the word “Old” when naming the cat after Deuteronomy. Not only that: the entire poem seems to center around the fact that he is old. Like the book, he “has lived many lives in succession”.

The poem continues that Old Deuteronomy “was famous in proverb and […] rhyme/ A long while before Queen Victoria’s accession”. Although this could simply mean that he had been well-known for a long time already, I found an interesting article on Wikispaces that suggested otherwise: Queen Victoria reigned as the supreme governor of the Church of England6 (which happens to be the church that T.S. Eliot converted to in 1927),7 and by emphasizing Old Deuteronomy’s datedness, and by this the Book of Deuteronomy’s datedness as well, Eliot juxtaposes Judaism against his own religious beliefs, shedding Judaism in a negative light.8

Old Deuteronomy’s buried nine wives
….And more — I am tempted to say, ninety-nine;
And his numerous progeny prospers and thrives
….And the village is proud of him in his decline.

And this is the point where things are really starting to get uncomfortable. The poem states that Old Deuteronomy is “in his decline” while “his numerous progeny prospers and thrives”. I think that there might be two ways in which this can be interpreted. The first one is that Christianity, which derived from Judaism and is therefore the Book of Deuteronomy’s “progeny”, is ‘prospering and thriving’ while Judaism itself is in its decline. The second, however, is even more disquieting for today’s standards: could it be that Eliot referred to the theory that the Jewish race was degenerated, and was spreading its ‘decaying qualities’ throughout the world? It was certainly still a wide held conviction at the time. Yet the poem also indicates that “the village is proud of [Old Deuteronomy] in his decline.” What is meant by that? Is the poem mocking those who hold Old Deuteronomy, and thus the Book of Deuteronomy and thus the Jewish people in general, in reverence?

At the sight of that placid and bland physiognomy,
….When he sits in the sun on the vicarage wall,
The Oldest Inhabitant croaks: “Well, of all . . .
….Things. . . Can it be . . . really! . . . No!. . . Yes!. . .
……..Ho! hi!
……..Oh, my eye!
My mind may be wandering, but I confess
I believe it is Old Deuteronomy!”

Though I might be overthinking this, I doubt that it is a coincidence that Old Deuteronomy is said to be sitting on the vicarage wall. The vicarage belongs to the Church, and as the Book of Deuteronomy is also part of the Old Testament, the notion that Old Deuteronomy calmly enjoys the sun on the vicarage wall is interesting. Does it suggest a sort of ‘belonging to the church but just not quite’?

What is even more interesting in this regard however is the use of the words “confess” and “believe”, and the fact that they are “croak[ed]” by the village’s “Oldest Inhabitant”. Also note here the use of “croaks” instead of ‘speaks’ or ‘says’. As the article I found on Wikispaces also remarks: it’s the old and impaired who notice him9, the ones with “mind[s that] may be wandering”.

Funny enough, this is where the song from the musical basically stops. The original poem has two more stanzas however:

Old Deuteronomy sits in the street,
….He sits in the High Street on market day;
The bullocks may bellow, the sheep they may bleat,
….But the dogs and the herdsmen will turn them away.
The cars and the lorries run over the kerb,
….And the villagers put up a notice: ROAD CLOSED–
So that nothing untoward may chance to disturb
….Deuteronomy’s rest when he feels so disposed
Or when he’s engaged in domestic economy:
….And the Oldest Inhabitant croaks: “Well, of all . . .
….Things. . . Can it be . . . really! . . . No!. . . Yes!. . .
……..Ho! hi!
……..Oh, my eye!
My sight’s unreliable, but I can guess
That the cause of the trouble is Old Deuteronomy!”

Old Deuteronomy lies on the floor
….Of the Fox and French Horn for his afternoon sleep;
And when the men say: “There’s just time for one more,”
….Then the landlady from her back parlour will peep
And say: “New then, out you go, by the back door,
….For Old Deuteronomy mustn’t be woken–
I’ll have the police if there’s any uproar”–
….And out they all shuffle, without a word spoken.
The digestive repose of that feline’s gastronomy
….Must never be broken, whatever befall:
And the Oldest Inhabitant croaks: “Well, of all . . .
….Things. . . Can it be . . . really! . . . No!. . . Yes!. . .
……..Ho! hi!
……..Oh, my eye!
My legs may be tottery, I must go slow
And be careful of Old Deuteronomy!”

Although you might argue that these stanza’s sound endearing, even comical, with the entire village going out of their way to keep a widely revered cat at ease in its old days, they also seem to have a mocking undertone. Roads are closed and all traffic is rerouted when Old Deuteronomy chooses to lie in inconvenient places, and the village men can’t even enjoy some extra time in the pub when he decides to sleep on the pub’s floor. “[T]he cause of the trouble is Old Deuteronomy!”10 the poem seems to scoff through the croaking Oldest Inhabitant. Old Deuteronomy is said to be revered and cherished, but is depicted as a nuisance simultaneously.

Coming to think of it, if it weren’t for Old Deuteronomy’s problematic name, this poem would be a stunningly accurate representation of how elderly care is viewed by many. Most of us have probably learned all our lives that elderly people should be respected, and that their needs should be taken into consideration, yet when push comes to shove, they’re often quickly considered nagging, inconvenient nuisances for whom we no longer really have a place in society.

Did they know?

Which brings me back to Cats, the musical, which was developed decades after the horrors of the Holocaust.11 Did they know? Did they look into the poems enough? Did they take the collection’s historical context into consideration when working on this adaptation?

I honestly can’t tell. It is well known that Webber, Nunn, and colleagues were considerate enough to remove the word “Chinks” from the song adaptation of “Growltiger’s Last Stand” (l. 42), yet they left in so many other things that are now highly regarded to be politically incorrect, and that probably already had negative connotations in the late 70’s and early 80’s as well. Why was “Chinks” removed while the words “Heathen Chinese” in “Of the Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles” (l.26) were kept? Furthermore, why were they considerate enough to remove the word “Chinks” while they did decide to leave in the following stanza from the exact same poem:

But most to Cats of foreign race his hatred had been vowed;
To Cats of foreign name and race no quarter was allowed.
The Persian and the Siamese regarded him with fear —
Because it was a Siamese had mauled his missing ear.12

And as for Old Deuteronomy: did they really decide to make him a “magistrate” simply because they associated his name with the element of law? It just seems too naïve to be true. Could it rather be that they decided to turn him into the Jellicle leader as a means of compensating? With this, also having the very convenient benefit that old age is often linked to wisdom? Hereby simply sweeping the poem’s anti-Semitic undertone under the rug?

(By the way: am I the only one noticing that Old Deuteronomy is pretty vibrant for an implied geriatric? Seriously, not one of my former clients can lift their arms with so much ease as he does. Let alone climbing a pair of makeshift stairs with such little help…)

…I think I need another drink.

Next time: “Rejoice”


Zo gaan die dingen
Het eiland van het tweede gezicht
Folmer verdwijnt en andere verhalen
Het duister dat ons scheidt
Gabrielle Pinkster

Gabrielle Pinkster

Gabrielle Pinkster (a.k.a. The Reading Dutchwoman) studied English Language and Culture at the University of Groningen and specialised in early 20th century literature and poetry. Like most (former) students of literature she is ‘currently working on her novel’.
Gabrielle Pinkster
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  1. http://www.rtvnoord.nl/nieuws/159051/142-mensen-verliezen-hun-baan-bij-de-Zonnehuisgroep-eind-nog-niet-in-zicht, last checked 3-2-2016 

  2. Found in the BBC Arena documentary T.S. Eliot (excerpt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ot1VZD6b14U, last checked 3-2-2016)  

  3. Ibidem 

  4. found on http://rosenstein.wikispaces.com/, last checked 8-2-2016 

  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Deuteronomy, last checked 4-2-2016 

  6. found on http://rosenstein.wikispaces.com/, last checked 8-2-2016 

  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T._S._Eliot#Conversion_to_Anglicanism_and_British_citizenship, last checked 4-2-2016 

  8. found on http://rosenstein.wikispaces.com/, last checked 8-2-2016 

  9. http://rosenstein.wikispaces.com/, last checked 8-2-2016 

  10. As is also emphasized in the article I found on http://rosenstein.wikispaces.com/, last checked 8-2-2016 

  11. Although Andrew Lloyd Webber had already composed music to be set to the poems of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats at fifteen, the real development of Cats started in 1977 and ended only shortly before Cats’ first stage show in 1981 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cats_%28musical%29, last checked 8-2-2016)  

  12. Growltiger’s Last Stand, l. 17-20