Ezra Pound and Evil

Jerome McGann

  • The Genealogy of Demons: Anti-Semitism, Fascism and the Myths of Ezra Pound by Robert Casillo
    Northwestern, 463 pp, $34.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 8101 0710 4
  • A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound by Humphrey Carpenter
    Faber, 1005 pp, £20.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 571 14786 0

No English-speaking poet of this century has been the subject of as much biographical scrutiny as Ezra Pound. As in the case of Byron, Pound’s literary works and his personal life were deeply entwined from the first, and this condition of his poetry’s existence raises – as Byron’s work has always raised – serious problems for our ordinary understanding of what poems do and how they are to be read.

We are accustomed to drawing a distinction between the tale and the teller, in order to direct the reading of imaginative texts along purely ‘textual’ or intersystemic orders. This is difficult to do with Pound’s work. The Cantos is a poem which, like De Rerum Natura, lays claim to what many regard as the province of prose, not poetry. Both reach out to make contact with extra-textual materials and events. Besides the poem’s engagement with history, including personal and contemporary history, much of the Cantos involves quotation (more or less accurately carried out) of historical documents, scholarly texts, and various independent and otherwise integral materials (a musical score is included as the major part of Canto LXXV).

These kinds of material highlight the general problem: that the Cantos often violate the customary criteria by which we set poetry apart from prose. The problem is exacerbated by the repellent character of many of Pound’s factive and prose interests. In his case, the issue is stark: he was a supporter of Mussolini’s fascism and he was an anti-semite. Moreover, these interests were concretely located. Pound’s anti-semitism was not a vague or generalised antipathy: it was specifically and historically directed toward particular events, individuals and institutions.

Pound made these matters stand at the heart of his life’s work, inextricable from his larger concerns about history, culture and economics. Robert Casillo is therefore entirely correct to say that Pound’s writing raises ‘the problem of evil in literature’ in an especially clear way. ‘For it must be emphasised that Pound’s anti-semitism is quite different from Dostoyevsky’s and Eliot’s. Not only is it a massive and prevalent theme, but at a number of points in Pound’s poetry and prose it becomes so virulent that Pound hints covertly at the extermination of the Jews. This is a fact ... always to be kept in mind, for it would be difficult if not impossible to find a truly great work or writer in Western tradition embracing such acknowledged evil.’ No one before Casillo has raised this ‘problem of evil’ in Pound’s work in the context of such massive documentation and thoroughgoing scrutiny. The general shape of the situation has been no secret, however – Pound’s work is a problem precisely because it pushes these issues to the fore.

Given the presence of the fascist and anti-semitic ideas and materials, two ways of reading Pound’s work – particularly the mature work – have been followed. Pound’s virulent anti-semitism and his open support of Mussolini’s fascism defined these options. Of course, Pound’s work was a notorious sign of contradiction from the earliest years of his literary career in London. Nonetheless, the great divide does not begin to establish itself in his work until after the publication of A Draft of XXX Cantos (1930), when Pound’s removal to Italy began to involve him in certain positive political commitments.

On the one hand, Pound’s poetry can be all but entirely dismissed as the vehicle of wicked and dangerous ideas. This argument often attacks Pound’s style – the artistic vehicle – as well as the ideas, observing a homology between what Pound writes and the ways he chooses to write. On the other hand, Pound’s work is defended, even exalted, by numerous readers, many of them among the most important literary figures of this century. According to the latter, a distinction must be drawn between Pound’s bad ideas (and bad writing) and his good ideas and excellent, innovative work in poetry.

Though they began earlier, these options established themselves shortly after the war, when the American culture industry was forced to make some decisions about Pound and his work. The controversy over the Bollingen Prize, which was awarded to Pound in 1949 for the Pisan Cantos, is the most obvious and convenient event for dating the critical polarisation. But that award was preceded by an event no less significant, if less public. In 1946 Random House announced that they were removing Pound’s work from the new edition of their Anthology of Famous English and American Poetry. Several writers protested this decision, among them Conrad Aiken and W.H. Auden – the latter going so far as to say that he would leave Random House (his publisher) if Pound’s work were removed from the anthology. The decision to remove Pound was (reluctantly) reversed by Bennett Cerf, the publisher of Random House. The Random House decision had the important effect of easing the Bollingen decision.

One further historical matter has to be recalled here. When the prize was awarded to Pound for the Pisan Cantos, an important new line of interpretation was opened for readers. This interpretation – a variant of the pro-Poundian line which separated the wheat from the tares in his work – saw the Pisan Cantos as the moving autobiographical record of a man reflecting critically upon his career, and even recanting his ‘errors’. The Pisan Cantos thus became the touchstone for distinguishing what in the Cantos seemed to have permanent value, and they emerged as the dominant sign of the meaning of Pound’s career: that it displayed a tragic curve. The great writer, the inventor of Modernism (il miglior fabbro), moved slowly but inexorably from the light into the darkness, and then, plunging into the catastrophe of his essential self, he passed into the final anagnorisis where he was forced to contemplate the fullness of the truth about his life and work.

These two new books on Pound will make it impossible to approach his work on such terms any longer. Neither Casillo nor Carpenter take one into a new way of reading poetry. But both have produced important books, and Casillo’s in particular will have a major impact on Pound studies.

From a critical point of view, Carpenter’s approach to Pound and his work is far more traditional than Casillo’s. Both men read Pound as a poet who makes statements in his work, and who refers to objective persons and events. For Carpenter, ‘the Cantos are a botch, but they do have unity and coherence, for they are autobiography.’ This is an interesting view of the poem as a whole because, while it repeats one traditional idea (that it is a ‘botch’), it does not argue that the failure is a formal or structural one. The work is a ‘botch’ because too much of it is indigestible.

In reading the Cantos biographically, however, Carpenter firmly dissents from another traditional (this time pro-Poundian) view: that the Cantos set out a tragic history. He is, I think, entirely right to avoid such a reading. What he sees in the work is, rather, the record of a wildly chaotic life, at once absurd and profound, dangerous and silly – a hodgepodge of things that make sense (for better and worse) and things that make no sense (also for better and worse).

In this respect, Carpenter’s approach represents the culmination of that line of reading which tries to salvage what is good in Pound’s work, and let the rest go. The difference is that, as a biographer with a biographical view of Pound’s poetry. Carpenter finds more in the poetry to interest him than simply the ‘beauties of Pound’. Not all the autobiographical passages in the Cantos seem interesting as poetry to Carpenter, but his engagement with Pound the man does increase the availability to him of large sections of the poem that might otherwise have seemed simply ugly or boring. The only parts that entirely escape his engagement are those ‘historical’ sections (the Adams cantos, the Chinese cantos, and so forth) which seem to him not otherwise translated into ‘poetry’ by their beauty of style.

The problems raised by Carpenter’s biography are more sharply focused by Casillo’s work. The difference comes from Casillo’s uncompromising (and entirely laudable) concentration on the anti-semitic and fascist elements in Pound’s work. Casillo’s view is that Pound’s fascism and anti-semitism are so central and pervasive to his thought that they alone, as ideological deformations, will serve to explain what we actually find when we read him. In effect, what Casillo does is provide an interpretative structure which will explain the network of contradictions that a book like Carpenter’s sets forth in its narratives and descriptions.

The key element is anti-semitism, and Casillo argues that it is not, as Pound’s apologists have often maintained, peripheral to what is important and enduring in Pound’s work. On the contrary, Casillo argues that the anti-semitism is not only central to Pound’s work but is the deformation which finally explains the coherent incoherence of all the writing. Anti-semitism is literally the key to reading Pound.

Briefly, Casillo argues that Pound’s anti-semitism is an instance of a scapegoating structure. Borrowing certain of the ideas of René Girard, Casillo proposes the following explanatory scheme for understanding Pound’s work: the parasitic scapegoat (the Jew) is at once the sign and the embodiment of cultural breakdown and confusion, ‘a symbol of all that the community considers other: a monster. And yet, in his very confusion the scapegoat is also the secret, uncanny and projected image, the very double of the community that expels him.’ Thus the violence and contradictions in Pound’s writing bear witness to a truth, not about Jews, but about a social structure of thought which Pound embraced and executed.

In this (ironical) sense, the Cantos is indeed ‘the tale of the tribe’, as Pound himself once called the epic poem. In reading Pound, however, Casillo focuses upon the man and his work, and not upon the historical and cultural field (the tribe) which his work speaks both to and for. Casillo’s book can therefore easily be taken as a final dismissal of Pound’s work, an ultimate anathema; or, if not that, then as an argument to read the work as a case-history of a deformed soul, a kind of cautionary tale. To read Casillo one is drawn to think that he (and we) do not belong to Pound’s ‘tribe’. Pound is a monster.

In fact, as his final chapter shows, Casillo does not know how to ‘read’ Pound in the sense that one would ‘read poetry’ or go to literature as a positive cultural resource – a king’s treasury or a queen’s garden. If things of beauty are to be joys for ever, then what of Pound’s work? For even the things of beauty in it, according to Casillo’s acute analyses, are essentially bound up with demonic attachments. Thus, in this large and dense book, Casillo manages only four pages (333-336) in which he ponders the problem his own work has so excellently raised, and in those four pages Casillo retreats to the most traditional ways of reading Pound: that is to say, he argues that the work has moments of truth and wisdom, fragments of beauty, which we should avail ourselves of. That such things might be more readily and happily received by reading some other writer – Eliot, say, or Joyce – is not a question that occurs to Casillo.

Yet after his own investigations the problem of Pound’s work – why he should be read at all, how his writings could be included in a school or university’s ‘humanities curriculum’ – is more starkly present than ever.

Casillo considers (in one paragraph) what he calls ‘the Marxist idea’ that Pound should be read as a writer ‘secretly at war with his ideology’. Casillo is alluding here, presumably, to the negative hermeneutics of Adorno and of the Frankfurt School generally. Benjamin’s great work on Baudelaire would presumably provide a good model of such a form of reading. Casillo says that this Marxist idea ‘is a good description of the Cantos’, but he seems unable himself to undertake such a way of reading. Certainly his own book does not employ such a method.

And Casillo does not use it because his book is in a curious way less involved with its manifest subject, Pound, and more with that ‘tribe’, Pound’s readers, of whom Casillo is one. What drives The Genealogy of Demons, more than Pound’s demonism, is the way the consciousness industries of the 20th century have read Pound – or, in Casillo’s view, have not read him, have blinked a clear-eyed engagement. If his Girardean scheme means to describe what takes place in Pound’s writing, it equally serves to satirise those blind readers who, in their encounters with Pound’s texts, seeing they have not seen, and hearing they have not heard.

What is ‘the problem of evil’ in Pound’s work? It is not a problem of Pound’s fascism or anti-semitism as such: rather, it is the problem of the holocaust. We can see this if we attend carefully to the way Casillo makes his argument.

When Casillo speaks of Pound’s work embracing ‘acknowledged evil’, he is glancing directly at the murderous policy directed by the Nazis. But his book as a whole works to suggest that this ‘acknowledged evil’ in Pound’s work is its entire ideological network. What is evil therefore becomes the structure of anti-semitic thought which Casillo’s book documents.

But if anti-semitism is an evil in the sense that Casillo means, it is an evil still embraced by many people, and an evil to be found in many a ‘truly great work [and] writer in Western tradition’. If the holocaust had not taken place. Pound’s writing would still present problems, but it would not present the ‘problem of evil’ in the sense that Casillo means. The ‘problem of evil’ did not become part of Pound’s work until the holocaust became part of our historical consciousness.

The holocaust did take place and Pound’s work does raise up the problem of evil, as Casillo says. But Casillo obscures the problem by suggesting that Pound’s is a unique case ‘in Western tradition’. To us, anti-semitism seems evil because we live in the shadow of those exterminations carried out fifty years ago. But before those events anti-semitism was not an evil: it was a type of bigotry, more or less reprehensible depending upon times and circumstances.

But the ‘problem of evil’ in Pound’s work is not the problem of its anti-semitism or fascism as such: it is the problem of whether ‘literature’ – those ‘great works ... of Western tradition’ – can embrace, can be imagined to embrace, ideas or attitudes of ‘acknowledged evil’. Casillo’s view – it is a commonplace one – is that immorality is a devaluing presence in literary work, and that ‘evil’ simply vitiates the possibility of artistic or cultural value.

But Pound’s work may be read, and in my view should be read, as a critique of that very idea, the idea that art is a representation or execution of the best that has been known and thought in the world. In 1940 Pound’s fascism and anti-semitism were peculiarly intense, and he had just published Cantos LII-LXXI of his masterwork. In that same year Benjamin published his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in the Neue Rundschau. The ‘Theses’ are (among other things) a Marxist’s critique of fascism, and in this respect they might seem to have little in common with Pound’s work. But when Benjamin says that an enlightened mind ‘cannot contemplate without horror’ its inheritance of ‘cultural treasures’, he formulates an aesthetic theory for which a work like the Cantos is the perfect exponent.

‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,’ Benjamin argues. For Benjamin, as for his contemporaries Céline and Bataille, literature’s value lies precisely in the journey it takes to the end of the night. The presence of ‘evil’ in poetry is, therefore, paradoxically, the ultimate measure of its authenticity.

In this view, the literature of ‘Western tradition’ fails when it pretends to occupy a position of privilege – or, correspondingly, when it suggests that civilisation and cultural values can be imagined apart from monstrosity. To a great extent, Pound’s work was an experiment with such an imagination, an effort to discover that land of the heart’s desire, a paradiso terrestre. The Cantos are important, are the central poetic text of this century, just because they committed themselves to the pursuit of that imagination. In the event they revealed the heart of its darkness.

Blake was, I believe, the first writer to formulate such an antithetical vision of imaginative work. His clearest (prose) statement of his view appears in his annotations to Boyd’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. Boyd believed that poetry is a vehicle of moral truth, and that it inculcates ‘the difference between right and wrong’. Boyd goes to poetry, in other words, for its ideas and themes – and in particular, for those themes and ideas which seem to possess in themselves positive cultural values. In doing so, however, according to Blake, Boyd reveals himself to be nothing more than an ideologue. Blake dismisses him by saying simply: ‘The grandest poetry is immoral ... Cunning & morality are not Poetry but Philosophy.’ Or, as he expresses it in his engraved manifesto ‘On Homer’s Poetry’: ‘Unity and Morality are secondary considerations [in art] & belong to Philosophy & not to Poetry.’

Blake thought the Bible the greatest literary work of the ‘Western tradition’, but he did not therefore see it as work which was free of active commitments to evil. Blake’s idea was that the Old Testament scriptures were ‘an Example of the wickedness & deceit of the Jews & were written as an Example of the possibility of Human Beastliness in all its branches.’

Blake wrote these words in secret, however, because, as he declared at the beginning of these remarks (his set of annotations on Bishop Watson’s Apology for the Bible), ‘to defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life.’ Therefore Blake does not publish his thoughts, as Paine had earlier published his similar thoughts, because to do so, in 1798, would place a person in peril of legal execution. ‘The English Crusade against France’, Blake says (in 1798!) is nothing more man ‘State Religion’. In this respect, the models for that crusade are to be found in the Bible – for example: ‘the destruction of the Canaanites by Joshua was the Unnatural design of wicked men. To extirpate a nation by means of another nation is as wicked as to destroy an individual by means of another individual.’ To Blake, the poetry of Homer and of Virgil, of the Icelandic Eddas, of the Bible itself, was full of evil, as indeed poetry will always be. Such works do not merely ‘represent’ what is bad, they commit themselves to it. We often think that poetry is written to supply us with the best that has been known and thought in the world. For Blake, however, its special office is rather to give ‘a body to Falshood that it may be cast off for ever./ With Demonstrative Science piercing Appolyon with his own bow!’

Perhaps Blake’s and Arnold’s differing attitudes toward the function of poetry set the polar limits to the office of imagination. To celebrate greatness, as the Aeneid means to do, or to seek for the truth, which is the object of De Rerum Natura: people tend to prize one or the other when they turn to literature, and they tend to read every text according to their cultural preferences. In Pound’s work these two objects – celebration and criticism, beauty and truth – emerge as something more than Keatsian reciprocals. They move rather in a demonic set of relationships, as the ‘Other’ to each other.

Therein lies the ‘problem of evil’ in Pound’s work, for we tend not to want as Casillo explicitly indicates – that our documents of civilisation be involved with barbarities. In the Cantos Yeats marked off the ‘scenes of distinguished beauty’ from other passages he found violent and ugly. But any careful reading of Pound’s work will reveal a demonic Other lurking beneath even the most civilised and ‘beautiful’ surfaces.

Casillo’s genealogy of demons is, in the case of Pound’s work, far too selective and self-justifying. We see this, perhaps paradoxically, when Casillo summarises his project, which he imagines might be read as a wholesale condemnation of Pound: ‘It may seem that this book is unfair to Pound insofar as it stresses his “bad side”. If this is so, my only answer is that my subject has been Pound’s anti-semitism and fascism.’ Casillo goes on to say that he ‘by no means believes that the Cantos should be condemned categorically,’ since it ‘is possible to find generous, affirmative and humanistic ways of reading them. Of course, there always remains their poetic beauty and the fascination of their verbal texture.’

Yet in taking these positions Casillo accepts and recapitulates the same structure of contradictions which his own study locates in Pound. On one hand are sheep, on the other goats – beauty v. ugliness, good v. evil. These divisions of Otherness then reify themselves in the demonism of the critical act: Pound v. who or what? – Casillo? the ‘Western tradition’? the ‘generous, affirmative and humanistic’? The Genealogy of Demons itself ought to show what we are to make of such structures of contradiction.

Casillo is Pound’s hypocrite lecteur, but he sets himself apart from most other critics of Pound because his analysis exposes – foregrounds the hypocrisy of his own work. In a wonderful way, Casillo reads Pound ‘in the same spirit that the author writ’. Doing so, he calls attention to the (im)moral complicities which literary criticism is necessarily involved with. ‘All will be judged’ is the title of Casillo’s summary chapter – a title taken from Auden’s poem ‘At the Grave of Henry James’. It is a brilliant title just because The Genealogy of Demons is committed to the project of such a judgment, but itself – being a human and not a divine text – falls short of that goal. Falling thus short, as Pound’s work fell before it, The Genealogy of Demons calls itself, and its ways of thinking, to judgment, though it did not mean to do so.

For the ‘Western tradition’ in the 20th century, there is no more important poem than Pound’s Cantos. If the function of epic is to reflect and express an entire cultural ethos, Pound’s sixty-year project serves to do that for Euro-America. The work is no more or less demonic, no more or less contradictory, than its historical subject. Casillo is part of the Cantos’ project, and so is Carpenter. The work reproduces a political and cultural history which stretches from the Great War to Vietnam and even beyond, and it throws that subject against the illuminating background of a reconstituted socio-historical tradition.

Of course, it does this by taking its stand in certain points of view, so that the survey of the field assumes various biases. But poetry only functions by the vigorous pursuit of such subjectivities – by intense emotional investments. That emotional procedure, in fact, ensures the presence of what the poem’s emotional commitments work to erase or forget. A book like Casillo’s understands this; it can trace its networks of corollaries and subjects through Pound’s writings precisely because it trusts – correctly – that Pound’s work will always be telling more of the truth than Pound-the-author could have known.

But the work will equally be telling more of the truth than any X-the-reader could comprehend. A work like Casillo’s exhibits, its own conceptual deformations. These do not differ, structurally, from what one discovers in any writer’s work, including Pound’s. It is just that, good as Casillo’s (or Carpenter’s) work is, neither approaches the comprehensiveness of Pound’s work – neither in the scope of what has been taken up, nor in the range of feelings that have been set at risk.

One does not say this to praise the greatness of Ezra Pound. The Cantos is an essential text for us, not for Pound. In our day we take it as a commonplace that ‘readers write texts’ as much as the originary authors. It is a truth about poetry which we would do well to bear clearly in mind when we read Pound’s work-in particular, the Cantos. For the latter is a reflection of our civilisation, of what it all came to in the 20th century, for better and for worse. As Carpenter observes, it is at once a whole, a unity and a botched job; and it is an autobiography too – Man coeur mis à nu. Only the subject is not just Ezra Pound. It is ourselves.