Between Mussolini and Me

Lawrence Rainey traces Pound’s Fascism to the Palace Hotel, Rimini

Ezra Pound’s support for Italian Fascism has long been a contentious subject in modern literature. For some, it is merely a vivid instance of the uncritical acclaim that surrounded Mussolini well into the mid-Thirties. Others see it as evidence of a private pathology, a grotesque outgrowth of the virile posing that Pound sometimes indulged in. Still others have urged that it ‘arose from the great contempt he felt for the masses’, an avant-garde disdain that turned into a massive political delusion. Finally there are those who believe that Pound’s admiration originated in an essentially humane response to ‘the Great Depression and the economic chaos of the Thirties’: that his adherence to Fascism was the result of goodwill marred by naivety, of noble impulses that went astray.

Whatever their views, critics have always agreed on two points. First, Pound’s Fascism came late in his career: towards the end of 1931, when he began to festoon his letters with dates from the Fascist calendar (Anno X for 1932, for example), or perhaps in early 1933, when he met Mussolini for the only time and was granted a half-hour interview, which he proudly recounted in the Cantos. Second, it was quite separate from his aesthetic concerns. Indeed, it marked their demise: his ‘serious literary interests had burnt out’, one biographer has written, and now he ‘badly needed something to fuel the fire’. Deliberately or not, these views reinforce the assumptions we are inclined to make about art and power, the imagination and politics, which must never be allowed to mix. Pound’s career thus neatly divides into two stages, an early one in which he battles at the forefront of the avant-garde in the 1910s and 1920s, and a later one in which his art slowly withers while his political passions burn out of control.

Some recently discovered letters by Pound suggest a different account. Dating from 1923 and 1924, they show Pound seeking interviews with Mussolini, plying him with requests for a contribution to an avant-garde journal, even urging him to hire Pound to direct a programme of cultural renovation. More significantly, they detail Pound’s first encounters with Fascists and Fascist sympathisers in Italy and suggest that Pound’s fascination with Fascism was more complex and much darker than we have previously suspected: that it arose partly from the dynamics of patronage in which Modernism thrived, and partly from something far simpler and more primitive – the thrill of authoritarian violence.

Early in the morning of 12 March 1923, scarcely four months after Mussolini had come to power in the famous March on Rome, Pound arrived in the town of Rimini. He knew very little about the March, no more than the typical reader of contemporary newspapers, and his immediate interest lay elsewhere. He had come to work in the library at Rimini, which was noted for its trove of manuscripts and archival material relating to Sigismondo Malatesta, who had ruled the city from 1430 to 1468 and sponsored the reconstruction of the church of San Francesco, better known as the Tempio Malatestiano. With its quattrocento façade designed by the humanist Leon Battista Alberti, it had been the first church to incorporate the Roman triumphal arch into its structural vocabulary, becoming a landmark in Western architectural history. Its new interior, teeming with bas-reliefs executed by Agostino di Duccio, unfolded a recondite series of motifs from classical antiquity. The church and its sponsor became compelling symbols of the meaning and fate of art. In the view of Jakob Burckhardt and his followers, Sigismondo was the patron par excellence, a man who had given commissions not only to Alberti and Duccio, but to Piero della Francesca and the greatest of all the Renaissance medallists, Pisanello.

Pound had seen the building for the first time some ten months earlier, in May 1922, while touring Central Italy with his wife Dorothy. It had seized his imagination, and a few weeks later he wrote the first draft of what would eventually become four cantos, his most sustained production since 1920. Returning to Paris, he had undertaken a vast programme of research in the Biblio-thèque Nationale, going over every account of Sigismondo and the enigmatic Tempio in Rimini. In January 1923, he had returned to Italy to begin a second tour of sites, libraries and archives associated with Sigismondo. In February he visited the places in Tuscany where Sigismondo had conducted his campaigns of 1455 and 1456, taking Hemingway along with him in order to get seasoned military assessments. (Hemingway later recalled explaining how Sigismondo ‘would have fought where and for what reasons’, but he had concocted these accounts out of thin air and feared he had misled the poet badly.) Pound had gone on to Rome, where his days were spent in the Vatican Library and his evenings given over to socialising with Nancy Cox-McCormack, an American sculptor whom he had met two years before in Paris.

Finally, after brief stops in Florence and Bologna, he arrived in Rimini. Besides visiting the Tempio, he had set his sights on an unpublished chronicle of Sigismondo’s life and times, written by his closest adviser and kept in the library. But as he informed his wife the next morning, in a letter datelined ‘Palace Hotel, Rimini’, he was unable to get started as soon as he had hoped. (I have translated all phrases originally in Italian and expanded Pound’s abbreviations.)

Blood And Thunder.

   Library here closed at least until the 20th as the damn custodian has flu, and the boss is too lazy – or has to teach physics elsewhere.

   Am going to San Marino by the little train in a few minutes and shall try to fill in time in Pesaro, Fano, etc till the bloody custodian recovers. IF he recovers.

Pound spent the next week touring nearby towns that were also connected with the story of Sigismondo. He returned to Rimini in the late afternoon of 20 March, staying again at the Palace Hotel, and wrote to Dorothy the next morning. Already he had acquired an unexpected ally in his efforts to resolve the question of the library’s closure: ‘I go to library here at 10 o’clock this a.m. Hotel-keeper ready to sack the place and have up the mayor if it isn’t open; he is a noble Fascist.’ Concluding his letter as he hastened out of the door, he added: ‘Will now try the library.’

What happened next is unclear. Did Pound find the library open when he arrived, or was it forced open with assistance from the ‘noble Fascist’? We don’t know. In eidier case, its resources were soon at Pound’s disposal, and the ensuing week vanished in a happy haze of documents relating to Sigismondo and the Tempio. In the evenings, Pound returned to his hotel.

Pound’s ‘hotel-keeper’ was Averardo Marchetti. A native of Rimini in his early thirties, he had served in the Armed Forces during Italy’s participation in the Great War. Wounded once and decorated repeatedly, he had been promoted to lieutenant and then captain. At the war’s end he had married and started a family. By 1923, when Pound met him, he was managing the Palace Hotel, located close to the railway station and within walking distance of the Tempio. Like many officers of the lower ranks during the Great War, Marchetti had experienced a strong sense of camaraderie and sacrifice that suggested the possibility of a ‘new’ Italy, a possibility rudely betrayed by the Italian political class when the war ended. These junior officers were to swell the ranks of the emerging Fascist movement. On 24 May 1921 Marchetti and seven other men founded the Fascio Riminese, the local chapter of the Fascist National Party created two years earlier in Milan.

The Fascio was soon actively engaged in squadrismo, harassing and beating up its opponents. In September 1921, the Fascio Riminese joined 3000 other Fascists in a march on Ravenna led by Leandro Arpinati from Bologna. ‘Everyone had to remove his hat when the Fascist emblems and banners went by,’ the historian Max Gallo has written, ‘and some priests who did not react quickly enough were beaten until they bled.’ In the spring and summer of 1922 Arpinati stepped up the pace, co-ordinating a systematic offensive of squads from Bologna and Ferrara against the ruling Socialist councils of many towns within the province of Romagna, including Rimini. Victory was swift. On 6 July 1922 Rimini’s Socialist council resigned en masse in response to ‘the violence committed today against the persons of the administration’.

They, too, had been beaten bloody. Six days later the running of the city was formally assigned to a Royal Commissary, Dr Luigi Marcialis, a former subprefect who liked everyone to know that he was Gran Cordone Mauriziano, a member of the Order of the Knights of Saint Maurice and Saint Lazarus. Marcialis, who ran Rimini for the next ten months, did little to conceal his sympathies. When he formally resigned in favour of the Fascist administration that followed, he told the new council that he could not find praise enough for ‘the living flame of faith and duty which has burned in your hearts, whether on the fields of battle or in the recent deeds of sacred civil resistance’. The last phrase referred, of course, to the beating of the Socialist councillors the previous year. In conclusion, he looked forward to ‘the rebirth of our Italy under the guidance of our supreme Duce and artificer, Benito Mussolini’. In December 1922 Mussolini had created the Volunteer Militia for National Security, a security force composed of former squadristi who would report directly to him, without taking an oath to the King. Marchetti was appointed ‘comandante della piazza’ in Rimini, charged with maintaining ‘law and order’ under Marcialis.

It was at this juncture, on 20 March 1923, that Pound arrived in Rimini. After a week of work in the library and archives, he left early on the morning of 28 March. The same evening he wrote to Dorothy from Ravenna:

Triumphal exit from Rimini.

  Royal Commissary descended on the librarian (who may die of the shock). Very sympathique the Gran Cordone.

Pound’s letter does not specify exactly what happened, but its import is plain enough. The Royal Commissary Marcialis, alerted by Marchetti to the presence of a foreign poet and scholar in town, had paid his respects to Pound and publicly reproved the library’s director, Aldo Francesco Massèra, for being insuficiently responsive to his needs, a case, in Pound’s eyes, of swift action replacing bureaucratic delay. He would never forget it and almost immediately sought to commemorate the event.

The same evening that he wrote to Dorothy, he sent a postcard to Cox-McCormack. Wholly forgotten today, she was then a rising artist who would soon become a minor celebrity thanks to one work – the first portrait bust of Mussolini. The daughter of a prosperous landowner from Nashville, Tennessee, she had become ensnared in what she later called an ‘escape marriage’; she then divorced and took up a career in art, first in St Louis and afterwards in Chicago, where she studied at the Art Institute and frequented the circle of writers associated with Poetry magazine, the journal in which Pound published his earliest verse and most provocative essays. Cox-McCormack exhibited regularly and began to sculpt portrait busts of city socialites. In 1921 she moved to Paris, where she spotted Pound in a restaurant and introduced herself to him. During the next few months the two became friends, and by the end of the year she had cast a life-mask of the poet and modelled a small portrait bust in plaster. After she moved from Paris to Rome in January 1922, she and the Pounds remained in touch, and when the Pounds went to Italy in the spring of 1922, Cox-McCormack travelled alongside them for a week, heading back to Rome just before they set out for their original visit to Rimini. They met her again when they went to Rome in February 1923, only weeks before Pound’s second visit to Rimini.

The new regime that had just seized power was inevitably a topic of conversation. Cox-McCormack had witnessed the March on Rome at first hand. Much later she recalled the ‘armoured wagons ... rushing with soldiers to all critical points’. She had stood ‘under a threatening sky’ and ‘watched the Duce, Balbo and others heading this blackshirted procession’ as it offered a triumphal salute to the King. In her words, ‘the creative impetus back of it all swept most of my Italian friends into a world of bright expectations. Their eyes blazed with the blinding light of Fascist “glory”.’ In reality she was describing her own reaction.

She had developed two circles of acquaintance in Rome. The first centred on the family of Adolfo de Bosis, a minor poet formerly associated with D’Annunzio, who told her that Mussolini was ‘the King’s expedient for avoiding worse conditions’. De Bosis was no different from anyone else. ‘Every artist I knew ... was enthusiastic about the “stellone” [great star] who had appeared in the sky to save Italy from utter ruin.’ It was through the De Bosis family that she met Vittorio de Santa, an Italian-American journalist noted for his favourable coverage of Mussolini in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. On 3 January 1923, de Santa wrote to il Duce urging him to accept Cox-McCormack’s proposal to sculpt his portrait.

It was not pure circumstance that led Cox-McCormack to Mussolini. She was cultivating friends with precisely that goal in mind. In the autumn of 1922 she became friendly with Lidia Rismondo, an attractive demi-mondaine whose political salon was a gathering point for the Fascist leadership. Cox-McCormack promptly made a portrait bust of Rismondo and began to attend her salon, where Rismondo would ‘sing a few arias’ while ‘accompanying herself on the piano’. On 18 March 1923 Rismondo took Cox-McCormack to see Mussolini open a meeting of the International Chamber of Commerce. In April, at long last, the two were introduced. In early May they had a second meeting in Mussolini’s private apartment, and after a brief discussion, Mussolini agreed to let her sculpt his portrait. The work required ten sittings, which took place in May and June. It was the first bust of the new ruler.

Cox-McCormack was captivated by Mussolini. In a contemporary essay she praised him for being ‘wholly concerned with welding Italy into a prosperous and happy entity’. He was ‘much an artist’, ‘a creative force evolving and directing the beginnings of a renaissance’. His eyes were ‘the kindliest I have ever looked into’, revealing ‘a man guided by tremendous and admirable qualities of heart’. Two years later she wrote a ‘Preface’ to the English translation of Mussolini’s My Diary, hailing him as ‘the inspiration of the new epoch in Europe’.

When Pound visited Cox-McCormack in Rome in February 1923, she evidently told him about her friendship with Lidia Rismondo, her favourable view of the new regime and her efforts to meet Mussolini. Pound was plainly aware that she was moving in circles close to the centre of power, for that is what is presupposed in the postcard which he wrote to her from Ravenna on 28 March 1923, the day after he left Rimini.

Dear Nancy –

If you have any real political power, please see that the Gran Cordone Mauriziano Dr Luigi Marcialis, Royal Commissary for City of Rimini and also Signor Marchetti, Director of the Fascio of Rimini, both receive all possible honors and advancements. They deserve well of Italy.

Yrs, Ezra

Alas, Nancy was still three weeks away from meeting Mussolini; she could do nothing for Marchetti or Marcialis. Pound, meanwhile, continued to acknowledge the help he had received in Rimini. When he returned to Paris he sent Marchetti a copy of Lustra, his most recent book of poems, with an inscription reading: ‘To my friend Marchetti, a gift from the author, his friend, Ezra Pound 1923.’ That was only the beginning.

Pound’s postcard to Nancy was more than just a hasty gesture. His experience in writing the so-called ‘Malatesta Cantos’ enabled him to find the form that he had been seeking for his long poem, and led directly to the first publication of the Cantos in January 1925. For Pound, Marchetti’s aid had been invaluable, and in June 1925 he returned to Rimini for a third visit, this time to commemorate Marchetti’s actions by presenting him with a proof copy of the new book, an event that was celebrated in the newspaper of the local Fascio, La Testa di Ponte (the ‘Bridgehead’), in its issue of 6 June 1925. A copy of the Cantos, Pound told a friend, ‘was carried through the village, not on a triumphal ox-cart draped with scarlet, but at any rate with due order by il Comandante ... Marchetti stated that he had shown my poem “anche a Domini Deo”.’ Pound asked his publisher for a special set of page proofs containing only the ‘Malatesta Cantos’, which he would be ‘sending ... to il Comandante’ in Rimini.

Eight years later he recalled Marchetti in Jefferson and/or Mussolini, his most sustained defence of the Fascist regime:

‘NOI CI FACCIAMO SCANNAR PER MUSSOLINI,’ said my hotel-keeper in Rimini years ago, thinking I knew nothing about the revolution and wanting to get it in my head. Nothing happens without efficient cause. My hotel-keeper was also Comandante della Piazza, we had got better acquainted by reason of his sense of responsibility, or his interest in what I was doing. The local librarian had shut up the library, and the Comandante della Piazza had damn well decided that if I had taken the trouble to come to Romagna to look at a manuscript, the library would cut the red tape.

  ‘Scannar’ is a very colloquial word meaning to get scragged. It has none of the oratorical quality of ‘we will die for’, but that’s what it means. And my friend M. was expressing a simple fact. This kind of devotion does not come from merely starting a boy-scout movement.

Pound’s recollection of ‘il Comandante della Piazza’ is cited as a landmark in his understanding of Fascism. Marchetti’s devotion, even his style of expression, are sure indications of Fascism’s virtue: what inspires ‘this kind of devotion’ must be both admirable and powerful:

Pound had already shown signs of interest in Fascism while he was still living in Paris. In late November 1922, he attended a lecture given by the American journalist Lincoln Steffens, a friend of Hemingway. Steffens had become famous for first-hand reportage of the Mexican and Bolshevik Revolutions. Having just returned from the Lausanne Peace Conference, where Mussolini had made his debut before the international press, Steffens synthesised his observations in a discussion of modern revolution. The text of his lecture has been lost, but its tenor can be construed from his contemporary reportage and the account he left in his autobiography. Mussolini, Steffens was convinced, was ‘as bold as Einstein’. He and Lenin were the only leaders of the day who knew how to ‘read history ... as men of action, reading a record of human experimentation to find out what can be done and how’. Steffens especially admired Mussolini’s disdain for parliamentary politics: ‘He despises the old game of politics and diplomacy, democracy as we pretend it is ... He has risen into an empty throne by dint of his contempt for the present type of government.’ Mary Colum, the Irish writer and critic, had found the lecture an occasion of ‘appalling dreariness’, but Pound listened with ‘rapt attention, his eyes glued to the speaker’s face, the very type of a young man in search of an ideology, except that he was not so young’.

Pound’s experiences with Marchetti and Cox-McCormack quickened his resolve to contact Mussolini. Cox-McCormack would serve as the intermediary. After completing her portrait of Mussolini in July 1923, she returned to Paris for several months, where she regaled Pound with first-hand impressions of Mussolini’s abilities and her belief in the sincerity of his interest in the arts. On 15 August, after one such conversation, Pound wrote to her to unveil a startling proposal:

To clear up what I said the other day, it would be quite easy to make Italy the intellectual centre of Europe; and that by gathering ten or 15 of the best writers and artists ...

  The experiment would not be expensive; the whole thing depends on the selection, and on the manner of the invitation. I shouldn’t trust any one’s selection save my own. There is no use going into details until one knows if there is or could be any serious interest in the idea; that is to say, if the dictator wants a corte letteraria; if he is interested in the procedure of Sigismondo Malatesta in getting the best artists of his time into Rimini, a small city with no great resources. I know, in a general way, the fascio includes literature and the arts in its programme; that is very different from being ready to take specific action.

  You have to avoid official personages, the deadwood of academies, purely pedagogical figures. The life of the arts is always concentrated in a very few individuals; they invent, and the rest follow, or adapt, or exploit.

  Italy has an opportunity now, an opportunity she would not have had thirty years ago, or even ten years ago. Germany is busted, England is too stupid, France is too tired to offer serious opposition; America is too far from civilisation and won’t for a hundred years distinguish between the first rate and the second rate; she will always stay content with copies.

The terms of Pound’s proposal are significant. When he defines a ‘serious interest in the idea’ as the desire to have ‘a corte letteraria’, he is quoting from the title of a survey of the artists and humanists who had worked at Sigismondo’s court, a parallel made explicit when he urges Mussolini to follow ‘the procedure of Sigismondo Malatesta in getting the best artists’.

Cox-McCormack evidently decided not to act on Pound’s proposal until she was back in Italy and could make use of her personal contact with Lidia Rismondo. When she did return, in early 1924, Pound’s requests for communication with Mussolini multiplied. In early January he wrote to her again, asking if Mussolini would write an essay for the Transatlantic Review, Ford Madox Ford’s new literary journal:

Dear Nancy:

  CAN you get a few choice words from Muss. exclusively for the Transatlantic, one or two pages, or as much more as he likes on his scheme for restoration of ROME ... the Trans. is THE intellectual organ.

  Get Muss. to write a line on new building in Rome, new paving, etc (possibly as link in revival of Italian intellectual life – that leads on to our other affair).

  Ford wants this message at once; i.e., as soon as possible. ANY how in time for second number.

  The Transatlantic is a free international avenue of communication. Muss. wd. reach the PENSEURS partout; and they ‘make the opinion of next week’.

Cox-McCormack seems to have declined this request, but it was not long before Pound returned to ‘our other affair’, his proposal that Mussolini inaugurate a programme of cultural renovation under the poet’s auspices. On 13 January he said that he would come to Rome ‘if the moment were opportune’ for further discussions. On 28 January he raised the subject again, this time at length. He dismissed as ‘slither and blah’ the notion that his proposals be forwarded to Mussolini in a letter. He wanted something quite different: ‘The matter will be settled man to man between Mussolini and me, or else it will be merely bitched, botched, and bungled, bureaucratised, bastardised, boozled, boggled, and altogether zum wasser.’ As if momentarily sensing the oddity of his truculent demand to meet a head of state, he proposed another scheme:

It can be opened by your asking Mussolini one simple question – or even getting Rismondo to ask it – so long as you get a direct definitive answer. And the question is ... Does he want Italy to be truly THE center, not just A center of European life (the intellectual and cultural center of Europe).

  AS IT WAS in the quattrocento and cinque-cento.

  If so he can have my support and I will come to discuss or tabulate SOME SIMPLE PLAN that can be adopted with little or no expense at all.

  That is about as briefly as I can put it.

What became of these discussions is unclear. Most likely Mussolini’s confidants informed Cox-McCormack that the approaching elections left no time for such matters and shortly afterwards Cox-McCormack left Rome for good. (She returned to the US in 1926 and retired from professional activity in the Thirties, when commissions grew increasingly scarce. Her letters from Pound were bequeathed to the library of her home state, Tennessee; they are available only on microfilm, the originals having long since been purloined, though they still turn up in the catalogues of rare-book dealers. Her bust of Mussolini gathers dust in the basement of the Herbert Johnson Museum at Cornell University.)

The whole affair is not without comic touches – Pound offers ‘my support’ to Mussolini, as though it might be of momentous significance to him – and an element of absurdity: consider a number of the Transatlantic Review containing the first sections of Finnegans Wake, alongside writings by Pound, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Benito Mussolini. The serious motif that runs through the story is that of Sigismondo the ideal patron whom Pound repeatedly assimilates to the figure of Mussolini and the culture of Fascism. Historical accuracy was not the question here: Sigismondo, after all, is in some sense another name for John Quinn, the New York lawyer and cultural patron whose generosity had been indispensable to the cultural economy of Modernism. But was that all? Was Mussolini, for Pound, merely a phantasmagoric projection of the Modernist patron?

Admirers of Pound have often been lenient about his fascination with Mussolini and Fascism. In Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism, Tim Redman has argued that his ‘growing sympathy for Italian Fascism was always based in part upon Mussolini’s socialist roots’. His was really ‘a left-wing Fascism’, one that recognised how many of Mussolini’s programmes originated in his ‘early advocacy of syndicalism and socialism’. Evidence for this view is found in a letter that Pound wrote to Oswald Mosley in July 1934, advising him that ‘the only Fascism that CAN work in Engl or France or America is fascismo di sinistra.’

Yet this argument is dubious. No Fascist programme had roots in Mussolini’s ‘early advocacy of syndicalism’. What Mussolini knew of syndicalism was Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence with its theory of myth and its notion that revolution would come about only if the workers could envisage a process of cataclysmic change and social transformation that would seize the imagination, without appeal to reason or logic. Mussolini reviewed Sorel at length in 1909, and from him he learned much about a politics of the imagination, which he used throughout his career. But there was not much in Sorel about government programmes. His syndicalism had no programme to offer beyond revolutionary violence.

When Pound invoked Mussolini’s socialist background, as he sometimes did, he was simply parroting a commonplace of Fascist propaganda, designed to stress that Mussolini would respect the interests of the workers. Pound’s letter to Mosley, moreover, was concerned with dispensing advice about tactics in England, not with tracing his own intellectual development. Certainly, Pound came to believe that Mussolini would ultimately adopt economic policies of the sort that he himself espoused after 1935, policies that had a distant kinship with the guild socialism he had read about in London in the 1910s. But those were later developments; and they were elaborate self-deceptions with which Pound rationalised his continuing support for a regime whose moral bankruptcy was increasingly apparent. They were not what had sparked his initial interest, as he acknowledged in an unpublished essay of 1933: ‘I bet on Italian fascism years ago and came here to live in the middle of it.’ Pound, we recall, had left Paris for Italy late in 1924.

What had led Pound to ‘bet on Italian fascism’ as early as 1923? The views of Cox-McCormack were plainly influential. She had seen the March herself and had firsthand experience of Mussolini: ten sittings that had enabled her to sound out his views on a range of subjects. Pound was a perennial believer in the wisdom of ‘insiders’, people whose knowledge derived not from precepts and abstractions but from experience, and Cox-McCormack was one such person. Lincoln Steffens was another. Yet neither elicited the intense response from Pound that he evinced towards Marchetti, whom he commemorated six times in letters, with gifts of inscribed books and page proofs, a return visit to Rimini and a published recollection. The encounter with Marchetti marked a turning point in his life.

If we take Pound’s later recollection at face value, we can only feel that what impressed him about Marchetti was the intensity of his ‘devotion’ to Mussolini. ‘Devotion’, in Pound’s account, is simply a variant of the word ‘faith’, a term that the historian Emilio Gentile has called ‘the key word in the conceptual vocabulary of fascism’. Faith was integral to Fascism’s irrationalist conception of politics, which affirmed the priority of lived experience over ideology and conviction over theory in the formation of a political culture. It crops up everywhere in the rhetoric of the period and appears in Marcialis’s commendation of the Fascist councillors of Rimini, who cherish ‘the living flame of faith and duty’. Yet faith in what, or on what grounds?

It is here that we need to shift our viewpoint, turning back to the figure of Aldo Francesco Massèra, the elderly city librarian whose public reproof proved so satisfying to Pound. To look through his eyes is to perceive those grounds more clearly. For when Massèra saw Ezra Pound huddling together with Marchetti, the ‘comandante della piazza’ who maintained ‘law and order’, and with Marcialis, the Royal Commissary who now wielded absolute power over the city, he would have known what it portended – perhaps the loss of his job, perhaps much worse. For Massèra had heard reports about the priests bloodied in nearby Ravenna; he had seen the Socialist councillors of Rimini – his employers – being beaten in the streets. These were not matters to be weighed lightly. The ‘faith’ and ‘devotion’ of Marchetti were familiar to him, though his assessment of their merits probably differed from Pound’s. And so, on that last day of Pound’s stay in Rimini, he swallowed his pride and accepted the humiliation administered by Marcialis. No wonder, as Pound put it, he seemed ready to ‘die of the shock’.

Yet, in Pound’s words, it was Massèra’s humiliation that defined his ‘triumphal exit from Rimini’, just as that exit signalled the start of his commitment to militant Fascism. We err, I think, in suggesting that this adherence had its basis in a reasoned examination of competing economic theories or a sustained comparison of Mussolini’s programmes with those of guild socialism or revolutionary syndicalism. No one raised those subjects with Aldo Francesco Massèra. Yet I suspect he understood all too well the genuine basis of Fascism. The solemn rhetoric of ‘faith’ could scarcely conceal the dynamic of terror. And it was terror – the allure, the thrill, the prospect of terror – that attracted Ezra Pound to Fascism.

Yeats, Heidegger, Wyndham Lewis, Céline, Paul de Man, Gottfried Benn, Marinetti – the list of intellectuals who supported Fascism is all too familiar. Generations of scholars have tried to explain the multiplicity of motives that led them towards the totalitarian temptation. Yet it may have been wasted labour. Had we turned our attention to what was happening at ground level, to what took place on the streets almost daily under the culture of Fascism, we would have seen what contemporaries could not have failed to remark: the spectacle, at once riveting and terrifying, offered by the combination of violence and unbridled power.