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Pound’s Book of Beasts

Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound

by James Laughlin
Graywolf Press, 203 pp., $9.50 (paper)

The Genealogy of Demons: Anti-Semitism, Fascism, and the Myths of Ezra Pound

by Robert Casillo
Northwestern University Press, 463 pp., $34.95

Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism

by James Longenbach
Oxford University Press, 329 pp., $21.95

Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano

by John Tytell
Doubleday/Anchor Press, 368 pp., $19.95

Pound’s anti-Semitism is a distressing topic,” as James Laughlin says in Pound as Wuz, a collection of his formal and informal reports on EP, mostly from 1934–1935, when he studied in the poet’s “Ezuversity” at Rapallo. A fan to begin with, Laughlin became Pound’s publisher, impresario, friend. He has never doubted that Pound was a major poet, an indelible presence, a man for the most part of great force and charm. The quality of Laughlin’s affection for the poet has withstood every challenge to its continuance. He regrets having to bring up the matter of his friend’s anti-Semitism, but it is already up; there is no point in being dainty about it. He remarks that the citizens of Rapallo, even after the war, didn’t resent Pound’s fascist activities: “Noi siamo tutti stati fascisti: We were all fascists,” a newspaper editor acknowledged. Still, after a few embarrassed pages Laughlin settles for the verdict he received from Dr. Overholser, chief psychiatrist at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, where Pound spent eleven years under constraint: “You mustn’t judge Pound morally, you must judge him medically.” Pound suffered from paranoia; as Laughlin says, he “could not control himself.” Besides, and for what the evidence is worth, some of Pound’s friends—Louis Zukofsky, Allen Ginsberg, Heinz Klussmann—were Jews. At the first decent moment, Laughlin puts the topic aside and proceeds to happier themes, Pound’s translations, his “Canto 74,” the “lighter side,” his hoaxes and doggerel.

The question of Pound and the Jews was an issue long before February 13, 1946, when a jury decided that he was of unsound mind and therefore unfit to plead in a case of treason. But it was not a matter of much public concern until 1949, when the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress awarded him, for The Pisan Cantos (1948), the first Bollingen Prize. Many liberal intellectuals denounced the Fellows, and insisted that Pound’s anti-Semitism and fascism could not be separated from a judgment of his work. Irving Howe spoke for many when he declared that Pound, “by virtue of his public record and utterances, is beyond the bounds of our intellectual life.”

Robert Casillo refuses to let the matter rest. It is not enough for him that nearly everybody regards Pound as a rabid fascist. He wants to stage the trial that didn’t take place, and to charge Pound with far more than the nineteen counts of treason contained in the indictment of November 27, 1945. He believes that “the Pound cult and the ‘Pound industry’ have produced an ingenious body of critical writing in which Pound’s anti-Semitism has been arbitrarily discounted, ignored, in short, repressed.” His book is an attempt “to investigate in a thorough, systematic, and truly serious fashion the relationship of anti-Semitism and fascism to Pound’s poetic techniques and language, his cultural vision, and his politics.”

The easy part of Casillo’s argument is that Pound’s anti-Semitism developed in four stages. It started as a common suburban prejudice of Pound’s youth in Idaho and Pennsylvania; became more intense when Pound, on returning to the United States in June 1910, adverted to the scale of Jewish immigration and the influence of Jews in public life. The third stage “extended roughly from the late 1920s to the late 1930s and was marked by ambivalence and equivocation culminating in violent and open hostility.” Pound’s obsession with usury and his cult of Mussolini are associated with this period. In the fourth stage, we hear his broadcasts on Radio Rome, his references to Jews as vermin, his praise for Hitler, who “wiped out bad manners in Germany.” As for the “late and famous recantation” in which Pound confessed his anti-Semitism to Allen Ginsberg—“All along that spoiled everything”—and the mea culpa in the fragmentary last Cantos, Casillo doesn’t take these seriously or offer a priest’s forgiveness.

Thus far, nothing new. What is new in Casillo’s book is not a portrait of Ezra Pound but a description of a mentality, a certain type of being that Pound is supposed to exemplify. Casillo believes not only that anti-Semitism is the unwobbling pivot of Pound’s life and work but that virtually every attribute that benign or otherwise misguided critics have regarded as innocent is a particle of Pound’s anti-Semitism:

This is true of many Poundian beliefs and values which critics do not generally consider fascistic, and which they prefer to treat separately or else apolitically—Pound’s anti-monotheism, his reverence for the concrete and natural manifold, his emphasis on hierarchy, his suspicion of abstraction and transcendence, his glorification of myth and ritual, his agrarianism, his patriarchy, his anti-feminism, his solar religion, his abhorrence of usury, to give only a few examples.

The last phrase is not a joke. Casillo’s typology has far more constituents than these at hand. Pound’s type, we are told, is “solar,” “logocentric,” “phallocentric,” “primitive,” “pagan,” “hierarchical,” “medievalist,” “voluntarist,” and “eugenicist.” Such is the tyranny of Casillo’s adjectives that each demands separate analysis and an elaborate theoretical excursus. There is frequent reference to Sartre’s study of anti-Semitism, an influential essay on the subject by Adorno and Horkheimer, and René Girard’s meditations on the scapegoat. But Casillo’s rhetorical procedures issue with remarkable insistence from his sense of a destined theme for which he alone is qualified. The rhythm of sequential adjectives dominates the book. Pound’s hatred of Jews is described in the same form: he hates them, apparently, because they are monotheistic, “abstractive,” speculative, usurious, ungenerative, syphilitic, nomadic, obscurantist, and unconscious. These attributes, in turn, are explicated separately. The concepts proposed in the analysis—Nature, History, Race, Usury, Luxury, Sacrifice, and so forth—are isolated for emphatic report. Casillo’s entire book is a filing system in which cross-references establish Pound’s guilt not only substantively—he said this, he did that—but by association with the guilt of established villains.

A cross-reference to Voltaire has this consequence. Pound is known to have admired Voltaire. Voltaire hated Jews. Therefore Pound hated Jews. Intellectually, Pound associated with unsavory characters, so whatever they thought, he thought. Hitler, Mussolini, Thaddeus Zielinski, Leo Frobenius, Alfred Rosenberg, Charles Maurras, L.A. Waddell, Gioacchino Volpe, the Italian Futurists, Remy de Gourmont, Allen Upward: whatever sinister information may be found in their files is transferred to Pound’s. Even if he didn’t consort with one or another of these Jew-baiters, a general imputation of kinship is still potent.

Here is an example. One of Casillo’s chapters is called “Bachofen and the Conquest of the Swamp.” The point is that Pound, speaking of Jews as slime, resorted to the imagery of swamps and bogs. So did Hitler, Rosenberg, Maurice Bardeche, and Maurras. But the most omnivorous images of swamp life are to be found in Johann Bachofen:

Though Pound gives no indication of having read him, Bachofen belongs here because no one has defined more thoroughly the significance of the swamp in the Western imagination as a combined symbol of matriarchal, Near Eastern, and hence “non-European” culture…. Because we are dealing not so much with historical truth as with the myths which inform Pound’s perception of it, Bachofen remains most useful.

But Pound’s prejudices, in the Cantos, don’t coincide with Bachofen’s, except in the commonplace sense that he admired Greece and Rome, revered Confucian China, thought of the clear line as an attribute of form, and took pleasure in the emergence of form from an undifferentiated matrix. He made a fuss about Mussolini’s draining of the Pontine Marshes, but if you want to convict him of a prejudice about Near Eastern space it is sor-did to associate him with Bachofen’s notion of demonic hetaerism, and the law of what Casillo calls “self-generating sexually promiscuous matter, locked in perpetual and incestuous self-embrace.”

Some other parts of Casillo’s case are matters of interpretation that lend themselves more readily to discussion. Canto 40, for instance: it starts with an attack on Pierpont Morgan and other robber barons, ridicules Victorian junk-treasuries, and ends—“Out of which things seeking an exit”—with a partial translation of The Periplus of Hanno. The Periplus is an account of a voyage in which the Carthaginian navigator Hanno, about 470 BC, founded seven towns on the shores of Morocco. The passage comes not a moment too soon in a canto that is otherwise pretty arid; at least it gets away from the clutter. But Casillo won’t allow the narrative to stand; the only thing he can do with a story is attach a moral to it. In Canto 40 “Mussolini should be substituted entirely for Hanno.” The Canto is a celebration of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia (which it, in fact, anticipates). In lines that I am unregenerate enough to love—“12th day rose the woody mountain / with great soft smell from the trees / all perfumes many-mingling”—Casillo finds evidence of Pound’s phobia about mixed smells:

This realm of “softness” resembles that referred to in the radio broadcasts, which “calls to the basic laziness of the mind, the basic softness of human organism…entangles… (men) because of their inconsequentiality, their inability to see the connection between one thing and another.”… Pound evokes this confusion in olfactory terms. The jungle’s “soft” exhalation is an indistinct combination of odors represented by sound values unusual in Pound…. Pound was apparently repelled pelled by olfactory confusion and by bad, unknown, or mysterious smells.

So am I. I like to know what I’m smelling. One would need to have a tin ear to think that “with great soft smell from the trees” deserves this drubbing.

The trouble with The Genealogy of Demons is that Casillo admits only one idea, and in the end he is possessed by it. He is also disabled by his vocabulary. Logocentric, phallocentric, solar: these are swearwords, hopeless for thinking with; they imprison in stereotypes anyone—even Jacques Derrida—who resorts to them. Their effect on Casillo is to force him into the attitudinizing, the mythical rigamarole, that he diagnoses, however belatedly, in Pound.

Casillo’s seriousness of purpose is beyond doubt if not, in the event, beyond question. Pound’s attitudes and values are matters of consequence, and not only for the repute of poetry. The Genealogy of Demons at least raises a difficult question: not “Were Pound’s convictions rotten with fascism and anti-Semitism?”—the clear answer is “yes”; but rather: “Is it possible to write seriously of Pound in a style other than Robert Casillo’s?”

I have been looking at some earlier and current styles of writing about him. Some of the early commentary on Pound takes him as a symptom of what goes wrong when a poet dislodges conceptual thinking in favor of loose association and revery: this is Yvor Winters’s complaint in The Anatomy of Nonsense (1943). Pound then becomes “a barbarian on the loose in a museum.” Or, more recently, of what goes wrong—this is Frank Kermode’s argument in The Sense of an Ending (1967)—when a poet lets his fictions of apocalypse and renovation congeal into myths, and acts upon them. Kermode agrees with Dewey that “even aesthetic systems may breed a disposition towards the world and take overt effect.” All the more reason, then, that a poet should keep his fictions mobile and heuristic. It is dreadful to see them become myths, because then “people will live by that which was designed only to know by.”

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