- A Study From Ontario: Leon Surette’s A Light From Eleusis: A Study of Ezra Pound’s Cantos
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto XXVII
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto XXVIII-XXX
- Ezra Pound Posts Delayed
- The Mays of Ventadorn by W.S. Merwin
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto XXXI-XXXIII
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XXXIV-XXXVI
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XXXVII-XXXIX
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XL-XLI
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XLII-XLV
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XLVI-XLVII
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XLVIII
- Reading the Cantos: A Study of Meaning in Ezra Pound by Noel Stock
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto XLIX
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto L
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LI
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LII
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LIII
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LIV
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LV (Plus, What Do Ezra Pound, Robert Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, and Sun Ra Have In Common?)
This post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, one by one (so far — I may deal with a few at a time on occasion).
These are not exactly typical readings of the poems, so much as readings I’m doing with a specific research project in mind — how to write Ezra Pound as a figure in a novel in which modernist artists, poets, and musicians secretly waged an occult war in the earlier half of the 20th century. If you’d like to know more about the project, I recommend scrolling down to the bottom of extended post, and reading the first installment in this series.
Last week, we examined the last two of the four “Malatesta Cantos”, specifically numbers X and XI; this week, it’s on to two of what Hugh Kenner calls “Exemplary” Cantos: XII (the tale of Baldy Bacon and also the Tale of the Honest Sailor) and XIII (a “Kung” [Confucius] Canto).
During Pound’s years in London, he spent some time among the circle of artists, writers, and intellectuals who were variously associated with A.R. Orage and The New Age, a weekly journal to which Pound contributed various pieces of writing during his stay in London. (Brown University’s Modernist Journals Project has copies of the journal throughout the period available for free.)
The New Age, and Pound’s association with its contributors (known to have hung out at afternoon teas in the magazine’s offices, in the basement of the ABC Restaurant in Chancery Lane, as Tim Redman recounts in Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism), was to influence Pound profoundly in terms of his economic and social thinking. It began the second decade of the 20th century being rather Fabian in its leanings, though by the end of the Great War (World War I) its publisher Orage had become enamored of the Social Credit theories of C.H. Douglas, as Pound in turn would become later.
(That he held this in common with Robert A. Heinlein was mentioned, in an earlier post, as a Neat SF Connection: I will not belabor the parallel again for now.)
Broadly speaking, The New Age was a socialist magazine, and focused on literature and the arts in connection with its socialist concerns. Its publisher, Alfred Orage, was open to some disagreement and debate within the pages of the journal, and indeed often himself clashed with Pound there. It was through The New Age that Pound became directly acquainted with Hilaire Belloc, HG Wells, Cecil Chesterton, Katherine Mansfield, F.S. Flint, and others.
And yeah, that’s a Neat SF Connection too: Pound actually knew HG Wells. His opinions on the man seem to have shifted here and there–Humphery Carpenter notes his disdain for the sort of popular novelist Wells was when they met, and in my own recollections (from reading The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, years ago–a book I no longer have on hand–Pound anticipates a book by Wells on economics with great relish, only to write, a year or two later, something like, “Wells disgusts me”) he seemed not to hold the man in high regard, but Noel Stock points out that Wells indeed ends up quoted in the Cantos themselves. (You’ll have to wait till Canto XLII for that, though!)
A full accounting of Pound’s “education” Pound received while writing for, and socializing with, those in the Orage circle–and a discussion of Orage’s interesting C.H. Douglas and the Social Credit Movement, as well as some explanation of the theories of Douglas themselves–is well-provided by Redman, and I leave it to the interested reader to check out the first two chapters of that text for more on the subject.
But it does seem clearly pertinent to Canto XII, where in the tale of Francis S. Bacon (“Baldy Bacon”) is recounted. As any good guide can tell you, Bacon was a businessman whom Pound met during a trip to New York in 1910, at “the old Weston boardinghouse at 47th Street.” Bacon was “a jobber… living on the fringes of the business world — distributing orders for commercial writing paper to printers and selling ‘odd sorts of insurance.’” Pound was excited by some sort of business proposition put forth by the man, and tried to get several family members to invest in it, but it seems not to have happened. (And that’s about all the information mentioned in the account by Noel Stock, on page 90 of The Life of Ezra Pound).
The description of Bacon in the Canto is a little more specific, placing him in Cuba where he supposedly “bought all the little copper pennies in Cuba”; Pound describes him as “Sleeping with two buck niggers chained to him, / Guardia regia, chained to his waist / To keep ‘em from slipping off in the night”. Bacon seems to have taken ill and returned to Manhattan, where he took up the work mentioned above. It is notable that Pound would hold up such a figure:
Was in money business.
“No other interest in any other kind uv bisnis,”
This, in the wake of Malatesta–a man interested in arts-business, philosophy-business, literature-business, war-business, love-business, architecture-business, pagan-business, and more. Why would Pound turn, suddenly, to a character of such contracted (ahem) interests? In criticism, one assumes: Bacon’s scheme for getting rich was to corner the market on Cuban copper coins. Once he owned them all, he would be able to turn his monopoly into profit. The “buck niggers” chained to him while he sleeps are not mentioned in appobation, but in condemnation, for slavery is associated with usury for Pound.
The question becomes more dire as the poem unfolds: not only does it relate the story of one Dos Santos, who bought a sea-wrecked ship full of grain and then fattened pigs on it to make a fine profit –
Porkers of Portugal,
fattening with the fulness of time,
And Dos Santos fattened, a great landlord of Portugal
Now gathered to his fathers.
Did it on water-soaked corn.
(Water probably fresh in that estuary)
Go to tell Apovitch, Chicago aint the whole punkin.
Here, it seems, there is a contrast: pigs beget pigs, an investment (and a clever one) begets wealth, but it is done in harmony with nature.
A hint as to how to read all this emerges when one finds Jim X — John Quinn, an American lawyer, literary expert, and art collector — “in a bankers’ meeting, / bored with their hard luck stories”. The bankers are described as unwilling to invest money in anything except new bank buildings–that is, they do not seem interested in turning money to natural increase. Like Baldy Bacon, they are happy to maintain a shortage for their own profit.
Here, the teachings of Orage and of CH Douglas begin to show through, for Pound recounts, in the last part of the Canto, the “Tale of the Honest Sailor,” a joke he’d apparently heard from Quinn. It concerns an ignorant and hardworking sailor who ends up in the hospital because of his excessive drinking habit, and has to undergo an operation. The hospital staff claims, after his operation, that a child was pulled from inside him, and present the child to the sailor. (The child is actually the offspring of a poor prostitute.) The sailor raises the boy, and on his deathbed, confesses that he isn’t the boy’s father at all:
“I am not your fader but your moder,” quod he,
“Your fader was a rich merchant in Stambouli.”
This isn’t the first bit of humor in the Cantos, but it probably is the first outright joke, and definitely one of the most modern of moments — the sailors in earlier sections were heroic, great adventuring like Odysseus and Acoetes, but this sailor is one of those figures we encounter regularly in jokes about people walking into a bar. It is also quite self-consciously ribald: while sex and sexuality exist on a pretty elevated level in early Cantos, here, it is buggery by a rich merchant in Istanbul of a drunk sailor.
Of course, if you know Dante–or let Terrell fill you in on Dante–there is a connection between the bankers (which, for Pound by this time, thanks in part to Orage and Douglas, represent what he would call “usury”) and the “sodomy” mentioned the sailor’s tale: for Dante, and for the Roman Church, there was a connection between the two, for both failed to give rise to what Pound quoted the Church as calling “natural increase.” The idea of “usury” here, and in Pound generally, isn’t exactly the same as it was in the Middle Ages (when it was understood to mean lending money with interest), but Pound suggests it has to do with the concentration of wealth in the hands of those who do not return the money into the economy for active growth — only for the growth of the banking industry.
Are we to see this poem as also homophobic, or hateful of homosexuality? The Cantos, so far, have been fairly invested in the ancient world, and Pound was probably held back from outright antipathy against homosexuality and homosexuals because of this–but he also was living in the 1920s, and born in the 1880s, and it seems extremely unlikely that he would have had altogether liberal views of homosexuality either. (And he apparently complained of the “pansification” of America whenhe was cooped up in St. Elizabeth’s, as mentioned in this interesting discussion of Pound and his contemporary Jean Cocteau in relation to homosexuality. Most interesting in that post is Kenner’s recounted suggestion that Wyndham Lewis and his circle were flaunting their machismo in part as a reaction to the Bloomsbury circle, since Forster and Stratchey were homosexuals (Forster closeted, but surely rumors flew) and Woolf was rumored to be what we now call bisexual. (As anyone who has read an introduction to her wonderful novel Orlando is likely to have heard.) That said, I wonder what Pound made of his former lover H.D.’s lesbian relationships?
Well, Pound is clearly interested in The Tale of the Honest Sailor about the metaphor of usury and “sodomy”–there is obviously some kind of criticism of usury intended here. But it’s important not to stop there in reading the Canto: after all, look at the dialect used to render the sailor’s words: “fader” and “moder”, and elsewhere, “I leave you re-sponsa-bilities” and more. The language in this Canto resembles Pound’s own letter-writing more than anything since the line “Hang it all, Robert Browning,” and drips with the sound of the 1920s. A lot of the Canto is very self-consciously contemporary (for the year it was written, I mean) and it even includes a locker-room type joke.
The “tawdriness” of the story (as J.J. Wilhelm puts it), and the tawdriness of the language in the poem: they seem to intersect because of the presence of the bankers, complaining and whining about how tough it is to be a rich banker. For Pound, bankers play the same role that, in Soviet cinema from around the same time (say, Sergei Eistenstein’s Strike (1925)) is played by rich industrialists smoking cigars in opulent rooms. Those bankers and their woes seem laughable now… but also familiar. Again, I think of Hugh Kenner’s claim that Pound was “ahead of his time” in more ways than we like to admit; certainly, there is no shortage of political-types online who think Pound was clearly onto something, and that North American society is just waking up to it now. (That is, reading Pound as some kind of proto-Occupy Movement intellectual, or something.) Unsurprisingly, it’s right-wing/libertarian types who tend towards this reading of him.
To explore whether they’re right, though, would require a closer reading of C.H. Douglas, something I don’t have the resources (time, mainly) to attempt as yet. However, several works by C.H. Douglas, are available online (for example, but not only, here and here). Suffice it to say, though, that while Pound may have been an early critic of our banking system, the bouquet of ideas among which that criticism of banks was included, and which he seems to have picked up from among the fellow contributors to The New Age, also included the roots of his anti-Semitism, and the seeds of his eventual support for (and idolization of) Mussolini and Italian fascism.
That is to say, Baldy Bacon is “exemplary” in his function as an exemplar of economic perversion, a personification of the evil Pound sees in the banks; though Pound seems to have been excited by his business acumen on some level, and according to Hugh Kenner stayed in touch with the man until the 1940s, Frank Bacon is a kind of cheap, minor demon–a mere imp of clever, insightful perversion–used to represent much larger and more powerful evil forces in the world of The Cantos, which we will glimpse in the two “Hell Cantos” which follow that of Kung.
But Pound’s devotion to fascism was not only rooted in his economic concerns, which would grow over the years. There is a sense in which he seems to have sought (and found) what support he was looking for (for his opinions) not only in the radical economic-politics of the West, but also the conservative philosophy of the East.
And so, we turn to Canto XIII, which jolts us to ancient China:
by the dynastic temple
and into the cedar grove,
and then out by the lower river,
And with him Khieum Tchi
and Tian the low speaking
And “we are unknown,” said Kung.
“You will take up charioteering?
Then you will become known…
In the introduction to his translation of The Analects, Simon Leys makes several useful and interesting observations:
- That Confucius’ political career (as opposed to his philosophical one) was an unarguable failure: Confucius in general went from court to court, often received with respect but soon rejected, ostracized, or even chased out with violence. He simply preached too high a standard and princes and dukes feared they would be out of a job, unable to perform at the level he demanded, if he gained too much influence. Confucius attained low office once, early in his career, and never again. It is not clear in Canto XIII whether Pound is aware of these biographical details, but it is fitting considering the fact that it also sounds a bit like Malatesta, and even, one could argue, eerily like Pound himself, especially at the time when he left England for France, after leaving America for England, and preparing to leave France for Italy.
- That Confucius’ work was, very deeply, at once political, ethical, and focused on education. These interests are, of course, of central concern to Pound, and inextricably linked for both.
- That all of the historical and philosophical baggage that, for Chinese readers, Confucianism carries make it difficult for Chinese to read Kung the way Westerners do — that, in a sense, the one benefit of historical and cultural ignorance is that we can pierce through the manipulations and machinations of Imperial Confucianism, and the Confucianism of Chinese Communism–which after all is still alive and well: when James Cameron’s Avatar set off a livid discussion of evictions in China, a Confucius biopic was swiftly released into cinemas and booked in place of many showings of Avatar. While Pound did not have Mao to read past, Confucius had already gained a problematic reputation among early 20th century Chinese intellectuals like Lu Xun; but Pound was able, as Leys writes, to appreciate “the modernity of Confucius” which is something he argues “non-Chinese readers may perhaps be in a better position to appreciate. The only advantage that can be derived from our condition of ignorant foreigners is precisely the possibility to look with a kind of innocence at this book–as if it were all fresh and new. Such innocence is denied to native readers.” This seems, in fact, to epitomize Pound’s Indiana Jones-like approach to literature very generally: by reading across language barriers, he seems to run in, plunder the bits most amenable and most useful to the modernity he wants to argue for, and then he gets out, before the accumulated weight of history and context falls in on him. “Make it new,” refers, of course, to the old things of the world. Leys is arguing that “Make it new” is a hell of a lot easier with material that is decontextualized… and Pound seems to argue that the process of making things new is creative recontextualization.
Without a doubt, this latter point describes exactly how Ezra Pound came to Confucius, and to Chinese letters generally. (Both in the sense of “Chinese literature” and, through the work of Ernest Fenollosa, in the sense of Chinese writing: both are important to the story the The Cantos, and the story of Pound more generally.)
Canto XIII is a kind of neo-cento in its form: a construction built almost wholly from quotations–though conventionally, one quoted poetry. What Pound quotes instead, here, is philosophy, specifically the philosophy of China attributed to Kong Qiu, known in the East as Kong-zhi and in west as “Confucius.” Those who want to know exactly where the lines in the poem come from, and who all these disciples are, is advised to either consult the Terrell Companion to the Cantos, or even better, to or to go and read Confucius for themselves. (Of obvious use will be Pound’s own translation of the Confucian works, though I personally recommend the Simon Leys rendition of The Analects, linked above, which I found lucid and interesting.)
For our purposes, it is enough to trace the philosophical and thematic issues that come up in this poem. It begins with Confucius and his disciples in a pastoral setting, as quoted above. But their talk concerns how they are “unknown” and various disciples suggest various ways of remedying the fact:
“You will take up charioteering?
Then you will become known…
Other strategies are mentioned, such as taking up archery, or performing fantastic public rituals, or hanging out in a garden and playing lovely music with young folks. Kung (in the poem at least, and Pound with him), seems to think that answering the question according to one’s own nature is the correct way. Then, in a move that seems utterly alien to the South Korean form of Neo-Confucianism, Kung (Pound) raises his cane against an old fellow named Yuan Jang who is sitting “by the roadside pretending to / be receiving wisdom.” Kung’s rebuke is as follows:
“Respect a child’s faculties
“From the moment it inhales the clear air,
“But a man of fifty who knows nothing
Is worthy of no respect.”
This seems a hint of what was left out of Imperial Confucianism, and the Neo-Confucianism that was promoted in Korea: that age alone is not worthy of respect, but age and wisdom together demand it. It certainly looks like the kind of thing that, if it was said often enough, would have prevented Confucius from attaining office. (Though, again, whether Pound was fully aware at this time of Confucius’ biographical details–the grand failure of his political career–is something I don’t know.)
Pound proceeds to another bitlet of Confucius that suits his own agenda, with only a short “And” linking quotations from different sources. Next up is the quotation Koreans will recognize as 수신제가치국평천하 (or, in Chinese, 修身齊家治國平天下). Pound will, later on, begin including Chinese characters in his poem, but he has already begun including Chinese content. In English, this is rendered,
If a man have not order within him
He can not spread order about him;
And if a man have not order within him
His family will not act with due order;
And if the prince have not order within him
He can not put order in his dominions.
Little wonder Pound quotes this particular exhortation: it is what many read as an injunction prescribing the necessity of study for all men — for personal cultivation, but also because order within the world, society, and the kingdom supposedly was only possible as a reflection of order within men — particularly the “great leaders.” In my discussion of the Malatesta Cantos, I noted the observation made by A. David Moody that Pound seemed to think of the world in terms of two groups of people: the individuals, and the sheep. It is hard not to see this Confucian edict spelling out a similar picture of the world.
Pound’s inscription of Kung in English also involves erasures: from the Five Confucian Relationships described by Confucius, Pound sees fit only to mention “order” and “brotherly deference” here — nothing of marriage or the subjection of wife to husband; nothing of the necessity of son to honor father, nothing of the fealty of subject to ruler. He does mention a passage where Kung suggests a father has a duty to shelter his son even when his son is a murderer, but only after mentioning that Kung believes that excess is easy, but balance is difficult.
And of course, as Pound delighted in mentioning time and again, Kung “said nothing of the ‘life after death’” — though don’t tell the Confucian world that! (The two main Confucian festivals in South Korea are specifically rituals that involve offerings of food to the departed, and while perhaps the most noble of families saw the rituals as devoid of supernatural dimensions, that is far from what is suggested by what people today say about it. Many people today may feel ambivalent about the supernatural dimension, but they recount it as if it was widely-understood to be real.) Simon Leys argues that Confucius’ silence on the subject of death was a way of getting his listeners more deeply engaged with the fact of death, and through that, the significance of the life that precedes it. But for Pound, of course, this is a handy way of pointing to a major philosopher and philosophical system that could revolt against the privileging of monotheism in western society, and the power of the Church so often fingered as the enemy of art, thought, and progress (and, for example, the enemy of Malatesta) in The Cantos.
Kung keeps promises and alliances even when it’s hard for him, marrying his daughters to men who are in prison or out of office. He recounts with approval the days “when historians left blanks in their writings, / I mean for the things they didn’t know, / But that time seems to be passing.” This echoes with what Simon Leys writes of the “silences” in The Analects: the topical omissions and their significance. It is funny that Confucius “hated… clever word games” (Leys, page xxx, which, arguably, are a major part of what Pound is doing in The Cantos) but like Pound, he also “distrusted eloquence; he despised glib talkers… For him, it would seem that an agile tongue must reflect a shallow mind; as reflection runs deeper, silence develops” (Leys, xxx).
Little surprise that, later in life, Pound was given to very long silences. Of course, the observation is funny when it comes from Pound of the 1920s, a man who is given to explosive letters, to railing about and opining on all things–regardless of whether he understands them, regardless of whether anyone cares to listen.
The last quotation from Kung is one that is interesting:
“Without character you will
be unable to play on that instrument
Or to execute the music fit for the Odes.
The blossoms of the apricot
blow from the east to the west,
And I have tried to keep them from falling.”
It is here that a strange, haunting irony sets in: Pound is quoting Confucius about the link between character and artistic performance, in a milieu where art, ritual, ethics, philosophy, and power are all linked. “A music fit for the Odes” is a striking phrase since it immediately calls to mind Pound’s own musical studies, and of course “The Odes” could as well be “The Cantos.” There is an admonition here in pursuing art without also refining one’s character–and an admonition that one’s art will be unfitting if one does not refine oneself.
Though Pound attributes the last three lines to Kung, they are his own. Apricot blossoms are a reminder of the apricot orchard where Kung lectured: fragments of the philosopher’s wisdom. They fall from the east to the west–wisdom falling from Asia to Europe, which Pound has tried to keep from falling–indeed, buoyed up by the act of translation. (Pound’s translations of Confucius were published much later–at this stage, in the 1920s, he is still dependent on others’ translations, particular those by French Sinologists.)
Now, what of the novel element? Of what use is Pound’s raging against modern economics–and its effect on the artistic and philosophical world–and his explorations of Confucius in terms of my proposed novel project?
For these purposes, it seems that each canto must be discussed separately.
Canto XII does not immediately suggest anything mystical in itself. It is so utterly modern, so overtly political in the first part, and so locker-room-humor in the second. But it could be argued that this is some sort of camouflage, of course: that the poem is very specifically seizing modern figures–people alive at the time of Pound’s writing–and thrusting them into the poem’s narrative so as to drive some force sensed by Pound in those individuals, against the other force, the one he resented and claimed, here, as his enemy. For Pound is writing this at a time when the wreckage of The Great War is not yet even repaired, aflame with rage at the destruction wrought by the war but also the immense profit gained by industry and banks as a result of the war, and their relation to it.
It also opens up a specific question about sexuality and magic in The Cantos. That there should be such a connection is hardly surprising, given Pound’s interest in ancient rituals, including those at Eleusis, and the love-poetry of the troubadours; and many commentators have discussed this sort of thing in many places. Here we find the first direct analogy between sodomy and usury, and Pound’s highlighting, after medieval canon law, that both were “against natural increase.” Setting aside questions germane to how we, as enlightened progressives in 2012, ought to read this, we ought to be given pause by the fact that Pound is in his thirties, is childless until 1925, when Olga Rudge gives birth to a daughter, Mary, who is raised by a German peasant woman. His wife Dorothy Shakespear separates from him after the birth, though they got back together in 1926 and she soon had a child too: Omar Pound, who was raised by Dorothy Shakespear’s mother in Kensington.
Given the scarcity of children, this raises important and interesting questions about the notion of fecundity in Pound’s mystical aesthetics. There is an interesting essay I read the other day, concerning references in Pound’s The Spirit of Romance (his master’s thesis on Provençal verse, published as a book) and in some to which lecture he refers in the book, where the sexual abstinence of a man who sleeps with a woman (but only sleeps with her) is said to give rise to a heightening of the senses, transcendent visions, and mystical insight. (This is not only mentioned in connection to Simon Magus, but also the Pauline epistles, if I remember right: the book is one of those in my office but I think it’s an essay in Ezra Pound’s Cantos: A Casebook (edited by Peter Malkin) that this connection is made. This would prove an interesting, tension-inducing, and troubling detail in the relationships between Pound and the two women discussed–as well, of course, as the women with whom he was involved earlier. (Yseult Gonne, H.D., and whoever else my research turns up.)
Oh, and one more thought: given all of the magic and so on that I’m happily stuffing into this poem, it may well be that Baldy Bacon–ie. Frank Bacon, which is the real name of the American businessman Pound met in 1910–could be intended as a reference to Sir Francis Bacon. There’s plenty of speculation about connections between Bacon and occult societies in England in his day, and even if they look like trash, they don’t seem more trashy to me than the weird Eleusis-troubadour connection suggested in that infamous footnote in Pound’s The Spirit of Romance. I don’t know enough about the Bacon and the Rosicrucians to make a sensible connection right now, but it could prove worth exploring. Certainly, though, Pound and Bacon shared an interest in restructuring human understanding in a radical way (in terms of Bacon’s hope of a “Great Instauration”, as discussed here). Bacon also had a great influence on American law, and perhaps his thinking was relevant to the legal systems which Pound saw as perverted in the connection of government and banks. Again, this occurs to me at the last minute, and I have no time at the moment to dig deeper. I don’t really see how all that might link up now, but reflection, or further research, may turn something up.
As for Canto XIII, it is, in Indo-Arabic numerals the number 13. Signally, Pound turns here to someone he saw as an anti-superstitious philosopher, but also to a culture where 13 was (as far as I know) not held as especially unlucky. (In countries within the Chinese sphere of influence, it is the number 4 which is unlucky, as it (四, 4) rhymes in Chinese with a word for death (死). Here in Korea, the fourth floor in elevators is marked with F, not 4, because of this aversion.)
As far as it goes, Pound’s turning to Confucius is significant in a few ways, but probably most centrally because it represents the beginning of Pound’s official engagement with Chinese. If you flip through your copy of The Cantos, or the Terrell, it becomes apparent that Chinese turns out to be quite important for the project. I will discuss Fenollosa, and his notions (accepted by Pound) of the Chinese character as ideographic, in more depth later, when we begin to encounter such characters in the poems, but at this point it’s worth it to consider the process of translation, the engagement with an alien language and writing system, could do to a poet who is also an occult worker of magic, specifically someone who works magic or directs occult forces through his writing.
For that kind of a conceit, there would be built-in benefits to using Chinese, foremost among them its inpenetrability to Pound’s enemies. Should the Cantos fall into the wrong hands, it would be difficult to perform alterations in the text–with supernatural consequences for the world entire–if Chinese characters were used either to failsafe some of the occult functions of the text, to contain significant occult “circuity” on its own, or to fine-tune the safeguards and effects of the text. Anyone with any experience altering such texts would know better than to meddle with a text before understanding the full contents, and this would buy Pound time for retrieving it, or constructing a suitable alternative structure for it.
Then there’s the issue of the construction of the Chinese characters, which, after all, are in many cases composites of different radicals. This kind of composition might not just suit Pound’s imagist and literary sensibilities: it could also serve as a means for steganographic concealment of signficant terms. For example, if one has written the character 氣 (qi, life force), one has also, implicitly, written the character for breath (气) and for rice (米). Perhaps more complex characters could function as a concealment system for pertinent radicals, among less pertinent words. (And this raises the question of whether other cryptographic methods might be used among the other scripts, including Roman lettered-content in the poem.)
Meanwhile, just as much as Pound may be attempting to establish a deeper understanding of the human experience (something Simon Leys argues is impossible without coming to an understanding of Confucius, given its influence on so many cultures and societies in the East), and the apparent likelihood that Pound was also, very much, seeking to find justification for his own theories and philosophical/political inclinations, it may be that Pound was attempting to make good on his plans to write a poem “containing history.” The verb “contain” in this context has always had a slightly ominous resonance to me, contain as in “containment,” as to “contain oneself”; perhaps the reach of Pound’s poetical project here could not extend to China unless he engaged China on its own terms; at first, by visiting the apricot grove of Confucius, and later by steeping himself in the language.
I will have more–likely much more–to say of Pound, Fenollosa, Chinese characters, and Confucius in The Cantos later… but if anyone doubts just how insane this reading project of mine is, flip through The Cantos a bit and see if you can’t find some pages so laden with Chinese characters that it doesn’t suddenly become understandable why I put it off for so long!
Oh, also, this might be a little bit tangential, but I have the feeling that Pound may, as Kenner put it, have been ahead of his time in another way: he looked to the East for models of how the West could be rebuilt after the horror of The Great War. This, of course, was nothing new, for Western writers had been looking to Eastern writing and language and philosophy for a long time: American Renaissance authors were interested in both Japan and ancient Egypt, and European authors sometimes looked to the Near East or India for confirmation of their spiritual hunches. But SF also partakes of this: there was, in the 80s and 90s, a profound fascination with Japan-as-enemy and Japan-as-the-future in the American subgenre of SF known as Cyberpunk. I cannot help but think that, even in the 1920s, Pound’s interest in Japan’s past and philosophy isn’t eerily similar. Not sure I can call this a Neat SF Connection, but I think it’s worth mentioning, even if only to note that both SF and American modernist poetry drank, in more than a few ways, from the same barrel of contaminated rainwater!
This concludes (for the moment) my reading of Cantos XII-XIII; at this point, we’re now a little over 10% of the way through The Cantos (in fact, a bit more than that, but just over 10% through the originally projected number of poems. We’re not yet 10% of the way through the book, though, which suggests that there will be a lot of longer Cantos coming up. My pace will probably keep up, but I’m not sure that I’ll be actually getting through two cantos a week once I hit those. We’l just have to see.
But for now, I am taking a little “break” and reading no cantos for exam week. Instead, I’ll be reading a book or two about Pound’s biography, in a more relaxed manner (though still likely taking notes, as I intend to summarize what I read, at least in terms of points useful to understanding the cantos. I am also considering taking a detour through the earlier poetry of Pound–at least, what is contained in Personae–most of which I have read before, but not in a long time. I figure it will come in handy in terms of contrasts with The Cantos.
Which is less like a holiday and more like a detour overall, but I will also be making time for some pleasure reading, as well, once I’ve caught up on some of my grading… I need to read something else, to be quite honest, and between my classload and this project, I’m short of free time.
In any case, this will give anyone who is quietly reading along out there a chance to catch up, if there indeed is anyone out there doing so! (Marvin, are you out there?)