This post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, a few at a time. The readings are atypical, for reasons made clear in my first post in this series.
... aaaaand, we’re back.
This post marks my second return to this blog project, the first one having been abortive (it ended after just one post, the previous one in this series). There’s good reasons for that: I was focused on some writing projects, and trying to use my time wisely while I had a lot of it. In the time since, a lot has happened: my wife and I moved back to Korea; I found a new job (and it ate a bunch of my time), we had a baby, I learned to drive… and that’s just the stuff fir for public consumption! It’s been a couple of tumultuous years.
But the fact that I have left this project languishing has nagged at me, and the encouragement I’ve gotten from commenters also has helped to light a (slow-burning) fire beneath me, so I’m back at it. I hope to make one post per week during the coming winter holiday and the semester that follows, covering at least one canto per post: that would get me through the remainder of the Chinese Cantos and all of the Adams Cantos. We’ll see whether I get to the Pisan Cantos this summer, or have to put it off till the fall.
So… it’s been a while since I spent time with everyone’s favorite literary kook relative, ol’ Uncle Ez. A lot has happened, and priorities necessitated I set the project aside… but on some level, I have to admit, it was also that reading the Chinese Cantos had become a slog. If you read my last post, the one dealing with Cantos LVI and LVII, you can see that clearly in the impatience with which I approached them. I decided to reread these Cantos and what I’d written about them, to refresh my memory… and as I did so, I started to feel like maybe my boredom and annoyance had led me to give them short shrift. Or, well, at least a few things, at least, jumped out at me that I hadn’t noticed before. In today’s post, I’m going to try at least raise those points.
One of the most surprising things about Canto LVI is that Pound doesn’t work Marco Polo into it. The timeframe for Polo’s trip to China does, after all, fall right within the timeframe of the period covred by the Canto, and as I am reading Polo’s account now. At first I wondered whether perhaps Polo’s account—which has existed in English translation since the middle ages, after all—was simply too well known to have the obscurantist cachet to attract Pound? Ultimately, though, I don’t think that’s it at all. I think it’s an issue of emphasis, and of identification. Polo emphasizes how excellent Kublai Khan was, and cheered for the Mongol horde; Pound seems to lump the horde in with all the other threats to Chinese unity and dynastic stability.
In other words, the heroes of Polo’s story are really more like the antagonists of Pound’s.
(Incidentally, yes, this observation was occasioned by last year’s Netflix adaptation of Polo’s narrative—I like to think of it as Crouching Khan, Hidden-Lannister, or, if you prefer, the chinoiserie version of A Game of Thrones. The series, as I see it, was surprisingly faithful to the original text—or, at least, the oldest surviving versions we have, which, by the way, were pulp fiction of their time, too. (The individual who actually wrote down Polo’s account, Rustichello of Pisa, was “a professional writer of romances” who likely have embellished Polo’s account to ensure its bestseller status. In other words, this would be the equivalent of the character from Andy Weir’s novel The Martian getting back to Earth and then teaming up with, oh, Dan Brown or Sidney Sheldon to tell his story. If that ain’t pulp, I don’t know what is.)
Bringing up the Marco Polo TV series isn’t just a tangent, by the way: I think Pound would have watched the series with great interest, just as he consumed other stuff that was widely considered trash. (I’ve read that he loved cowboy movies, for example, and even gleefully considered them trash himself.)
What’s interesting, though, is the differing emphases placed on the unfolding of history. Marco Polo celebrates the Mongols, and focuses on the political and social difficulties of running (and expanding) the biggest empire in history. Who marries whom, how to keep your officials faithful, how an emperor can party hard but still maintain control of his empire, and how awesome it is to lead a horde of barbarian killers. The show pretty much celebrates the awesomeness of Kublai Khan as the founder of the Yuan Dynasty.
On the other hand, Pound’s depiction of China is from the “Chinese” point of view. Well, wait, that requires unpacking, since ultimately the Mongols who invade and conquer China become essentially Chinese themselves. What I mean is that Pound writes from a specific Chinese point of view, where the essential unity of the Chinese state is the operative definition of what is or isn’t Chinese. From this view, one must see the Mongols as outsiders, foreign invaders who constitute a potential threat to stability and unity.
What’s interesting, then, is that Pound is painting a picture of China-as-Idea to which aspirations can lead, but away from which many enemies, foreign and domestic, divert China’s leaders and the people of China as a whole.
For those who missed the reference above, here it is in context:
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.
What I’m getting at here is not really a new observation: Pound’s China is a sort of idealized America, and Pound uses China as a kind of tabula rasa upon which the same dynamic plays out. This is probably startling to a lot of Chinese readers—assuming anyone in China still reads Pound: there was enough Chinese scholarship on Pound to produce a book in the past, but who knows how he’s fared since the 80s.
However, the dynamic is familiar if you’ve read much pulp fiction, or even if you’ve just seen the film 300. I mean, images like these:
… have much less to do with the Battle of Thermopylae, the ancient Persians, or ancient geopolitics than they do with the projection of 21st-century anxieties onto history.
300 is a film about the crisis of modern American masculinity told through a warped rendition of a story about a famous battle between a group of Spartans and their Persian enemies, with Sparta cast as America’s counterpart. (A curious choice if you know about Sparta’s sexual culture, but most modern Americans don’t). It should not surprise us, given contemporary America’s obsessive concern with masculinity and its supposed “crisis,” that the primary antagonist is basically some sort of pseudotranssexual-überhipster who is tall and slender of build, and covered in what looks to us like lady’s jewelry, with heavy eye makeup and piercings all to hell and back. Not should it surprise us that his army is masked in a way that hides their (surely conventionally male-looking) faces behind twisted, monstrous visages… just as it shouldn’t surprise us that the Spartans are emblematically bare-chested, burly and beardy, bodybuilderish manly-men copied straight from Victorian depictions of Samson (and the 20th-century comic book superhero partly inspired by Samson).
In other words, in pulp narrative, who’s a good guy and who’s bad is wondrously simplified: the monsters are monstrous, the bad cowboys are wearing hats that are conveniently black, and the heroes can be relied on to be heroic—because, ultimately, the point of the narrative is not a nuanced exploration of good and evil, but a kind of performative presentation of the righting of cosmic balance. Pulp fiction, in other words, is a ritual performed in an imaginative space where meanings are reduced to comforting schematics, where primal forces collide, and where the point is triumph, not nuance.
This, of course, is very much applicable to the Cantos, at least those running up to the Pisan Cantos. But it’s also especially applicable to China, which is in a sense Pound’s Nehwon and Hyberborea all rolled up into one. Yes, in the Chinese Cantos, China is a Wonderful Idea that could be realized, but which is constantly imperiled by Buddhists, Taoists, corrupt eunuchs and officials, corruptive concubines and queens, and emperors who fare better or worse under these conditions, depending on the tides of historical events, but also, quite often, on their personal character (as amended or ruined by study of Confucius, or the lack thereof).
But it’s not just that. That could have been approached in any number of ways, but Pound, most obviously in the Chinese Cantos, is working in a pulp ethos. It’s clearer here for the same reason that Simon Leys noted (in, I’m pretty sure it was, the introduction to his translation of the Analects) Confucius may appear as a truly fresh and vibrant text to us Western readers in ways it often doesn’t to Chinese readers, or why the Bible reads that way to some Chinese readers more than it does Westerners: because absent historical baggage of failed applications, twisted manipulations, and all the other things human beings do to supposedly good ideas, the original—abstract, abstracted—message shines all the brighter.
(Bonus points for those readers who remember the part in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis where he notes this is how Bible stories differ from ancient Greek narrative: the latter tries to fill in background and particularize characters, while the former gives you Moses and a Burning Bush that is God, alone in the foreground… like in a stage play with no set, because what matters is the characters and their relationship.)
If you think about it this way, there’s a lot in common with the pulp ethos. Take a Robert E. Howard story like “The Tower of the Elephant,” or a Fritz Leiber story like “The Jewels in the Forest” or “Bazaar of the Bizarre.” The thing about Conan, or Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, or really any pulp character—James Bond is another good example—is that they’re not particularly compelling characters: instead, they’re iconic figures who embody a sort of heroic ethos as well as a sensibility about what constitutes the natural order of the universe.
In other words, while Conan’s famously a Barbarian, he’s not really out to crush civilization, exactly: as Robin D. Laws recently observed, he’s rather out to restore order in the universe by defeating nasty and monstrous primordial beings, just as, in their own way (a way different from Conan), Fafhrd and Grey Mouser are out to overcome supernatural foes, hook up with beautiful women, and sort out their own cash flow problems all in one fell swoop. That’s the beating heart of pulp narratives: your characters don’t really necessarily grow or develop over time like characters in realist fiction: they rather embody consistently the necessity of restoring balance in the cosmos, or setting things right, or getting things done. There isn’t really space within the pulp mode for a long, complex debate about the third order effects of getting this particular stuff done to this particular definition of “done”: it’s about doing it because it’s gotta get done. We see this not just in swords & sorcery narratives, but in other pulp literatures, such as in westerns… which, recall, Pound loved, at least in cinematic form.
And going back to Pound, because yes, I am working back to the Cantos, believe me: the Mongols in Canto LVI don’t figure too much into this imperiling threat against China—not in Canto LVI, anyway—but when they do, it’s in terms of their relation with the Song Empire—paying tribute, or attacking. The Song Empire’s the cosmic order, and the Mongols figure into its story as a threat and a potential imbalance.
Which leads me to a funny conclusion about how Pound would have felt about Netflix’s Marco Polo. I think he would have liked it, but might have felt it was a bit like Breaking Bad: too focused on (and sympathetic towards) the “bad guys.” Which is to say that I think Pound likely would have found that the most sympathetic and heroic character in the show was the character everyone else sees as the series’ villain: the amoral, murderous, treacherous, kung-fu badass Jia Sidao:
That in itself is interesting, I think in a way that suggests something about Pound’s sensibility; had Pound engaged with the subject of naval piracy, one imagines he’d have been cheering for those who hunted down and killed pirates, rather than engaging in the celebration of marine banditry. He’d have been cheering when Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow was caught by the British, and felt let down when he got away.
This is not just to say that his sympathies were out of step with those of your typical American, in a way that seems only to have increased as the years have passed… and yet the imaginative language he used to engage with that question was very America, and very 20th century. (Yes, yes, pulp is not wholly new, there were Penny Dreadfuls in the 19th century, and so on… but pulp is a little different, and, I’m arguing, it’s pulp that constitutes a major thread in Poundian narrative, however elliptical and elusive it sometimes is in Pound’s Cantos.)
The funny thing is, Marco Polo does come up in the Cantos... all the way back in XVIII, the first page of which discusses Kublai Khan and “—Messire Polo; prison at Genoa—”. The story, familiar to many I’m sure, is that Polo was imprisoned in Genoa and there he talked to a romance writer named Rustichello. (It was Rustichello, not Polo, who seems to have written down Polo’s account of his travels.)
There’s a startling irony there, which Pound of course could not anticipate: he, too, would eventually be imprisoned at Genoa, at least briefly: according the Harry Meacham in The Caged Panther: Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, Pound surrendered to the first American soldiers he saw in May 1944, got arrested, and was sent to Pisa… but he passed through Genoa as a prisoner. Likely Pound wouldn’t have made much of that, though: he was more fascinated by the echoes in history of figures he felt were similar, and I doubt he saw that much in common between him and Polo. Certainly there were parallels:
- both men lived in self-imposed exile,
- both spent a long period effectively imprisoned (but not too harshly),
- both were the authors (if not, in Polo’s case, the actual scribe of) books about “exotic” (to them) parts of the world, and
- both men were keenly interested in monetary systems. (Polo in bringing back paper money from Kublai Khan’s domains, Pound bringing “news” of Douglasite economics to the world.)
Anyway, Pound’s concern, in Canto LVI, is with the forces within China that shaped the empire’s history. The emperors are, if not all of a piece, then not particularly distinguished from one another as people. It’s not because he thinks they’re all the same, mind—he notes how one was a poet, how another was particularly susceptible to corruption. It’s just that, when it comes to Chinese history, he’s not zoomed in to a particularly fine-grained level of maginification: in fact, he’s eagerly coarse-graining it, because what he’s interested in the moments are forces within empires. The “budzers” and “taozers,” the crooked eunuchs and corrupting concubines, they’re not individuals, though he does toss their names in sometimes. Names, but rarely any sort of compelling description: they’re shadowy figures, lacking any sort of characterization, color, or individuality.
That’s interesting given the one hanzi character that appears in the Canto:
The character is glossed by Terrell as “p’ien,” a term which I mentioned last time means “metamorphosis” in an alchemical sense. Given what a massive role metamorphosis plays in Pound’s evocations of the classical world—right from the first few Cantos—this suggests that Pound is looking for useful analogues to that time and place in China… at least in the China he encountered in his main source text, deMailla’s Histoire Générale de la Chine. Given Pound’s earlier references to Confucius, it’s easy to link that up with Pound’s evident fascination with men he felt were strong, action-oriented, smart, and generally “special” to their times: Malatesta, Mussolini, and so on. It explains his attraction not only to fascism, but also to the kind of Confucian monarchies under which China lived for centuries… amalgamated with the kind of fabulation typical of Pound when he was faking erudition on a subject.
There’s three things I want to say about this whole set of Cantos, though, based on what I’ve seen so far:
- You could—understandably—claim that Pound is shanghaiing all of China (ahem) to fit his vision. You’d be right, but then again, China wasn’t affected by it; it’s hard to really call it literary imperialism, when so few people have read the book, and when the ridiculously overwhelming majority of those who have, didn’t find it much influenced their view of China. Yes, Pound’a white American guy in the 1930s; yes, he’s talking about China. But it’s hard to see this as imperialism so much as it is writing historical pulp fantasy. Yes, about someone else’s history, as a way of writing about one’s own history—or, more, one’s present-day conundrums. Never forget that Pound’s generation was generally convinced that more than just something—that in some ways everything—was wrong, and needed to be “fixed.” China didn’t exist then merely as a mirror for anxious white guys, but when anxious white guys look into China seeking some knowledge they can use to understand their own culture or society, I don’t see much wrong with it. If Pound treats ancient China like Howard did Hyperborea or Leiber did Nehwon, well, it’s worth remembering also treated ancient Europe and even his own family history in precisely the same way. In this, I suspect his imagination and mine follow the same track: fantastical invention woven through actual history comes more naturally that snippets of actual history woven into whole-cloth fabulation.
- At the same time, there’s a way in which Pound seems to take China more seriously than a lot of his modernist poet contemporaries. Eliot references Hindu philosophical ideas in some of his work, including Four Quartets, and of course the modernists all made references to classical literature; interest in Eastern ideas abounded in non-literary circles, too, with this being the period when what we now call the New Age movement was really picking up steam. But Pound seems to me at least unusual in his literary circle for his long, deep interest in China, his veneration of the “good” emperors, his open embrace of Chinese historical power as something worth respecting, remembering, and talking about.
- Lastly, there’s the politics of it. Pound while writing this in the late 1930s is a Mussolini-revering fascist; that, at the very least, ought to make us hesitate when it comes to his endorsements. Confucianism was all well and good as a totalizing thought-system in books and in world that was long ago and far away—and that was the only way Pound really encountered Confucianism or China. One wonders what he would have made of post-WWII China if he’d been able to get there, instead of being stuck at St. Elizabeth’s until he was too rickety to make the voyage? I suspect he wouldn’t have been much impressed with life on the ground, though he probably would have been a fan of Mao—who was a strongman, who wrote poetry, who seems to have had a similar way of thinking about sexuality to how Pound did.The similarities between Confucianism and Fascism that occurred to Pound, didn’t occur only to him, after all. But what’s more, Pound seems to be rallying in favor of empires, at least the empires he likes: he seems perturbed when The Song Dynasty falls, though not so enthusiastic about the rise of the Yuan, though it too was a “great empire” run by a hell of a guy.Which is to say: there’s something about Pound’s fascination with China that sort of links to his fascination with a certain sedentary, philosophical sort of imperial power. Pound is concerned about models of decay for such powers, and I can’t help but think maybe it’s because he believed the model might illuminate the processes he believed the United States—and the Western world generally—was going through in the first four decades of the twentieth century.
The Canto ends around the fall of the Ming Dynasty, and there have been so many dynasty falterings that we can’t even really riff on Edward Gibbon’s title: The Decline and Fall of [take your pick of any Chinese Dynasty] fails because in a sense, the Chinese Cantos seem to be about tracing the rise and fall of many Chinese Dynasties, with mostly stick figures playing the parts while Pound narrates the events in a voice, let’s be honest, a fair bit less wooden than we’re accustomed to. The woodenness, I think, isn’t necessarily intentional; I think it’s just the best he could do because it wasn’t really Chinese history he was interested in anyway; that was a just a vehicle for something else.
This canto begins with a shift: as the Ming Falls, Pound rips us out of China and hurls us back to the beginning of time as Japanese mythology reckons it. Why Japan? There are many reasons, not the least being that Pound was aware of Noh drama from his familiarity with the work of Ernest Fenollosa. A few other reasons for his interest in Japan might have included:
- The long, deep, and enduring American fascination with Japan would have been something he’d grow up with: it was, like blackface minstrel shows, part of his cultural background.
- Japan’s having shocked the world by handing Russia its ass in 1905, and then setting out on its own imperial adventures, which continued into the 1930s.
- The apparent fascism of Japan in 1930 a fascist state, with its affinities with Italy under Mussolini… and we all know how Pound felt about Mussolini, right?
But I think maybe there’s still more to it than that.
Japan’s not just a fascist state in the 1930s; it’s a fascist imperialist state, with a history of attempted imperialism in the past. In Korea, Japan’s previous attempt at colonialism is remembered as the Imjin War—the ultimately unsuccessful attempt of Japan to conquer South Korea during 1592-98. However—and you won’t hear the averaging Korean pointing this out, but… Korea wasn’t the ultimate point of the invasion. The peninsula was really more of a stepping stone on the way toward the ultimate goal of whupping all China. That, too, figured in the fgoals of Japan in the 1930s. (And, once again. we all know how Pound felt about repeats in history, right?)
The thing is, if Canto LVII was caught up mainly in the fall of the Song Dynasty—but, also, the Ming—it was concerned, also, primarily about domestic threats to imperial stability: the cooperation of vassal states, the threats of corruption and seduction by immoral concubines and eunuchs, the social ruin wrought by Buddhism and Taoism within China.
(One imagines them all laughing evilly and twirling mustaches, even the concubines and eunuchs.)
But I think the real reason Pound starts focusing on Japan is because he’s trying to shift his gears a bit in Canto LVIII, and focus more on the external threats to China’s (dynastic) stability. There’s more of the geopolitics, in other words—the growing presence of the West in China, in the form of Christian missionaries like the famous Matteo Ricci, and the argument by imperial advisors that he and his kind be sent away, since Christianity was likely to be as corruptive of China as Buddhism and Taoism had been. Tatars, Mongols, Manchus: Pound is fascinated, in this point, with those external threats to China, too.
Clearly, then, he’s showing us that he sees past the lurid pulp-bad-guy sketches that have dominated the Chinese Cantos so far: he understands that dynasties fall for a complex set of reasons linked to domestic and international pressures. Bandit leaders matter; hostile neighbouring states (like the Japanese) matter; the military leaders appointed to certain posts matter to an incredible degree.
What I think may be going on here is that, ahead of his time, Pound is kind of gesturing at what he sees in store for America, and/or for civilization. There’s no question he saw the modern west of the late 1930s as corrupted, ruined, and on the verge of self-destruction, much like the dynasties eventually became in so many of these Cantos. On some level, China has become a metaphor for America: a great hegemonic world power that became that both through sheer bluster, and through the shedding of blood, but which in the 1930s stood—at least in Pound’s mind—in a dangerous position of being threatened both from within and from without…
… except, of course, some of that is probably me projecting. Did Pound really believe there were foreign threats to America? Perhaps. Certainly the “buzders” and “taozers” and “foéists” of the Chinese Cantos line up pretty directly with the “usurers” villains of the earlier Cantos. The twisted eunuchs, concubines, and various sets of barbarians line up less well, though the “usurers” in the earlier Cantos are expressly, in Pound’s mind, Jewish, and thus “foreign” and perhaps line up with the barbarians chipping away at Chinese stability.
In any case, Pound’s centralizing of Chinese concerns and interests continues here: he’s all about what other nations’ actions do to China as a state… and he clearly yearns to express a connection to the West, in this case, ending with a phrase from Agamemnon:
ταδ' ωδ' 'εχει
… which means, “That’s how it is.” It’s an interesting reference, of course: Agamemnon was an ancient Greek king, and led the Greek forces against Troy in the Trojan War. He also got slaughtered by his wife’s lover, and lost it all. (Again, this feels like an echo across time and space, of the type Pound seems to revere.)
One more thing: since this poem discusses the Imjin War, it deals with Korea—which is also sometimes called “Corea” in the text. Thing is: Korea comes off looking pretty bad, like a province of wimps and bumpkins who came running to China anytime anything went wrong. I don’t think Pound really felt any actual ill will towards Korea specifically, of course: Korea was probably no more particularized in his mind when he wrote such things as Mississippi is in my mind as a place of stereotypical redneckery and ignorance: my source for that is American TV, and Pound’s source seems to be de Mailla. I imagine Pound’s perception is rooted in the fact that the Joseon Dynasty (the state that ruled Korea at the time of the Imjin War waged by Pound’s “Mr. Undertree”1) was a colonial subject in the eyes of Japan, and a willing vassal state in the eyes of China. There’s an inherent calculus of power involved here, and Pound has nothing much to say about Liechtenstein or Burma, either—except, perhaps, insofar as their dealings with other states reinforce those other states’ power and importance. Korea, in other words, was probably little more than a rope in a tug-of-war, to Pound’s mind.
The rest is just details, as far as I can tell… and as far as I can tell, the details don’t interest Pound much at all, though he does hammer pretty hard on the pulp angle in places, like in references to “Court ladies in cabal” and “gangsters” and “night clubs” set to defame him.” Ultimately, the poem ends with the fall of the Ming Dynasty to the Qing invasion, but Pound seems to attribute the fall to internal corruption and failure:
Rice was at one mark silver the measure in Kaī fong and human meat sold in market Litse's gangsters all over Honan Li Sao; weep, weep over Kaīfong; Kientsong the bloody and Litse called himself Emperor Ming troops were unpaid Eunuchs devoured the taxes; the Prime minister could not get hold of them And the castrats opened the gate of Pekin to rebels till HOEI died hung in his belt and there was blood in the palace...
When Pound writes:
Atrox MING, atrox finis
… the choice of atrox feels interesting since there’s a hidden pun here: atrox may translate as “frightful” (as Terrell assures us) but it looks an awful lot like the word “atrophy.”
This seems to be borne out by the way Pound presents the last supreme Ming imperial military commander Ousan (“Wu Sankuei” in Terrell, pinyin form is “Wu Sangui”) as a “peace maker” celebrated by nature itself—”in the river, the reeds, flutes murmured Ousan/Brought peace into China; brought in the Manchus.” In fact, Wu changed sides once the Ming was finally finished, pledging loyalty to the Qing Dynasty. It seems Pound thought of this as good and pragmatic, rather than shifty or shady: he did good for China, so whatever he did must have been a good thing, in Pound’s eyes. We’ll see next week whether Pound has anything to say about the fact Wu also started a rebellion and delcared himself an Emperor a few decades later… though I suspect Pound will skip that and move further forward in time.
That’s it for this week. Hopefully more next week on Canto LIX and, maybe LX too. (LIX is pretty short, but we’ll see how much time I can carve out.) We’ll see: I’m busy these days (ταδ’ ωδ’ ‘εχει indeed), but I’ll make an effort to get at least one Canto done for next time.
Surely it’s just fascinating coincidence that the Underwood family played such a major role in late-19th and 20th century Korea’s development and history?↩