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 first two “Malatesta Cantos”; we’re going to finish that particular set this week, by checking out Cantos X and XI. While the Malatesta Cantos are some of the most easily read of the Cantos I’ve worked my way through in the past (up to about the first forty or so) I have to say that this doesn’t exactly make them the most readable. They’re longer than the others, and full of quotations. There’s a narrative arc involved, but it’s not a rather familiar, fairly simple one: the great man rises up, does great things, is set upon by the mediocres around him, and falls.
One gets a sense that Pound would have been a steady and constant viewer of The Sopranos, had he been born a century later, and I can’t help but think of how Hugh Kenner argues he was very much ahead of his time in ways we deign not to discuss. The quips about this or that condottiero being “invited to lunch” in Canto X remind me of the Sopranos-code for a mafioso meeting: a “sit-down.” While there was obviously some interest in the condottieri of Renaissance Italy, at least in literate circles — Hemingway is mentioned having chatted about them with Pound — specifically about the intricacies of their military campaigning, during some trip to Italy (again, in the Kenner). Was this ahead of Pound’s time? I’m not sure, but I get the vague sense that the sort of macho-yet-poetry-sponsoring hero/antihero of the Malatestiad wasn’t really a popular type in Pound’s day… I could be wrong, though.
Cantos X and XI describe the decline and fall of Sigismundo Malatesta. They are full of snippets of treacherous plots (both personal and institutional) against him, moments of bad luck, and occasional missteps that proved to plant the seeds of his undoing. Sigismundo, who was doing so well for himself, finds himself beset by enemies, and though he fights the good fight, cannot resist the forces amassed against him, and finally he falls, though even toward the end he remains, unshakeable, a man of greatness — or so Pound would have us see it.
One of the obvious ways to read this is that Pound is talking about himself. It’s not an unreasonable assumption, after all: writers do this kind of thing all the time, and certainly Pound saw himself as surrounded by mediocrity, and a society which promoted mediocrity.
This is not unusual: most people with any brains tend to see the world in this way — this being one of the major reasons why the Foundation-type narrative is so common in SF. Which is NEAT SF CONNECTION #1 for today’s post: For those who haven’t read their Asimov (and I don’t blame you) the Foundation-narrative is the story of a secret conspiracy of smart, educated people saving the world/civilization/the universe. It’s a concept that has appeared in a number of SF narratives over the years, though of of course at this moment only a few examples come to mind: Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End; Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time; Pohl’s Time Patrol novels; and surely much more that escapes my memory at the moment.
(And, indeed, this as much as anything else can explain Pound’s attraction to fascism; if, like him, only you decide to see people’s general functional mediocrity as effective stupidity, it becomes clearly obvious that democratic government is a bad idea. You don’t give the steering wheel of a bus to someone who couldn’t in a million years get a drivers’ license, after all. But while those of us who are for similar reasons unnerved by the power of the ignorant and the stupid in democracies recognize that it’s impossible to set up a metric everyone will agree on while maintaining the ideals of democratic society (or without tearing a democratic society apart), Pound took refuge in fascism — in the idea that a consensus would emerge not through debate and discussion, but through strong, manly leadership. Poor Pound: he didn’t realize until much too late that most fascist leaders, and most fascist followers, are just as mediocre, but without the checks and balances to power.)
Another way of seeing this narrative movement is as a criticism of the institutional structures which mitigated the best efforts of great men — a circle in which I imagine Pound holding himself. In the case of Malatesta, the criticisms are squarely aimed at the Papacy, but of course in Renaissance Italy, the Papacy is essentially the major institution of power; in Pound’s day, the institutions of power would be different, especially as Pound himself would have seen them: the banks, bankers, and financial elites; the arbiters of poetic and artistic taste; the idiot governments who let (or made) things like The Great War take place.
There is a level on which the inter-familial warfare of Italy in the age of Sigismundo could be held up to mirror the international fighting that took place from 1914-1918, and which horrified Pound profoundly. Here is where the question of who parallels the Church begins to matter most, and from what we all know of Pound, he will be seeking to describe his enemies in terms of economics.
Why a decline-and-fall story? Well, of course, the story of all “great men” who survive is a decline-and-fall story: nobody can remain great indefinitely, no culture or society can do so, no artistic form can do so, at least not without an eventual destruction-and-renewal. (And there is some sense in which Pound is doing so with poetry-as-he-knows-it, in the very act of writing The Cantos: compare it to his earlier work, as collected in Personae, and this is evident.) Pound may have chosen Sigismundo for reasons of personal affinity as well — his anti-Catholicism and interest in pagan religion; his particular defiance; his various peculiarities, such as his exhortation (mentioned in Canto XI) of women in his domains not to dress sedately (as in many other Italian city-states of the time) but instead to deck themselves in ornate finery, the better to glorify their city. One imagines Pound saw in Sigismundo a kind of kindred spirit — or at least, a kindred iconoclast.
But Sigismundo’s decline and fall also demonstrates the brutality and uselessness of a poorly-aligned world system. Pound seems eager to find parallels with modern, post-Great War Europe: for example, Malatesta’s address of a council in Mantua that (unlike everyone else seemed to think) Italians should do the fighting in Constantinople, and others should pay, since, in his opinion, Italians were braver and better fighters, and everyone in the region of Constantinople was already too demoralized to offer proper resistance.
The international council in Mantua may well have reflected his unease with the then-new League of Nations. There is a wonderful, if lengthy, passage on pages 371-72 of A. David Moody’s book Ezra Pound: Poet (Vol. I) which discusses this unease of Pound’s, essentially suggesting he was a kind of proto-Libertarian in 1919 (when the “League of Nations” was a proposed idea, and not a reality) and in 1920 (when it had taken form):
Pound in 1919 and 1920 suspected any and every organized group with power over the lives of others, whether it was a church, a state, or a network of bankers, of being a conspiracy against the rights and values of the individual citizen. He was against the assertion of nationalities and nationalisms because that led to the subordination of the individual to an actual state or to an idea of one… As for the then proposed ‘league of nations,’ that appeared to him ‘about as safe and as inviting for the individual as does a combine of large companies for the employee’. It would mean power being removed even further from the people and being put in the hands of ‘a small committee appointed by Governmental inner cliques in each nation’. Pound really did believe in democracy, even in a pure and absolute democracy in which every individual should have the opportunity to be true to his or her own nature without let or hindrance. He believed that in a democracy the state should obey and serve its people rather than the other way round. His position was complicated though by his dividing ‘the people’ into the few and the rest–the self-determining individuals and the mass of sheep.
What he really wanted was a society of and for the genuine individuals, a civilization which would transcend nations and collective cults and corporations, and from which enlightenment would spread and prevail. ‘The function of civilization’, he declared, ‘is to depreciate material values and to build up values of intelligence.’ Rather than a League of Nations let there be ‘a centre of civilization’. what we would now call a transnational research institute, to bring together creative thinkers imbued with a profound understanding of what made life worth living; and let them concentrate on solving the pressing problems of the post-war situation, starting with the dysfunctional economic system. He probably did not expect that such a centre would be set up; but he did find what he was looking for in one odd individual, Major C.H. Douglas.
… which is not the first parallel we may find between him and Heinlein — NEAT (er, DISTURBING?) SF CONNECTION #2 for today. Heinlein (a libertarian) and Pound (an early proto-Libertarian of sorts) both were not just interested in the theories of Douglas and his Social Credit movement; they also had somewhat utopian ideals about how power ought to be distributed in society — well, utopian in their eyes, dystopian in many others (mine included). There is more than a little of that vision of the “few” and “the sheep” in Heinlein’s work, for example in the requirements for suffrage in Starship Troopers.
(And to get it out of the way, there is, also, the reference to Morea — the Peloponessus, which may have been the inspiration for Tolkien’s Mines of Moria, though I am not sure this is really a Neat SF Connection.)
There’s another way to read the decline and fall of Sigismundo Malatesta at the hands of his enemies, and that is, to see it in connection with the poetical world in which Pound was working at the time. It’s well known that Pound’s income in England could not match the increasing price of living, and that Pound left England in a fuss: left and right there were cuts, and his income became increasingly limited in London, and this was surely one reason he finally left when he did. That his bitterness at the financial situation might meld with his dissatisfaction with having failed at his most grandiose of dreams seems natural — especially with such grand expectations for himself.
Just as one senses Pound’s feeling that Malatesta should, instead of running for his life, be running Italy, one can feel Pound’s frustration that, instead of having ascended to the height of English literary life, he ended up leaving broke, busted, on the thin side; he left having effected not much of that palpable change in English society which he had thought he might achieve, and having found that England in fact did not have as much room for literary heroes as he’d hoped — certainly, not for Pound as a literary hero, at any rate.
Here, having read the text before helps with the gift of prescience — for knowing that the rage of Pound’s Hell-Cantos — numbered XIV-XV — seethe only a few pages away, the same rage becomes visible in the telling of the Malatestiad. While Pound’s focus is on the hero Sigismundo, he spares a great deal of time to disparage his enemies. His enemies, or his enemies? Given the number of panhistorical correspondences Pound has assigned so far in the poem, and given the fact he does so again, and later — at some point, I recall reading, he masks Eliot as “Arnaut” while recalling a conversation they had, to spare Eliot embarrassment — one cannot help but wonder who, for Pound, “Wattle” Sforza represented; who the rank and foul Pio (Pope Pius II) stood in for; whom it was that Pound envisioned as wearing the painted-on mask of Benzi, the Vatican-appointed accuser charged with presenting the case against Malatesta. Whom, the treacherous betrayers?
One imagines Pound may have had names in mind, faces — maybe not for exact correspondences, perhaps, but likely for types of slights. He started out pondering Dante best-known long-poem as a possible model for The Cantos, and that work — Dante’s Commedia — was absolutely a work of propaganda, of naming names and attacking enemies.
There are other interesting moments, such as the one near the end of Canto XI that catches Hugh Kenner’s eye so much he uses it as the caption for a shot of the Tempio’s ceiling:
In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it.
Also, the bit about one of Sigimundo’s pranks, beginning at the bottom of the third page of Canto X:
And that he did among other things
Empty the fonts of the chiexa of holy water
And fill up the same full with ink
That he might in God’s dishonour
Stand before the doors of the said chiexa
Making mock of the inky faithful, they
Issuing thence by the doors in the pale light of the sunrise
Which might be considered youthful levity
but was really a profound indication;
“Whence that his, Sigismundo’s foetor fill the earth
And stank up through the air and stars to heaven
Where–save they were immune from sufferings–
It had made the emparadised spirits pewk”
from their jeweled terrace.
A profound indication indeed: the idea of church founts full of ink is one appealing to an anti-clerical, anti-Christian writer almost by default, for all the ways it can symbolize a religion’s black mark upon its adherents, their complicity in inscribing its madness upon themselves, and also the defiant assault of writing — more ink — against the faith the author refuses to respect and cower before.
Striking, too, is the burning in effigy of Malatesta — of Pound, perhaps? — at the bottom of the page where the previous quotation concludes:
So they burnt our brother in effigy
A rare maginificent effigy costing 8 florins 48 bol
(i.e. for the pair, as the first one wasn’t a good enough likeness)
And Borso said the time was ill-suited
to tanta novità, such doings or innovations,
God’s enemy and man’s enemy, stuprum, raptum,
I. N. R. I. Sigismun Imperator, Rex Proditorum.
Pound, while he was away, had parts of his income slashed, and returned to London from a trip to France (in, I believe it was, 1919) to discover his income severely reduced. Surely, there is some echo for him in the sudden excommunication Sigismundo suffered in absentia; both of them after all, suffered financially thereafter.
I also find interesting the list of Sigismundo’s men — what Terrell calls a “Homeric roster,” as Pound seems to be imitating the list of names for the followers or crews of heroes in the Homeric epics. It is interesting also as Sigismundo has eleven — not twelve — followers.
But for me, far more striking is the passage on page 50 (of my edition, at least, a few pages before the end of Canto XI) where Pound returns to the steps of the arena, perhaps also the steps of the Dogana, all the way back in Canto II:
And we sit here. I have sat here
For forty thousand years…
This short pair of lines, I suspect, suggest a solution to the problem of how we are supposed to read the Malatestiad. For it is easy to imagine Pound grinding axes, or fantasizing about a hero the world might need:
But if The Cantos were a magical document, as the story I want to write suggests, then it’s hard to imagine Pound would take time off to rant about his enemies. He might spend some ink constructing literary-thaumaturgical traps, the poetical-magic equivalent of sticking pins into voodoo-dolls that are made in effigy of his enemies… and there, the reference to Malatesta being burned in effigy during the auto-da-fe in the Vatican takes on a deeper and more powerful significance.
Perhaps, also, there is a return to the necromantic fascinations of the earlier Cantos: it could be that Pound is using the poem to channel some of the spirit, the energy, of Malatesta. After all, just because one sees history as a series of looping reinstantiations of the same clash of historical forces, doesn’t mean one imagines destiny has laid out all the results. Likewise, perhaps Pound is attempting to wield some kind of controlling power over the destructive energies unleashed by the Great War; perhaps he hopes that they can be harnessed for the same kind of good that Malatesta patronized, while he could, amid all his own destructive acts.
The poems resist magical, occultic reading, but that suggests there’s all the more reason to examine them carefully: where one suspects a trap least, is where a trap might most likely be laid; and the idea of Pound’s that returns late in Canto XI — and once again, at the beginning of Canto XII, as we shall see next week — is of the Roman arena, of the spectacle of history played out as some kind of gladiatorial show. If it is, then what can we learn from watching the show? What can be learned by watching it for forty-four thousand years… and why that number, specifically? Did Pound imagine it perhaps to contain all of human history? As simply a very, very long time? To stretch to so pre-Greek, more ancient time? It is impossible to say, except that the vastness stretches back farther than any human history…
(I wonder what Lovecraft would have made of that span of time, in terms of the dating of the strange city discussed in At the Mountains of Madness.)
As I said: no normal reading of The Cantos, this.
Next week, we’ll hit Cantos XII and XIII, in all likelihood: the story of Baldy Bacon, and a full-fledged Kung (Confucius) Canto. Next week is also midterm exam week, and I’ll spend my spare time (of which I’ll actually have some, for a change) not just brewing, but also reading a different Pound-related source, probably one of the several biographies I have assembled. (I’m betting it’ll be the A. Davd Moody one, but a few others look interesting too! It’ll be a break, but will also keep me on task.
(If I’m lucky, I’ll manage to read a second book during the week as well — I’m eyeing a few, though I’m not sure which I’ll grab if I have time!)