- Ezra Poundings – The Reboot
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto I
- The Traneumentary, Shooting for Trane, and Pound/Trane in Comparison
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto II
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto III
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: The Ur-Cantos
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto IV
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto V
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos VI and VII
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos VIII-IX (The Malatesta Cantos, Part 1)
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos X-XI (The Malatesta Cantos, Part 2)
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XII-XIII (Baldy Bacon and Kung)
- “Ezra Poundings”
- Pound and the Occult: Leon Surette’s The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and the Occult
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XIV-XV (“The Hell-Cantos”)
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto XVI — Ending “A Draft of XVI Cantos”
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto XVII — Toward “A Draft of Cantos 17-27”
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto XVIII & XIX
- Poundmania: On Process and Plans
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto XX – XXII
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XXIII – XXIV
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos XXV-XXVI
- 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?)
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LVI & LVII
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LIX
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LX
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LXI
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: More on Canto LVII, and Canto LVIII
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LXII
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LXIII
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LXV
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LXIV
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LXVI
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LXVII
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LXVIII
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Cantos LXIX and LXX
- Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LXXI
Depending on where you stand in terms of the literary establishment, my past week’s break from Canto-reading and Canto-blogging was either well spent, or a waste: personally, I consider it very well spent, but Leon Surette gives the impression that the majority of academic literary critics would disagree. Their antipathy towards him is perhaps understandable: they may not be emperors, but they dislike having a dissenter point out their lack of clothes as much as anyone, while Surette does so not just intelligently, but consciously… and not just because they’re dubious about Pound’s occult interests, but also because of what their theoretical/ideological blinders and stance have in common with Pound’s occult theoretical obsessions and ideological blinders.
The following post is extremely lengthy, at almost 6,000 words, so I shall place it behind a cut: the interested can click through to read the whole thing… but to make a long story short, Leon Surette begins the book with the promise to explore and untangle the role and genealogy of the occult both in English popular culture when Pound arrived in London, and its role in Pound’s thinking and poetry. And he does both quite admirably here.
The Birth of Modernism is the second book by Surette regarding Pound and The Cantos, the first being one I’m a quarter of the way through at the moment — A Light From Eleusis. The former was written at a point when Surette had regarded the occult-type content of The Cantos as something Pound didn’t quite take seriously — like most Pound scholars still do, he then regarded Pound as skeptical not just of Christianity, but also of the occult; the standard assumption seems to have been that Pound put that stuff into The Cantos for literary effects. (There’s a whole bunch of technical terminology for this, but I’m expressing it simply here; the more dedicated reader can check out the book.)
Anyway, in the preface, Surette explains the moment where he changed his mind about this: it was when he got a call from a fellow named William French, of Vienna, Virginia, who was calling to talk over the occult arcana in the poem. He seemed to assume Surette was an initiate in the occult, if he’d figured out as much as he had about The Cantos, and finding that Surette was not, he told him “to read H.P. Blavatsky and Annie Besant where all would be made plain.” Surette chose other scholars to pursue, but did indeed reassess his position on Pound’s relationship with the occult, the visionary, and the mythical. After all, G.R.S. Mead — an associate of Pound’s in London — had been not only a theosophist, but also the secretary to Blavatsky herself!
I will discuss Surette’s book in pretty deep detail, though I will first say: if you are interested in Pound’s occult interests, and in the occult milieu which informed both literary modernism, and indeed the “intellectual” world of late 19th and early 20th century Europe, one would do well to read The Birth of Modernism for yourself. While Pound seems to have been very interested in secret histories himself, Surette’s book simultaneously seems to play out a kind of secret history of its own, tracing the writings and ideas of kooks and nutters of the 19th century and earlier, as they filtered down through subsequent commentators and into the beginning of the 20th century.
Which, indeed, should concern us: while we cannot quite blame the horrors of the 20th century, there is a certain harmony that exists between the occult notions to which Pound clung, and the larger stupidities of the time… and anyone who knows enough about today’s popular flavors of whackaloonery will also see a lineage connecting that to the gunk in which Pound’s London circle (and Anglophone culture of the time generally) indulged.
In his introduction, Surette works on developing a working and usable definition of “the occult” which, in fact, takes a little more work than you would think. The definition of “the occult” today has been deeply informed by mouthy evangelical Christians on American talk shows — and has been relegated to the margins of social acceptability, in the forms of Californian New Age “wisdom” — it occupied a very different cultural niche in the late 19th and early 20th-century.
That niche, to be specific, was among intellectuals and would-be intellectuals who were, even more direly than most literary critics today, essentially scientifically illiterate and hostile to the sciences, just as much as they were hostile to Christianity. Today, science is positioned oppositionally to Christianity or The Church, but traditionally, it was the occult — not science, or not science alone — that occupied this position. The non-scientist opponents of Christianity tended to be attracted to a kind of occult mishmash of ideas taken from early 19th-century writers, remixed by mid- and late-19th century writers, attributed to much older (invented) occult traditions, and celebrated by a lot of intellectual and literary types in London around the time Pound arrived there.
It is curious that so many are so eager to dismiss intellectuals and indeed the major figures of American modernist liteature were willing to flirt with–and discuss seriously–the ideas of Helena Blavatsky, of her devotee G.R.S. Mead, of Joséphine Péladan, of Gabriele Rossetti (father of Dante Gabriele and Christina Rossetti), and many others-when there is, in fact, clear evidence of it. Surette is careful, of course, to note that like in any superstitious community (say, within Christianity, or Buddhism) one finds a range of modes of engagement with the core ideas and narratives of the superstition: not every Christian is a biblical literalist, after all, and a range of attitudes defined the way the moderns related to “the occult.” (The specific modes outlined by Surette are on page 32, and he neatly describes how several moderns–Pound, Eliot, Yeats–seemed to combine a couple of positions at once.
I found this particularly interesting since, as a young man (and prior to my reading of Pound) I found myself quite curious about some of the figures mentioned, and as a university undergraduate signed out books by Blavatsky and Carl Jung, both of whose works were held, I think in complete form (definitely for Jung, and also I think for Blavatsky), in my university library. It would be fascinating to visit the university library once more and trace just the writings of Blavatsky ended up at the University of Saskatchewan library–perhaps they were donated, but by whom? When? And how did they end up on the shelvees, instead of in some special collection squirreled away?
(By the way, I never got far into the Jung, and found the Blavatsky both tiresome and, eventually, unreadable.)
But I cannot help but think that if the books were present in the circulating collection even of my small, podunk city’s university library, they must have been in wider circulation when they were brand-new and being discussed more publicly. Not only that, but — and yes, this is NEAT SF CONNECTION #1 for today, and a big one — Blavatsky also may have inflluenced some of Pound’s pulpier contemporaries writing in America; Edgar Rice Burroughs, for one. (That was the apparent opinion of both Fritz Leiber and L. Sprague de Camp.) I’m ill at the moment (drafting this part of the post on the evening of Friday, April 27th) so I don’t have the strength to recount it all, but here is a lengthy discussion of the parallels between Burroughs’ Mars books (including A Princess of Mars, recently adapted into the film John Carter [of Mars]) and the earlier works of Blavatsky, who, yes, discusses all kinds of weird pseudoscientific theories of evolution, of life on other planets, of telepathy (hello, John W. Campbell), and indeed the origins of humanity. As well, theosophy was definitely known to H.P. Lovecraft, as is explored in this article.
I’ll throw in a bonus NEAT SF CONNECTION #2: the parallels between Blavatsky’s cosmic narrative and the narrative that apparently — from court proceedings — sits nestled at the heart of the secret teachings of the religion that pulp SF author L. Ron Hubbard established, Scientology. No, really, even that Thetan stuff seems to come from Blavatsky. See here.
All of which brings to mind the musings of Lee Lady, another Pound reader who sees in Pound some of this:
If Pound had been born a little later and the circumstances of his life had been a little different, I think he would have been ideally suited to be a science fiction writer of the Golden Age of Science Fiction — someone like Damon Knight or Frederick Pohl or, perhaps more to the point, A. E. van Vogt.
And we’re still only on introduction to the Surette, by the way… so let’s move on.
In the first chapter, Surette notes that most literary interest in the occult is directed at the mystical and transcendantal aspects of it — and not, paerticularly, at the esoteric occultism that defines a lot of Pound’s interest in the area. Thus occult historiography has kind of gone overlooked, both in terms of its presence but also in terms of its significance in modern literature. This, in turn, is part of why it has been so common and so easy for Pound scholars to dismiss the presence of seemingly-occult content in The Cantos being more than metaphorical or literary-poetical in nature/intention. (And, in turn, has also made it harder to detect some of the occult content for what it is.)
Surette discusses the notion of the “secret history” within the occult context, unearthing several examples of types of occult historiography and noting that Pound tended, like many, towards that which postulated a decline and fall. (A tendency shared by European fascists in their core narratives, unsurprisingly.) He traces the role of “sedition” in the following:
- occult historiography;
- the notion of an artistic tradition within the secret history — where artists are keeping alive the flame of occult knowledge or wisdom;
- the interest in anthropological writings on religion and mythology among occultists of Pound’s time;
- the notion of malignant and benign conspiracies — both of which seemed to interest Pound, from what I know of The Cantos and of his writings elsewhere, though Surette argues it is the positive conspiracies that interest him;
- a reconstruction of the kind of occult historiography Pound would have come across in his readings; and the importance of the “imaginative and ‘speculative’ history circulating in the early twentieth century” to the inspirations of modernist literature–which Surette assures us are historiographic and political.
(Here, Surette also goes a bit into the way ideology at the time interacted with the way literary figures interacted with the present and the recent past, as well as how own our historiographic views of the early 20th century obscure the way the people living then saw themselves and their world. (For example, Nazi adoption of a racial history fantasy that nobody but occultists took seriously; it’s not all Nietzsche there!))
Also in Chapter 1, Surette discusses “Psychology and the Occult,” writing — and this is a signally important line,
In the nineteenth century and up to the thirties of the twentieth, occult beliefs about contact with spirits, illuminated souls, and divinities seemed at worst goofy and at best a refuge for those whose desire for spirituality was not met by established religions.
He discusses how many major cultural figures — Balzac, William James, Victor Hugo, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Heine, Jung, and Goethe were all interested in Eastern mysticism and/or “spiritualism”. (And indeed, such folk as John Ruskin, Leslie Stephen, and Charles Dodgson were all involved in the Society for Psychical Research. Artists have long turned to the occult either as refuge from, or for ammunition against, their commmon struggle with the scientific materialist worldview in its advance toward cultural dominance (and the resulting relegation of the arts to entertainment or decoration, as opposed to mystical, spiritual, or other roles art supposedly played in society). All of this fits nicely into the sense of being under siege that artists at the turn of the 20th century seemed to feel, and their embrace of “heretical” occult positions. Such heresy as discussed one one writer of great importance to Surette’s story, Abbé Barruel (who invented a secret, occult history wherein the Masons were the remnants of an ancient cult that traced back to the Eleusis, and which had in modern times become a Jacobin, atheistic, and revolutionary conspiracy — one Barruel argued was also behind the French Revolution, a project he wanted to discredit), is important to understanding the critical difference between Pound’s anti-Christian sentiments and his apparent interest in the occult, according to Surette — and he seems to points toward a sort of vague identity between Pound’s other heretical views and his occult ones.
All of that is to say that Surette does the hard work of reconstructing the cutting-edge of kookiness that was pretty much acceptable and in popular circulation around the time Pound got to London, and providing us with a framework through which to view it, as well as a kind of genealogy for this occultist kookiness — which Surette will follow even further back in later chapters. But he also reveals just how important it was for European culture generally, how tied in with politics, the big questions of the day, with art and the role of artists, and with popular culture the whole occult scene was.
Now it’s not like I’d never heard of Yeats’ and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s interest in séances, or the latter’s apparent belief in faeries; it’s not as if I was unaware of Jung’s odder tendencies, or of the explosion of theosophy in the late 19th-century; but somehow I imagined that stuff was all just as marginal then as it is now, and that the straight-laced intellectuals of the time might have looked down their noses at it; that is, I expected it all to be as disreputable then as it was within the realm of my own experience from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, when I was growing up. I should, of course, have known better: if we look back just a little bit, we see the hippies and a resurgence of all kinds of nonsensical spiritualist mumbo-jumbo; that, I think, is the echo of the earlier interest in the occult that Surette has traced for us, which survived into the 1930s (only to be stamped out by World War II and, I imagine, by the rise of Christian evangelicalism on one side, and scientific rationalism on the other).
This leads me to wonder whether people will someday look back on 2012 and see a caricature of comparable simplicity: atheistic scientific-rationalists on one side, and Christian evangelicals on the other, with the hugely popular and profitable New Age movement (along with its “respectable” offspring, the Self-Help movement) being omitted. Most of the SF authors I’ve met have been solidly in the first camp — the atheistic scientific-rationalists (even when their grip on science has been less solid than they believed) but many of the mainstream literary types I have run across personally have tended toward a more ecletic, weak-occultic view, taking and melding bits and pieces of New Age, Self-Help, and Eastern mysticism (as well as thhe abominable Eastern mysticism = quantum mechanics claptrap so popular among would-be poets I’ve known), and generally tending towards both anti-science and anti-Christian positions. We obviously don’t have the exact same thing going on, but the number of poets and mainstream literary writers I’ve met who’ve mentioned authors like Fritjof Capra’s unfortunately dubious book about The Tao of Physics (or Gary Kukav’s also-awful The Dancing Wu Li Masters) to me is certainly indicative of something!
(It also chastens me in terms of that endlessly-offered criticism of Korean education, that “critical thinking doesn’t get taught here.” That may be true, but given the number of Western academics I’ve met who have also cited Capra to me, it seems one can be highly, highly educated in the West without developing a proper bullshit detector in certain (really important) areas; else there would be far fewer literature professors whose minds are muddled by New-Ageified accounts of cutting edge science. When Surette calls Pound “scientifically illiterate” (I forget the page) I’m sure it touched a nerve among those scholars who read it and who are, at least unconsciously, aware that it is true of them as well.)
It’s time to move on to the second chapter, I think!
Chapter 2: “The Occult Tradition in The Cantos,” is where Surette really gets cooking! Now, it’s important to understand that when Surette uses the term “the occult tradition” what he means is a particular fictitious tradition (or set of them) that had common currency in the literary and intellectual scene of London during (as well as just before and after) the second decade of the 20th century. “The occult tradition” is neither a particularly coherent narrative — for it is composed of a conglomeration (or accretion, perhaps) of sometimes-conflicting claims regarding an esoteric history of occult knowledge stretching back into the ancient world. While some authors, like Abbé Barruel, traced the Masonic conspiracy (a secret society he accused of being Jacobin, atheistic, and occult) back to Manicheanism, a later writer who cribbed from him, Josephine Péladan, traced it instead back to Eleusis — a very important occult landmark for Pound, who definitely read and seems to have been influenced by Péladan. (He reviewed several of his books in London, in fact.) Pound’s own odd lecture “Psychology and the Troubadours” (published in The Spirit of Romance), indeed touches on the subject in a footnote, where he dismisses the connection between Manicheism and the troubadours, promoting instead a possible link between the troubadours and the pagan-gnostic cult of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Surette, of course, has to reconcile “atheism” with “occultism” and does so easily: anything anti-Christian was “atheist” — including paganism, the occult, and so on. And since monarchy was justified by Christian ideology, the occult was not only atheist but by implication Jacobin. This, for Barruel, is the grounds for indicting the French Revolution. (Surette also discusses the hermeneutics of Barruel, which operates along the principle of affinity — a sort of like-equals-like approach to establishing the identity of narratives, concepts, and so on.) This connection between occultism and anti-establishment thinking is not alien to us, as Surette notes: just think of the hippies!
Following this opening shot, Surette does some of the work in reconstructing the occult history that seems to concern Pound, delving into the writing of Barruel, but also of those to whom his work responded, and those who reworked his ideas later on. Important here are Nesta Webster, the London theosophists (who agreed with Pound that the Albigensians (also known as the Cathars) were carriers of a secret occult tradition dating back to antiquity, though Pound rejected the idea of that tradition dated back to Mani and the Manicheans, preferring instead to trace it back to Eleusis. In a search for a source that Pound could have used to make this connection — and to connect the Albigensians to the troubadours, since they both flourished in Southern France at the time — he studies Denis de Rougemont, who argues the connection and cites Péladan and Eugène Aroux as his sources for the notion of a “forbidden ‘Church of Love’ ” that “came into Europe from the ‘East'” and passed through a tradition linking “Sordello, Cavalcanti, Dante, and Boccaccio, as well as… the Grail literature” (103).
Surette also discusses the sources used by Barruel — people like “Martinez de Pasquales, L.C. de Saint Martin, and Adam Weishaupt , all of whom were prerevolutionary occultists who did in fact organize secret societies and who claimed antique origins for their societies” (104). These fellows apparently also were active in trying to co-opt one anothers’ organizations and Freemasonry as well, for their own ends. But Barruel is crucial to modern conspiracy theory in that he attributes the French revolution, and all other major upheavals in European history, to a single cause: a conspiratorial occult organization — somehow tied in with both the Albigensians and the suppression of the Templars. In effect, Barruel politicized the already-existing fantasies of occult secret history, and while Pound seems perhaps not to have read Barruel, the influence is there because Barruel affected European thinking more generally — as well as specific authors that Pound did read.
On of the major routes of distribution for these ideas was through theosophy, which got a lot of airplay in London in the time Pound was there. Theosophy has certain things in common with Barruel’s ideas, namely the existence of a secret occult tradition tracing back to ancient times and someplace in the East (be it Egypt, Tibet, pre-Socratic Greece, or India), and a particular interest in the notion of palingenesis (“rebirth”) found widely in many of the mythologies of such places.
Which brings us to Gabriele Rossetti, who arrived in English in 1824 as an exile from Napoli. Rossetti wrote a criticism of Dante’s Divine Comedy where he alleged that the text was written in a “gergo” or “secret jargon,” a notion that seemed to appeal to Rossetti (who was in fact a Mason). He also seemed to want to align Dante with himself politically, as a Ghibelline, which would appeal to Protestant England — Italy was Guelph and Catholic, and he’d been exiled for anti-monarchic political writing. In 1832 Rossetti produced a book titled Sullo spirito antipaple che produsse la riforma — the only text by Rossetti to be translated into English, and the one that seems to have solidified for many a link between the Freemasons, the Cathars, and Eleusis, was translated into English very quickly afterward, and it essentially is a Rossetti-flavored remix of the Barruel: essentially, replacing the Jacobinism of Barrue with his own favored pro-Imperial Ghibelline stance as characterizing the “hidden tradition” kept alive by hidden priests of a forbidden religion.
NEAT SF CONNECTION #3: Rossetti happened to married Frances Polidori, the sister of Dr. John Polidori, who apparently was present with Byron and the Shelleys during that stay in Switzerland where not only Frankenstein, but also The Vampyre (the prototype for Bram Stoker’s Dracula) were brought into the world. So here we are again, only a degree or two away from what some people term the first modern SF novel — Frankenstein, which is should be remembered also bears the mark of the occult within it. (As Surette reminds us, Frankenstein explores Kabbala and Paracelsus as well as other “medieval theurgic scholars” (109) while puzzling through the mysteries of generating life.)
This story, Surette traces through the theosophists in Pound’s London — G.R.S. Mead and Isabel Cooper-Oakley, though the Londoners rejected straight political reading of the “conspiracy” (which Rossetti, Barruel, and their like presented) arguing that it was rather a mystical, occult tradition that was kept alive from the ancient times, and into which initiates were introduced. Traces of such a belief are hinted at often in Pound’s work — in Guide to Kulchur and in The Cantos as well — and Surette traces them, comparing passages to Luigi Valli, Barruel, and others. In essence, Pound’s roll call of thinkers, mystics, and heroes seems linked in a number of Cantos to the roll calls suggested by other occultists.
Surette makes some very interesting observations:
- that the “descent” into the underworld (the “A” in the ABC/ACB pattern I mentioned earlier in these readings) is not repeated throughout The Cantos, while the BC/CB — the repeats in history and the theophanies, are sprinkled throughout the poem
- that The Cantos can be read as a kind of séance, something I’ve clearly picked up on in earlier readings of cantos, give my many references to necromancy; to this I would add that there is an eerie connection of the séance with the minstrel show here: both types of performers (mediums at séances and minstrels in minstrel shows) are superficially masked, and allow others’ voices to speak through them, but only sort-of.
- Surette argues that The Cantos seem to be “an articulation of a theosophical understanding of history” works until The Fifth Decad of Cantos XLII-LI. Pound’s cantos from during World War II — the “Chinese” and “Adams” cantos — are very different, and apparently rely on single sources. Pound’s magical historiography went on hold here, as he could not predict the outcome of the war and did not want to jeopardize his epic poem.
Then comes a masterstroke in Surette’s argument, where he cites a passage from Joséphine Péladan’s Secret des troubadours, which Pound reviewed in 1906. Here it is:
If one studies the hidden meaning of medieval literature, the Renaissance no longer appears to be a sudden resurrection of the ancient world.
Neoplatonism had already penetrated our [i.e. French] tales of adventure, and when it showed itself openly under the Medicis it was because they assured it effective protection against the Roman Inquisition.
Gemisto Plethon and Marsilio Ficino are the official teachers of old Albigensianism, as Dante is its prodigious Homer.
Fiction and history correspond with a striking similarity on this subject: do not the knights Templar represent in reality the Grail Knights, and does not Monsalvat have a real name, Montségur? (Péladan 1906, 44-46; translation by Leon Surette, cited in Surette 127.)
Here, Surette points out, not only does this match Pound’s historical fantasies — including his argument that the sect was esoteric and occult, not just political — but also can in part explain his immense interest in Malatesta — who was, as discussed earlier, Gemisto Plethon’s patron (and was so mad about the man that he brought back his remains to be interred at The Tempio). Given that it is well-known Pound read and even publicly reviewed Péladan, it’s worth thinking about this more. Péladan was a notorious occultist in Paris late in the 19th century, but Pound probably didn’t know that… but Pound was already reading Swedenborg, and Swedenborgian Balzac, and more even before leaving America, along with Yogi Ramacharaka. Occult ideas were present in some of Pound’s correspondence, as well, with HD and William Carlos Williams, and Surette is careful to remind the reader that none of this would have been seen, at the time, as particularly eccentric.
We do know from early reviews, and later work and writings, that Pound started out skeptical about Péladan’s iudeas, but changed his mind by the time of “Psychology and the Troubadours” — probably, Surette argues, in Kensington and due to the occult ambience he encountered there, for example in the Quest Society headed by G.R.S. Mead, who as mentioned before was a prominent English theosophist. Mead was, of course, only one of a number of English occulists with whom Pound was connected: A.R. Orage, W.B. Yeats, and others come up as well.
Surette explores Mead’s writing a bit, which we needn’t do here, except that there is an amusing reference to the Gnostic paligenesis as transforming one into a “Lord of time and space” — though I cannot quite bring myself to suggest a Neat SF Connection here, as Mead wasn’t talking about Dr. Who. There are, however, links between the writing of Mead and the work of Pound, not only in early versions of “Canto One” but also in the concept of the “vortex” that becomes so important to Pound later — and which Yeats calls a “gyre” and Mead calls a “whirl-swirl”, in a passage that Pound marked explicitly in his copy of Mead’s The New Word. (In that passage, it is described in a way that calls to mind the mystic point that is focal in Borges short story “The Aleph.”)
Surette departs for a bit, exploring the links between Jung and Péladan and Wagner and Rossetti, before focusing on the esoteric eroticism found in Pound’s poetry, which also has its roots in Péladan and another occult writers, such as Remy de Gourmont, who imposed all kinds of erotic-esoteric mumbo-jumbo upon the entomological writings of one J.H. Fabre, specifically Souvenirs entomologiques. (Yup, a book about bugs and the study of bugs.) Fabre was a hardcore Darwinian, and even gets a mention in The Cantos, but probably only because of the mumbo-jumbo de Gourmont imposed on it, and the pseudoscientific silliness Pound further imposes on de Gourmont. Here, Pound’s assignment of “extraordinary psychic or even metaphysical power to sexuality and to the erotic” was something in common with others, not the least Carl Jung. Surette spends some time discussing gynocentric/androgentic and phallocentric thinkers on these subjects, but Pound is clearly phallocentric.
And if all this sounds kooky, consider what Surette writes on page 150, of how all this
might count as keeping his head, when on considers the ambience in which the ambitious young poet moved bvetween 1909 and 1917. To men like Yeats and Pound, who were scientifically illiterate, occult physical theories — which were essentially just ancient pre-Aristotelian monism — probably seemed no more mystical than Mme Curie’s radiation, Einsteinian relativity, Planck’s quantum theory, Freud’s subconscious, or Bergson’s élan vital. Indeed, in many cases they seem to have thought that all these descriptions of nature were interchangeable.
Surette refers to Canto 23, in a capacity I hope to recall when we reach that particular canto, as a demonstration of this, and rounds out the chapter with a few more references to other cantos which seem to bear out this understanding of Pound’s understanding of the continuity between the occult ideas prevalent in Kensington at the time, and the scientific knowledge available then.
Chapter Three is less interesting and useful for my purposes and interests, but essentially traces the Nietzschean influence on Pound — though Pound seems to have read little of Nietzsche directly. Surette traces a number of secondary sources who drew on Nietzsche and were known to have influenced Pound, as well as tracing some primary sources drawn upon by both Nietzsche and other authors whom Pound did read. Surette also gets in a glorious attack on the postmodernist misreading of science (indeterminacy, for example); he traces a commonality in the misunderstanding among Pound’s academic critics regarding “skepticism” toward science, and their belief in Pound’s own claimed skepticism, which is a wonderful thing to watch, though one suspects he did not do himself any favors in the literary establishment by doing so. One of the great influences on both Pound and Wagner is one Friedrich Creuzer — a major wellspring for 19th century occultism the way Frazer was for the 20th; Creuzer was also influential on theosophy, in fact, and it is through those lines, and the London theosophists, that Pound seems to have gotten his Nietzsche… as well, of course, as through Péladan, who riffed on Creuzer as well.
(Which reminds one of the line in Bruce Sterling’s Zeitgeist where a Russian tough comments to the protagonist that he had to pick up his Derrida “on the street” — at least I think it was his Derrida.)
In any case, Surette traces some of the specifics, but I don’t think that I need to outline them beyond one point: Surette (rightly) points out that Social Credit theory was something Pound encountered within the occult-infused Kensington milieu, in fact through A.R. Orage, and that Social Credit not only appeals to those who theorize about a negative conspiracy (economic in this case, but it fits with Pound’s occult ones) and also suited the occult mind-set “with its insistence on a simple cognitive solution” to the world’s economic problems and its tendency toward a priori thinking, viewing the slow process of emprical inquiry impatiently.
The fourth and last chapter, “Pound’s Editing of The Waste Land,” explores the claim Surette makes in Chapter 3 that Eliot’s The Waste Land was “the central document” in the story of how the modernists of Pound’s and Eliot’s generation (after Yeats’, that is) “presented themselves as skeptical relativists implacably hostile to the credulity and ‘romantic’ mysticism of their immediate predecessors” (206). Those immediate predecessors were the Romantics, but it’s important to understand that just because the modernists claimed to be skeptical, and rejected/attacked certain forms of mysticism, doesn’t mean they were actually hostile to all mysticism. Indeed, a careful reading of many modernist writers reveals a constant obsession with myth, a heavy recurring theme of the occult, and a great deal of mysticism, just of a different kind than was popular among the Romantics.
In any case, Surette argues in Chapter 3 that The Waste Land was presented as (and widely read as) the achievement of making poetry possible in a post-Nietzschean, skeptical world, no gods of myths necessary; a word-painting of the “moral and ethical impasse in which Europe found itself in the wake of World War I” (206), when a loss of faith in progress had occurred (if not a loss of faith in God). And yet it can be read another way, where the poem proceeds from the occult wellspring of the decades before it, and is more mystical than skeptical.
Now, jumping back to Chapter 4, Surette basically brings together the following:
- The Waste Land as it was in both its final form, and in the form submitted to Pound for editorial aid,
- The writings of Jessie Weston, a theosophical writer who is referenced in the headnote and notes to The Waste Land
- The correspondence between Pound and Eliot regarding The Waste Land during the process of editing,
- Eliot’s other writings and thinking expressed in it, and compared to other ideas of the day — Jung, Freud, and so on — particularly on the ideas of relativism, cultural pluralism, superstitition and faith, and Eliot’s studies (as a philosophy PhD) in the subject of culture and knowledge (ie. relativism).
Basically, Surette states that a full explanation of the occult content of The Cantos would be quite doable, but too big for his book, and so he sets out to analyze instead the editorial process of The Waste Land — that is, what Pound suggested Eliot do with an earlier draft. He also demonstrates (to me, pretty satisfactorily) that the Frazerian “vegetation ceremonies” mentioned by Eliot in regards to the final version of The Waste Land were much less of a major theme in the original draft, and that in the original, the theme of hieros gamos — a typical occult feature, the “sacred marriage” connected to esoterically mystical eroticism (and specifically Eleusis) — was a much bigger theme, along with some instances of palingenesis.
The Conclusion is short, but in some ways packs a lot of punch: in it, Surette points not only to a continuity between the Romantics and the moderns they claimed to reject, for example transplanting traditional Romantic skepticism about religion to a more modern skepticism about science, and continuing to celebrate the visionary and revolutionary — albeit, swimming against the dark, pessimistic tides of European reality after the first World War. He also has very interesting observations about the reception of this work, and the anxieties among modernist and postmodernist critics regarding religion, politics, and the occult.
Finally, he neatly sums up with his thesis, in the course of trying to explain Pound’s enduring presence in literature:
I argue that Pound’s work captures and expresses a set of passions, fears, hopes, and errors that were ubiquitous in the political and cultural history of the first half of the [twentieth] century. I make this claim at the same time as I argue that Pound’s “world view” is deeply indebted to occult speculation on the one hand and to conspiracy theories of history on the other.
As for what purpose all of this can serve me in my own literary endeavours with Pound, I think that:
- Occult Kensington will be dreadfully fun to depict, especially with all that Blavatskian theosophy in the air.
- The fascinations with palingenesis (occult re-birth) and hieros gamos (“sacred marriage” — ero-mysticism, in other words) are particularly useful, as they link to magical/theurgical themes in Pound’s work but also to quite likely plot points.
- The idea of a secret history Pound is struggling to uncover and write about is also likely useful in terms of plot drive — lost books, hidden conspiracy narratives and so on make for good adventure, played correctly!
And that seems like enough for me. This post is
almost now over 6,000 words long, but the details may serve me well in the long run, as a set of notes about the Poundian occult. (Incidentally, my reading of the book inspired a sudden outburst of fiction, and I have a short story featuring the hieros gamos and palingenetic ritual, set at the site of the ancient ruins in Eleusis. Yay!) But now, I need to sleep (as I write this, it is late on Monday night, the day before this is due to be published).
Next week, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled Canto-readings, tackling at least Canto XIV, probably XIV and XV — two “Hell-Cantos.” Until then…
2 thoughts on “Pound and the Occult: Leon Surette’s The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and the Occult”
There is a strong connection between occult groups and republican political movements in southern europe (this still exists) and bohemians and …. science fiction, Promethean types pre-45. One of the founders of Jet Propulsion Laboratories, Jack Parsons was an occultist: L Ron Hubbard stole his girlfriend and apparently the treasury for his group; both were correspondents of Aleister Crowley. I think the sort of sybaritic imaginative impulse that fed these groups was vacuumed up and commodified by 60s counter culture in both overt and covert ways. People don’t form these little groups any more; whatever energy was spent on such things goes into weed, netflix and Facebook. It still sort of survives in the underclass in America; if you go back you’ll find depressing little occult bookstores in the remaining industrial pockmarks where broken people thumb through ancient grimoires (in glossy softback bindings) and plastic amulets made in Vietnam.
That kinda makes sense, though I think one could argue that people don’t form little groups of many kinds now… it was easier to “drop out” and live on almost nothing in a lot of places in those days, in ways I think is much tougher now.
I also suspect that in many ways, the “occult” portion has dropped away from such groups in direct relation to how sexual mores have loosened up. This has allowed weird, manipulative types to adopt other models of recruitment—especially wellness and self-help models—and to scale up their operations as well, since why keep things quiet when you can scale up and get rich while you’re at it? (High profile examples would be NXIVM, Orgasm Inc, and so on.) But yeah, social media has also ended up being one way those energies get channeled, meaning there’s more homogenization in how the same impulses that drove membership in those groups in the past manifests today.