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.
These are not exactly typical readings of the poems, so much as readings I’m doing with a specific research project in mind for a fiction project I’d like to write next year. 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.
This post continues with The Fifth Decad of Cantos (also sometimes called the “Leopoldine” Cantos), specifically Cantos XLVI-XLVII (and for more on why it’s suddenly only two cantos, see the end of this post).
To those readers who balk at my discussing six cantos in a single week’s posting, I say: look at these Cantos! They’re substantially shorter, and some of them at least are also substantially more interesting, than some of the Cantos that preceded them. All six take up only twenty pages, which is quite something: in the following section of The Cantos, a number of individual Cantos are around fifteen pages long.
Also, they seem to link together in a way — as well as linking back to the USURA Canto discussed last week. So, I figure, what the hell: let’s give it a shot, and see what happens. After all, I’m still hoping to get through all 200 pages of the Chinese and Adams Cantos in no more than four weeks! (My fond hope to do it in two weeks feels a little unrealistic, but we’ll see: Miss Jiwaku is traveling next week, for most of two weeks, so I can hunker down and plow through it if I feel like it…)
That’s enough of my planning and plotting. Anyone reading this series is here for the discussion of the Cantos, so I ought to get straight to that.
When I read Canto XLVI, what crossed my mind was how much I think Pound would have liked the film adaptations of John Grisham’s novels, like The Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill, and most especially The Firm, with all its corporate conspiracy. Pound infamously loved what he considered “bad movies, the worse the better” — and what he loved was genre film, which in his day seems to have especially meant Westerns — that is, cowboy movies.
But Canto XLVI reads much more like a kind of extract from a fantastical courtroom drama; the closest analogy I can think of is James Morrow’s Blameless in Abaddon, where a few people put Jehovah on trial at the World Court for crimes against humanity. Well, just as the central, recurring theme in Morrow’s work is God and religion, the central theme in Pound’s (at this point in his career) is economics; therefore, the poem includes lines like
(...) Seventeen Years on this case, nineteen years, ninety years on this case
Seventeen/nineteen years before the drafting of this poem (in 1935) means 1918, or 1916… around the time that Pound first encountered C.H. Douglas and his Social Credit ideas, at the London office of the magazine he wrote for, The New Age. Pound even includes a self-mocking description of his own exchange with Douglas, describing himself as a “fuzzy bloke” with “legs no pants ever wd. fit”, and gives himself a rube’s accent in the dialog.
This is not the only flashback to the offices of The New Age, either. The editor (and Theosophist), Alfred Richard Orage — who introduced Pound to underconsumption economics and to soem of the occult ideas that preoccupied him for the rest of his life–is presented voicing criticisms of several major figures of the day, in terms of their thinking on economics. (George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Chesterton, to be exact.)
There follows another long passage that seems to be mostly reportage of an anecdote given to Pound by one Marmaduke William Pickthall, another writer for The New Age, a Brit who at some point had lived in the Near East and converted to Islam. Pickthall has nasty things to say about Greeks–which surely annoyed Pound–but is quoted at much greater length in an anecdote about a camel driver who seems to take every opportunity to avoid talking about theology.
Marmaduke’s comments about Muslims show just how little things have changed in eighty years, for in the past week, one has seen plenty of similar generalizations in the wake of (yes, in places over-the-top) protests of that Innocence of Muslims film lately. Pretty nasty stuff… though, well, I’ll save my comment till after I quote the money shot:
...said Mr. Marmaduke: " Never will understand us. They lie. I mean personally " They are medacious, but if the tribe gets together " The tribal word will be kept, hence perpetual misunderstanding. "Englishman goes there, lives honest, word is reliable, " ten years, the believe him, then he signs terms for his government " and, naturally, the treaty is broken, Mohammedans, "Nomads, will never understand how we do this."
First: Believe it or not, Pickthall was one of Britain’s most famous converts from Christianity to Islam. No, really: this guy was actually playing for the team he so harshly disparaged. He famously ended a London lecture on the morality of the religion with the surprise announcement that he, too, had become a Muslim. Whether Pound is putting words into his mouth, I cannot say, but such a contradiction would not necessarily be so surprising.
Second: Once again, it’s very easy to see similar kinds of postings about this online today; over the past week, I’ve seen more than a few (about Muslims and Islam). The more things change, the more the suckage refuses to disappear from the face of the Earth.
Third: I’ve heard expats in Korea say very, very similar things about Koreans. Hell, though I try to be more humane and decent about it–and talk of things in terms of cultural norms, rather than essentialism–I also warn people not to expect Korean employers to take the terms of their contracts completely seriously (or expect them to honor those terms to the letter); I’ve explained that it’s not completely unusual to see Koreans say things they don’t mean, for the sake of politeness or saving face.
It’s easy to imagine how a man born in an Anglocentric culture (without much anxiety about overgeneralizations or cultural sensitivity) would simply express this as, “They lie, they will never understand how we do things,” when even more culturally-sensitive, thoughtful people sometimes engage in the same kinds of generalizations.
An example: a woman I know who’s been here decades, and is married to a Korean man, told me, “I don’t to business with Korean friends. They’re just not good at separating the friendship from the work relationship.” Is this:
- overgeneralization based on cultural differences?
- a useful rule of thumb?
- infantilizing insult?
- it does overgeneralize (I have Korean friends I have done business with, with no problems) and yet
- it is a useful rule of thumb that reflects particular cultural pitfalls for an expat, which an expat may not realize without being warned thus, but
- it is also an insulting infantilization (because it implies through its shorthandedness something essentializingly racist; it is expressed as a criticism of something inherent in the Korean race, instead of as a carefully phrased observation about differences in attitudes towards business and friendship between Western and Korean culture.
But aside from his anecdotes about chats in the offices of The New Age, most of what Pound does in this poem is to lay out his case against the bankers and financiers and other “usurers,” point by point, as lawyer rests his case, at each step reminding the reader that he has been “seventeen years on this case.”
Pound describes the usurious economic system as the “… CRIME / Ov two CENturies…” and painstakingly traces debts, deaths, and profits. He argues that the American Civil War was much more over money than slavery. He cites Jefferson’s philosophy of money, and Van Buren’s enaction of same, in support of his case–and just in case his legalistic apparatus for the poem isn’t clear enough, he throws in some legal terms from French in the process:
Pound also slams Marx on his understanding of currency, and points to the state of Manchester’s slums and Brazilian coffee as evidence for his diagnosis and prescription. This, it must be said, drives home what is wrong with that oft-used rejoinder to a criticism of a problem:
If it’s so bad, then what should we do about it?
Plenty of people today have sincere and well-founded concerns about how money, economics, banking, and the rest are conducted in our world right now–especially in how they all connect to power. But they mostly don’t have a solution to the problem. Diagnosis and prescription are not always jobs best carried out by the same mind, and often diagnosis is easier than prescription. Pound, unfortunately, was neither an apt diagnostician, nor an apt prescription-writer; all he managed was to realize what was obvious to everyone paying attention to economics in the day, which was, that something was indeed going wrong… at least, for artists, literati, and of course the masses of poor. But when has economics ever been truly kind to any of those people?
In the Golden Age, of course. Which is what we see in the historiography of Pound’s poem, especially his depiction of (and, I think one could fairly say, his preoccupation with) the Renaissance.
Funny Connection to Current Events #1: Pound makes mention of the Tea Party (the original, of course); this is interesting and timely because, in fact, I’ve lately been thinking of what Pound and the American Tea Party movement (especially its leaders) have in common. Racism; hysteria; fanaticism; economic ignorance mixed with a great desire to hold forth on economics; right-wing extremism; and a dogmatic attachment to bizarre ideas not founded in demonstrable reality? Yep, that about says it. But Pound was far from the only person in his time to was enamored with Mussolini and Italian fascism; indeed, if one looks carefully, one cannot help but feel thankful that neither Mitt Romney nor McCain/Palin had even a tenth of the charm that people found in Mussolini when he took over Italy–the Tea Party might be the New Taliban of America:
… but they are also representative of an old pattern in that society, of which Pound may be thhe purest expression. And like so many Tea Party members, there is a kind of religious underpinning to all this for Pound. Despite his not really being a Christian at all–from all I can tell, he was some kind of crypto-pagan–he criticizes the Church because he believes it lost interest in theology and focused on administration and on gettin’ stuff built (specifically “St. Peter’s” [basilica, in Rome]. This, Pound suggests, triggered the Protestant Reformation–of which, Terrell reminds us, Pound was not a fan, having gone so far as to write the following in a text included in Cookson’s edition of Pound’s Selected Prose:
I take it that the Catholic Church broke from the top, as Paganism had possibly broken. I mean to say that the Church was no longer interested in theology, it no longer believed or even knew what it meant. Leo X was interested in administration, in culture, in building St.. Peter’s. It simply never occurred to him that anyone would take Luther seriously. No one in his set did take Luther seriously, I mean as a writer or a thinker. He was merely a barbarian bore. Protestantism has no theology. By which I mean that it has nothing that a well grounded theologian can possibly consider salonfahig. (Terrell 182-3 n. 46)
Granted, a lot of that would piss off many Tea Party members, who are, as I understand it, predominantly Protestant Christians. But then, Pound slagged off plenty of occult beliefs while still taking other such beliefs very seriously. The histrionics, the panic, the dogma and fanaticism and the obsession with economics as an issue of fundamental good or evil all seem to tie them together.
In Pound’s case, he finds the net result of the decline of the Church as a European power with the rise of Protestantism overall negative:
[...] Thereafter art thickened. Thereafter design went to hell, ' Hic nefas ' (narrator) ' commune sepulchrum. '
“This is infamy” goes that latter line, “the common sepulchre.” Said infamy is, of course, usura — usury is our common sepulchre. And here, he goes into full-on Grisham poetics:
19 years on this case/first case. I have set down part of The Evidence. Part/commune sepulchrum Aurum est commune sepulchrum. Usura, commune sepulchrum. helandros kai heleptolis kai helarxe Hic Geryon est. Hic hyperusura. FIVE million youths without jobs FOUR million adult illiterates 15 million ' vocational misfits', that is with small chance for jobs NINE million persons annual, injured in preventable industrial accidents One hundred thousand violent crimes. The Eunited States ov America. 3rd year of the reign of F. Roosevelt, signed F. Delano, his uncle. CASE for the prosecution. That is one case, minor case in the series/Eunited States of America, a.d. 1935 England a worse case, France under a foetor or regents. ' Mr Cummings wants Farley's job ' headline in current paper.
All that Latin and Greek above, Terrell tells us, means:
Gold is a communal sepulchre. Usury, a common sepulchre. destroyer of men destroyer of cities destroyer of governments This is Geryon. This is hyperusury.
Geryon, of course, refers to the three-headed (or three-bodied?) monster slain by Hercules, who also appears in Dante’s Inferno. (See here for more on both those points.) There are other little things Pound throws in: at the beginning, what looks like a possible jab at T.S. Eliot (who, in his religiosity, is referred to as “Reverend Eliot”) and the question of Eliot’s having “found a more natural language” — more in tune with nature, with reality, with the primal and fundamental.
That’s a general summary of the case Pound lays out, with all the fervor he can muster. But there’s more, of course–with Pound, there is always more. And more. And more.
For example, there is a rather striking passage about precipitation, described rather tenuously, as well:
That day there was cloud of Zoagli And for three days snow cloud over the sea Banked like a line of mountains. Snow fell. Or rain fell stolid, a wall of lines So that you could see where the air stopped open and where the rain fell beside it Or the snow fell beside it. [...]
Overall, I found Canto XLVI unconvincing in the way Pound apparently intended–I’m not converted to Douglasite economics–but it is a weird and interesting poem in its own right, taking the form of a legal argument in a courtroom.
Canto XLVII is much different. It is a much more beautiful poem, not that I any longer object to Pound doing things that aren’t necessarily beautiful. (Not every poem needs to be gorgeous; some can shine in other ways.) But I find the poem beguiling in part because of its focus on rhythm. There are several rhythms present here:
- the coming and going of the tides (as witnessed in the Montallegre Festival in July, in Rapallo, where women set loose votive candles on the waters
- the turning of the seasons, and the fertility cycles so central to pagan rituals and belief systems (The Gardens of Adonis, the red streaks of fresh water in the Eastern Mediterranean each spring, the annual Eleusinian rites, and of course,
- the cycle of life and death, as implied in Odysseus’ visit to Tiresias
The poem in a very loose way plays with the imagery Pound saw at (Terrell claims was) the July Montallegre Festival in Rapallo (whatever that was); his description is riddled with invocations of pagan gods and goddesses associated with fertility and resurrection:
The small lamps drift in the bay And the sea's claw gathers them. Neptunus drinks after neap-tide. Tamuz! Tamuz! The red flame going seaward. By this gate art thou measured. From the long boats they have set lights in the water, The sea's claw gathers them outward. Scilla's dogs snarl at the cliff's base, The white teeth gnaw in under the crag, But in the pale night the small lamps float seaward Τυ Διωνα TU DIONA Και Μοιραι Αδονιν Kai MOIRAI' ADONIN
… by juxtaposing it with with several other things: the part of the Odyssey where Odysseus, after spending time with Circe on her isle, is sent off by her to see Tiresias, who can give him knowledge. Snapshots of images from Mediterranean resurrection/wine cults, especially the cults of Babylonian Tam[m]uz (and Adonis, who was basically s Greek remix of Tammuz) was well as their Roman equivalent, Dionysus… whom even early Christians seemed to recognize as being linked to the figure of Jesus in their own religion. (The parallels between the Christ narrative and features in the narratives of Adonis and Dionysus are compelling, but even more so is the claim made by modern scholars–which may or may not be true, mind–that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (the world’s oldest Christian church that is still open for business) was built on the spot where a cave consecrated to Tammuz-Adonis had once stood.
As a side note, anyone familiar with Gnostic versions of the story of Genesis, with the Christ narrative, and with Dionysus, will notice some interesting parallels. One is that Gnostics (dualists among them, at least, and especially the Manicheans) felt the serpent in the Eden story was a Christ-figure sent to help humans free themselves from the prison of the flesh (the Garden) through Gnosis (knowledge, as in, the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil). Another is that one of the animals associated with Dionysus was… bingo, the serpent. Dionysus/Adonis/Tammuz were all life-death-rebirth deities, but also interestingly, Dionysus was associated with wine in a sacred sense.. something he has in common with Jesus, whose blood is represented sacramentally with (or, as the Church states, transubstantiated into) wine. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the story of the Wedding of Cana, wherein Jesus transforms water into wine, was included to demonstrate his superiority to Dionysus/Adonis/Tammuz. And of course, Jesus was called “Lord” (which, in Greek, is… Adonai). For more on Gnostic scriptures and ideas, I recommend The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, though I will caution the reader of the Cantos that the texts Pagels discusses were not available in 1935, when Pound was working on this poem.
There is some gorgeous stuff in this poem, all almond branches and stars falling through them and the Pleiades (a constellation in Taurus, thus associated with plowing since oxen pulled many plows). There are agricultural cycles, sexual cycles, the coming of light and dark in the daily cycle, and perhaps Pound hints at another cycle: a metaphysical cycle where in life-death-rebirth gods themselves die and are reborn under new names, in different cultures, always with the same powers named at the end of the poem: “the gift of healing… the power over wild beasts.”
In that context, it’s interesting that Pound is invoking this particular god, and juxtaposing poetry about him with the Odysseus narrative of visiting dead Tiresias, a figure of special interest since he appears in Canto I, but also because he is dead, and yet retains his mind whole; because he, of all humanity, has had the experience of both genders, and knows what it is like to be both a man and a woman; because, dead, he speaks clearly and true in ways many people cannot or do not.
But I will not type out the poem any more than I have: it is beautiful, but more beautiful as a whole than in fragments.
As for my Fictional Pound-Figure:
- He is definitely struggling to find his way. Economics? Back to The Odyssey? The Cantos of course jumped from topic to topic at the beginning, but they didn’t do so anywhere near as violently as they do in the Leopoldine Cantos. Economics one moment, the cycles of nature/sex/death-and-resurrection/agriculture the next… and the canto that follows bounces off in yet another direction.
- Pound is studying Frazer’s The Golden Bough (again?) in 1935; surely he has read it before, as he makes references to it in earlier works; but he seems to have returned to this text of comparative studies in mythology/magic/religious belief across cultures. Again, he seems to be searching for a direction in which to go, which in itself is quite interesting.
- Pound’s rage about the economics issues that bother him, and the way most people react when he brings them up, is simmering hard now, and this isn’t helping things. He obviously feels as if the evidence is on his side, as if he is being logical and rational, even as he screams and rails in the courtroom of public opinion (and of his various relationships). Of course, he is slouching on towards the conclusion of this set of Cantos–another Usura-fixated bundle of verse at the end awaits. But his searches are about to drive him much farther afield–even as far as China–and that is noteworthy!
A note on procedure: I’ve decided to end this week’s post after discussing only two cantos. This is a decision I’ve made for a couple of reasons:
- I think my Cantos-postings have grown very long, perhaps too long for the average reader to read them. While I don’t think a canto-by-canto posting system would allow me to get into the kinds of explorations I want to–I much prefer posting about a few Cantos at a time–I would prefer to keep Canto-postings under 4,000 words from now on.
- Just because I end a post, doesn’t mean I can’t work ahead. I didn’t manage to this time–even during a week off work–but in my defense I had many other things going on. But I find I’m more faithful to this project when I’m busy than when I’m free from work, so hopefully I will be able to buckle down in the next few weeks.
Perhaps this will become a regular feature of my Cantos-postings. I’m not sure… but I do know that it’s been very hard this semester to keep up the pace I kept last semester, and that I need to start digging through my secondary sources a bit more, because while I definitely will have the Pound and Terrell on hand from March onward, I will not have most of the other Pound-related books that are, right now, lining my shelves.
But there’s no point on spilling more ink on procedure for now. Better I get this posted and get the hopper cleared for whatever comes next in the Cantos!