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.
After a long hiatus, this post picks up again toward the end of The Fifth Decad of Cantos (also sometimes called the “Leopoldine” Cantos), specifically dealing with Canto XLVIII.
It’s been a while, dear Poundian readers. The best-laid plans of mice and men, and all that…
Basically, life has, in several ways, intervened. While I have not given up on this project, I have ended up taking a break from it. Not from lack of interest in continuing… I just got really busy with work, and life, and other things I needed to get done.
And while I wish I could say I will be back on the horse and ride it straight through to the end of this book in the next few months, I fear this reading project may have to slow down until March or so. I have a crazy six or seven weeks more at work, but life is about to get busy in a number of other ways, too: some personal things are coming up, some film shoots, and more. I also have a strong incentive to work my way through several of the Pound-related secondary sources I have on hand right now, simply because I won’t have them on hand forever. So I might plunge through some of those texts just to get a better background while I can, before plunging back into the poems.
Still, I’ll be trying to get through a few Cantos here and there as I go, as I am today. I suppose it’ll probably take me till April or May to finish this project, but I’ll get there, I assure you.
In any case, today I’m dealing with Canto XLVIII. Yup, that’s right, one poem. And I’m afraid in general reading this as a poem, I agree with The Coffee Philosopher, who wrote:
…instead of using this [poem’s interesting opening] to jump off into a philosophical or historical poetics, he seems to just dropping historical names, places, and dates (Martin Van Buren, the Horn, 1926) without pulling it all together into a coherent and enjoyable whole.
Fortunately, he makes it all worthwhile with his final, gorgeous stanza.
The interesting opening is a couplet raising a question about–what else?–the interest-rate system:
And if the money be rented Who shd pay rent on that money? Some fellow who has it on rent day, or some bloke who has not?
One can forgive Pound for having an interest in topics that don’t interest one; but it’s harder to bear the jumble that follows here: references to the last Ottoman sultan (who died, deposed, in exile), a spy named Kolschitzky, Kaiser Wilhelm, Fritz Von Unruh (again), John Quincy Adams’ father, J. Adams, Marx, Van Buren… There’s a mix of references to banking and war–especially the Great War, as it was still known at this time–on this first page of the canto.
The second page of the canto has Bismarck blaming the American civil war on “the jews” and “particularly on the Rothschild”–the standard banker-Jewish-economics conspiracy stuff Pound is indulging in now–including a reference that a Rothschild supposedly made to Benjamin Disraeli “that nations were fools to pay rent for their credit”. There is a brief flickering of the divine:
Δíγονος DIGONOS; lost in the forest; but are then known as leopards after three years in the forest; they are known as ' twice-born '.
This is, of course, a reference to Dionysus, to whom leopards and, really, all felines were sacred by association. This association with the ever-untameable cats makes sense: I can’t find a lot about this stuff of wandering in the forest for three years, Dionysus was the god of all things wild and natural, and thus was associated with wild places like forests. Some of his followers became wandering mendicants, as well, which makes sense, and of course Dionysus himself was supposed to have been twice-born: once “born” from the dying body of his mother Semele when she looked upon Zeus in his unbeholdable, godly form… and then a second time from his father Zeus’ thigh, where he’d been sewn in a kind of pagan-divine emergency medical procedure.
(Notably, given Pound’s various interests in Eleusis and the story of Cabestan, in the Cretan version the mother was Persephone, the child was slain (and consumed) by Titans, and Dionysus was saved when Zeus either recreated him from the heart and implanted him in Semele, or recreated him by feeding Semele the heart, which weirdly echoes with the reference in Canto IV to “Cabestan’s heart in the dish” and the constant references to Perseophone/Kore in the Cantos.)
While I haven’t yet had a chance to read Demetres Tryphonopoulos’ The Celestial Tradition, I’m aware of its argument that the Cantos is structured so as to function like a kind of initiation into a “mystery”–that is, “mystery” in the sense of the mystery cults of the ancient world. This moment seems to make reference to that, indirectly as far as I can tell, for the cult of Dionysus–a cult of outsiders and marginals in the ancient world, to be sure–seems to have featured rituals in the wilderness, and probably also featured some kind of renaming process for initiates who, metaphorically, had been “born again” like Dionysus. And if you think that sounds like the Christian notion of being “born again,” well, where do you think they got the idea? (Though, as the article argues, it’s possible that whoever the historical Jesus was also consciously participated in this remixing. I mean, when you’re going to start a religion, you can do worse than to remix a successful one from another culture.)
Another passage in the text linked above is handy:
Dionysus was important to the Eleusinian and other mysteries, as savior, liberator and ruler of the underworld. His name was a magical password of freedom; initiates who underwent mysteries were promised eternal life, and given special gold leaves that acted as passports into the next life. One of these, for example, reads “Tell Persephone that Bakchios himself freed you” (Bakchios/Bacchus is the Roman name for Dionysus) (Seaford, 55). Interestingly, it is probably Dionysus’ role as ruler of the underworld and keeper of the dead that has been transfigured into the modern conception of Satan: (Dionysus = bacchus = bull = horned one = ruler of underworld = Satan).
In this quote, the most interesting bit for a Pound-reader is the notion that the name of Dionysus is a magical password, which opens the doors to the next life to those who know it. Little wonder that Pound writes it first in Greek, and then in Roman letters: he his inscribing mystical knowledge, indeed, a magical word.
Which suggests something interesting about what the Cantos could be in my fictional project: not just a magical text, but also a sort of pseudo-spellbook containing magical materials–holy and sacred and magical words, some encoded only for those who have achieved gnosis–those who have gone through its initiation rite, and “know” what it contains and means. But of course, such a spellbook is powerful and holy enough–and gnostic enough–to contain its magical secrets not written only in a foreign language, but also encoded into the text cryptically.
It’s also interesting to consider the position of the narrator in relation to Dionysus: in Canto II, we see Dionysus through the eyes of a man distant from him, Acoetes–and we see also the destruction that is wrought upon those who mess with Dionysus. Here, though, the proximity seems to be that of an insider, one who knows the magical name, who knows how one becomes a ‘twice-born’ devotee and initiate of the Dionysian mysteries.
But then Pound transitions from cats to dogs, and excepts some letters regarding the siring of a dog, involving what look to me like Scottish names. The contrast between dogs and cats seems obvious, but its significance is not. Is Pound contrasting the Apollonian and the Dionysian? Is the Apollonian somehow tied to the “legitimate” world of finance and banking and “usura” against which Pound rebels with Dionysian fury? If so, why quote letters about prize dog-breeding, and especially passages that don’t bring anything to bear on such a comparison? It is puzzling.
And the puzzlement continues, with references to policies about the board of trustees at the Salem Museum (who, in a strange echo of the Voyage of Hanno, are required to have sailed round both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, respectively the southern tips of Africa and South America); something about interest rates in the ancient Roman province of Bithynia; the political-hierarchic policies of Athelstan (d. 940 C.E.), whom Pound considered one of Engliands “wisest kings” (so says Terrell), and who declared there would be no “theigns” (thanes) in his kingdom. There’s stuff about robber barons printing off stock like Monopoly money in the early days of stock speculation, and material from a conversation with a “Norse engineer” about a navigational feat, and quotations from letters Pound had received from Olga Rudge and from their daughter, Mary de Rachelwiltz. describing a mass in some detail–detail especially focused on “houses… full of lights” and “tree branches in the windows / covered with hand-made flowers”. Little Mary ends the letter requesting “a new pair of Sunday shoes” and the chance to “go back there”.
It is the last page that becomes interesting, finally:
Velvet, yellow, unwinged clambers, a ball, into its orchis and the stair there still broken the flat stones of the road, Mt Segur. From Val Cabrere, were two miles of roofs to San Bertrand so that a cat need not set foot in the road where now is an inn, and bare rafters, where they scratch six feet deep to reach pavement where now is wheat field, and a milestone an altar to Terminus, with arms crossed back of the stone Where sun cuts light against evening; where light shaves grass into emerald Savairic; hither Gaubertz; Said they wd. not be under Paris
Falling Mars in the air bough to bough, to the stone bench where was an ox in smith's sling hoisted for shoeing where was spire-top a-level the grass yard Then the towers, high over chateau--- Fell with stroke after stroke, jet avenger bent, rolled, severed and then swallowed limb after limb Hauled off the butt of that carcass, 20 feet up a tree trunk, Here three ants have killed a great worm. There Mars in the air, fell, flew. Employed, past tense; at the Lido, Venezia an old man with a basket of stones, that was, said the elderly lady, when the beach costumes were longer, and if the wind was, the old man placed a stone.
This is that kind of stuff of Pound’s that those who love his work as poetry tend to argue makes worth it the slog through all the economics and the anti-semitism and the cryptic hints at incomprehensibilities.
First, the clearest references: Mt. Segur is a mountain in Southern France where Pound visited twice, once alone and a decade later, with his wife Dorothy. It is also infamous as the site of the last stand of the Cathars, also known as the Albigensians. Those who have read Pound’s The Spirit of Romance cannot help but remember a reference to these so-called (by the Church) heretics in a footnote where Pound argues against theosophist G.R.S. Mead’s claim that the Cathars were a sort of latter-day Manichean/Gnostic cult; Pound preferred the idea that they (and through them, the poetical tradition of the area where they flourished, that of the troubadours) was a kind of hidden, surviving remnant of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
One can understand Pound’s attraction to the Cathars: they were, like him, rather heretical, and outsiders in Catholic Europe; they were isolated, and maltreated, and finally they were massacred (by “Paris,” yes, but at the behest of Rome), the last of their numbers holding out and finally being either converted to Catholicism or slaughtered at Mt. Segur (or Montsegur). The narrative power of those last holdouts resisting conversion is an attractive one, indeed so powerful it has even spawned a role-playing game; and Pound was clearly interested in these people. His conviction that the Cathars were a remnant of the ancient world is echoed in other remnants of the ancient world: a stone road beneath a wheat field, an altar to Terminus, and of course the presence of cats on rooftops, for cats were, again, sacred to Dionysus. Pound invokes this connection between the ancient world and the troubadour one–a notion he first suggests very clearly works through the Cathars in Canto XXIII, in the context of the “Troy in Auvergnat” first mentioned in Canto V.
But mixed into this first block of text is another reference that doesn’t map quite so directly, at least not without reflection. Rereading it, one wonders what is being described in those opening lines. What is it that is velvet, yellow, unwinged, clambering into an orchis and becoming its ball? Terrell suggests–correctly, I think–that it is a kind of insectile chrysalis that has not completely finished its transformation into a winged creature of beauty, one that figuratively is being compared to an image of fecundity, a testicle in a scrotum.
The transformation process, one imagines, is meant to parallel the initiation process into the mystery, while the fertility symbol hints at the mystery concealed within the gnosis of this cult: that of life, fertility, and of the triumph over death of life, of spirit, of the mind.
And it is the mind that seems crucial here, for the insectile imagery recurs–and it will recur still more, in the Pisan Cantos. Here, several scholars have noted, Pound is riffing on Remy de Gourmont, whose The Natural Philosophy of Love Pound translated. The text has plenty of examples of insect reproduction, but it is in Pound’s introduction to the text (available online here) that we see something peculiar: Pound basically suggests an identity between the stuff of which the brain is formed in a developing fetus, and (male) sexual fluids, principally semen. (This, one hopes, was a glaring warning to any reader of the text about the dangers of trusting a poet to translate a book making any claim to scientific content.)
Insect, utility; bird, flight; mammal, muscular splendour; man, experiment.
The insect representing the female, and utility; the need of heat being present, the insect chooses to solve the problem by hibernation, i.e. a sort of negation of action. The bird wanting continuous freedom, feathers itself, Desire for decoration appears in all the branches, man exteriorizing it most. The bat’s secret appears to be that he is not the bird-mammal, but the mammal-insect: economy of tissue, hibernation. The female principle being not only utility, but extreme economy, woman, falling by this division into a male branch, is the least female of females, and at this point one escapes from a journalistic sex-squabble into the opposition of two principles, utility and a sort of venturesomeness.
In its subservience to the money fetish our age returns to the darkness of medievalism. Two osmies may make superfluous eggless nests, but do not kill each other in contesting which shall deposit the supererogatory honey therein. It is perhaps no more foolish to go at a hermit’s bidding to recover an old sepulchre than to make new sepulchres at the bidding of finance.
In his growing subservience to, and adoration of, and entanglement in machines, in utility, man rounds the circle almost into insect life, the absence of flesh; and may have need even of horned gods to save him, or at least of a form of thought which permits them.
I’m not even sure what parts of that are supposed to mean, but a few things are striking: the insectile images, the notion of the insectile-human state of humanity (and, specifically, man) in a mechanistic world, the clearly differentiated and cosmologically fundamental male and female principles that are present not only in the work of de Gourmont but also in Chinese thought, which Pound is (at least generally) about to launch into in a few pages in the Chinese Cantos.
There is also the reference to “horned gods… or at least of a form of thought which permits them” saving man from collapsing into “insect life”: this is interesting in particular in reference to this poem since Dionysus was associated with the horned bull… an association which may be the basis for our perception of Satan as horned, if Satan is in part modeled on a demonized representation of Dionysus. (There is also the likelihood that Pan plays a role here, but then, Pan hung out with Dionysus and was part of the crowd of nymphs and satyrs who were always pictured around him.)
So even in his introduction to de Gourmont’s book, Pound seems to be busy not only developing what will end up being his own riff on de Gourmont’s theories of sexuality (which amount to a sort of endorsement and prescription of free love, in which context the at-times rather profligate Pound will argue that “genius depended on a special interaction of testes, pineal gland, and brain” (cited on page 170 of Tytell’s Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano), but also making (cryptic) references to Dionysus as a savior from the mechanized, utility-driven modern world.
What’s important to understand here is that Pound is not demonizing insect life in its utility: rather, he is claim it as one form of valid manifestation of the same thing which, in human beings, can manifest in the right conditions as genius. Insects may be mindless, but they are in themselves and the utility of their very bodies manifestations of the same generative principle from which human intelligence, human mind and awareness and even genius, arises. It’s just that humans stranded at the level of utility are not manifesting that principle in they way that humans characteristically ought to do, or with the same exuberance that the insect exhibits its utility-in-application, whether by the transformative process of the chrysalis, or in flight…
… which brings us to the first line of the last block of text in the poem: here, “Falling Mars in the air” seems to be (says Tyrell, and it makes sense) a metaphor drawn from de Gourmont, one describing the male insect “armed for copulation”–“a jet avenger”…
Here three ants have killed a great worm. There Mars in the air, fell, flew.
The ants in their hunt (reminiscent of fantastical knights slaying a wyrm), the Mars bringing to mind the grasshopper in flight at the end of Canto XVII.
These moments in miniature seem to represent the presence of the same divine, transcendent animating principle that acts within humans–setting stones on beach costumes to prevent the wind tearing them from the ground, the divine among quotidian scenes of the countryside like those in the third and fourth line of this final block of verse:
Mars in the air, fell, flew.
It may as well have been Icarus, except that its flight and fall are not the consequence of arrogance, but rather simply a process of nature. The insect, having reproduced, expends its utility (for de Gourmont and Pound’s definition of utility), the way humans expend their own fundamental, generative forces through the development of mind, the creation of art, the expression of experience, and of course their sexual lives, which de Gourmont argues are intricately tied to their intellectual and artistic lives.
Pound is not so much espousing a kind of “Intelligent Design” understanding of the world, so much as he is claiming some sort of variant on the idea of panpsychism that most people I know encountered through Rudy Rucker’s discussion of it a few years ago, which he also applied to his novel Hylozoic (among other things). In this way, humans exist at various points along the range of manifestations of that (for Pound) seminal impulse: is placing the stones on the clothing mechanical? Is it intellectual? Is the man reduced to a fundamental process, or is he acting self-reflexively?
He ends the poem there, but I suspect he will argue that it is more important to patiently continue through the initiation rite–to read on through the text–than to linger here and puzzle things out. And so…
I won’t spend time recounting in detail what I think is useful of for my fictionalized Pound character, as this post is long enough, but the notion that the Cantos is not just a cryptic and divinely magical text, but also some sort of encrypted “spell-book” containing pagan secrets that actually do allow access to power is a useful and interesting one. The further clarification of Pound’s interest in Dionysus is also interesting, especially since it poses a fascinating dyad of forces: the Dionysian in opposition to the (modern, industrial) Apollonian. I will have to read Nietzsche’s writings on this, I suppose: though Pound wasn’t a fan of the man’s work, he received a lot of Nietzsche through secondary sources, and it doubtless had influenced his view by the 1930s, when The Fifth Decad of Cantos saw publication.
Next time, I’ll be dealing with the oft-discussed “Seven Lakes Canto,” Canto XLIX. It is very short, at a page and two-thirds, but complex enough to deserve some sustained attention, I believe. (Also, it will give me a chance to read through the book I have on hand that deals with Pound’s relationship with China and the Chinese material in the Cantos.)
But before I go too far, I also need to finish reading the last of Leon Surette’s books in my pile, Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism. Expect a report back on that in the next week or two…