This post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, a few at a time. The readings are atypical, for reasons made clear in my first post in the series.
This post begins my work on the “Chinese” Cantos, starting with Canto LII.
UPDATE (1 Sept. 2013):
I’ve just realized, I neglected to say anything about the enormous Chinese character that appears on page 254, where Pound discusses his use of the French form of the Chinese names in the following Cantos. Beneath that, there is this character:
I originally understood the character to mean “rays” (as in light, which is to say, that it relates to solar light, to the Neoplatonic light philosophy Pound loves so much). But I happened to come across a reference in Ezra Pound and China (edited by Zhaoming Qian), specifically in Hong Sun’s essay “Pound’s Quest for Confucian Ideals: The Chinese History Cantos” (which partially available through Google Books (here)), that explains this character in detail:
That makes the link between Pound’s conception of Chinese history, and his fascination with Neoplatonic light philosophy, even more apparent.
I’m still not quite halfway through The Cantos, in terms of the individual poems that make up the text–there are CIX, or 109, in total, plus some assorted drafts and fragments for poems that remained incomplete at the time of Pound’s death. By that count, I’m still about four poems away from the midpoint of what was completed. And as far as sheer page-count, Canto LII spans pages 257-261 out of a total of almost 800 pages!
Still, I’ve arrived at the Chinese Cantos.
(Well, sort of. All over the place–including in the Terrell Companion to the Cantos–people seem to consider the Chinese Cantos to begin at LIII, not LII, but my copy of The Cantos shows them beginning at LII, and Canto LII definitely has enough stuff related to China and Confucianism to qualify. I dunno. It’s a weird distinction.)
In terms of publication, The Chinese Cantos make up the first half of the book published in 1940 under the title Cantos LII-LXXI. 1940 is a telling date, of course: the world is by that point embroiled in its second major war during Pound’s lifetime, which, given Pound’s reaction to the First World War, must have been a soul-crushing horror to the man. Pound’s work in this book is split into two halves, as I mentioned; after China, Pound turns to John Adams.
These are not the most popular parts of the Cantos, by a long shot. In fact, I’ve dreaded reaching this section of Pound’s long-poem ever since reading Leon Surette’s discussion of the Chinese and Adams cantos in A Light from Eleusis (a book I discussed earlier in this series), and it turns out that, so far, I was about half-right in my dread.
Which is to say, the poems promise not to be the most engaging of The Cantos, though they do have their moments, or at least offer potential insights into Pound, which is what I’m after in this project anyway.
The Chinese Cantos are, in a sense, a rehearsal of Chinese history, and Pound is more unfamiliar with it, so it ends up being Poundian transcriptions of primary source texts… that is to say, Poundian distillations. The difference being that when Pound is working with a tradition and literature he knows better, he draws interesting and surprising (at least at first) parallels, he rhymes events one might not think to juxtapose, and he even provides a kind of insight into things. Pound knows Western history imperfectly, of course, but he knows it well enough to play that sort of game with it. (Here “game” is not a pejorative.)
But Chinese history is less familiar to Pound, and so his juxtapositions feel a little more predictable, a little more straightforward, and to some degree Cantos LII and LIII feel like summaries of books he’s read, in fact, almost like the notes of a student working through a textbook.
If we were to return to my metaphor of Pound’s poetical process as being akin to the blackface minstrel shows he surely saw in his youth, which I discussed when I covered the Malatesta Cantos, I’d say Pound doesn’t really know how to go about even starting to do yellowface, nor can he do a convincing “Chinaman” to save his life, and to some degree, I feel like Pound knows this, hence the great distance from China that one senses in the first few China Cantos (I’ve read both LII and LIII so far), which one doesn’t sense earlier on. Perhaps Pound does slip into character in later Cantos, but I haven’t reached those yet, so I don’t know.
But this is not really the stuff of great poetry, though a few things are interesting in all this:
- Pound’s focus reveals a lot about his thinking and his psyche. He spends about ten pages just building up a line from the first emperors to Confucius, in Canto LIII; in Canto LII, he spends several pages just rehearsing seasonal rites. These things seem very important to Pound, but it is the way he signals their importance–the bits and pieces of those historical records he chooses to mention–that are interesting.
- Pound’s effort to link East and West seems fundamental and crucial to understanding why he’s doing this. We could, of course, argue that Pound is just hedging his bets, wanting to hold off on declaring the fascists historical heirs to the classical world, to Eleusis, to Confucius, and perhaps he is doing that; but he also seems profoundly concerned with making connections between Chinese history and the history of the west, especially that secret history with which he is so concerned in all the Cantos up until now–the secret history of the survival of pagan and classical ideas, values, art, and culture into the present… all of which seems crucial to the project of the Cantos as a whole.
I’m sure I’m not saying anything new here. Sadly, I have very few resources on hand, and none dealing with Pound and China. But I will do my best.
Canto LII actually doesn’t launch into China right away, which is probably why people don’t seem to consider it a “Chinese” Canto. Rather, it begins by reminding the reader that the Cantos just preceding discussed
...how things were under Duke Leopold in Siena And of the true base of credit, that is, the abundance of nature with the whole folk behind it.
… and then proceeding into some eyebrow-raising, jaw-dropping Jew-bashing, which needs to get addressed.
Note Pound using the word “folk”–only a tiny step away from volk, a detail that seems to matter a great deal on the rest of this page of the poem, for Pound here launches into some pretty aggressively anti-semitic stuff. It does little good to protest that here, Pound differentiates between the “jew” (“Stinkschuld” and “a few big jews”–those Pound held to be at the root of all fiscal and military evil in recent European history, like the Rothschilds) versus the “Jew” (“poor yitts paying for / Stinkschuld / paying for a few big jews’ vendetta on goyim”). Not even Terrell’s muted quotations of Pound on this differentiation really does much to dull the offensiveness of these lines.
This is worth reflecting on: we know Pound is an anti-Semite, and yet each occurrence in the poem seems to shock us. Not just me, but many others I’ve read discussing The Cantos. It’s impossible to get comfortable with those references, and unfortunately for The Cantos, the connection between Pound’s obsession with economics and his anti-Semitic fantasies are so inextricable, the hatred seems constantly beneath the surface. It is, perhaps, important to understand that Pound saw himself as making a fair and sane differentiation, and also to understand how poorly he understood the degree to which this troubled others. But at the same time, sometimes I feel like we are confronting an attitude that was far more widespread than anyone seems willing to admit. I have the strange feeling that, if we were to hop in a time machine and hang out with Henry James, or young Eliot, or Joyce, or any of the literary, artistic, and political figures famed in the West at the time of Pound’s flourishing, one would find similar sentiments, if perhaps slightly muted. After all, I’ve encountered a similarly off-putting passage in the novel In the Days of the Comet, by H.G. Wells, an author that isn’t really widely considered an anti-Semite though passages here and there do betray some discomfiting attitudes, like the one from The War of the Worlds discussed here, or the passage from The Shape of Things to Come discussed here.
My point is not, in any way, to defend Pound’s anti-Semitism, which seems both more rampant and more integral to both his identity and his work. My point, rather, is to acknowledge that the bigotry he expresses clearly and unreservedly is one that, in all honesty, was in fact widespread in Europe and North America at the time. I remember in my hometown, being shocked to discover that not only had the Ku Klux Klan been in operation, but they had advertised in the Henderson Directory–a sort of proto-phone book for the city–right after the Kinsmen Club. They had been great supporters of–and their popularity had risen as a result of the success of–D.W. Griffiths’ abhorrent The Birth of a Nation, a film that was celebrated worldwide, but which was also a visual poem to the ostensible “heroism” of the KKK. When we pointed out that in the 1920s Saskatoon hadn’t had many black people around, the professor who’d shocked us by bringing all this to our attention told us that they had focused on First Nations people (i.e. people who were then called “Indians”) and Métis, on Catholics, Ukranians, and Jews.
It seems strange to those of us who grew up after the news of the Holocaust became widely known and widely acknowledged, I think. (I suspect, from all I’ve read, that the Holocaust was widely suspected long before it was widely acknowledged, but I’m no expert.) But the reality seems to be that many, many people outside the Nazi sphere of influence had plenty of troubling attitudes towards Jews, well into the 20th century. It also seems as if, while exposing the horrors of the Nazis, the rest of the Western world very quickly and tidily buried its own past bigotry, the way, for example, H.G. Wells became a vocal supporter after the Holocaust became news, but had been a fervent anti-Zionist prior to that moment.
What I’m saying, in a sense, is that Pound’s anti-Semitism (obviously more extreme and pronounced in comparison to most of his American, English, French, and Italian peers) discomfits us not just because it is horrible, but also in part because of the success of the general cover-up that Western Europe and North Americans, at least, have carried out regarding just how widespread anti-Semitism really was, as well as how countercultural it was (to some degree) to speak out against it. Pound had colleagues who did reprimand him for his anti-Semitism, the quotations are in all the books if you want to see them, but those colleagues did not speak out for a long time; it is often suggested that they were humoring him in his eccentricity, but I cannot help but wonder. (Perhaps my experiences in Korea, where bigotry against pretty much every other race on Earth is broadly tolerated and not often confronted even by people who see this bigotry as wrong, has helped me to look at Pound’s Era more honestly, which is to say, without the protecting shroud of historical forgetfulness. I don’t know, though: I don’t know enough about the status of anti-Semitism, beyond noticing that a number of writers I enjoy betrayed, rather unwittingly, very ugly attitudes toward Jews (as well, of course, as women, other racial groups, homosexuals, and so on).
All of that is somewhat stunning to contemplate. I mean, can you imagine any other widespread, deplorable bigotry so effectively erased from the collective memory of young people? Part of what makes a TV show like Mad Men is that the sexism, racism, and homophobia are shocking in their openness, but not in their presence: we all know, or pretend to remember, that this was what it was like in those days. Perhaps our forgetfulness regarding the history of sexism (or our ignorance about just how liberal parts of American society were during the 1920s) to some degree comes close, but even that we remember a bit better; the anti-Semitism that was once so widespread and unchallenged has been banished into the shadows, never to be acknowledged… except, of course, if we’re talking about the Nazis. It’s weird, and says something to our collective anxiety about anti-Semitism, as well as to the brutality and backwardness of our so-called civilization.
(I imagine a century hence, people will be attempting to cover up the widespread acceptability of anti-Muslim sentiment, and our ridiculous attitudes towards young people, and the remaining force of all the old bigotries like racism and sexism and homophobia, the same way. The Oatmeal recently put it very well.)
There are more interesting things to say, of course: from the little I can read via the sample available on Google Books, Charles Ferrall points out in Modernist Writing and Reactionary Politics that Pound’s unmistakeable anti-Semitism seems to incorporate a fundamental ambivalence about Jews, as both the prime perpetrator of usury (Stinkschuld) but also, simultaneously, the Jews are the prime victim (in terms of the so-called “little jews” and via the “goyim’s revenge”). Not that we ought to be comfortable with that idea, but only to point out that anti-Semitism is not monolithic: there are many chambers in that abhorrent mansion, and anti-Semitism, like any ideology, is usually more complex than it appears from the outside. We ought, as adults, to be able to recognize something is abhorrent without that preventing us from trying to define the specific nature of anyone version of that ideology–that is, pinpointing which specific ideas combine to build up that position.
The problem, of course, is that such investigation has often been the work of the apologist. Again, as adults, we ought to be able to occupy other positions than that; recognizing what specifically Pound’s anti-Semitism was can never, and should never, be a defense of it (in truth, nobody I know is seriously interested in defending it, anyway), but looking into that lightless void, perhaps, may teach us something about the nature of bigotry, the nature of ideological misguidedness, both of which are intensified both in Pound and, I would argue, unwittingly in ourselves, by the third thing we can learn about studying Pound (and Wells, and other writers whose greatness as writers does not erase their troubling beliefs and attitudes): that is, we can learn something about self-blindness.
And as SF fandom recently noticed, there is a degree to which self-blindness is histrionic. But it is also a reaction to stresses: the stress of being an artist in a world that does not really value one’s work any more, if ever it did; the stress of being a story teller whose tales have failed to change the world. Wells and Pound both railed at the world for not heeding them, both in their essays and articles, but also in their main work. The self-blindness, in a sense, is a symptom of the person who is just mad enough to create, and that self-blindness is potentially within any creator… something to ponder, very carefully.
All that said, it is still inescapably discomfiting that Pound uses the word “Jew” the way he does here, and that he goes to the lengths necessary to even enlist to his aid no less than Ben Franklin (in the context of a forged, completely fictitious document calling for the banning of Jews from America).
Anyway, one suspects that Pound got in such a welter of anti-Semitism in part because of the massive absence of Jews in Chinese history, to which he is about to turn… as if he figures, he might get a few hard jabs in now, while he could, because he wouldn’t get a chance for a while, you know?
One can only hope that the absence of Jews from Chinese history will also give us a break from all his anti-Semitic drivel, regardless of how much of a slog as the Chinese Cantos are likely to be, the respite from that other kind of discomfort would be welcome. All I can say is, the Chinese and Adams Cantos I read only so that I can experience the Pisan Cantos in their apparent glory, and so I may see Pound perhaps chastened, and as introspective and lush as ever he is. And yes, in all frankness, the Chinese and Pisan Cantos feel right now, for me, like the homework necessary to get there and understand how Pound got there.
Not that first one is that much of a slog, really. At least, not after the opening page and a half (or so) of tedious Jew-hating. For that’s when Pound finally turns to China… and, specifically, to Li Ki, as Terrell romanizes it: that is, The Book of Rites, a Confucian text of proper rites to be enacted a the proper times and places in relation to the months of the year, and the seasons:
Know then: Toward summer when the sun is in Hyades Sovran is Lord of the Fire to this month are birds. with the bitter smell and the odour of burning To the hearth god, lungs of his victim The green frog lifts up his voice and the white latex is in flower In red car with jewels incarnadine to welcome the summer In this month no destruction no tree shall be cut at this time Wild beasts are driven from field in this month are simples gathered. The empress offers cocoons to the Son of Heaven Then goes the sun into Gemini Virgo in mid heaven at sunset indigo must not be cut No wood burnt into charcoal gates are all open, no tax on the booths.
Pound goes on in this vein for the better part of four pages, paraphrasing bits and pieces of a French/Latin double-text translation of the Chinese book of rites titled Li Ki.
But he is making a great effort to tie together China and the West. Not in how he discusses the rites themselves, mind–those are thoroughly Chinese, so Chinese in fact that Pound surprisingly omits parallels he could have drawn with Europe. But he emphasizes one European cultural feature: the constellations he names are all those of the Western zodiac. I am unfamiliar with the Li Ki, but I do know that China has its own classification and grouping system for the stars; that is, Chinese astronomers (and astrologers) had their own names for constellations that were rather different from those created (and shared) by ancient peoples in the West. That Pound uses the Western zodiac is interesting, given the very colorful names of some of the Chinese constellations and groupings of constellations. (Wikipedia can give you a taste of all that.)
Of course, there was no Wikipedia for Pound to consult in his run-down place (in Rapallo, by this point), and it may be that the source text translation may have simply substituted the Western constellations for the traditional Chinese ones… but Pound seems to be very interested in organizing these Chinese Rites, and the flow of a year in Chinese traditional, Confucian, culture, along the lines of what Europe and China hold in common: the flow of the four seasons as markers of the flow of time, and the stars above them throughout the ages, as perhaps as markers of eternal forces or truths. Here is how Pound solidifies the thing he declares he wants to do create on the second page of the poem–to create that place
Between KUNG and ELEUSIS
That is, between the Confucian paradigm not only as philosophy, but also as a set of rites practiced, and the somewhat similar, but also very different, occult mystery rites of Eleusis in the ancient Hellenic world. This line proves to be very important to Pound’s overall procedure, not just in this poem but elsewhere. But it’s worth noting the detail that, by organizing the Confucian Rites in terms of the process of the sun through the constellations of the Western zodiac, Pound is effectively forcing a kind of “fusion” of the two cultures, as well as suggesting parallelisms between these ancient cultures. The same is achieved in other little moments, such as when he uses the Latin name for the spirits of the dead–“manes“–when discussing grain sacrifices made to the dead in ancient China.
(Later, at least in Canto LIII, he attempt the same kind of Eurasian fusion by constantly noting important moments in Chinese history in their relation to the birth of Christ, and the Western calendar in general, among other things.)
Of course, there’s still that distance here that I mentioned above, and it strikes me right now that it’s particularly pronounced when it comes to Pound’s handling of the deities of Chinese ancient religion and myth: we get no sense of who Sovran is, or whether he is important. The Lords of the Mountains seem like little more than faceless bureaucrats to be appeased. This is nothing like how the deities of the Romans and Greeks come alive on the pages of earlier Cantos, or even the necromantic enchantment in those earlier pages: here, necromantic magic seems simply a part of the order and function of the Confucian Rites. One wonders: is it because Pound is too invested in Confucius’ notoriously anti-supernatural philosophy, or is it simply because Pound ain’t that comfortable (or familiar) with Chinese mythology? I’m guessing it’s probably the latter, or at least mostly the latter.
There is a brief return to Lord Palmerston, the man who is, as Terrell puts it, a celebrated minor figure in the Cantos, a “directio voluntatis” who works for the good of the people and got things done… namely, projects like the draining of the swamps in Sligo (in Northern Ireland), and fighting the worst effects of the industrial revolution in London:
Begin where you are said Lord Palmerston began draining the swamps in Sligo Fought the smoke nuisance in London. Dredged harbour in Sligo.
Palmerston was, in fact, a mid-19th century reformer, and his regulation of the burning of coal in London echoes injunctions against the cutting of wood for charcoal, or the burning of wood into charcoal, at certain points of the year within the Li Ki.
Palmerston is, here, perhaps a minor echo of Confucius in the West, a player in the politics of Europe which, in his age, rather resembled the pre-unification, fragmented and fractious China of Confucius’ time… but I’m getting ahead of myself a little, since Pound turns to that in earnest in Canto LIII… except that he doesn’t mention Palmerston at all there, so I want to make sure I bring it up here.
Which brings us to the end of Canto LII. I had originally planned to cover Canto LIII as well in this post, but at over 4,000 words I feel like this one is long enough. I shall turn to LIII next, then, and it’s an important one, for we get not only the earliest history of China,all the way back to the mythic age of the first emperors, but we also go all the way forward to the life (and death) con Confucius himself. Given Pound’s fixation on Confucius, this is bound to be crucial to our understanding of Pound, of the Cantos, and so on.
As for my fictional Pound, it would seem that Pound is, by the time he is drafting these poems, studying Chinese calligraphy somewhat seriously–well, as seriously as he studied anything. (He did study everything that interested him, and he did so intensely, but as to the seriousness of it, that depends on how you define that word.)
In any case, by 1938 or 1939 my fictional Pound would be studying Chinese characters regularly, memorizing a few and learning to paint them, and would be studying Chinese history–not just Confucian history, one images, but also searching for occult heritage in that world, perhaps even searching for allies for his ongoing occult struggle in the West. Who knows: perhaps he even finds some?
Ha, maybe there will be room for some wuxia in this story after all!
And now, I shall do as the final Chinese character in Pound’s poem commands (or at least, what Pound and Terrell believed it meant):
[Zhǐ: To Stop.]