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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?)

This entry is part 42 of 56 in the series Blogging Pound's The Cantos

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 this series.

This post continues my work on the “Chinese” Cantos, covering Canto LV, but may also interest people more interested in SF, fantasy, and so on. It includes a discussion of some pulp and weird authors contemporaneous to Pound, such as Robert Howard (specifically Conan) and Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft.

The puzzle, here, is a question: What does Pound’s Chinese Cantos have in common with Robert Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian stories, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories? I hope to answer that, while answering why Pound turned to China when he did, in this discussion of Canto LV.

Some mood music, of a very un-Poundian nature:

It is a rainy day in Saigon as I write this, or, at least, as I begin to write this, the very same music of Jan Garbarek that you are now hearing filling my ears, the downstairs floor of this cafe loud and crowded enough to distract me, although I sit upstairs, looking out at the sky grey at mid-afternoon with the torrents of rain queued up to fall. In the street outside, the motorbikes throng past, even in the rain, even in all the wet, and I am struggling to gather my thoughts.

Curious, an interjection so personal as that, in this series, but not, I assure you, merely self-indulgence. My point is this: Saigon for me is now a place, a concrete actuality, in some limited but very tangible way, just as Seoul and Delhi and Jakarta and New York and Seattle and Saskatoon are for me, and just as Brussels and Venice and Blantyre and a million other places are not. The Saigon in my mind is not Saigon, of course, but it is, I suppose, like a jazz improvisation on that particular set of chords that make up this or that standard tune.

Some would look at it and say, that’s not the Saigon I know; but it is a Saigon, one of the ones experienced by someone. The experience, as Thomas Metzinger apparently argues, takes place neither in the world nor in the “mind” (a thing unlike what we think it is like), but on that membrane that constitutes the interface between the two, but at least there is an interfacing with the place, in concrete and raindrops and the vibration of my tympanum. (Today, especially, hence the Jan Garbarek.)

I write all this because I’ve been thinking about why Pound wrote so much about China in the Cantos, without ever traveling there. For him, it wasn’t really a “real place” in the way Saigon, or Seoul, or Jeonju, or Bangkok, or any of those other places I’ve been are for me. China, for Pound, is some other sort of place… the sort of place that Africa was for a fair number of jazz musicians who’d never visited–a place onto which experiential ignorance was experienced as a positive, a blankness onto which projection of ideals and beliefs was possible. Sort of the same thing as space was for folks like Sun Ra, who claimed extraterrestrial origins:

I’ll provide a link to the fascinating Sun Ra film Space is the Place at the end of this post.

I find myself thinking again of Leon Surette’s comment, in A Light from Eleusis, about the relative lack of interesting material in the Chinese and Adams Cantos. It goes beyond thinking that I’ve been warned. It goes far beyond that: I think, here I see something of what ties Pound to the popular literature roughly contemporaneous to this part of the poem–contemporaneous in a broad sense that ranges from the work of Robert Howard to that of Tolkien and Lovecraft.

What is striking about The Chinese Cantos, and about Canto LV in particular, is the lack of anything interesting to talk about. Nobody goes into this poem expecting a revelation, a stunning surprise, a sudden volley of gorgeousness, or some hermetically concealed occult buffet. We have been trained by the Cantos preceding it to expect more of the same: a litany of emperors–the good, the bad, and the ugly–and we are trained to expect those emperors to be praised or condemned along very simple lines: their economics policies, their military victories (which garners praise from Pound for their generals as well); their respect for the arts and literature and learning (and Confucius) or lack thereof; the virtue of their chosen queens or consorts; and their religiosity or, preferably, their lack thereof.

Likewise, the cast of villains has been sketched out clearly, and “sketched” is the correct word: the “bad guys” in this set of poems is comprised of a very obvious and clear set of figures:

What is interesting is that however criminal and horrible the Buddhists and Taoists and corruptive women might be in Pound’s reckoning, they seem less far-ranging than the eunuchs in their wickedness: they may rip off the people, or exert evil influence in the palace for a while, or peddle toxic immortality potions to rulers, but they’re nothing compared to the eunuchs, whom one cannot help but sense the most emblematic of the “usurer” archetype analogues in the Chinese Cantos.

Why that might be is an interesting question. After all, the power of religion has been far ranging in all empires. Buddhists and Taoists hung on just as tenaciously as the eunuchs. I suspect Pound’s special hatred for the eunuchs isn’t just rooted in the polemic of his primary source for Chinese history, though: I suspect it has to do with his concern, throughout The Cantos, for fertility, virility, and the magical power of (especially male) sexuality. In some sense, he began with thanatos–in the necromantic ritual of the nekuia in Canto I–but the poem is as much about eros as it is about thanatos. Indeed, in The Cantos, one sometimes feels as if Eros and Thanatos are the two active forces vying to win the Earth:

Bergman’s film comes much later, but seems inspired by the same sense of perilous competition over the fate of the world.

Eunuchs, of course, are not fertile: in Chinese practice, apparently it was usual for them to have their genitalia completely removed (sez Wikipedia, at least)… and yet, they also, as Terrell’s gloss on “eunuch” (note 10 for this Canto, on page 228 of the Companion) they were in a position not only to observe the sexual activities of the royal family, but to influence those activities! Here, for anyone aware of Pound’s thoughts on sexuality, alarm bells immediately are set off, even if not by the original lines in the poem that prompted the gloss:

And yet he was had by the eunuchs, 
        the army 800 thousand
        not tilling the earth

Here “tilling the earth” feels like a call-back to an earlier reference to the public works–including farming–done by another Emperor’s army, but is very much seems to double as a characteristically neo-Eleusinian indictment of a lack of fertility, of reproduction, of “natural increase” of the kind impeded by usurers–like those who are mentioned in the very next line:

And half  of the Empire tao-tse hochangs and merchants
so that with so many hochangs and mere shrifters
        three tenths of the folk fed the whole empire...

There are barbarians, of course, and hints toward the end of the Canto of the rise of Temuzin, that is, Genghis Khan. But the barbarians seem as much to serve as a foil for those more decadent and ruinous of emperors. Those barbarians, the occasional temptress women Pound includes, and the corruptly exploitative Buddhists and Taoists we encounter in the poem have nothing on the eunuchs.

If you’re finding yourself thinking of a certain TV eunuch now, I wouldn’t blame you:

… and this is the link to which I alluded earlier. Pound’s recitation of Chinese history here–the seemingly endless litany of great rulers, followed by pathetically bad ones, of villains and grand heroes of enlightenment–and his profound attraction to ancient, mist-shrouded times of the distant past and of distant climes–strike one as reminiscent of nothing contemporary to his work so much as the worldbuilding that went into books like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, or, earlier, the worldbuilding Robert Howard did in developing the Hyborian Age setting for his Conan stories (an adaptation of which can be read here, though, note, Howard started his development of the Hyborian Age setting with a poem! And as I noted way back in my discussion of Canto I, both Pound and Howard seem to have been inspired by a classical poetical reference to the Cimmerian lands).


These being among the most obvious forebears for the kind of secondary-world fantasy that now is all the rage with the televisation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice (as A Game of Thrones). A Game of Thrones, indeed, shares a fair bit in common with The Cantos: people praise it for being less black-and-white moralistic than The Lord of the Rings, but another way to look at that is, it glorifies a certain kind of realpolitik, just as Pound did in his glorification of figures like Malatesta, Mussolini, and Confucius. (Pound’s version of Confucius, that is, who has more in common with European fascists of the 20th century Interwar period than the historical Chinese philosopher, although one may argue–and some have done–that the original Confucius, too, was proto-fascistic, and that Confucian thought could be, in the modern world, comfortably in bed with Fascism.)

The thing that Tolkien, Howard, and Pound–and, arguably, the George R.R. Martin of the TV show–share in common is their use of an otherworldly, fantastical setting that feels as if it may be our world in another historical period–some antediluvian past which is (ironically, considering the purpose of the deluge) a blank slate wide open for the construction of a fantastical historical world with a moral order, a political and social reality, that is tuned for the exploration of whatever ideas, aesthetics, and values the author wishes to explore. The use of the other world allows them a canvas on which to paint a vision of the world focused on those things they wish most to discuss or address:

That is: The Lord of the Rings is about power and its corruptive influence; about male friendships and bonding, as explored and poeticized by the relationship between Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins; about the decline of the world Tolkien grew up in (which is what comes to the mind with the elves and their retreat, and the tragic decline of the dwarves); and about monarchy and the valorization (or revalorization?) of monarchic rule, as in the figure of Aragorn in his reclamation of the Throne of Gondor.

Similarly, though I know them less well, Howard’s Conan fantasies are clearly about exploring the tension between the pleasures of civilization and its restrictions–the same sort of dynamic we see in Westerns, which use the “Old West” to the same purpose Howard used Hyboria–about about masculinity, mortality, bellicosity, and morality–stories written in a world still recovering from one World War, while another was already in sight on the horizon.

Then there’s Lovecraft, whose ancient world is prehuman, and other-dimensional, and who uses instead ancient books, and a secret conspiracy underlying reality, to give play to the concerns that occupied him most. Lovecraft and Pound share a very specific sort of difference from these writers, which is that they use conspiracy, and literary references–a secret world/reality mapped out in texts that serve as occult cartography revealing the unrealized, secret nature of the world itself.

Nonetheless, Lovecraft and Pound’s fantastical conspiracies and secret histories (which both bear more than a little resemblance to that of Theosophy, a movement that influenced Howard’s Mars books) seem to serve the same writerly needs that authors like Tolkien and Howard achieved by inventing fantastical second-world settings, or placing fantastical settings somewhere in the dim mists of prehistory in our own world. (The line for Tolkien and Howard alike seems blurred to the point of the blue being the point.) All of these authors used these imaginary settings to discuss their own preoccupations and themes in a setting where other considerations don’t exert the same conflicting and distracting influence on the discussion.

Pound has been doing precisely that kind of thing all along, of course: he has done it with European (and North African, and Middle-Eastern) literature, and history from Canto I, albeit with more explicitly “literary” (or metapoetical) concerns being those in which he was most interested at the beginning. And unlike Tolkien, Pound simply used foreign/ancient languages instead of inventing his own–but used them to say things that he wanted those languages to express. The Greek and Latin in The Cantos is Poundian Greek and Poundian Latin, after all; so in a sense, Pound has been doing this all the way along, and the parallel with pulp and fantasy literature has always been there.

But as economics came to dominate The Cantos, his desire for a truly blank-slate setting in which to explore all of this seems to have grown: a secret occult historiographic fiction wasn’t enough anymore, and he needed a whole “world” to paint his myth into, since, after all, the importance of economics in his mind by this point was of world-scale: economics (and its ties to the sexual and artistic health and power of a civilization) was all-encompassing, so an imagined world was needed to explore the effects of tho healthy and unhealthy economics on a grand scale. (Heinlein, again, comes to mind.) At some point, apparently, it struck Pound that China, although a real place, was the perfect setting to use for this end: most Westerners knew even less about Chinese history than they did about the history of medieval Occitania or of Renaissance Italy, so he could not only use it as he pleased, but could also claim to be educating them on the “facts” of Chinese history, while bending the recitation to suit his own propagandistic ends.

The litany Pound chooses to recite, in summing up Chinese history, is of course very selective: he includes only snippets that seem to confirm the thesis he had going in–a thesis that, when it is embodied in the kinds of stock characters I described above, becomes transparently obvious. But the characters, more than that, move from being enigmatic individuals-who-may-also-be-manifestations-of-some-universal-dynamic (as in the earliest Cantos where similar figures are thematically rhymed with one another), and become more like recurring pulp stock characters: the Corruptive Consort; the Doomed, Debauched King; The Virtuous Ruler; the Trustworthy Advisor; the Efficient General.

But what’s really interesting here is that most of the bad guys, in this kind of treatment–the Buddhist, Taoists, and the Evil Eunuchs–don’t get particularized beyond their group identification. It’s almost never particular Taoist alchemist or Buddhist monk, or a specific court Eunuch: when the king is had, he is simply “had by the eunuchs.” (The sexual innuendo there inescapable.)

That, I think, is why the specifics of the Chinese Cantos are so much less interesting than the fact Pound wrote them at all, and why I’ve found myself having less and less to say about the poems in specific as I go on. Really, I’m just slogging through to get to the good stuff; there’s precious little of it in Canto LV, and, yes, I am happy to say I have only thirty more pages of Chinese Cantos to read before I’m on to the (supposedly, also-bewildering/frustrating/boring) Adams Cantos. But it gets me that much closer to the Pisan Cantos.

Still, in terms of specifics, there are a few bits and pieces in the poem with comment, of course. The first of which is the double string of Chinese characters appearing on page 290:

Terrell offers a translation as follows:

Human men uses their wealth to develop themselves; inhumane men use themselves to develop wealth.

… but notes Pound’s translation (from his book Confucius) has a slightly different emphasis:

The human man uses his wealth as a means to distinction, the inhuman becomes a mere harness, an accessory to his takings.

Pound’s translation is, obviously, agenda-driven to say the least, and seems pretty flawed to me…but also quite revealing. Pound here seems to be bending over backward to make Confucius a capitalist of the sort who, say, might build railroads like his grandpa did.

Another thing that drew my attention in this otherwise dry poem are the notably modern references: jazz, here–“jazz age” especially–is decidedly negative: “jazz dancing” and “jazz age” are both linked to debauch and excess of an Empire-toppling sort, and a reference appears again to the confino mentioned in XLI (in this case, aged and corrupt bureaucrats are consigned to it by ). Less modern references are also tantalizing, such as one passing reference to jongleurs (medieval wandering minstrels of France, associated by many with the troubadours).

There are a few other moments of interest, which come and go in passing and which Terrell doesn’t help us to understand much:

                (...) The tatar lord
        wanted an alphabet
by name Akouta, ordered a written tongue for Kin tartars

And a fox wandered into the Imperial palace
        and took his seat on the throne
a mad man ran shrieking: change, tartars more tartars
tartars piss over Hoang-ho (...)

Striking images, in passing, and they seem to refer to Akuta, chieftan of the “Chin” (Qin) tartars who took over Beijing. But… so what? So, the Dynasties rise and fall. They are dramatic in the boredom of their consistency in doing so. The barbarians are interesting in their embrace (in earlier cantos) of civilization, and their antipathetical violence towards it–once again, shades of Conan. Would that Pound had been more interested in that dynamic, rather than in prescribing a medicine for it: Pound seems to think the issue is fixable, where Howard seems rather to think of it as a fundamental component of the problematics of civilization, period. Or that’s my impression from the little Howard I’ve read. (The Conan stories are on my reading list, but it’s a long list.)

By the end of Canto LV, we’ve arrived at the age of Genghis Khan, whose name, reputedly, is some kind of onomatopoeia of the sound of an invisible magical bird that heralds great happiness. (Accoring to Terell.) Khan may be interesting: he is the first East Asian warlord to have any significant impact on Europe, though the Mongol invasion in Eastern Europe… which would interest Pound, whose literary project seems to also link China to Europe.

Genghis Khan also fits Pound’s ero-fecundity obsession, though it’s unclear whether Pound was familiar with the idea… it’s possible, though, since so many dynastic leaders in so many places claimed descent from the man or his children. Canto LVI supposedly discusses Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, and the Mongol Empire, so we’ll see what Pound does with it next time…

In any case, I’m not sure whether there’s anything to really sum up, here, beyond what’s already been written earlier in this post, though I do find myself stunned at the commonalities I’ve traced between Pound and so many early pulp/genre writers.

That said, this Canto is probably the least interesting (in terms of its contents) of all I’ve read so far. Here’s hoping things pick up with the next one!

And for those who haven’t yet seen the Sun Ra film Space is the Place? Here it is:

Link updated:

and again (but if it fails, just search the title of the movie: it’s constantly available somewhere online… or get the DVD, if you like. I have a copy, and it’s worth having for occasional hits of amazingness):

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