This is not a critique or a review of A. David Moody’s new book, the second volume in his biography of Ezra Pound. I haven’t finished it yet. But there’s something I want to consider.
‘Mr. Pound’s Hell’, Mr. Eliot objected in his notorious and yet very curious put down in After Strange Gods, ‘is a hell for the other people…not for oneself and one’s friends.” One must allow that Pound did not share his friend’s taste for damnation. More to the point, Eliot’s remark is a doubtless deliberate attempt to place Pound’s Hell within his own Christian frame of reference, which Pound had very deliberately exercised. (p82)
Ignore the positioning of ‘curious’ and ‘notorious’. How many of Moody’s readers would know the whole quotation? After Strange Gods is a hard book to come by. Moody does not mention the fact that Eliot’s opening comments include, ‘Mr. Pound is probably the most important living poet in our language….’
What Eliot wrote or said is at the bottom of this post. His criticism raises three linked questions:
1) A moral point which shades into art, which you may or may not agree with.
I resent/reject the idea of Original Sin, however, if you secularize the argument it is worth considering: if you remove the idea of moral or spiritual struggle, you are left with the belief that life is as simple as good people doing good stuff and bad people doing bad stuff. It’s not a question of people making choices that are bad or good. A writer who believes in that is going to create characters which lack sophistication. On a moral level, the argument is going to lead inexorably to some ugly places. The ability to casually ‘Other’ whole groups is evidence of the kind of simplistic thinking which might not inevitably lead to racism and other forms of intolerance, but is certainly going to be a logical development of a predisposed mind.
2) There is an artistic point.
Pound’s hell cantos are tedious, they sound like the lonely child in the play ground, ostracized and getting its own back by sneering at everyone. Artistically they don’t compel because there is no attempt to make the readers feel they could be in hell, because this hell is a place for them. Not us. And it’s not a place where you arrive after a series of choices, so there is no disturbance, just the smug gratification of knowing lady golfers are going to hell. (???)
3) By implication, there’s a personal one with general implications which links back to art.
Eliot knew his man. Pound’s habit of setting himself up as expert and judge, without necessarily questioning his own opinions or actions, without accepting anyone else’s evaluation of his opinions, is also being called into question. By what right does Pound put these people in Hell? He really did think that by writing the cantos, issued in a small, expensive edition, so that few people could afford them, and written in a way even fewer people could understand, he could rewrite the world. This is a delusional behavior. No amount of conceptual hocus pocus can change this. The Cantos don’t work. Either as sustained poetry or a political document. Measured against Pound's claims for them, or as a demonstration of the function he claimed for poetry in the modern world: they fail. They did not stop the second world war, they did bring about the Renaissance, and no amount of special pleading is going to change that.
The emperor was naked, but his strategy was to claim to understand nakedity better than anyone else. There was no basis for this. He was the self-appointed, self-elected genius of his own universe. And anyone who dared to say he was naked was going to be buried under a counter blast of faux scholarship, faux criticism and vitriol. Disagree and you end up in hell.
Almost a hundred years later, the trick is wearing thin. And it seems strange that the acolytes are still playing the party line and dismissing criticism on the grounds that the critic just isn’t clever enough to understand what he’s criticising.
In After Strange Gods Eliot wrote or said:
At this point I shall venture to generalize, and suggest that with the disappearance of the idea of Original Sin, with the disappearance of the idea of intense moral struggle, the human beings presented to us both in poetry and in prose fiction to-day, and more patently among the serious writers than in the underworld of letters, tend to become less and less real. It is in fact in moments of moral and spiritual struggle depending on spiritual sanctions, rather in those ‘bewildering minutes’ in which we are all very much alike, that men and women come nearest to being real. If you do away with this struggle, and maintain that by tolerance, benevolence, inoffensiveness, and a redistribution or increase of purchasing power, combined with a devotion, on the part of an elite to Art, the world will be good as anyone could require, then you must expect human beings to become more and more vaporous. This is exactly what we find in the society which Mr. Pound puts in Hell, in his Draft of XXX Cantos. It consists (I may have overlooked one or two species) of politicians, profiteers, financiers, newspaper proprietors, and their hired men, agents provocateurs, Calvin, St Clement of Alexandria, the English, vice-crusaders, liars, the stupid, pedants, preachers, those who do not believe in Social Credit, Bishops, lady golfers, Fabians, conservatives and imperialists: and ‘all those who have set money-lust before the pleasures of the senses’. It is, in its way, an admirable Hell, ‘without dignity, without tragedy’. At first sight the variety of types –for these are types, and not individuals- may be a little confusing; but I think it becomes a little more intelligible if we see at work three principles, (1) the aesthetic, (2) the humanitarian, (3) the Protestant. And I find one considerable objection to a Hell of this sort: that a Hell altogether without dignity implies a Heaven without dignity also. If you do not distinguish between individual responsibility and circumstances in Hell, between essential Evil and social accidents, then the Heaven (if any) will be equally trivial and accidental. Mr. Pound’s Hell, for all its horrors, is a perfectly confortable one for the modern mind to contemplate, and disturbing to no one’s complacency: it is a Hell for the other people, the people we read about in the newspapers, not for oneself and one’s friends’(After Strange Gods, p.43).