Monday, October 6, 2014

Pound, Confucius and Slither. A.David Moody's Ezra Pound Poet, Volume II the epic years.#2

In the late 1930s Pound was promoting Confucius as the remedy for all political ills. The fundamental principle was ‘to call people and things by their correct names…to see that the terminology [is] exact’(qtd Moody 247).   Pound failed to practice this  in his prose but then neither does Moody.  

If the cantos are a ‘poem which includes history’ or ‘the history of the tribe’ the accuracy of that history HAS to be an issue if it is History. Moody recognizes this but slips around the question.

Pointing out that Pound credits Van Buren with actions that his sources credited to Andrew Jackson (p.173): There is more going on here than an alternative version of who did what. Pound was privileging the moral force over the mere fact, in order to create another Jeffersonian hero, an ethical hero, consistently committed to the just ordering of society.  This seems minor to his later claim on page 180:

It has to be recognized, if we are to get on, that Mussolini is as much an invented or mythical figure in these Cantos as Jefferson or Van Buren or indeed as Odysseus. He is just as much transfigured out of history into the poem Pound is making up and he plays his part there in an ethical drama which may be not at all an accurate fit with the political drama of the era.  Pound is not writing Mussolini’s story, nor Jefferson’s nor Van Buren’s. He is writing, as it turns out, the epic of the capitalist era, in which the will to social justice, as embodied in some few heroic individuals, must contend against the greed of the wealthy and powerful and the abuleia of the many. It is a story based on real persons and real practices and its credibility does depend to some degree on its truth to what is commonly known of those persons and practices. Beyond this believability, though, there is another order of reality, that of meaning and values, it is with these that the epic poet is most engaged, and in creating images of what is to be admired or hated, he will bend history to his ends.  But then the nearer a reader is to the history in question, the more problematic this can be. There is a problem, and there will be so long as the actual Mussolini is remembered, in accepting the Mussolini of the cantos as a hero of the struggle for universal social justice. It is a problem that anyone who wants to read the work must learn to live with. History may instruct us that the myth has grievously simplified the facts; and the myth may reveal things facts alone can never tell. We need both history and myth, but should take care not to confuse either with the other.

First note the  attempts to position the reader in the use of the words: 'drama', 'transfiguring', 'epic', at phrases like 'few heroic individuals', 'depends on some degree', 'bend history', 'another order of reality' 'may instruct us' and then those last three sentences.  

First the vocabulary: the real world in which people were dying is a “political drama”. ‘Drama’ is something fictional, staged, not entirely real or to be taken entirely seriously.  To see the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, or Mussolini’s increasing rapport with Hitler, or the move towards attempted genocide as a ‘drama’ is to trivialize suffering and empty the words of their meanings.

To suggest that ‘political drama’ is distinct to ‘ethical drama’ is to attempt a spurious distinction.  It was not possible, in the twentieth century, to write the kind of epic Homer or Virgil or Lawman or Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote about their distant past, without slipping into the world of historical fiction.  And it is not possible to use real people with all the baggage of their real activities, beliefs, speeches, actions, and just “bend history” to suit your purposes without moving out of writing history into fiction.  So either Pound is writing bad history, which invalidates his attempt to “write the history of the tribe” or he’s writing one of the most boring examples of 20th century historical fiction.

I’ve already commented on Moody’s use (or abuse) of the term Epic in the previous post. The Cantos are not ‘a myth’, they are one man’s idiosyncratic version of history serving an increasingly strident personal political agenda.

If 'we', (and how I do hate the smug positioning behind that first person plural) want to read the work, if we ‘want to get on’, [what does that mean?] 'we' have to live with factual inaccuracy and an author who could not tell the difference between facts and his own private fantasy.   

Which begs the question: why is the work worth reading? There is no insight on offer, no evidence of intelligence, knowledge or perception beyond the ordinary. 

The strangest claim of all is that if we wait long enough until historians somehow no longer provide accurate factual histories, Pound's inaccuracies will be acceptable.

The ethical question I would suggest is not related to Pound but to his supporters, and by extension to a whole trend in literary criticism and theory. Where does the verbal slither stop?  At what point do the endless pseudo-clever excuses and the carefully pseudo-clever redefinitions of familiar words stop being an acceptable practice? 

Why does “He was wrong” need to be qualified?

‘Does depend on some degree’….’there is another order of reality’, this is not calling things by their correct names. 

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