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Critical Essay by Philip E. Bishop
SOURCE: "'And Will the World Take Up Its Course Again?': Paranoia and Experience in the Pisan Cantos," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 536-53.
In the following essay, Bishop discusses Pound's effort to continue his epic historical vision in The Cantos after his traumatic imprisonment in Pisa and the demise of Mussolini. According to Bishop, "the jarring tonalities and circuitous associations" of his verse beginning with "Canto 74" "is the drama of Pound's recovery."
The relation between Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos and his alleged mental illness has not been satisfactorily explained. Some scholars ignore this complication entirely and explicate the Pisan Cantos without reference to Pound's certified mental incompetence. Others question the psychiatric verdict reached at Pound's trial, a verdict that might taint the literary value of those much-admired later cantos. This skepticism has been buttressed by claims that trial psychiatrists exaggerated Pound's symptoms to protect him from prosecution. But if Pound was not a psychotic (E. Fuller Torrey calls him a sociopath), then he deserved to stand trial for treason and might well have been executed. This can hardly be a great solace to Pound's critical defenders. Among the major Pound critics, only Eva Hesse asserts that Pound's paranoid condition may have affected the style and structure of the poems written at Pisa. But her reading of Pound's paranoid style remains highly theoretical, and the antipsychiatric twist to her argument may be, quite simply, mistaken. Indeed, if Torrey is correct, Pound's psychiatrists may have saved his life.
Or, it may be that the Pisan Cantos saved his life. Certainly, Pound's mental illness and these cantos shared the same traumatic setting: the wire cage at Pisa. They both arose from the shambles of ideological belief and poetic aspiration left when Pound was arrested for treason. From the cage at Pisa, Pound could see that his political hero was dead; his political enemies, triumphant; and his epic poem, discredited. The poetic project that Pound had pursued with such irascible energy had momentarily reached an end—a dead end. From this end, however, came a different beginning. Both Pound's symptoms and his Pisan Cantos were the means of recovering from this trauma, of going on with the Cantos and with his life. But both the poem and the life were inalterably changed. A reading of "Canto 74" reveals, I believe, that Pound's recovery was based upon false hopes and guilt-ridden despair. With "Canto 74," the course of his epic poem was diverted from history and toward delusion.
As is typical of Pound's life, his captivity in Pisa is a matter of dispute. The poet was arrested in May 1945 by Italian partisans and was eventually taken by jeep, handcuffed to an accused murderer and rapist, to the U.S. Army Detention Training Center at Pisa. This was a sprawling complex where soldiers convicted of violent crimes could work their way back into the regular army. Pound was placed in a cage normally reserved for prisoners under the death sentence. The cage had been reinforced with air-stripping, and the camp had been instructed to take special measures to prevent escape or suicide. In an affidavit Pound's lawyer, Julian Cornell, described the poet's predicament:
Pound was placed in solitary confinement in a steel cage specially built for him in the prison yard. He knew not whether he would rot away in this cage or be taken out and hanged as a traitor…. Not far away were the pens in which long term offenders were confined, but all other prisoners were forbidden to speak to Pound, and could not come near him.
… After enduring the tropical sun all day, neither sleep nor rest came with the night—electric lights glared into the poet's cage and burned into his bloodshot eyes. The cage was devoid of all furniture. Pound lay upon the cement floor in his blankets, broiled by the sun and wet by the rain.
After about three weeks of struggle to maintain his sanity, the wretched man fell ill. The heat and the glare, added to the hopelessness of being held incommunicado and the torture of solitary confinement, were more than his aging mind could bear. Pound was stricken with violent and hysterical terror. He lost his memory. He became desperately thin and weak until finally the prison doctor feared for him.
… The period of violent insanity apparently began about mid-June, to endure for three months or more.
After twenty-five days in the cage, Pound was moved to more comfortable quarters on the recommendation of camp psychiatrists. The psychiatrists found no evidence of delusion or psychosis. They described the poet's condition as a "transitory anxiety state" characterized by confusion, claustrophobia, and fatigability. Despite this reassuring diagnosis, Pound's mental condition remained at issue during his time at the camp. Fearing a mental breakdown, the doctors ordered Pound removed from solitary confinement and eventually granted some special privileges. A month later, the DTC commander reported that his most important prisoner had adjusted to prison life and was "mentally competent." By officially certifying Pound's mental health, the army was trying to avoid later trouble in trying Pound for treason. Despite their efforts four psychiatrists testified at Pound's trial that the poet suffered from delusion and grandiosity focused on his economic and political ideas. Pound was pronounced incompetent to stand trial and admitted to the government psychiatric hospital at St. Elizabeths.
Pound's mental suffering, whatever its proper psychiatric name, is but one aspect of the calamity at Pisa. Pound's twenty-five-year poetic project, the Cantos, was devastated by the events of 1945. Just a few days before Pound's arrest, Mussolini had been executed. Newspapers ran photographs of the Duce and his mistress, hung by their heels "like a bullock," as Pound later wrote in "Canto 74." In the 1930s and 1940s, Pound had repeatedly expressed his hope that fascism would rescue Western civilization from decay. Mussolini's death and Germany's impending defeat were the final disappointment of this political hope.
With fascism's demise, there came a crisis of purpose in Pound's masterwork. The Cantos' purpose had always been tentative and often obscure. From the beginning the poem's complex fabric of allusion, imagery, and opinion had been stretched upon a fragile narrative frame. This framework consisted of two overlapping stories. One story told the history of Western civilization's struggle against evil; the heroes of this story were Malatesta, Jefferson, Mussolini, and other leaders temporarily able to order and direct their subjects' lives. The second story was the autobiography of Pound's efforts to foster sound design and wise authority—Pound's efforts, in other words, to be a minor hero in history. His retelling of Western history in the poem is guided by Pound's eccentric beliefs about money, language, and politics. For example, much of "Cantos 42-44" is devoted to the founding of the Sienese Monte dei Paschi Bank, a momentous historical event in light of Pound's Social Credit opinions. (The founding of a public bank promised credit to farmers and freedom from usurious bank rates.) At the same time, the Cantos are sprinkled with references to current events that vindicated Pound's telling of history. There is constant interaction between Pound's polyglot beliefs and the emerging plot of his epic poem. Pound looked for (and found) confirmation of his beliefs in historical events, both past and present. As Michael Bernstein aptly describes it, Pound's heterodox beliefs unite in the Cantos "as narrative, where 'plot' become the realization of theory, and theory the privileged begetter of plot."
In 1945, however, history had refuted much of Pound's theory. The "plot" of Pound's poem was predicated on a series of moments when wise government and sound money had triumphed in history. Following his anthropologist friend Leo Frobenius, Pound called these "paideuma." Pound's examples of enlightened government included Malatesta's regime at Rimini, Jeffersonian America, and Mussolini's fascist Italy. Mussolini was positioned at the end of this history, where he was supposed to realize the best ideas of Pound's historiography and economics. The Cantos were telling and were to tell this story of triumph. With the fall of the Duce, however, the narrative progress of the Cantos was disrupted. Not only had they lost their historical plot, but, as Bernstein adds, they also had lost their primary audience, needing "to reach—and guide—a Jefferson (or, in Pound's case, a Mussolini), capable of ordering the nation by the authority of his judgments." In other words, Mussolini was both the Cantos' ideal audience and the historical agent who would put their ideas into action. Prior to Pisa the Cantos had established themselves as a peculiarly open-ended historical narration. Their completion—indeed, their validity as historical truth—was contingent upon a fascist victory in World War II.
So, in fact, the crisis at Pisa was threefold. Personally, Pound suffered the distress of imprisonment and apprehension about his impending trial. Pound, the ideologue, saw his opinions refuted by fascism's military defeat. Pound, the epic poet, saw the forward progress of his "poem including history" halted. The Cantos were blocked by the collapse of that historical "paideuma"—Mussolini's Italy—which might have vindicated Pound's masterpiece. It is this last crisis that interests me most, but the revival of the Cantos at Pisa was closely linked to the personal and ideological aspects of this trauma. This threefold crisis was united in the poet's own experience as an intensely personal cataclysm. Pound was to say later of his days at Pisa that the "world fell on me." Hugh Kenner has written that, just as Pound seemed ready to begin his Dantean Paradiso, "everything collapsed." Kenner continues:
For he seems to have assumed that his Paradiso when he came to write it would correspond to and be validated by a demonstrable public order, most probably in Italy. The Douglas insights seemed so accessible to comprehension, so simple of application, that theory ought to issue in practice as inevitably, and as rapidly, as electromagnet theory had issued in the telegraph. All it required was a statesman (Mussolini, perhaps) with the requisite will. So events and the poem ought to have run in counterpart, toward a paradise terrestre.
Before 1945 the Cantos' historical and autobiographical narratives had pointed toward a Utopian end. In Pisa, Pound could no longer intend to write an epic that would end in reconciliation and the revelation of truth. He could not write a Commedia: history had prevented it. Pound's imprisonment and the Allied victory had profoundly disturbed his poem's relation to historical time. The Cantos stood at a chasm in time that had to be bridged if the saga was to continue.
"Canto 74," the first of the Pisan Cantos, had to cross this gap between Pound's shattered vision and his uncertain future. It had somehow to recover from the trauma of the cage. The poetic tactics of this recovery are revealed in the canto's style. The poem's hallucinatory and dream-like qualities were intensified, as if to compensate for the Cantos' suddenly impoverished relation to history. Lacking a political or ideological explanation for his predicament, Pound grasped at the meager "contents" left him: cherished memories of old friends, piecemeal quotations from earlier cantos, disjointed perceptions of the hostile world that surrounded him at Pisa. And instead of historical narration, the poem reverts to a mythic or archaic time as the means for ordering its fragmentary contents. These poetic tactics try to make sense of Pound's traumatic experience at Pisa, to discover some point from which the Cantos may begin again. These tactics constitute the paranoid style of the Pisan Cantos.
The use of the term "paranoia" in this context does not imply a clinical judgment about Pound's condition in 1945. In psychiatry, paranoia is a mental condition involving deluded ideas of grandiosity and persecution, ideas that cannot be refuted by logic. In pathological cases, paranoia is a symptom of schizophrenia, the profound disordering of thought. But paranoia is also an act of imagination. Deluded ideas explain the paranoid's experience in terms of his own distorted perception and idiosyncratic logic. The paranoid's delusions are a genuine creation, a making or poiesis. Existential analyst Ernest Becker calls paranoia "truly a kind of poetics, a weaving of images around the limitations of the human situation, the plight of a peculiarly limited organism." The poetics of paranoia responds to a world that is indifferent to the paranoid's existence. It creates the (deluded) perception of a world that cares about the paranoid, even if only by hating him. This poiesis of paranoia helps to explain Pound's writings at Pisa; it was the bridge to Pound's future.
In this light, paranoid thinking has a distinctively constructive or affirmative character. Phenomenological and existential analysts in particular have stressed the affirmative cast of the paranoid delusion. They see the delusion as an original and elaborate explanation of the sufferer's role in the world; although impossible for others to understand, the delusion makes "sense" to the paranoid. Becker describes it as a way of dramatizing or "staging" value: "When the world reflects a lesser image than the patient has worked for, then there is a need for esthetic reordering. Paranoid fantasy is a principal device for righting the imbalance, for warding off the invasion of meaninglessness into a life that feels it has achieved so much that ought to be meaningful." Cut off from ordinary experience by their own distorted thinking, paranoids concoct idiosyncratic ideas about the world's rules of operation. These rules typically exaggerate the sufferer's importance in the world (i.e., they are grandiose), and they often blame the sufferer's predicament on agents of persecution (i.e., they are "paranoid").
A peculiar form of paranoid delusion has special relevance to Pound's case and the Pisan Cantos. It is called the "deranged experience of the world's end" (Weltuntergangserlebnis). The sufferer believes that he or she is the sole survivor of a world catastrophe, often a catastrophe for which the patient is responsible. The most famous paranoid of Freud's era, jurist Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber, believed that, as lone survivor of an apocalypse, he would soon become mother to a new human race fathered by God. Freud recounted the delusion in his theoretical analysis of Schreber's case: "Voices told him that the work of the past 14,000 years had now come to nothing, and that the earth's allotted span was only 212 years more; and during the last part of his stay in Prof. Flechsig's sanatorium he believed that that period had already elapsed." Moreover, Freud noted, Schreber came to believe that the global catastrophe was the "inevitable result" of his own illness, the consequence of Schreber's privileged bond with God and of his conflict with analyst Flechsig. Such an apocalyptic delusion offers the paranoid a means of restoring temporality and value to his experience. It allows one to say, "Time begins again, now, and I am at the center of it." In this kind of delusion, an imaginary and idiosyncratic time scheme replaces the historical experience of one's existence. The author of the delusion is often (as with Schreber) responsible for the world's end, or is charged (again as with Schreber) with a divine mission to rescue humanity. In short, the Weltuntergangserlebnis provides its author's life with a rationale and power that were missing in real time.
The Rome radio speeches offer ample evidence of Pound's intensifying paranoia and grandiose ideas during the war years. The poet had journeyed to the United States in 1939, expecting to avert world war by speaking personally with President Roosevelt and congressional leaders. This inflated sense of self-importance was matched with a virulently anti-Semitic paranoia. The Rome broadcasts were rife with Pound's own version of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy Western civilization:
SOMETIME the Anglo Saxon may AWAKE to the fact that the Jewish kahal and secret forces concentrated or brought to focus in the unappetizin' carcass of Franklin D. Roosevelt do NOT shove Aryan or non-yittisch nations in WARS in order that those said nations may WIN wars. The non-Jew nations are shoved into wars in order to destroy themselves, to break up their structure, to destroy their social order, to destroy their populations.
In Pound's peculiar version of this vulgar notion, the poet's own literary research and translation were the key to salvation. One trial psychiatrist testified that Pound's "remarkable grandiosity" focused on his mission to save the U.S. Constitution and on his belief that "he has the key to the peace of the world through the translations of Confucius." Pound told his examiners that he had given himself up in Italy to offer his services to the U.S. government as a diplomat or emissary. Pound viewed his imprisonment as a "double-cross," possibly engineered by agents of the British Secret Service.
These deluded ideas play an important role in "Canto 74," where they enabled Pound to reconstruct his relation to history. "Canto 74" dramatizes Pound's tentative efforts to regain contact with a world that now was the scene of his devastated hope. Despite the trauma of the cage, Pound was not silent for long. Even before his move to more hospitable quarters, Pound had evidently started to work on new cantos: parts of "Canto 74" were drafted on toilet paper. The camp's commander permitted him to use a few books and the company typewriter, hoping that writing might improve Pound's mental state.
These new poems had to bridge the gap between the first seventy-one cantos and a perilous future. "Canto 76" was to ask, "And will the world take up its course again?" "Canto 74" contains two answers to that question. One is based on a deluded hope, the other on a deluded fear. The hope was that Pound could mold the shattered pieces of his new world into a mythic substitute for history. The substitute's ingredients consisted of all that Pound could see, hear, and remember in the camp at Pisa. There are recollected moments of happiness; brief glimpses of natural order and beauty; and the residual desire for a redemption that history had now denied Pound. But Pound's hope coexisted with a fear: that he, Ezra Pound, and his epic poem had betrayed the fascist cause and helped to destroy the fascist paideuma. For years Pound had believed that language and writing were decisive tools in sound government. Pound expected that his writing—the Cantos above all—would undergird a fascist regime in Italy and the rest of Europe. The events of 1945 forced Pound to consider his own complicity in fascism's catastrophic failure. "Canto 74" contains the poignant, furtive admission that the Cantos had failed, too, and that their author deserved his punishment.
Pound's hope and fear are visible at different moments in the opening canto of the Pisan sequence. They represent the centrifugal and centripetal forces in the Pisan Cantos. Under their alternating influence, the poem's perceptions—grasshoppers "in coito," the crate made into a writing desk, remembered snatches of earlier cantos—either meld into brief, glistening lyrical fragments, or degenerate into babbling and verbal clutter. One moment the reader is in paradise, the next in hell.
The paradise of the Pisan Cantos has been altered from the earlier sequences, though. Paradise is not to be found in or at the end of history. Rather, paradise is located in an archaic time, which moves according to the changeless rhythms of Pound's own private myth. The chief token of this archaic time is the story of Wagadu, cited several times in "Canto 74." Wagadu is an African goddess who returns four times to rebuild her nation after catastrophes induced by human error.
4 times was the city rebuilded HOOo Fasa
Gassir, Hooo Fasa dell'Italia tradita
now in the mind indestructible, Gassir, Hoooo Fasa,
With the four giants at the four corners
and four gates mid-wall Hooo Fasa
and a terrace the colour of stars
Pound most likely heard this myth from Leo Frobenius and his researchers during their visit to Rapallo in 1939. Frobenius reports the myth as follows:
Every time the guilt of man caused Wagadu to disappear she won a new beauty which made the splendor of her next appearance still more glorious. Vanity brought the song of the bard which all peoples imitate and value today. Falsehood brought a rain of gold and pearls. Greed brought writing as the Burdama still practice it today which in Wagadu was the business of the women. Dissension will enable the fifth Wagadu to be as enduring as the rain of the south and as the rocks of the Sahara, for every man will have Wagadu in his heart and every woman a Wagadu in her womb. Hoooh ! Dierra, Agade, Silla ! Hooh ! Fasa !
One can imagine the myth's impact on Pound when he first heard it. It echoes themes long prominent in his own writing: the association of writing with gold and avarice; a series of great civilizations destroyed by human error; and a heroic savior who promises to build a final and lasting paradise.
"Canto 74" suggests that Pound superimposed the reappearances of Wagadu upon his history of paideuma; the fourth city of Wagadu is identified with "Italia tradita," or Italy betrayed. In 1945 this Italy was gone, erased by the Allied victory, by the "error" of Roosevelt, Churchill, and the international conspiracy against fascism. The fifth city of Wagadu is associated with the ancient Median capital, Ecbatan, which was built during the reign of Deioces ("Dioce"). Earlier in the Cantos, Ecbatan would have been cited as a historical example of paideuma. In "Canto 74," however, the city of Dioce represents an event beyond history:
yet say this to the Possum: a bang, not a whimper,
with a bang not with a whimper,
To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of stars
In this context the city of Dioce is an alternate figure for the last Wagadu, preserved in the heart of the true believer. The sole remaining believer, though, was Pound. Because no Deioces or Mussolini existed to build the city in fact, Pound had to build it in his mind, or rather, in his poem. The Pisan Cantos are Pound's attempt to construct this inward paradise, his persistent affirmation that Wagadu is not lost:
I believe in the resurrection of Italy
quia impossibile est
4 times to the song of Gassir
now in the mind indestructible
I surrender neither the empire nor the temples plural
nor the constitution nor yet the city of Dioce
each one in his god's name
The final Wagadu, the last paradise of order and beauty, now could exist only "in the mind indestructible," as a phantasmal paideuma preserved against all hope of realization.
Deprived of its narrative design by this new inwardness. Pound's epic devolves into a composite of lyrical fragments and allusions. These are the building blocks of the phantasmal city of Dioce. The roll call of Pound's literary friends in "Canto 74" is a good example:
Lordly men are to earth o'ergiven
these the companions:
Fordie that wrote of giants
and William who dreamed of nobility
and Jim the comedian singing:
"Blarrney castle me darlin'
you're nothing now but a StOWne"
and Plarr talking of mathematics
or Jepson lover of jade
Maurie who wrote historical novels
and Newbolt who looked twice bathed
are to earth o'ergiven.
This passage is, first of all, a poignant counterpoint to Pound's desolation at Pisa. It recalls Pound's life as literary entrepreneur and go-between in London; in its first line, the passage echoes "The Seafarer," one of Pound's earliest and most controversial translations. As a figment of Pound's earlier literary life, these lines preserve the memory of companionship against the ignominious isolation at Pisa. Similar fragments, to be internalized and protected, are provided by natural beauty:
Hooo Fasa, and in a dance the renewal
with two larks in contrappunto
nor is it for nothing that the chrysalids mate in the
air color di
green splendour and as the sun thru pale fingers
But these brief glimpses of natural order and remembered happiness are always broken off, alternating with Pound's rage at his persecutors and his anxious uncertainty. Deprived of any hope for historical redemption and denied the "plot" of history, the Pisan Cantos merely suspend these bits of paradise in a web of poetic suggestion. Paradise, says "Canto 74," "n'est pas artificiel / but spezzato [shattered] apparently."
Massimo Bacigalupo sees these fragments as evidence of a newfound "neo-platonism" in Pound's philosophy. He calls these disconnected images formae, that is, ideal aesthetic shapes that resemble the ephemeral "rose in the steel dust," the image that closes "Canto 74." Such a reading aptly underscores the idealism of this style: beauty is, indeed, an ephemera endangered by contact with the world of historical experience. Like the "diamond in the avalanche," these fragments of a hard and enduring beauty have been uprooted by history, scattered and buried in the calamity of 1945.
But Pound's was a curiously solipsistic platonism. The formae in the Pisan Cantos were the constituents of his poetics of delusion. The remains of paradise were themselves disparate: the orderly processes of nature, history's brief moments of sane government, the accomplishments and convictions of Pound's earlier career. Someone had to collect these shards of paradise and protect them from the dispersion of historical time. Of course, the only person qualified for such a project and aware of its necessity was Pound himself. Paradise would be "indestructible" only if Pound could preserve its remnants in new cantos. Thus, the Cantos acquired their new mission at Pisa: not to end history but to recover from it.
Out of this impulse emerged a new and precarious mission for the Cantos as a whole. Before the war Pound had hoped that Mussolini's Italy would be the earthly paradise. His epic poem was to be a useful prod and commentary for this new age, but not the agent of historical change itself. With Mussolini's demise, however, the very existence of paradise—even as phantasm—depended upon Pound's ability to imagine and record it. Thus, the cantos composed at Pisa were the fragile vehicle of paradise, threatened by history and by Pound's own confusion and dementia.
The grandiosity of this new mission for the Cantos is evident: the salvation of Western civilization rested upon Pound's poetic prowess. Paradise would be lost if that prowess weakened, if the Cantos "failed to cohere" as Pound had feared they might. For years Pound had insisted that muddled writing could undermine the state. Now, in the detention camp at Pisa, these convictions pricked the author with a bitter and self-accusing question: Had the obscurity of the earlier Cantos contributed to fascism's defeat? Would a failure in these new cantos—the degeneration of style into babble, the disintegration of form into rubble—mean the end of paradise?
These questions cast a shadow of guilt and complicity upon the Pisan Cantos' phantasmal paradise. The Wagadu myth, whose fifth city is the refuge of paideuma, also hints at the poet's responsibility for disaster. In the myth's framing story, the prince Gassire pursues a holy song of the poet's immortality. This song, to be played on a magic lute, would endure long after the battles had been fought and the poet was dead. But Gassire's quest for the immortal song causes incessant war among his people; the magic "lute of Gassir," it turns out, must be hallowed by his own sons' blood. In seeking beauty and immortality through the lute, Gassire finds that he has been banished and Wagadu has been lost. "Canto 74" refers repeatedly to the lute of Gassire and his cry, "Hooo Fasa." These references indicate that, in the midst of Pound's own banishment, Frobenius's story reinforced the poet's sense of guilt and betrayal. The story explained how, while reaching for paradise, Pound had reached hell and was caught there in a cage.
There is other such evidence in "Canto 74." For example, the canto twice refers to Ugolino, a character in Dante's Inferno. Ugolino betrayed his native city Pisa for private gain. As punishment, he was shut up in the Torre della fame with his sons and left to starve. Ugolino was consigned to the depths of hell by Dante, himself the victim of betrayal. By raising his eyes from the ground to the horizon, Pound could see Ugolino's tower to the left of Pisa's more famous landmark:
dry friable earth going from dust to more dust
grass worn from its root-hold
is it blacker? was it blacker? Nux animae?
is there a blacker or was it merely San Juan with a belly ache
writing ad posteros
in short shall we look for a deeper or is this the bottom?
Ugolino, the tower there on the tree line
Berlin dysentery phosphorus
la vieille de Candide
(Hullo Corporal Casey) double X or burocracy?
Le Paradis n'est pas artificiel
but spezzato apparently
it exists only in fragments
This passage is typical of the Pisan Cantos' laconic and disjointed style, a style that sets off intricate correspondences and identifications. The "friable earth" here is most likely the dirt path worn by Pound's vigorous exercise rounds. In it the poet apparently sees the dispersion, darkness, and threat of death that haunt him. His question to St. John of the Cross, whether this is the darkest "night of the soul," is answered by the allusion to Ugolino, walled up in a Pisan prison and cannibalizing the bodies of his dead sons. Ugolino's awful recourse from starvation suggests Gassire, who sacrificed his sons to hallow the magic lute. Completing the circuit of identification, Ugolino recounts his guilty crime "to posterity," through the voice of the immortal poet Dante, just as Pound speaks to posterity in his own epic. From Ugolino the passage moves on to Berlin, a fascist capital betrayed; to dysentery, Pound's own "belly ache" in captivity; and the phosphorus, a false and deceiving light that contrasts with the "color of light" cited so frequently in this canto as a figure of paradise. The highly condensed and allusive identification with Ugolino suggests that Pound may be perpetrator as well as victim of betrayal. The question about betrayal is addressed to Pound's jailer, Corporal Casey: Is the cause of Pound's suffering a "double-cross," a betrayal of truth for private gain (as with Ugolino)? Or is it "burocracy," the dispersion of administrative power from a single leader? The passage rises from this dark self-examination to affirm that paradise is not artificial, as Baudelaire proclaimed, but it is "spezzato," in pieces. Paradise is friable, worn from its root-hold in history.
This brief passage illustrates how easy it is to explicate the Pisan Cantos without explaining them. The poems' labyrinthine associations stimulate multiple and sometimes mutually contradictory readings. No one reading is more authoritative as long as it is referenced just to the poem itself. To explain the Pisan poems, one must connect them to the circumstances of their composition, to a poet suspended between vain hopes for redemption and the self-accusing realization of failure.
Another moment of implicit self-accusation in "Canto 74" appears in the "wanjina" passage. Again, Pound recalls a myth told to him by Frobenius. The Australian wondjina were icons whose mouths had been removed; "Canto 74" equates them to Ouan Jin, a transliteration of the Confucian term for "literary gent" (wen jen).
but Wanjina is, shall we say, Ouan Jin
or the man with an education
and whose mouth was removed by his father
because he made too many things
whereby cluttered the bushman's baggage
vide the expedition of Frobenius' pupils about
1938 to Auss'tralia
Ouan Jin spoke and thereby created the named thereby making
the bane of men moving
and so his mouth was removed
as you will find it removed in his pictures in
paraclete or the verbum perfectum:sinceritas
In one of its aspects, this passage accords with the paradisal impulse of "Canto 74." Beauty and truth may be contained in the "verbum perfectum," here a synonym for Confucian "sinceritas." Guy Davenport has rightly termed this passage a parable of the poetic act. The writer's sincerity invites God to dwell with humans. But for the blessed paraclete to descend, the "man with an education" must be silent. Davenport writes, "The ellipsis takes its energy from the iconographic paralleling of word, mouth, and logos, the absence of the latter, in accordance with John 16:7, being prerequisite for the appearance among men of the Paraclete, thus equating, seemingly, the mouthless Wanjina with the fertile presence of God in man."
The "wanjina" parable has a darker aspect that Davenport overlooks. He quite admittedly disregards the Australians' belief that if the wondjina had mouths, all humanity would perish in a catastrophic deluge. It is the end of the world again, this time brought on by the "man with an education" who speaks (or writes) excessively and thereby creates clutter. With the "wanjina," once again, the writer is complicit in catastrophe. He has violated Confucius's dictum of "sinceritas": "To communicate, and then stop, that is the / law of discourse … simplex munditiis." It was precisely this prescription that the Cantos at Pisa could not obey. To be silent would be to admit that paradise was, after all," "artificiel." To go on speaking, on the other hand, was to create the poetic clutter of the Pisan Cantos. Thus, the mouthless "wanjina" may be equated to Ezra Pound himself: the man with an education, or, shall we say, the erudite poet indicated for treason, the "bane of men moving."
The implicit self-indictments of "Canto 74" are the underside of Pound's grandiose conception of the writer in history. Writers who made "clutter" aided the downfall of wise leaders and the decline of civilization. For the first time in the Pisan Cantos, Pound turned this accusation against himself, if only briefly and by implication. It was a bitter truth that Pound could only take in small doses and that did not cure his hope for paradise. But by the last cantos, the self-accusation had prevailed:
But the beauty is not the madness
Tho' my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.
That I lost my center
fighting the world.
The dreams clash
and are shattered and—
that I tried to make a paradiso
I have tried to write Paradise …
Let the Gods forgive what I
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.
Traces of this insight appear in the dark moments of "Canto 74." In Gassire, Ugolino, and the "wanjina," the canto offers figures of the poet who had betrayed his people and his paradise. These are the sobering antidotes to the delusion that paradise could be preserved "in the mind entire." Eventually, in Pound's old age, a bitter and disillusioned sanity prevailed, and work on the Cantos stopped. "I ruin everything I touch. I have been mistaken, always," he told a reporter in 1963. Of the Cantos he said, "They are a botch."
There was, as yet, no such recantation at Pisa. The ideological rag-bag of Pound's fanaticism was still intact in the Pisan Cantos. Pound's ideas about fascism, Jews, and money had not changed; indeed, he continued to advocate those ideas while at St. Elizabeths. What had changed was those ideas' relation to history and to Pound's epic ambition. "Canto 74" had to blaze a new path to paradise, a path that did not lead through history. The Cantos' new mission, as I have called it, was to preserve paradise as a purely interior phantasm. This phantasm was encapsuled in the broken fragments, the formae, of Pound's Pisan style. The preservation of these fragments gave Pound reason to continue writing at and after Pisa. But the recovery at Pisa was bought at an awful cost to Pound's ambition: the admission, in "Canto 74," that paradise exists only as a figment and can never be redeemed by historical time. The paranoid moment of the Pisan Cantos was to continue—as delusion—an epic poem which could no longer be history.
Thus, the unique enterprise of Pound's Cantos recovered from its trauma and continued beyond 1945, even though it was to end in acknowledged failure. Pound's was the only epic in the Western tradition to so orient itself toward the future horizon of history. Certainly Dante had taken no such risk; the Commedia was ostensibly a recollection of Dante's journey into the afterlife. But by claiming the terrain of historical narration, the Cantos were vulnerable to the intrusion of historical events. The eventuality of history had not vindicated Ezra Pound, but rather victimized him. Pound's own history, the catalog of paideuma, had come to a cataclysmic end. "Canto 74," with its jarring tonalities and circuitous associations, is the drama of Pound's recovery from this catastrophe. By turning inward, this and the succeeding cantos sought to rescue Pound's convictions and aspirations from the ash heap of history. As ideas, their failure was deserved. As poetry, their success continues to animate and to intrigue the readers of this complex work.
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