Nicholas Hiromura

Championing Rusticus


ISSUE 18 | NO GODS NO MASTERS | JUL 2012

I
Fascism

It is impossible to talk about Ezra Pound without discussing the fact that Pound became, or always was, or never really was a fascist, but at any rate gave radio speeches in support of Mussolini. I do not mean that in the sense that it casts some sort of dark shadow over Pound’s work, I mean it in the sense that it is literally impossible to talk about him without someone saying “yeah, but he was a fascist.”

There are two problems with this statement.

The first problem is that, by and large, no one has a clue what they are talking about when they use the word fascism and most people make the mistake of equating fascism with the Nazis, or the Holocaust or evil, which is hard because “evil” is not a political term, when in fact fascism should probably be understood as an aesthetic thought.

Now there are some theories of fascism but they all have the idea that it is important to look at a particular aspect of fascism as: political religion, political modernization, political anti-modernism, nationalism etc... and this is a good idea if one wants to find a way of talking about fascism. But it sort of fakes its way around the real problem of fascism, its extravagance, its too-large-to-be-containedness.

The second problem is that these same people rarely have an idea of what Pound was about.

Taking these two problems into consideration it becomes rather difficult to say that Pound was a fascist, when you know neither the essence of fascism nor the message of Pound.


II

The first thing that should be said is that fascism is an aesthetic concern. Fascism is almost, as Mussolini writes in The Doctrine of Fascism, not even a political concern at all: “Many of the practical expressions of Fascism such as party organization, system of education, and discipline can only be understood when considered in relation to its general attitude towards life. A spiritual attitude.” “The Fascist conception of life is a religious one.”

Fascism is an aesthetic concern because “Fascism wants man to be active and to engage in action with all his energies; it wants him to be manfully aware of the difficulties besetting him and ready to face them.” But in order for this to happen something else will have to happen first: man will have to be returned to his primordial unity. Body and spirit, form and content, heaven and earth, must be reunited. For how, when man is divided, will man engage in action with all his energies? He must be wholly devoted to his activity.


Illustration by Wesley Ryan Clapp


III

The question of Pound’s fascism has always been approached as if answering yes meant one was an opponent of Pound’s and saying no meant one was a supporter. This shows that fascism has not yet been understood in its artistic foundation, in terms of the question of whether art is an essentially fascistic movement and fascism an essentially artistic movement. What I would like to do is suggest that Pound’s fascism runs deeper than his radio speeches for Mussolini into the very core of his poetic thought, ultimately throwing into question the possibility of an understanding of beauty without fascism. But all this stems from rereading fascism and from understanding that fascism is not a political system, not even a system of thought in the strict sense, but a thought, a spirit floating through one’s thoughts, a color, a hue, an inclination, a tone which fills the light one sees.

There is undoubtedly a great deal of fascism in Pound’s poetry, but it is not where one thinks, it is the smallest, most hidden, most innocent and yet untouched of places, it is in every single word Pound wrote. It is, for instance, in the famous poem “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

IV

“DICHTEN = CONDENSARE”
(Ezra Pound, ABCs of Reading)

The thought behind this poem lies in Pound’s fondness, which I share, for a peculiarity of the German language: the verb dichten has two meanings: the first is ‘to thicken’ (this is why dichten = condensare) and the second is ‘to compose a poem.’

Heedless of the fact that etymologically dichten in the sense of thickening has nothing to do with dichten in the sense of poetry (the former shares an etymology with the English word “thick” while the later comes from the latin dictare, which found its way into the modern English word “dictate”), Pound came to the conclusion that poetry was a matter of condensation, about precision of language and concentration of meaning.

Imagism, the movement which “In a Station of the Metro” is often seen as heralding, is described by Pound as follows:

I. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.

II. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

III. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.

Pound expresses these ideas when describing how he came to the final version of the poem “In a Station of the Metro.” This “one image poem” is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another,” Pound writes. “I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call a work of ‘second intensity.’ Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence:”

This hokku-like sentence was, of course, the above cited “In a Station of the Metro.”


V

A note to the word “image”:

The Greek word for image was eidos, which comes from the verb idein, “to see,” which, however, when conjugated in the perfect aspect, means “to know.” This says a lot more to Pound’s poetry than an academic’s assertion that “apparition” is the word which “lifts the couplet from bald statement into poetry.” What pound is trying to get at is the poetry of the bald statement. The poetry which Pound is trying to get at is the poetry of seeing a thing. Just as important as apparition is the word petal, not because petal evokes this or that thought of flower or of blossoming, but because the very apprehension of a petal, apprehension as a thing, is the core of Pound’s poetry. The question is not, therefore, what word it is which makes this poem a poem and not a list of things, but how, even in a list of things, perhaps most of all in a list of things, there is poetry—in the apprehension of the thing.

This idea (‘idea’ also comes from the Greek idein) presents itself, not only in Pound, but in Joyce as well, in Joyce’s interest in the moment of recognition in the Odyssey when Odysseus’ maid recognizes his scar. This recognition is Pound’s poetry and the reason for which he adored the Chinese pictogram: the image and the thing itself.

This is the Imagiste idea: to see and to know. And it is in this union of sight and knowledge, the abolishing of the divide between noumena and phenomena, that Pound’s poetry and fascism cross paths.


VI

Yet, if Pound and fascism cross paths then they also go their separate ways. Sort of.

What I would like to do is suggest is a connection, a lineage which problematizes the relationship between democracy and fascism, and one which Pound himself provides: Whitman, the odoriferous democrat. The question this relationship poses to us is twofold. It is both a questioning of the source of Pound’s fascism and the questioning of Whitman’s democratism. Pound the aristocrat and Whitman the rusticus.

In his essay What I Feel about Walt Whitman Pound writes that “I

...might be very glad to conceal my relationship to my spiritual father and brag about my more congenial ancestry—Dante, Shakespeare, Theocritus, Villon, but the descent is a bit difficult to establish. And, to be frank, Whitman is to my fatherland (Patriam quam odi et amo for no uncertain reasons) what Dante is to Italy...”

So let’s forget about Japan and China and Europe and look at America. Why, in What I Feel About Walt Whitman (1909), does Pound write “from this side of the Atlantic,” to that, the other side of the Atlantic, America? What is it about America which he cannot leave behind, cannot get rid of which he still feels he needs to address and which, in 1913, he would formulate as A Pact “with you, Walt Whitman? […] We have one sap and one root […] Let there be commerce between us.” Why does he write that “He,” Whitman, “is America” that “His crudity is an exceedingly great stench, but it is America?” And why does he say of himself that “mentally” he is “a Walt Whitman who has learned to wear a collar and a dress shirt (although at times inimical to both)”?

But, what if Pound is not just Whitman in a collared shirt, what if Pound’s very clothing is infused with Whitman, his very sense of aristocracy grown out of Whitman’s soil? And what does this say about Whitman’s soil?


VII

To get at what Pound saw in Whitman, let’s take some shorter, earlier works of his rather than the Cantos. Several lines from Pound’s collection Lustra will suffice (in which, coincidentally, “In a Station of the Metro” first appeared).

In a poem called “Les Millwin,” Pound recounts an evening at the Russian ballet attended by the Millwins:

Les Millwin

The little Millwins attend the Russian Ballet.
The mauve and greenish souls of the little Millwins
Were seen lying along the upper seats
Like so many unused boas.

The turbulent and undisciplined host of art students-
The rigorous deputation from ‘Slade’-
Was before them.

With arms exalted, with fore-arms
Crossed in great futuristic X’s, the art students
Exulted, they beheld the splendours of
Cleopatra

And the little Millwins beheld these things;
With their large and anaemic eyes they looked out upon
this configuration.

Let us therefore mention the fact,
For it seems to us worthy of record.

This is a poem about ‘little’ people with ‘mauve and greenish souls’ and ‘anaemic eyes.’ But it seems ‘worthy of record.’ The very title, the French article and the decidedly not French name, is a perfect intimation of the subject of this poem: the Millwins are misfits. The poem before “Les Millwin” is entitled “The Rest” and goes:

The Rest

O helpless few in my country,
O remnant enslaved!

Artist broken against her,
A-stray, lost in the villages,
Mistrusted, spoken-against.

Lovers of beauty, starved,
Thwarted with systems,
Helpless against the control;

You who can not wear yourselves out
By persisting to successes,
You who can only speak,
Who can not steel yourselves into reiteration;

You of the finer sense,
Broken against false knowledge,
You who can know at first hand,
Hated, shut in, mistrusted:

Take thought:
I have weathered the storm,
I have beaten out my exile.

Pound’s theme is developing itself. Pound is championing. Pound is concerned with the ‘helpless few,’ the ‘lovers of beauty, starved,’ ‘you of the finer sense, / broken against false knowledge.’

The last line in this tercet of poems is Pound’s single best poem:

Further Instructions

COME, my songs, let us express our baser passions,
Let us express our envy of the man with a steady
job
and no worry about the future.
You are very idle, my songs.
I fear you will come to a bad end.
You stand about in the streets,
You loiter at the corners and bus-stops
You do next to nothing at all.
You do not even express our inner nobilities,

You will come to a very bad end.
And I?

I have gone half cracked,
I have talked to you so much that
I almost see you about me,
Insolent little beasts, shameless, devoid of
clothing!

But you, newest song of the lot,
You are not old enough to have done much
mischief,
I will get you a green coat out of China
With dragons worked upon it,
I will get you the scarlet silk trousers
From the statue of the infant Christ at Santa
Maria Novella,
Lest they say we are lacking in taste,
Or that there is no caste in this family.

The structure of all these poems is the same, a litany of facts about the boring, the forgotten, the naked, the itdoesnotmatterwhat which ends with a moment of championing. Whether it is that “this fact seems to us worthy of record,” the call to arms, “I have weathered the storm,/I have beaten out my exile,” or the pride “lest they say we are lacking in taste,” Pound is an American. He is suffering from the insecurity of an American in Europe in the early 20th century but is not as stupid as—or perhaps is even stupider than—Henry James’ American. He is “half-cracked” and uncouth but he is an American, he is true to ‘pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.’

Except that Pound is not so concerned with pulling himself up, but rather with pulling up those others, too boring to be remembered, by his bootstraps.

Pound’s championing takes on multiple forms and one of them is sacrifice. The task to which Pound sets himself in “Further Instructions” is that of a journey to retrieve, which will send him traveling from China to Florence, all for the sake of clothing the Newest Song. Pound will stop at nothing to see that this his family receive its due recognition.


VIII

Pound was a champion. This is the core of his work and an obvious fact if one reads the closing lines of his essayistic homage What I Feel About Walt Whitman.

It is a great thing, reading a man to know, not ‘His Tricks are not as yet my Tricks, but I can easily make them mine’ but ‘His message is my message. We will see that men hear it.’

Suddenly Pound, who was supposedly a man of style and not content, does away with the triteness of ‘innovation’ and is championing Whitman’s message, the message of a man whose style he explicitly did not like. And what was it, Whitman’s message? “He does ‘chant the crucial stage’ and he is the ‘voice triumphant.’ He is disgusting.” It is almost as if Whitman could be one of les Millwin or one of the Rest; he is something like the Newest Song. Whitman the newest song, the eternal child. But Pound will not deny him, not even for his stench.

Salvationists

[...]

II

Ah yes, my songs, let us resurrect
The very excellent term Rusticus.
Let us apply it in all its opprobrium
To those to whom it applies.
And you may decline to make them immortal,
For we shall consider them and their state
In delicate
Opulent silence.

When I first read this poem I did not think much of it. Later, while reading Lustra again, I thought I might look up some of the words which I did not understand. I found the meaning of the Latin rusticus, which is more (and less) than just ‘rustic.’ Rusticus is the adjective of rūs, ‘countryside,’ and Pound tells us to “apply it in all its opprobrium.”

Whitman was rusticus, in all the disrepute of this word. He is a simpleton. You can see this in the picture Whitman published of himself (in place of his name) in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, not to mention the very play on words in the title “leaves of grass.” So let’s apply it to him. And moreover let us take up Pound’s invitation, because Whitman was and did not want to be anything but mortal.

Yet, unfortunately for us, Pound does not seem to care. For Pound it makes no difference whether one declines to make Whitman immortal. He, Pound, and his songs, shall consider Whitman and his state in all the delicacy and the opulence of their silence. “Whitman is immortal,” he says in his essay.

And you may decline, not without reason, to list Whitman among the likes of Dante and Shakespeare. Pound does, in a way. He declines in the sense that he openly proclaims Whitman’s crudity, he does not say that Whitman was as good a poet as Dante. Yet he does not decline to make Whitman immortal in his very mortality.


IX

But if we can ask where Whitman is in Pound’s fascist poetry, we can also ask where fascism is in Whitman’s poetry. Let us call Whitman a rusticus.

The problem with associating Pound with fascism because of his aristocratic nature is that it ignores fascism’s capacity to mix aristocracy with the simplest of people. Mussolini writes about this repeatedly, his great love for the diligent, honest farmer, writes about visiting miners and constantly decries his enemies for their crimes against honest people trying to be productive. Mussolini loved the soil: this is one of the first things he says in his autobiography.

The question is where aristocracy and the soil meet, where the sky meets the ground, where Pound meets Whitman.

There is something of this in championing. For championing is always championing of the ground against the sky, the fact, for instance, that Mussolini’s autobiography is the autobiography of a revolutionary who “groped not to relieve [himself], but to bring something to others,” to free hard-working, simpler but decent people, from exploitation by the rich. To sing the song of those too simple to be aristocrats, sing as Whitman did of the body, sing as Pound did of the Newest Song.


X

Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent, and go
      bathe and admire myself

Song of Myself, III

Something about Whitman’s admiration of his body is more than just the unity of “the perfect fitness,” that radiant, extravagant equanimity. It is the silence in which it is admired. Whitman the odoriferous, the loud, uncouth, noisy, listens, for a moment, to a silence too perfect, a silence ringing with Pound’s “opulent silence.”

What was it about Whitman which Pound loved so much? Was it his “voice triumphant,” his chanting, his championing? Or was it the silence in which Pound and his songs looked on, in which he considered the rusticus as he bathed himself?


XI

Ite

Go, my songs, seek your praise from the young
and from the intolerant,
Move among the lovers of perfection alone.
Seek ever to stand in the hard Sophoclean light
And take your wounds from it gladly.


Champion. v. 2. sg. IMPERATIVE INTRANSITIVE