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«A li r ez a Fa r a h ba k hsh The Anti-Modernist Quality of Ezra Pound’s The Fifth Decad of Cantos (Cantos XLII—LI) A mong other tenets, ...»

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A li r ez a Fa r a h ba k hsh

The Anti-Modernist Quality of Ezra Pound’s

The Fifth Decad of Cantos (Cantos XLII—LI)


mong other tenets, Modernist literature is more closely associated

with form and the manners of presentation than with content or the

purpose of presentation. Modernist’s typical techniques in writing,

such as “stream of consciousness,” “interior monologue,” and other innovative

modes of narration, drive the text into a timeless, even escapist zone, draining its traditional didactic qualities. The general outlook is that Modernist literature characteristically has little sympathy with propagandist, ideology-loaded texts, and instead, it favors more universal or more impersonal subject matters. It does not follow that Modernists were indifferent to human suffering (after all, they had witnessed two World Wars and their painful consequences); rather, it means that they expressed their frustration and their solutions in an indirect and self-effacing manner. The result is a kind of literature which is experimental, form-based, and non-instructive.

While upholding this tendency in Modernist literature, the present paper argues that Modernist texts, even at their best, may encompass such anti-Modernist elements as overt and authoritative didacticism and prescriptivism, reminiscent of Neoclassical texts. In other words, it asserts that even a Modernist poet who is typically interested in timelessness, implicit representation of gloominess, or ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ dictum, may also actively, and even dogmatically, respond to the realistic plights of the world around him/her. To attest this assertion, a rather small section of The Cantos, a clearly Modernist work, if not its best representative, by one of the best, if not the best, spokesmen of Modernist writing, namely Ezra Pound, is discussed here in an attempt to identify its didactic, prescriptive, and hence its anti- Modernist attributes. The poems for analysis are cantos XLII—LI, better knows as The Fifth Decad of Cantos (1937). This comparatively short section, in which Pound poured his economic and political views, is nevertheless one of the most significant sections of the entire Cantos since it contains the summarizing and unifying canto of the whole book—“With Usura” (canto XLV). Pound’s recommendations concerning Major C. H. Douglas’s Social Credit Theory, his Confucian remedies, his support for Mussolini and his fascist party, and his fervent anti-Semitism are stable motifs both in The Fifth Decad of Cantos and other sections of his Cantos as a whole. His fanatical ideological views, expressed in an assertive fashion, make this Modernist epic anti-Modernist in content (even though form-wise it is evidently a Modernist text, and even though a good number of his other (Imagist) poems are both formally and semantically Modernist). In the following passages, thedidactic thrust of a number of cantos Pound wrote a few years before the outbreak of World War II as well as their anti-Modernist content is explored.

In The Fifth Decad of Cantos, as in other sections of The Cantos, Pound seems to be openly concerned not only with contemporary cultural decay, but with the possible sources of cultural renewal. Pound’s poetic imagination embraces multifarious examples of humanity and multiple ideas of order set by both Eastern and Western economists and politicians. There is a quest at the basis of all of Pound’s cantos, including The Fifth Decad of Cantos, which, as Pound suggests now and again, is analogous to Odysseus’s ten-year quest in search of his homeland (which in Pound’s case, it is his much-loved Europe, not as he saw it, but as a peaceful and prosperous land). The significant difference, however, is that Pound’s quest—his desire to avoid war and to rebuild Europe—is unending; it involves perpetual search for civilization and order. In his Guide to Kulchur, Pound, as an activist and a reformer, insists on “ideas which are intended to go into action” or “to guide action and serve as rules (and/or measures) of conduct” (1952, 34). For Pound, the proper “action” and “rule” are directed toward peace, productivity, and reconstruction. Concerning the quest motif in Pound’s cantos, Richard Gray has written that The content of the Cantos stretches out far and wide, in pursuit of appropriate models of language, thought, and conduct, taking in, among many others, the Provencal and early Italian poets, founders of modes of 2 War, Literature & the Arts government and codes of behaviour like Confucius and Jefferson, and some of the examples of primitive religious feeling recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” (1990, 79) Throughout The Fifth Decad of Cantos (as elsewhere in The Cantos), Pound’s economic and political ideologies are so closely intertwined that one cannot discuss either of them independently of the other. World War I, as Pound saw it, had been caused by the rivalries of international capitalists. He thought that he had found a solution to the evils of unchecked capitalism, one especially favorable to the arts, in Confucius and in the Social Credit Theory of Major C. H. Douglas, who, in his Credit Power and Democracy (1921), argued that a system of state credit could increase purchasing power in the population at large, thus promoting creativity and removing power from bankers and financiers. For long years, Pound occupied himself with studying various books and essays on economy. Among others, he read Marx’s Kapital and admired his passion for social justice, but he came to the conclusion that Marx never properly understood the nature of money. Obviously, Marx’s classless society had no place in Pound’s fascist ideology.

On the other hand, Douglas, Pound believed, had rightly diagnosed the principal problems that had caused economic setbacks in Europe and pushed Europe to the brink of another large-scale war. Fascinated by Douglas’s economic theories and Mussolini’s energy and promises of monetary reform as well as his anti-Semitic measures modeled on Hitler’s anti-Semitic campaign, Pound naïvely assumed that the Italian leader could be persuaded to put Douglas’s theory into practice.

Like Confucian emperors, the Italian Duce had successfully controlled taxation, usury, and unemployment in his country, and Pound was certain that Mussolini’s directives could rid European nations of similar problems, guarantee economic solidity, lessen the strain that existed in rival governments, and most importantly, secure world peace.

Elaborating on Douglas’s economic standpoint and his influence of Pound,

Nadel writes:

C. H. Douglas … sought to correct the inequitable distribution of wealth, purchasing power and credit. The control and exploitation of credit by private banks was for Douglas—and soon for Pound—the main culprit.

Because banks charge excessive interest … for the use of money and credit, prices would always be higher than purchasing power. Government

–  –  –

Hugh Witemeyer explains that both in Pound’s and Douglas’s view, poverty and war resulted from the inequitable distribution of consumer purchasing power in a capitalist economy. What distorted an ideal distribution of purchasing power was the control of credit by private banks as well as the charging of exorbitant interest or usury for the use of credit. There would be no end to poverty and war if credit were not nationalized in the public interest (1969, 167). In the same vein, Peter Makin writes that for Douglas and Pound, “the seed of friction and war was not the capitalist mode of production, but systems of accountancy, and above all, credit … Decentralised local authorities should take away the administering of credit from private interest; and the state should create and distribute purchasing-power to make up inevitable deficiencies” (1985, 106). On the same matter, Wendy Flory has contended that in Pound’s view, Douglas’s “economic program would remove one of the major causes of war by minimizing both reliance on debt-financing, and hence “loan-capital,” and competition for overseas markets” (1980, 75).

Flawed banking systems, Pound thought, caused economic crisis and drove nations into a fierce competition for resources and credit, an inevitable result of which was war. Facing the shaky foundation of their economy as a result of war, governments would have no choice but to levy taxes on people and pump money into their countries from overseas markets and would soon find themselves in a fullfledged war against any potential and actual rival. This is the very root of Pound’s deep hatred of the Jews; in his eyes, this vicious circle, which started and ended with usurious, Jewish banks, was what triggered World War I and what was forcing European nations into another one. Before the 1930s, Pound’s main economic concern in his Cantos is ‘usury,’ which is evidently a stable term throughout The Cantos. However, as discernible in his The Fifth Decad of Cantos, in the 1930s, the usurers he condemns are usually Jewish, and his language is vitiated by virulent anti-Semitism.

Also in the 1930s, in addition to Douglas’s Social Credit doctrine, the writings of Confucius exerted a long-lived impact on Pound’s political and economic thought.

Tim Redman has argued that During the period of the late 1930s and particularly during the Second World War, Pound became convinced that the philosophy of Confucius, along with the economic reform, offered the best hope for an enduring 4 War, Literature & the Arts and just social order, and he worked to translate Confucius into Italian and publish his work in Italy. (1991, 126) Pound found Confucian economic and political philosophy, with its emphasis on rational order, very much to his liking. He also disliked what he saw as the superstitious pseudo-mysticism promulgated by both Buddhists and Taoists for he was of the opinion that their passivity posed a threat on pragmatic and rational politics. Pound’s Confucian view of wealth, as discernible in his The Fifth Decad of Cantos, is mixed with his desire for stability rooted in productivity, natural abundance, and a correct form of government. What Pound wants is a stable base for economy that would allow real wealth to be, in David Murray’s words, “the fixed element in a series of transformations of value” (in Bell, 1982). In his Guide to Kulchur, Pound remarks that “Kung [Confucius] is modern in his interest in folk-lore,” in his concern with “the living” rather than with “the dead,” and in his stress on direct knowledge and personal experience, which could be obtained through traveling and commerce, and be used as a “good antidote for theories” or abstraction. All these aspects of Confucius appear to Pound “to be in conformity with the best modern views” (1952, 272-74). The emphasis of his allusions to Confucius, therefore, is not on the past but on the present; Pound tried to reflect the merits and demerits of various Chinese dynasties in order to warn the present politicians and economists against the detrimental effects of excessive taxation, usury, and chaos, and reiterate the need for a strong leader to address the 20th century fiscal and cultural problems—a figure like Mussolini.Confucius, who set about to promote social order from a rational and practical, rather than an


or idealistic perspective, is one of the first names one comes across with in Pound’s Cantos. In The Fifth Decad of Cantos, too, Confucius and his principles keep recurring in various ways, especially in the concluding cantos.

The opening cantos of The Fifth Decad of Cantos (cantos XLII and XLIII) praise a Sienese bank named Monte dei Paschi. Under the rule of the Arch Duke Pietro Lopoldo, this became a low-interest, not-for-profit credit institution whose funds were based on local productivity as represented by the natural increase generated by the grazing of sheep on community land (the “BANK of the grassland” of Canto

XIII). As such, it represents a Poundian non-capitalist ideal:

–  –  –

Here, the bank is figured as an image of fiscal solidity based on its deployment not of the abstract and speculative structure of capitalist finance but of the produce from the local land. In Monte dei Paschi, as Peter Nicholls has contended, “money is seen as the instrument of productive activity” (1984, 75). Pound plays with the word “Monte” to emphasize its substantiality—“A mount, a bank, a fund a bottom” (217 and 228). A few lines further down the canto, it is given additional weight through capitalization (“MOUNTAIN”). According to Ian F. Bell, the reasons for Pound’s admiration of the “BANK of the grassland” are First, it marks a moment prior to the breach between use-value and exchange-value (the division which characterizes the practices of industrial capitalism) where specie is loaned … for immediate rather than speculative benefit. Secondly, the bank’s success depends not upon the usurious manipulation of money but upon what Pound views as “real” wealth, a “guarantee of the income from grazing.” (in Nadel, 92-93) The “guarantee” for Pound is that of nature in which grass is “nowhere out of place” (228) and which mirrors human order. Thus, the “fruit of nature” is united with “the whole will of the people” (227) so that money may be freely available at little cost since the bank made only a minimal handling charge. This union denotes what is perhaps the key term for understanding the relationship among nature, money, and man as suggested in cantos XLII and XLIII: the relationship of responsibility, or as Pound has repeated it twice, “REE- / sponsibility” (226 and 227). The capitalization or the lexical solidity reflects Pound’s view of the ideal bank as a “mountain,” as “a base, a fondo, a deep, a sure and a certain” institution (228).

Such a bank is the ultimate foundation of a sound economy, and Pound, by locating it at the beginning of The Fifth Decad of Cantos, seems to introduce it as the source of a proper and healthy relation among nature, money, and human life.

In Canto XLIII, there is an implicit allusion to Douglas’s Social Credit Theory in the lines because there was shortage of coin, in November because of taxes, exchanges, tax layings and usuries

–  –  –

Here, Pound is echoing Douglas’s assertion that increases in productivity and the need for profit always lead to the inability of a capitalist system to clear its markets.

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