While Pound has come to be regarded as a major figure in American letters, celebrated by T. S. Eliot as the man most responsible for the revolution in twentieth century poetry, his friend Wyndham Lewis called Pound “the Trotsky of literature,” correctly identifying Pound’s interest in literature as part of a political vision, a subversive one at that. In his Guide to Kulchur, Pound attempted to explain and illustrate by example a political philosophy for a just state that would produce a climate of cultural harmony in which all the arts might flourish. To do this, he set out to analyze the process of learning to determine why educational systems were generally, in his view, failures that closed rather than opened minds. Once he had accounted for this widespread disorder, he offered a kind of unified field theory of knowledge called the New Learning, in which he tried to show, citing appropriate examples from world literature, how true wisdom might be realized.
He used as a kind of touchstone the Analects and Odes of Confucius (whom he called Kung) because he regarded the Chinese ideogrammic method of communication as the most powerful of symbol systems in the realm of printed language. For example, he mentions that “the dominant element in the sign for learning in the love of learning chapter is a mortar. That is, the knowledge must be ground into a fine powder.” The visual image here reinforces the meaning rather than, as in Western alphabets, being merely a code agreed upon by convention. Thus, the mind is more actively and fully engaged. Since the Chinese written character was the outstanding poetic technique for transmission, its finest practitioners, including Kung, Pound reasoned, would be humankind’s greatest writers. Because Kung was also a figure of authority in what Pound thought was a thriving social state (actually, an incorrect reading of history), Kung would also serve as an example of the wise ruler or leader who could direct the mass of people toward proper behavior, something like the way he mistakenly saw Benito Mussolini’s directing the Italian people.
Beginning with Confucius, Pound alternated between writers and political figures he admired and those he believed were ignorant, avaricious, or otherwise immoral. The politicians and other figures of authority he criticizes are often described with variants of the word “fetid”; at the base of their unacceptable behavior Pound saw a tolerance of usury, a practice he was convinced was at the root of all political failure and human misery.
Similarly, the writers and thinkers Pound criticized also had one essential failing: the inability to use language clearly. Pound saw a parallel between the economic sin of usura (as he labeled it in Canto 45) and the artistic sin of sloppiness; he thought that the cultural conditions he hoped to engender through his discussions and his postulation of the New Learning (or the New Paideuma, the “tangle or complex of the inrooted ideas of any period”) would not tolerate usurious lending agreements and thus would enable artists to work with a clean line in writing, sculpture, or music.
The overlapping of literary and political theory provides some original thinking on the interrelationship of history and “verse-craft.” Yet while his maverick hectoring is refreshing, he tends to slide toward the arrogant invective and mind-numbing hatred of his propaganda broadcasts in World War II in many sections. The almost continuous...
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In Pound’s Ezuversity, Guide to Kulchur would be one of the assigned texts, a book designed either to scare the student away or to capture him completely. Like most of Pound’s pronouncements before he lapsed into the extremity of silence, this book shouts with the certainty of a man who knew that he was an outsider, who relished his status as a cultural rebel, but who devoutly wished to remake the culture so that he could be one of the ultimate insiders.
It was written at a point in the history of modernism when it could both explain and predict the direction of the central artistic movement of modern times. It is both summary and exposition of modernist thought in the fourth decade of its development, and its range reflects the characteristic qualities of its nature: international, polycultural, multilingual, and cross chronological. Along with The Cantos, ABC of Reading (1934), and his letters, it is one of the works which most completely reveals the style, method, and eccentric brilliance of a pioneer proponent of the “revolution of the word” which transformed literature. As Hugh Kenner points out, when he met Pound in 1948 in St. Elizabeths hospital in Washington, D.C., Pound was already a prisoner, his mind blasted and his senses dulled. In the mid-1930’s, when he was “gestating the Guide to Kulchur,” the “old, good humor [was] still active,” and the book, in spite of its ominous forecast of the venom which was to poison Pound’s thinking, is generally a record of the voice of an American maverick, a true original. Like most truly controversial artists, Pound has been the subject of so much discussion that secondhand accounts cannot give the reader a sense of what made the controversy in the first place. For that reasion, Guide to Kulchur remains one of the essential texts for anyone interested in understanding the man and his thought—although even Pound himself might not consider a complete reading necessary.