Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1437
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 stream of vituperation directed at those Pound blamed for the artist’s ills and the world’s woes tends to distract the reader from the frequently pertinent questions he raised about economic systems and the control of credit.
Part of the problem is that Pound uses outrageous rhetoric as a part of his plan to break the conventional chain of discourse and force a response rather than a passive assimilation of facts. When the invective itself becomes predictable, however, this effect is negated. When Pound insults the powerful and the privileged, his attacks on institutions cast the values of the institution into question; when he insults a race or an individual, it is his own humanity that is brought into question. As Delmore Schwartz wrote to him when “ready to resign as one of your most studious and faithful admirers,” a race could not commit immoral acts, only an individual could. While Pound’s tone remained generally amiable even when he was angry, his occasional but growing inability to discriminate, one of his own key concepts, worked counter to his arguments about a just society. His admiration for Mussolini, who earned Pound’s respect because he “told his people that poetry is a necessity to the state,” is an example of this failure to see clearly; it calls into question Pound’s judgment when trust is crucial, as in references to obscure figures hardly familiar even to the scholar.
Nevertheless, the method of the entire book is to throw out assertions and ideas so that the reader might investigate further; it is designed as much to instigate as to educate, and its conversational approach (leaps of logic, digressions, addresses to the reader, reflections on what the author is doing while he is doing it) is aimed at developing understanding, which Pound sees as part of an active process, rather than disseminating knowledge, which Pound likens to the reading of dead catalogs after ideas have petrified into orthodoxy.
Pound proposes several admirable men for consideration; these echo his discussions of these people in other books—writers such as the troubador poets Guido Cavalcanti and Arnaut Daniel; the young sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed in World War I; Dante; William Shakespeare; the economic theorist Clifford Hugh Douglas; the monetary inventor Silvio Gesell; T. S. Eliot; and Wyndham Lewis— and Pound uses the features and highlights of their work as the basis for the cultural utopia he is attempting to describe. In one of the few relatively rigorous sections of extended analysis, he concludes his examination of writers and thinkers with a comment on Aristotle’s Ethica Nichomachea (348-336 b.c.e.; Nichomachean Ethics), remarking that “Arry” anchored human thought for two thousand years.
The arguments he develops to support his contentions about artistic and moral greatness, although often revealing, are not as important as the flashes of insight that occur almost constantly to illuminate them. This is a result of Pound’s hidden or implicit intention to write a guide for the cultivation of a sensibility that sustains culture. The work of the artists on his lists would vanish into oblivion without men like himself and the “faithful admirers” he encouraged and instructed by correspondence to celebrate and explain their importance. The guide, then, is as much a program designed to enhance perception as a series of cultural highlights. In this sense, his comment that Surrealism is “not an art movement but a moral discipline” indicates the emphasis he wanted to place on ways of seeing and knowing.
Pound often states that there was no way anyone could cover all human civilization, and while he certainly believed that the artists on whom he focused were important, it is his attitude toward them and his way of understanding them that are his real contributions to cultural continuity. Some of his bizarre positions, such as his argument in favor of a totalitarian state as beneficial to the arts, do not seem to be quite as wrongheaded in the light of his overall views, which suggest that his version of totalitarianism is not actually the brutal Fascism of the Axis powers but a kind of aristocratic enlightenment such as Pound found in the realm of Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini during the Renaissance.
The crux of Pound’s entire approach is his passionate appreciation for great poetry. In one of his most trenchant observations, he proclaims, “Properly, we shd. read for power. Man reading shd. be man intensely alive. The book shd. be a ball of light in one’s hand.” Nearly everything he is genuinely serious about follows from this position. He suggests that Plato meant to exclude only “sloppy poets” from his ideal state, because “There is MORE in and on two pages of poetry than in or on ten pages of prose”; thus, “Man gittin’ Kulchur had better try poetry first. If he can’t get it there he won’t get it anyhow.” Although Guide to Kulchur has much in it that can hardly be considered poetic, those moments when “the dance of intelligence among words” (one of Pound’s definitions of poetry) is at its most striking make the book worth reading, both for its wisdom about the dancer and for the dance.
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