Pound With A Fasces

More or less the sum of Ezra Pound’s fascism, considered as a phenomenon of public concern, consisted in the writing of poetry and the giving of radio broadcasts. The radio broadcasts were fascist inasmuch as they were given in support of a fascist leader, Mussolini, praising that leader and the movement behind him, and vituperating against the enemies of both. The fascism of the poetry is a more complex arrangement of gestures, inasmuch as the poetry is itself complex, although there are clear themes and tendencies. Pound avows that usury, the basis of the banking system, has corrupted and devitalised the European culture that his poetry variously celebrates and ironises; and that this corruption is the work of European Jews, who have sought their own betterment at the expense of the civilisation around them. What makes this fascist, in addition to being classically anti-semitic, is the spiritualisation of culture into something having a vital, organic essence: usury is then understood not only as the financial practice of lending at exorbitant interest, but, through a series of analogical rather than argumentative moves, as a kind of disease of the collective spirit. Within the frame of this narrative, fascist leadership such as Mussolini’s is pictured as promising a restoration of morale, the re-ascent towards its spiritual essence of a culture which had been brought low by pernicious influences.

It is not clear that a characterisation of fascism in terms of “authoritarianism”, or an immediate propensity towards the violent suppression of dissenting voices, is adequate to what we must call “Pound’s fascism”. He wasn’t a street-fighting brownshirt, or a cop, or a lawmaker. He wrote some poems, he gave some radio broadcasts. The poems remain in print; they are still available to be read and, as here, discussed. There are some very fine things in them; but everything that is in them is entangled with everything else, and that includes their fascism, which is in turn entangled with a political and historical sequence in which six million European Jews were murdered.

When I say “entangled” here, I am of course employing a metaphor — the same metaphor, in fact, in at least two different ways. The “entanglement” of everything in a sequence of poems with everything else in that sequence is a matter of symbolic imbrication, the creation of an internal system of reference and reflection within a literary corpus. The “entanglement” of poetry with political and historical circumstances, with real events, takes place within a causal nexus of a different order. When the poet Geoffrey Hill, writing as a critic, tries to bring both kinds of entanglement together in his ruminations on “contexture”, he is forced into further metaphorisation, talking about the “inertia” of language, the poet’s “negotium” with the forces bearing down from all sides on poetic utterance. Every word-choice carries an ambivalent ethical charge; literary undecidability is inexorably confounded with moral and practical equivocation. If poetry affords the poet the opportunity to have it both ways — to assert and retract in the same gesture — it also indicts us, both poets and readers, at just the moment when we would make our excuses and head for the exit.

“The tyro cannot play about with such things, the game is too dangerous”. Impatience and anger are appropriate responses to the glib refusal of responsibility with which contemporary edgelords brush off any suggestion that fascist master thinkers ought not to be invested with glamour, or fascist symbolism deployed for shock value or amusement, under the cover of artistic licence. Artistic licence is one of the most powerful cultural affordances available to us: it enables us to think and feel our way through unfamiliar circumstances, extend and crystallise sensibility, and develop new kinds of aesthetic responsiveness and moral responsibility. When this affordance is used opportunistically simply to stave off accountability for one’s words and actions, in the name of an unassailable purity of personal motive, then its usefulness is fatally diminished.