Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This review is taken from PN Review 46, Volume 12 Number 2, November - December 1985.

Pier Paolo Pasolini ON POUND translated by R. M. Clarke

'Bolshevism was a sham revolution, and also, in part, a betrayed revolution.' Thus Pound in a 1944 pamphlet. He frequently cannot conceal - in these 'fascist' writings of his - the sympathy he in principle feels for the Bolshevism which is the object of his hatred. How can a betrayed revolution be a sham? Only something genuine - love - can be betrayed. By siding with those who condemn its betrayal, Pound revealed a kind of love for Bolshevism. It was in fact inevitable that he should see it as the only worthy attempt to affirm an antique and ideal way of life against the materialism and cynicism of modern capitalism. And yet, with a 'gesture' theatrical in essence, Pound opted for Fascism (on account of its overtly idealist programme), and pretended to believe its rhetoric of antiquity. Besides being patently insane, Pound's politics are gestural. Once the 'gesture' has been made, all justification is superfluous, not to say impossible. Gestures are self-explanatory, and exhaustive. Words are dispensable. This is why Pound's 'economic' statements are delirious and even idiotic: they signify only insofar as they bear out the 'gesture', only insofar, that is, as they are illogical and provoking. His paradoxical remarks, rabble-rousing and angry, yet impeccable in literary taste, have the appearance of plaster work. Their beauty lies not in what is said - four petty ideas, repeated to the point of insanity, and entirely obscure - but in their grammatical and verbal form. Italian was to Pound a foreign language; therefore his Italian pamphlets (Gold and Work; America, Roosevelt and the Causes of the Present War, An Introduction to the Economic Nature of the United States) are consistently off-key, they have an imprecision of wording that makes them unintentionally fascinating. Unintentionally? Pound would not be the linguistic prodigy for which we know him had he been unaware of his usage of Italian as a set of puristic and correct quotations, produced with the supreme nonchalance of the man who capitalizes on his ignorance and parses, as if in a seizure, a nonexistent language invented only to talk with (no matter about what). Pound's love for the purely phatic aspect of language (its chatty function, that is) is one of the greatest phenomena in modern literature.

It is terrible that insanity, by making the insane man helpless, throws him upon the care and protection of the more cunning and unscrupulous. This is also Pound's case. Pound's reactionary ideology stems from his peasant background; behind him is the immensity of the rural USA, of which little is known to us but a few great and confused events. One thing is certain, immigrants to America were largely sub-proletarian peasants, Latin and Irish, and carried their worlds with them, so similar and yet so different from each other, all equally archaic; on the other hand I suppose that already one century ago, when Pound's father was about twenty, working the land in the USA must have been quite different from doing the same in Calabria or Ireland. What came down to Pound of this rural world through his father and the mythical figure of his grandfather can be seen from his idealization of China - a culture rooted in the same archaic peasant world whence the peasant of modern America set out. Pound is by no means an 'Orphic' poet. He has insisted, firmly and savagely insisted, on remaining within the world of the peasant, on proceeding further and further toward its centre. His ideology is made up only of reverence for the values of the peasant world, of which he found a concrete embodiment in Chinese thought, virtuous and pragmatic. In this light I believe one can underwrite, even politically, all those conservative passages in Pound that celebrate - with furious nostalgia - the laws of the peasant world and the unity of Master and servants:

The father's word is compassion;
The son's, filiality.
The brother's word: mutuality;
The younger's word: deference.

And again:

From of old the sovereign likes ploughing
& the empress tends trees with reverence;
    Nor shrink from the heat of labour

And again: 'There is worship in ploughing'.

Critics have attempted to indicate a single outline in the medley of the Cantos, providing the poem (somewhat like Joyce's Ulysses) with a 'plot', though fragmentary in development and endlessly broken by unassimilated excursuses, parentheses and digressions, so as to conceal the poem's supposed unity. There is no doubt that the Cantos do have a plot, though this is not to be sought in the sequence but rather in the depth of the writing. As Pound himself has said ('i.e. it coheres all right/even if my notes do not cohere'), the 'coherence' of the Cantos lies in a voyage backwards into the heart of peasant society (of which ancient China is a symbol), where governments become more and more tyrannical and enlightened, where the world becomes more and more practical and idealistic, where

Filiality and fraternity are the root,
Talents to be considered as branches.
Precise terminology is the first implement,
                       dish and container,
After that the 9 arts.
AND study the classic books,
                   the straight history
                        all of it candid.

After reading the Cantos one feels empty and as it were disappointed. Their knowledge is too particular and tragically private to be a true enlargement of our cultural heritage. Behind us stands a man (he does not even look at us), whose experience has been impoverished by a sort of inability - organic or mental - to communicate itself fully, even in desperation. Pound knows this well; and in Canto CXVI, a kind of testament, he says it: 'Charity I have had sometimes,/I cannot make it flow thru.'

However, if Pound's work, on account of its 'deviance', fails to communicate a knowledge which can be used in any way, it does communicate, on the other hand, the pure experience of delirium. No reading on earth is as inebriating as the reading of Pound. To read Canto LXXVI is to experience, I suppose, something like the most potent and wonderful drug. Pound has never become, explicitly, the possession of the Right: his culture - supreme though somewhat elementary, American-fashion (he considered himself a 'barbarian' on his arrival in Europe early in the century) - preserved him from brazen exploitation: the fascist serpent could not swallow the outsize paschal lamb. Yet fascist care and attention always elusively surrounded Pound's person, and now surround his memory.


The 'ahistoricism' Lacan speaks of in connection with American culture fits Pound's case very aptly. His stay in Europe, indeed his choice of Europe and Italy, had the effect of accentuating this 'ahistoricism' of his, and did so precisely by means of his intense, juvenile historical research, which led to a chaos of notions. Only discourse is historical. Chat is ahistoric. Pound chats away in the cosmos. What drives him up there with his enchanting echolalias is a trauma which has made him utterly incapable of adapting to this world. Pound's further choice of Fascism was both a coverup for his own unadaptability, and an alibi which allowed him to pretend that he was present. What, then, brought this trauma about? The discovery, several decades ahead of Europe, of a rural world within an industrialized one. Pound saw, with abnormal precocity, that the peasant world and the industrial one are irreconcilable - the existence of one implies the death (the disappearance) of the other. Pound, in his American youth, may not have been conscious of living through such a tragedy. Perhaps because agriculture was already industrialized and 'old-style farming' belonged to a cultural substratum. As he came to Europe, he found the Place whence the subproletarians of an archaic peasant world had set out, taking with them their myths (of which the substratum was made up). Again, he may not have realized. Reality is at times so very much stronger than the culture which it takes as its symbol. Pound was to see all this by discovering its essence in an 'elsewhere' so complete and absolute as to isolate him as in a laboratory. This 'elsewhere' is Chinese culture, the peasant religion of Confucianism. This was more likely to appeal to Pound than other peasant religions because of its 'pragmatism' - an attitude to which he, as an American, had naturally been brought up. Having discovered in its perfect wholeness this 'elsewhere', rural, religious, even 'virtuous', Pound measured everything against it. Note that in his work the Greek world has the same function as the Chinese. Greek religion was also a religion that he could understand - a religion both aesthetic and useful.

I have not made a count, but I should say at a guess that at least eighty per cent of Pound's Greek quotations (in Greek) are to do with simple everyday religious practices, and lesser divinities, moral, cosmic, but at the same time very realistic - peasant rites, country shrines, legends alluding to the most basic cosmogonic events, etc. One can speak of an identification, even an identity, of the Confucian and Hellenic functions in Pound.

Fascist Italy was a peasant world still intact. The bureaucratic and palaeo-industrial lower-middle-class of those days came entirely of country stock. Every member of the middle classes would have had peasant grandparents, still living. Fascist rhetoric had a 'virtuous' ideology (purely verbal and foolish) about conservative progress - the building of modern works within the limits of the old world, whose traditions were to be respected, etc. All of this must have been curiously attractive to Pound the ahistoricist, who interpreted it in a fashion entirely deviant, but not without logic. In the Drafts & Fragments all of this is extraordinarily clear. They make superb reading, because (without the author's knowing it) we come upon a Pound who is 'brief', i.e., technically lyrical. 'To be men not destroyers'!

Reprinted with permission from Pier Paolo Pasolini, Descrizioni di descrizioni (Torino: Einaudi, 1979).

This review is taken from PN Review 46, Volume 12 Number 2, November - December 1985.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to
Further Reading: Pier Paulo Pasolini Poems by... (4)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image