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One can discuss disparate details and passages… but to no purpose. The importance of Leo Frobenius lies in his having proved that when art is sick the sickness is not just there [in the art]. 

It may well be the revolt of a superior man against certain conditions, it may be the submission of a weaker, or a unconscious man to certain contingencies, but it demonstrates the surrounding and inherent spiritual (and physical) state.

It could be a conscious attack of satire or meditated caricature, for example the “uglinesses” of someone like Grosz on the one hand, or the odious distortions that do not offend the painter who throws them on a canvas, or the man who engraves them.

To attack the symptoms of sickness without seeking out their cause is the procedure of a savage. Symptoms are to be studied. The basic causes of a sickness are cured by confronting or repairing them.

Leo Frobenius was a great master of diagnosis: he created a whole institution, an entire education of perception. For example, an assistant of his, Fox, looks at a knitted tablecloth, strokes it with the tip of his fingers, and is able to comment: Budapest.

In this way a source of miracles is revealed, because the GeheimratFrobenius has performed miracles. Frobenius looks at the shape of two earth-ware pots, and predicts: “Go to such and such a place in Africa, dig and you will find the ruins of a civilization with such and such characteristics.” This was done and it was so.

This, we can see, is the eccelso as opposed to the nadir. In contrast to pre-war German scholarship, according to which a Teutonic archeologist was able to say: “These are only aesthetic data, they don’t present any interest.”

Frobenius truly represented the crisis of the system rather than in the system. And to us, who have not had the direct benefit of his instruction, he provides sidelights for the new totalitarian philosophy. The totalitarian state itself creates these, but in the state there are active elements as well as idle or passive ones (bromides).

Frobenius does not practise archaeology by anatomizing the dead and the past. Nor is he affected by the idolatry of savagery [‘selvaggiatria’]. He studies the primitive races with the same method with which Koch studied the reactions of his Guinea pigs.

Treating history as rather long cycles, Frobenius is able to predict hidden sicknesses: seeing clearly the losses of great “cultures” he may be able to predict and prevent analogous catastrophes in the future.

The drum telegraph is something more than an interesting curiosity. The line of Benin sculpture does not merit idolatry, but study.

Frobenius does not take us back to an authentic idolatry of savages, and at the same time he saves us from the snobbish idolatries of the intellectual “chic.” He disturbs retrospective archaeologists. Frazer and all the others never arrive at a brilliant phrase such as: “Wherever we have found these rock drawings, we have found water at no more than two meters below the surface.”2

This indicates not only the past of the now vanished tribes that lived along no longer existing rivers, but also the directions for the bonifica of tomorrow.

But, to a much greater degree, this practical end of Frobenius is in deep accord with the needs of today, the needs of the totalitarian perception. He offers us the tools for totalitarian research and a great part of a method for the intelligent study of history. Beginning with the primitives, who alone still possess today the keys to the distant past necessary to open up cultural elements preserved in advanced societies, his system would be useful to the study of all of history. For example, in China, for more than twenty centuries, we can observe that a healthy and constructive dynasty has always been founded on the basis of Confucian philosophy.

The decadence of design in European art coincides with the rise of the tolerance of usury. Through obscurantism and obfuscation of the meaning of words, of terminology, there is a decline in the perception of boundaries and limits in plastic form and in the moral domain. The dissociation of ideas is weakened, and this weakness of understanding infects every human manifestation.

I am not repeating the books of Frobenius. The reader can find a great many of them. Few of them are translated into English or Italian - the more available ones being, perhaps, Erlebte Erdteile (VII volumes = Frankfurter Societätsdruckerei), among which volume IV is the most accessible. It is entitled Paideuma, since Frobenius was seeking an unspoiled [‘non sciupata’] word for “culture,” a word not tinged by the associative contingencies of pre-war Germany’s Kultur. He defines it, and I would abbreviate his definition or, possibly and unscrupulously, I would develop it in my own way. I say this because the serious reader will never be content with just a critic’s repetition. He will always want to know if the critic represents, vilifies or develops the idea of the author.

And, at the end of the day, the true critic always inserts something of himself in the matter under discussion.

I would therefore leave it in the form of “I would say”: The Paideuma is the dominant or germinal complex of ideas of a given epoch and of a people. One can die on its account, or one can contribute and add the strength of one’s own will to this complex.

Living in a new Paideuma we cannot die with the faded one of 1913 art, belonging to a dying Europe à la superficial Spengler’s Untergang des Abendlandes [Decline of the West].

I doubt that anyone else felt sooner or more deeply than Mussolini that the crisis was of the system. At least it is from the mouth of the Duce that I first heard this fecund phrase.

But, at the same time, or nearly, the major artists, that is the more sensitive ones, felt the crisis, or the crises, in their scattered and separate arts.

There was a revolt against the weakness of the formal structure of painting and, a little later, of sculpture. Already amongst the impressionists there was a revolt against the falsification of color. But this was not fundamental because the basis of the plastic arts is form. One begins with the line, and proceeds to proportion and masses. One can have all the colors, and all the splendors of the setting sun without arriving at art. Plastic art begins with drawing, with the line scratched by a sharp stone on a surface of stone or bone, with the strength of will and the knowledge acquired by perception.

That the public be unresponsive and unwilling to accept for the moment these explosions or manifestations of will is of little importance. That the battle for a new form in art is, always or nearly always, confused by snobbery and aping [‘scimmiottismi’],  Apes of God, etc. is of no great importance. It can be the symptom of the sickness of an age. The Formenlehre [science of forms] survives, in the sense that the study of form subsists. I was not present at the artistic birth of Picasso. It believe he emerges out of Clouet. I believe that he was disgusted by the formal imbecility of the minor impressionists and returned to the sanity of Dürer and of Petrus del Borgo della Francesca.

But in any case I know that Vorticism was born in London from the determination of Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier (a.k.a. Brezska) and myself to plumb the depths, to find the foundations of a healthy art.

I believe that all the propaganda for the Section d’Or was the rule of proportion in Romanesque architecture of analogous inspiration. We did not know at the time Piero della Francesca’s treatise De Prospectiva pingendi but we would have accepted it as sacred writ, just as we honored the studies of Dürer. As a music formed in this spirit was missing in 1913, we omitted music from our manifestations, albeit affirming the need for a new and more detailed study of musical knowledge, and waiting for musicians and composers able to do it.

All this was in contrast to the idiotic and dirty deformations. The “box of chocolates” is not to be condemned because it is too pleasing, but because it is false. But the lies do not end with the form of the “pretty” [‘bellino’] and the “pleasing.” For twenty years the illiterate in art chased innovations without caring for the truth or falsity of their compositions. The sense of truth was neither cultivated nor honored.3

A mercantile atmosphere dominated the market. One even got to a marketable value, Utrillo, Chagall, Dufy went up seventeen points, then fell again eight points, etc. What a pigsty! Disgusting! It was, and now we know it, the end of an era. The end of the mercantilist and usurious stench of the 18th and 19th centuries.

I become aware of the malady not as an economist but as an art critic, observing the putrid decadence of architectural ornament in London. In all that I wrote at that time (and for years I did not seek the economic coefficient), I did not adjust my tastes (that is, my perceptions) along the lines of a “tolerance for usury,” but all I did was seek, as I had done at the time of my first “grand tour,” my first European trip in 1898. [Yes, friends, I was a boy, but I looked at what was displayed in museums and art galleries.]4

The thought of an analysis that would include a correspondence to socio-economic matters came to me much later.

From the perception of a few correspondences one can proceed to the symptomatic nature of certain phenomena and therefore to a predisposition for a totalitarian analysis. And arriving at this predisposition, one finds twenty volumes of Leo Frobenius full of common sense. Volumes that are in part notes on his travels, not yet simplified for grade-school children of the “Fifth Grade,” but filled with nutrition for those who can digest them. They are books to be pondered by whoever prepares a schoolbook or wishes to write serious art criticism. And I do not have the slightest intention to attempt a critique of these in three pages. I indicate a direction.

Note—For those that read German, I recommend the series Erlebte Erdteile. For those who want the latest in English, African Genesis, published by Faber and Faber, 24 Russel Sq., London W.C.I. The latter is a collection of African fables, simpler than those of Aesop, often without an obvious moral, but sometimes including a moral as profound as the process of nature herself. 


*Copyright © 1938 by Ezra Pound. Translated by permission.



1. Pasquero 2014 advises that a Geheimrat is a member of the Royal Private Counsel of the Holy Roman Empire. 

2. Re-working of a phrase from GK, which reads: “Where we found these rock drawings, there was always water within six feet of the surface” (57).

3. The sentence can be read in two ways, first as above, but also as "one specific sense of truth, amongst possible others, was not cultivated."

4. These square brackets are EP’s.


rsz erlebte erdteile