Riccardo Antonangeli. Ezra Pound e l’ultimo Pasolini: La poesia oltraggiosa di due voci fuori dal tempo. Milan: Alboversorio, 2016.
review by Sean Mark
The Pound Pasolini encounter of 1967 is a curious one. The ensuing interview, filmed by RAI cameras, remains a rather puzzling artefact, as haphazard in its circumstance as it is uniquely steeped in an odd significance – cultural, historical, political, literary. For all that was said and not said, what it connoted in the cultural and political sphere of Italy at the time, and how if affected both career and reception of the two poets, it has not, I think, received adequate scholarly attention. It is an encounter that everyone seems to know – and of which many have watched a couple of crackling minutes on YouTube – but of which few accounts and analyses have been written. Suffice it to say that Pound biographies invariably date the meeting incorrectly to June 1968, when it took place in October of the previous year.
One general tendency has been to write off the brief encounter as a largely inconsequential blip, a missed opportunity (in the wake of David Anderson’s write-up in Paideuma); another has been to trivialise it into something diluted and readily consumable. By emphasizing certain similarities between them, the two poets are often welded jarringly together as two contrary, indomitable loudmouths; as prophetic individuals; or as poets inhabiting some kind of eternally arcane, yet extra-historical dimension. It is predominantly through this sort of glib and airy rhetoric that Pound and Pasolini have been brought together in recent years, particularly in the context of Italian letters. It is the sort of rhetoric that hails Pasolini as the prophet who foresaw, with startling lucidity, all the problems of contemporary Italy – or that paints Pound, in similar terms, as a kind of white-haired biblical prophet, soothsayer of the banking crisis or (more troublingly) as a still politically relevant figure. It has been expedient for those seeking to forge facile connections to see these poets as embodiments of opposite poles – the breezy, homosexual communist in the left corner; the unrepentant fascist in the right – who one October day in Venice put their heads down, forgot their differences, and simply got on with the business of being exceptional, sublime, “timeless” poets. This is of course perfectly in line with a widespread tendency to ply Pasolini’s legacy towards a kind of “cultural” reception, considering him (and Pound, to an only slightly lesser degree) as a cultural icon, a political avatar or readily tweetable phenomenon; and it has become much easier to indulge these rather tired commonplaces than to actively engage with these poets’ work in any sort of new or problematic way.
There are, sadly, no such new or problematic readings in Riccardo Antonangeli’s Ezra Pound e l’ultimo Pasolini: La poesia oltraggiosa di due voci fuori dal tempo. With Pasolini “following Pound’s shadow, immobile and yet in constant flight” (12), the two poets are portrayed as “timeless” peers, billed as spie dell’infinito (16), “winged and contemplative spirits” who “having discovered the well of exile, of oblivion, of contrappunto and penumbra, immerge Poetry into it – a song of energy to which they have sacrificed themselves to redeem and reanimate the aged man-No Man” (18). Characterising their encounter as an “apparently impossible dialogue which is, instead, real, precisely because of its invisible harmonies between two voices unified in the synchronous singing of tragedy on one side, and redemption, exodus from this waste land, on the other” (11-12), Antonangeli’s work offers no exception to the trend. Indeed, this slight book reads a lot like a cursory summary of recent Pasolini criticism – recalling what has been said before and in a clearer fashion – through a blurred Poundian prism that betrays a superficial knowledge of his work.
Most of the problems with Antonangeli’s book are summarily exemplified in its introduction. As an Italian literature specialist, Antonangeli is understandably more concerned with the effects of Pound’s poetry on Pasolini’s work, however this is by no means simply a study of influence. He correctly situates the Italian’s interest in Pound as originating, after an initial aversion, toward the end of the sixties – when, as he puts it, “a sense of finality founds every road in the route traced by the American ‘miglior fabbro’, radiant and umbrageous, ‘black’ exemplum of Poetry as a subterraneous force modelling the form of exterior existence, history, and the tangle of events” (11). With only the guidance of the occasional, insipid go-to term (“stimmung” [sic]; “Tun ohne Bild”; “the Marcusian single dimension”) used apodictically and unhelpfully, we wade through a host of italicised terms, unattributed quotes, critical half-thoughts, and obfuscating rhetoric. In one particularly boisterous half page, for example, Antonangeli name-checks Godard, Chaucer, Marcuse, Eisenstein, Kenner, Wyndham Lewis and Rilke. The embracing of diverse critical perspectives would not, in itself, be problematic – however the author systematically fails to engage with these sources in any sort of meaningful way, and the frantic nature of this enumeration further clouds – if not undermines – the very possibility of any kind of intelligible, structured argument. The lack of limpidity is further compounded by a rather slapdash approach, exemplified by an imprecision that often goes beyond the merely typographical, with the oft-quoted line from Mauberley becoming (unplayfully, I assume) a “consciousmess disjunt” (13).
Ostensibly Antonangeli seeks to go beyond the dynamics of influence, and probe the similarities, or consonances, between the two poets. We learn, for example, that, for Pound and Pasolini: “Return is a mood, a mental state, of contrappunto, of deviation which runs parallel to history in the flux of waves from Nirvana, paradise of stillness where man is truth, himself and No Man in the infinity of mystery” (17). And of the two poets’ spiritedly outspoken nature, even after persecution and hardship, we read: “Their exclusion is therefore an inclusion in true reality: like two initiates to the mysteries of the Eleusinian and orphic rites, they oppose a ‘Great Refusal’ to the status quo of death, to elevate themselves to Life through the mystical passage into an absolute Elsewhere, union of the divine process, man’s sinceritas and the Universe’s motionless νόος” (16-17). If the introduction serves to convey a book’s purpose, is this really acceptable prose? “Truth is reached in the chiaroscuro of sunset”, he explains, “as the sun goes down when each thing is unified in the suspension of a mysterious, omniformis luminous expansion” (18). “The line of the horizon,” he goes on, “ridden by every Sun thus appears as a path for travellers on the boundaries of the Ocean, a Time which, in its revolution, liberates man in the turning of its eternal sundering and unifying of sky and earth” (18). There are entire pages of this.
Even affording the author the benefit of the doubt, these high-flown pronouncements are mystifying when not impenetrable – and are symptomatic of all that I find dissatisfying with the book. Pasolini once said that reading Pound was “l’esperienza pura del delirio”, a pure experience of delirium, and that canto 76 was rather like taking a powerful drug – and it is only, it seems to me, as a veiled, performative homage to this insight that we might excuse some of Antonangeli’s more garbled passages.
Though the writing becomes less jumbled as the book progresses, there are a number of wider, structural problems inherent in the work. Antonangeli’s prose is peppered with unqualified quotations – unglossed, uncommented, undeveloped – and linked only by the odd, tenuous quindi or dunque, at evident pains to suggest a degree of logical concatenation that is largely lacking. The first section of the first chapter, for example, which serves to contextualise the Italy in which the Pound/Pasolini encounter took place, is made up of a series of overlong passages lifted from three or four history books and appended together. Antonangeli offers us little by way of a unifying, homogenous discourse or cohesive, structured argument, lurching from one subheading to the next. The rest of the chapter is composed of what are essentially plot summaries of Pasolini’s film Porcile (Pigsty) and unfinished novel Petrolio, followed by Dostoevsky’s Demons. What critical insight is provided is not new, and when Antonangeli adds a comment it is seldom helpful, or even expanded upon: “like in a Goethian prologue” (36) is the sole mention of Goethe; and a raising of a clenched fist at the end of Salò is likened offhandedly and inconsequentially to that of “Tommy [sic] Smith and John Carlos at the olympics [sic]” (63).
Pound’s absence from the vast majority of the first chapter is striking. Though he is reintroduced in the final few paragraphs, there is too little, too late, to qualify quite exactly how – other than a solitary citation of canto 99 in Pasolini’s Salò – he fits in with what has preceded. Indeed, the first chapter’s stock failure to consider Pound as a proper agent of comparison, muddying the terrain, instead, with several other authors, works and sources, only serves to further cloud the focus, particularly after such a misleading introduction. The constant shifts of perspective bespeak a larger problem with the comparative methodologies employed by Antonangeli, which systematically undermines the kind of equilibrated comparison the book’s title would imply. Seldom are the two poets considered on the same page, let alone in the same sentence, unless in the kind of loose and gluey rhetoric of which I have provided examples. Entirely absent, furthermore, is any attempt to engage with the radical diversity of these two poets’ work. In short, there seems to be a larger and more worrying absence here, of a sound methodology, of a tenable comparative framework; and it is the possibility of a clear prose linking these poets in an organic or fluid manner that pays the price.
The second and third chapters, which, in a similarly oblique way, seek to draw links between aspects of Pound and Pasolini’s work, are troubled by similar problems. Chapter two switches the focus from Salò onto Pound’s Mauberley, taking us, in the author’s words, “From gouged eyes – opened wide in the terror of being a mere object of smug contemplation for ageing sadists – to the pale cerulean eyes carved by the minor artist Hugh Selwyn Mauberley in his Medallion – an aestheticizing portrait, precise, and of a perfect beauty, flawless and distant from time. Tumult and calm” (69). After the destruction of war, the artist, Antonangeli argues, “slides slowly out of the voracious, spasmodic time of the present. He lives on the waters of his own, atemporal ocean, neither here nor far, like Ulysses, he is nowhere and therefore everywhere” (71). Reading Mauberley as a key moment of transition in Pound’s aesthetic and poetic direction, and the war and post-war period as a step toward a new sort of political engagement, is not a new perspective – but Antonangeli bloats matters unnecessarily with phrases like “Innocent victims, dead for the Pleasure of untruth”. “Usura is the executioner,” he continues, “‘on [sic] old bitch gone in the teeth’” (72), suggesting categorically, and wrongly, that this is the first time personification has ever appeared in Pound’s poetry.
The author retraces familiar steps – Douglas, the Bank of England, a reading of Canto 45 – paraphrasing extant criticism, before lurching into Canto 81’s libretto and the DTC. As his argument proceeds, through approximate quotations (“the dry nobbled path, saw many known, and unknown, / for an instant” ) and dogmatic declarations (“The uprooting of the past and its destruction are the greatest deprivation of liberty that humanity has ever had to suffer” ), we may legitimately wonder where Pasolini has disappeared to. “Late Pasolini,” he answers eventually, in the closing paragraphs of the subchapter, “imitated and inherited [Pound’s] mood of struggle and rejection” (83). He glosses this as a “Mood of disobedience and ‘great refusal.’ A mood of the consciousness of defeat, which is never reduced to resignation” (83); and despite the awkward choice of “mood,” this notion of acknowledged, conscious defeat appears potentially fecund, but – after enunciating it – the author takes it no further.
Subchapters on Provence and Pasolini’s Arabian Nights follow, by way of Agamben, Marcuse and Simone Weil, but provide no moment of synthesis between the two poets. Unfortunately, even when the writing becomes more accessible, we still inhabit a critical domain where any kind of geographical expanse becomes a “waste land” (or, if we’re lucky, a “non-place”), all myths are doomed to “eternally return,” and words like “poetry,” “life.” “return,” “myth,” and “absolute” are deemed trivial unless capitalised, italicised, or both. When, eventually, at the beginning of the third and final chapter, The Cantos is introduced, it is on the author’s aqueous terms: “The living waters of poetry drag Pound down, à rebours, in the whirlpool which brings together the Absolute. Just under the surface of the water is the surface of history, the breath of present history; to plunge into the dark depths, where another light penetrates, we are dragged into the ‘vortex’ of a return to Myth, to the lost paradises in which to be reborn, thanks to new, sudden epiphanies of memory and the utopian dream” (147).
A conclusion might have helped clarify some of the points Antonangeli is trying to make. As it stands, the book’s scant bibliography provides an apt conclusion. Perhaps to make up for the paucity of Poundian criticism (four volumes – there appears to be more on Dostoevsky), we find the same books – Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots; Francesco Zambon’s La cena segreta – inexplicably indexed twice, back to back. And if, by this time, we are not already seeing double, we need only further scan this hapless bookcase to find a copy of A Choice of Swimburne’s Verse, compiled, mysteriously, by the neglected poet “Algernon Swimburne.” A consciousness disjunt, indeed.
(All translations by Sean Mark)