DOCUMENTARY– Pound’s Reading in Time
by Leon Surette
EZRA POUND’S READING OF MASAI ON PLETHON
We know that Ezra Pound acquired a copy of François Masai’s Pléthon et le Platonisme de Mistra (Société d’édition “Les Belles Lettres,” 1956) early in 1957, while he was still at St. Elizabeths, because in February of that year, he wrote to Wyndham Lewis reporting that he had been right “to mention Mr Plethon Gemisto in the Sidg. Canters [Malatesta Cantos]¸ when he wuz less in the pubk eye” (Pound/Lewis 303). I don’t know that Plethon was much “in the public’s eye” in 1957, but Masai’s book prompted Pound to renew his musings about the neo-platonic ambience that informs the Malatesta cantos1 – as Peter Liebregts points out in Ezra Pound and Neoplatonism (339) – and, indeed, in much of the first thirty cantos.
Plethon makes only a cameo appearance in the first 71 cantos – most of them in the Malatesta cantos:
And the Greek emperor was in Florence
(Ferrara having the pest)
And with him Gemisthus Plethon
Talking of the war about the temple at Delphos,
And of POSEIDON, concret Allgemeine, [Hegel: “concrete universal”]
And telling of how Plato went to Dionysius of Syracuse
Because he had observed that tyrants
Were most efficient in all that they set their hands to,
But he was unable to persuade Dionysius
To any amelioration. (8/31)
The “emperor” is the Byzantine emperor, John VIII Palaeologus, who had come to Italy (in January, 1438) to discuss an alliance of the Orthodox and Catholic churches – essentially in hopes of gaining military and financial help in Byzantium’s struggle with the Ottomans. The emperor had brought the philosopher, Gemisto Plethon, with him as an adviser. But Plethon’s heart was not in geopolitical issues, as James Hankins observes in Plato in the Italian Renaissance:
With his own eyes Pletho [sic] had seen, at the Council of Florence, the leaders of the Byzantine church and state abandon what should have been eternal theological truths for the sake of some temporary and, as it turned out, futile 2 military aid. Contempt for the leaders of his own church, combined with a sense of his own intellectual superiority, were no doubt largely responsible for alienating Pletho from the institutional religion of his day. (Hankins, 201).
Plethon’s “alienation … from the institutional religion of his day,” (Orthodox Christianity) is Hankins polite way of noting Plethon’s belief in an ancient and forgotten faith, one very like what Pound called a “secretum.”3
Pound’s belief in a “secretum,” or occult (that is, hidden and esoteric), tradition has been a longstanding, and controversial, theme in my studies of Pound. It is worth noting in this context that Lawrence Rainey’s 1991 study of the Malatesta cantos, which precedes my articulation of the theme in The Birth of Modernism by two years, comes to the same determination: “Pound was eager indeed to view the culture of Renaissance Rimini as the heir and renovator of a ‘secret’ spiritual tradition stretching from ancient Greece to medieval Provence” (Rainey 41). However, Rainey does not pursue that theme, and only mentions Plethon couple of times, and Masai, not at all.
Pound’s later mention of Plethon in the Malatesta Cantos endorses Masai’s view that Plethon questioned Christianity:
"Never with this religion
"Will you make men of the greeks.
"But build wall across Peloponesus
"And organize, and ...
damn these Eyetalian barbarians." (23/107)
As Plethon’s cursing of the Italians implies, the conference came to nothing so far as any reconciliation of Rome with Orthodoxy, or of military assistance for Byzantium is concerned. However, Plethon’s presence played an important role in introducing Greek and Platonic texts – then largely unknown in the West – to Italy. While there, Plethon gave lectures on Platonic philosophy and is commonly credited with prompting Marsilio Ficino’s establishment of the Florentine Academy under Cosimo Medici’s patronage – an important cultural event that Pound memorializes in canto 21 – however, without invoking Plethon: “And he [Cosimo] caught the young boy Ficino / And had him taught the greek language” (21/96). Oddly, in the Malatesta cantos, Pound does not mention that Malatesta “liberated” Plethon’s remains from their burial place in Mistra (he died in 1452 or 1454) and interred them in the Tempio – even though he was surely aware of it.
The last mention of Plethon in the Malatesta Cantos implies the futility of the theological discussions that took place in Florence and Ferrara:
And in February they all packed off
To Ferrara to decide on the holy ghost
And as to the which begat the what in the Trinity. —
Gemisto and the Stonolifex (26/123)
Plethon does not reappear in the collected cantos until 83 of the Pisan Cantos: “Gemisto stemmed all from Neptune / hence the Rimini bas reliefs” (529). (The Rimini basreliefs are found in Malatesta’s Tempio in Rimini.) However, Plethon is invoked in the (uncollected) Italian cantos – 72 and 73 – prompted by the allied bombing of Rimini, and the partial destruction of the Tempio. Pound learned of the bombing in June of 1944, and promptly composed the “Italian Cantos,” which, Rainey informs us, “were excluded from all collected editions of The Cantos from 1948 through 1986.” Here Pound does note that Plethon was buried at Rimini: “Rimini burnt, and Forli destroyed, / Who shall see again the sepulchre of Gemisthus / Who was so wise, even if Greek?” (Rainey 212, 214).4 The last line (omitted from the English translation in my 1999 edition) reflects the thoroughly Aristotelian Italians’ hesitation to accept Plethon’s Platonism.
Although Plethon disappeared from the Cantos, he remained present in Pound’s mind, appearing in Guide to Kulchur, which Pound wrote very rapidly in 1938. By that date, Pound’s preoccupation with economic propaganda had abated. In the Guide, he credited Malatesta with helping to preserve Plethon’s reputation, and remarked that “he [Plethon] is more known by his sarcophagus in Rimini than by his writing” (GK 160, 224). He also compared Ficino to Plethon, to the former’s disadvantage: “Ficino by comparison a mere valedictorian?” (GK 160). He commented on Plethon’s obscurity, making some effort to characterize his philosophical posture, drawing attention to his political engagement, and to his role in prompting Ficino’s study of Greek neoplatonists, with their influence on European thought and mysticism:
And they say Gemisto found no one to talk to, or more generally he did the talking. He was not a proper polytheist, in this sense: His gods come from Neptune, so that there is a single source of being, aquatic (udor, Thales etc. as you like, or what is the difference). And Gemisto had distinct aims, regeneration of greek people so they wd. keep out the new wave of Barbarism (Turkish) etc.
At any rate he had a nailed boot for Aristotle, and his conversation must have been lively. Hence (at a guess) Ficino’s sinecure, at old Cosimo’s expense, trained to translate the greek neoplatonists. Porphyry, Psellos, Iamblichus, Hermes Trismegistus … .
Whence I suppose what’s-his-name and the English mystics with reference to greek originals sometimes (John Heydon etc.).
What remains, and remains undeniable to and by the most hardened objectivist, is that a great number of men have had certain kinds of emotion and, magari, of ecstasy. (GK 224-25).
The last remark would place Plethon in the company of what Pound calls “present knowers,” in his translation of Cavalcanti’s “Dona mi Pregha” (“A Lady asks me”) (36/177), that is individuals who have had some mystical/ecstatic “experience.”
* * *
Now let’s turn to Plethon’s reappearance in Thrones – prompted by Pound’s reading of Masai. The following discussion is informed by my examination of Pound’s heavily marked copy of Masai that we are fortunate to have. Peter Liebregts, the only scholar I have found to have given Masai any attention, apparently did not examine Pound’s copy. However, he comes to much the same conclusion as the following discussion details, characterizing the (translated) passage from Masai below as “words that must have struck Pound for the confirmation they have of his own beliefs and methods”:
In order to discover the “common notions” that constitute exactly the essence of law and of natural religion and in order to discern the truths of local or ephemeral prejudices, as well as to have a better judgement with regard to conflicting opinions, one must study carefully the customs and laws of all human societies. (Masai 128, cited by Liebregts 340)
Pound does not mark this passage from page 128, but he does mark others that express the same approval of the idea that human cultures are informed by ideas and principles that are largely tacit, but expressed in what Plethon calls χοιναιʹἔννοια, which Masai translates as “notions communes,” and Pound annotates as “common notions” (Masai 117).
What Liebregts calls Pound’s “beliefs and methods,” are presumably the Frobenian concept of paideuma and Gentile’s notion of “ideas in action”; perhaps with some feature of the “Make it New” slogan: to recover and refurbish the familiar and tarnished. Pound characterized Fenollosa’s “paideuma” as “the tangle or complex of the inrooted ideas of any period” (GK 57). He writes “Frob” (for Frobenius) in the margin for page 134 (and in the personal index at the back adds “Ari.” as a comment on the following passage in Masai: “L’hypothèse d’une tradition véritable, mais orale et mème ésotérique, pouvait se réclamer de témoignages fort nombreux” (“The hypothesis of an authentic tradition, but oral, and even esoteric, is attested to by very many testimonials”) (Masai 134). In any case, it is clear that Pound found the Plethonian concept of “common notions” to be simpatico.
As any student of Pound’s oeuvre knows, he was a veritable sponge when it comes to the impact of his reading on his thinking. That is not to say that he was an indiscriminate reader, but rather that he retained from his reading Arnoldian touchstones: phrases, insights and revelations rather than a general argument or narrative. Certainly, he (mostly) understood the information and opinion that he found in the works he read, but the traces they tended to leave in his letters and poetry typically consist of “gists and piths.” In the case of Masai on Plethon, Pound reported to Lewis in February 1957 this particular “gist” he had found: “F. Masai on Plethon notes that gods are gods ‘cause they got more hilaritas than the animal electoral,5 and alzo that they COMMUNICATE more rapidly with each other” (Pound/Lewis 303. Original emphasis).
I will return to “hilaritas” in a bit, but first I want to gloss the “rapid communication” Pound says the gods enjoy. Even though his interest in Gemisto Plethon goes back at least to the early twenties, when he was working on the Malatesta cantos, it seems to have been still current in 1938 when he wrote Guide to Kulchur. However, he became disenchanted with Plethon, complaining to George Santayana (in a letter of December 8, 1939): “Gemistus Plethon’s polytheism evaporated when one got near it” (SL 428). That such an “evaporation” was a mark against Plethon in Pound’s view is clear from a letter he had written to Douglas McPherson6 a month earlier: “The minute you proclaim that the mysteries exist at all you’ve got to recognize that 95% of yr. contemporaries will not and cannot understand one word of what you are driving at. And you can not explain. The SECRETUM stays shut to the vulg.” (SL 425). It appears that his careful reading of Masai’s Pléthon et le Platonisme de Mistraled him to alter his assessment of Plethon. Masai’s account pressed two of the buttons still preoccupying Pound in the 1950s: political engagement and the “secretum,” that he shared with early influences such as Yeats and G. R. S. Mead.
Pound’s comment on rapid communication in the letter to Lewis is a resurgence of his early infatuation with Emmaneul Swedenborg, who understood angelic communication to be nearly instantaneous and effortless; as Swedenborg explains: “Their [Angels’] speech is quick, flowing like smooth water. There are words, indeed, but they are, as it were, continuous, or rather, the ideas are continued like a stream in which it is the thought which quickly falls into words with me. In short, there is, as it were, a stream of ideas to which the words correspond, but they do not adhere to them” (The Spiritual Diary I: 1146). And again, in vol II:
… the speech of spirits is a universal speech, and from it are sprang [sic], and, as it were, born all the languages; for it is spiritual ideas which constitute their speech. When these inflow into man’s memory they excite words corresponding to the ideas and the like, which man has in his memory; moreover, they excite ideas which are mixed, or are many for the same word, as is usually the case, as also such as have been blended with each other from various circumstances, and many which adhere, as it were, round about. All this occurs according to the nature and disposition of spirits, for spirits excite ideas, hence words which suit their nature, thus this occurs according to all that variety and diversity which belongs to spirits and to their states. (II: 2138)
Pound explained his understanding of Swedenborg’s notion of angelic speech to Viola Baxter Jordan in a letter of October 1907: “Swedenborg has called a certain thing ‘the angelic language.’ … This ‘angelic language’ I choose to interpret into ‘artistic Utterance.’” (Beinecke, Viola Baxter Jordan Letters).7 Nearly fifty years later, he confesses (in a letter of December 1956 to Olivia Rossetti Agresti) that his enthusiasm for Swedenborg has faded a bit: “More intelligent than Plotinus, as more direct experience. Plot. ARGUING about what he don’t know. Swed, anthropomorphic from advance anatomy. In short I see why I stopped reading him. tho has beautiful passages.” (L/ORA 239). This letter was probably written before he began reading Masai in January or February of 1957, which resurrected his interest in Swedenborg and the doctrine of correspondences.
The phrase “direct experience” requires a gloss. Swedenborg’s books are reports of his “experiences” in the world of spirits. For example, he reports in Heaven and Hell:
From all my experience, which is now of many years, I am able to say and affirm that angels are wholly men in form, having faces, eyes, ears, bodies, arms, hands, and feet; that they see and hear one another, and talk together, and in a word lack nothing whatever that belongs to men except that they are not clothed in material bodies. I have seen them in their own light, which exceeds by many degrees the noonday light of the world, and in that light all their features could be seen more distinctly and clearly than the faces of men are seen on the earth. (Chapter 10. §75)
I don’t know what Pound made of such remarkable observations, but he seems not to have been troubled by them. In the Guide, he recalls a similar observation from Swedenborg:
Swedenborg, if you permit him to be called a philosopher, writes: I saw three angels, they had hats on their heads.
[…] One may be a bit in the dark as to what constituted Swedenborg’s optic impressions but one does not doubt that he had such impressions.
The standard of conduct among angels in his third heaven furnishes an excellent model for those of us who do not consider that we have entered that district. (GK 73-4)
In short, Swedenborg did not have visions like your standard mystic, but claimed to have wandered about the celestial sphere as a conscious, living man – just like Dante in the Commedia. But Swedenborg’s “other world” has little in common with Dante’s medieval fantasies. His books are reports on what he saw and heard during his visits to “Heaven and ‘Hell,” rather than Dante’s imaginative reconstruction of medieval notions of heaven and hell.
Pound’s evoking of “Hilaritas,” however, is not from Swedenborg, but from Scotus Erigena, via his editor, Schlüter. Erigena, like Swedenborg, was a long-standing enthusiasm of Pound’s. The term “Hilaritas” (cheerfulness) however, is first invoked in Canto 83 – also together with Gemisto Plethon – long before he read Masai:
HUDOR et Pax [water and peace]
Gemisto stemmed all from Neptune
hence the Rimini bas reliefs
Sd Mr Yeats (W. B.) “Nothing affects these people
Except our conversation”
lux enim [light is an attribute of fire]
ignis est accidens and,
wrote the prete in his edition of Scotus:
Hilaritas the virtue hilaritas (LXXXIII/548)
Terrell’s Companion informs us that Pound is alluding to C. B. Schlüter’s (the “prete”) edition of Scotus Erigena’s De Divisione Naturae. Schlüter speaks of Erigena’s “piety and cheerfulness (hilaritas)” (Terrell 459). The collocation of the allegedly neoplatonist Christian theologian, Erigena, and the avowedly neoplatonist, Gemisto Plethon is resurrected in Thrones, more than a decade later, no doubt prompted by Pound’s reading of Masai. He also throws in the Cambridge medieval theologian, St. Anselm:
In Byzantium 12% for a millennium
The Manchu at 36 legal, their Edict
the next pass
Anselm: that some is incarnate awareness,
thus trinitas; some remains spiritus
“The body is inside”. Thus Plotinus,
But Gemisto: “Are Gods by hilaritas,”
and their speed in communication
et in nebulas simiglianza [and in clouds, correspondence]8
χαθ̓ όμοίωσιν Deorum [made like a god]
a fanned flame in their moving
Terrell’s Companion completely misses the echo of Swedenborg’s notion of correspondence, the parallelism between a superior and an inferior realm, between heaven and earth in the phrase “et in nebula simiglianza.”9 Note, too, that in Thrones, Pound lumps together his economic preoccupations with his “secretum.”
Swedenborg explains his notion of correspondence in many places, but the following is fairly perspicuous:
The whole natural world corresponds to the spiritual world, and not merely the natural world in general, but also every particular of it; and as a consequence, everything in the natural world that springs from the spiritual world is called a correspondent. It must be understood that the natural world springs from and has permanent existence from the spiritual world, precisely like an effect from its effecting cause. (Heaven and Hell 50)
A little later, he articulates the doctrine even more succinctly: “Nature has been created simply for clothing the spiritual and for presenting it in a correspondent form in the outmost of order” (55). And again: “at the heart of the intelligible world there exists a multiplicity, but finite, and in no way infinite, either in power or in activity. It is in our sensible world alone that the infinite, insofar as that is possible, can appear” (50). Reading Masai on Plethon in 1957, Pound finds Swedenborg’s doctrine of correspondence – or a facsimile of it – in Masai’s reading of Gemisto Plethon, re-igniting his interest in that old enthusiasm.
The following passage from page 158 in Masai is marked by Pound with the Italian term, “simiglianza,” (“correspondence”). Masai explains that for Plethon intelligible entities appear as sensible phenomena – albeit, in complicated ways – just as Swedenborg does. However, Masai never mentions Swedenborg:
Since such beings appear in our world only through a combination of several causes, each of which can correspond to the superior world, but there is not a specific reality in the world of ideas as the cause of each being. However there is in the world of the “beyond” an Idea which is the unique cause of everything here below that falls toward the infinite, because the beings of the superior world never participate in the numerable infinite. On the contrary, God, superior to all essence knows no form of multiplicity, being in effect of a sovereign mode. On the other hand, a multiplicity exists at the heart of the intelligible world, but finite, and in no sense infinite, either in power or action. It is only in our sensible world that the infinite, insofar as possible, can appear, because of the material which the infinite takes as its first principle. Assuredly it is from the superior [infinite] world that matter draws its causality, but it [matter] does not exist in an infinite mode.10
This passage alone would be enough to prompt Pound to resurrect Plethon in Thrones.
A soul, said Plotinus, the body inside it.
"By Hilaritas", said Gemisto, "by hilaritas: gods;
and by speed in communication.
Anselm cut some of the cackle, and relapsed for sake of
Thus the gods appointed john barleycorn Je tzu11 (98/710)
In this passage, we have a resurgence of the “metaphysical” concerns that dominated the first thirty cantos. To get some idea of what I mean by “metaphysical” I can find no better no better articulation of it than James Hankins’ explanation of Gemisto Plethon’s understanding of myth in Plato in the Italian Renaissance:
The pagan myths and biblical stories, insofar as they have not been corrupted by poets and “sophists,” are not historical events, but shadowy representations in linguistic form of metaphysical (or divine) truths, which may only be grasped truly in contemplative noesis. The myth of Orpheus, the rape of Proserpina and the story of Adam and Eve are thus at root the same story; both of them contain hidden truths about the fixity of human destiny, truths which, though visible to hidden powers of intuition within the soul, are strictly beyond the ability of language to communicate.12 (Hankins 200)
Hankins corroborates Masai’s contention that Plethon believed in an ancient religion that had been lost to his contemporaries – very much like Pound’s “secretum”:
But above these corrupted religions, Pletho [sic] held, there soared a more ancient and sublime form of religion which had been known to antique “legislators and philosophers” and might yet be known to choice spirits in the modern world through a diligent study of the greatest of ancient philosophers. This ancient Hellenic theology had, at the beginning of history, been common to all men, though some formulations of it had admittedly been imperfect. The best guide to it was the Persian sage Zoroaster, who had been followed by Pythagoras and Plato, and who had in turn inspired the best of the ancient legislators. The high ancient religion was at once the source and the measure of all subsequent religious traditions. (201-2)
However, so far as I can make out, and despite Pound’s claim in the letter to Wyndham Lewis that “F. Masai on Plethon notes that gods are gods cause they got more hilaritas than the animal electoral,” the term “hilaritas” – which, as we have seen, Pound got from Scotus Erigena – does not appear in Pléthon et le Platonisme de Mistra. Nor does it appear in Pound’s annotations on the fly leaf of his copy of Masai. It is difficult to know exactly what Pound meant by “hilaritas,” but he clearly regarded it as an attribute of divinities, invoking it repeatedly in Thrones. As we have seen, Erigena’s editor, Schlüter, translates it as “cheerfulness” – a rather pedestrian virtue to carry the weight Pound assigns it.
Among the passages in Plethon that Pound marks, but does not label, I have identified a couple of candidates for a Plethonic view of “hilaritas.” The first is midway in the book: “The liberality of Plethon is that of the man of taste, of the aristocrat sufficiently free from material needs to enable him to dedicate some of his resources to satisfy his love of beauty. It’s the freedom of the artist or of the Renaissance patron, not that of the medieval Christian, nor, indeed, of the modern philanthropist” (Masai 255).13 That Pound marked this passage confirms that it corresponds with his own prejudices, but it is a poor candidate for “hilaritas.”
A somewhat more apposite passage is one Masai cites from Plethon, a couple of pages later:
The body contributes to well being first of all because it hosts a man’s most precious possession: reason, and [also] because it [the body] applies the reason to the universe that surrounds us and makes it [the reason] examine what each thing is and why it exists; what is possible according to its nature, and what is not. Thanks to it [the reason], a man is not satisfied by trivial things, the way of living and of any of the pleasures of human nature (which cannot be compared to such an important thing), instead of that [the afore mentioned trivialities and pleasures] man becomes through his soul a native of the entire universe which surrounds us, enjoys true joy [“la vraie joie”] and participates in the pleasures [“les jouissances”] of a life just like that of the higher spirits themselves.14 (Masai 257)
Masai’s term, “jouissance” has rather more cathexis than Schlüter’s “cheerfulness” – especially if one is a reader of late twentieth century French savants, such as Roland Barthes15 – as Masai, writing in the mid-1950s, was not. However, even in 1955, “jouissance” is much more than cheerfulness “bliss” is the term Barthes’ translator chooses for “jouissance,” but one can’t have “blisses.”
Of course, it is very much part of Pound’s rhetoric to incorporate untranslated terms into his poetry – preserving the ambience of their foreign origin. Although hilaritas is cognate with the English word “hilarity,” the notion of knee-slapping amusement is surely not what Pound wants to invoke by his highlighting of the term. Candidates for an English equivalent include “cheerfulness,” “buoyancy,” “exhilaration,” “mirth,” “merriment,” “cheer, “joyfulness,” “jollity,” “gaiety,” and “light-heartedness.” The French term, jouissance,seems better than all of these – even taken together.
In any event it is clear that, like Plethon (if we assume an equivalence between “hilaritas,” and “jouissance”), Pound regards hilaritas as an attribute of the” angelic” mind – an appropriate sentiment for Thrones, since the title evokes for Pound a region of paradise reserved “for the spirits of the people who have been responsible for good government,” as he explained to Donald Hall (“E. P. An Interview”). (In the Commedia,thrones is the name of a class of angels responsible for guiding governors, not the name of a heavenly region.)
Pound’s long-ago mentor, W.B. Yeats, perhaps caught the sentiment Pound is reaching for by “hilaritas” in “Lapis Lazuli”:
All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
. . . . . . . .
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.
(Collected Poems, “Last Poems” 338-9)
Yeats was writing in 1936, and looking forward apprehensively at the gathering war clouds in Europe. Pound in 1956, is looking back at a disastrous defeat of the side he chose in that war – a war that Yeats never saw, as he died on January 28, 1939.
Pound’s reading of Masai while at St Elisabeth, then, reanimated his occult interests that go back to his Pennsylvania days, and that underpin his early relationship with William Butler Yeats, at that time, a fellow Swedenborgian, and unrepentant believer in occult knowledge. As we have seen, Pound’s respect for Swedenborg was up and down, but never completely absent. In canto 83, just below invoking Plethon, he had teased Yeats’ Swedenborgianism, which tended to make him see the “correspondent” symbol, rather than the concrete reality in front of him:
Uncle William dawdling around Notre Dame
in search of whatever
paused to admire the symbol
with Notre Dame standing inside it (83/548)
Not one to forget or waste anything, Pound repeats that observation in canto CXIII:
That Yeats noted the symbol over that portico
And the bull by the force that is in him—
not lord of it,
Masai’s study of Plethon also speaks to Pound’ political interests. Still incarcerated at St Elizabeths while writing Thrones, Pound’s political project was caught between two antagonists – the Allies and the Soviets – just as Plethon and his Byzantine Orthodox colleagues were caught between the Catholic Latins and the Ottoman Turks. Masai points out that both the Latins and the Turks were threats to the Byzantines. He invokes the fourth crusade (which sacked Byzantium in 1204) as an “act of international piracy,” and continuing threats from the West, as well as the Ottoman threat from the East (Masai 44-6). (As noted above, Byzantium eventually fell to the Turks on on 28 May 1453.) In effect, Pound was able to see Plethon as in a situation parallel to his own during World War II – a scholar attempting to broker an alliance against what each of them perceived to be a common enemy. For Pound, it was the “usurious” West (France and Britain), for Plethon, the Ottoman Turks. Just as Pound was able to recruit sympathizers to his economic and political views in the United States (neutral prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941), so, too, was Plethon able to recruit sympathizers to his Platonism in Renaissance Florence. But both men failed to recruit their respective targets as military allies against their respective antagonists – the supposedly usurious democracies (Britain and France) and the Soviet Communists for Pound; the Islamic Turks and the Catholic West for Plethon.
Of course, the parallels are imperfect. Pound was composing Thrones and reading Masai ten years after the defeat of the Axis powers. Plethon was lecturing the Italians more than a decade before the fall of Byzantium. Nonetheless, Pound could take some comfort from the fact that, by introducing Plato to the Florentine humanists, Plethon had a powerful effect on European culture – despite his political failure. We have seen that Pound – like his contemporaries – thought the European Renaissance was prompted by the influx of Byzantine scholars into the West, bringing their knowledge of Plato (and Plotinus). Masai in the 1950s supports that view, as does James Hankins in 1990: “Pletho’s brand of spiritualistic religion was, to be sure, far too radical and dangerous for the Christian Platonists of the later fifteenth century. But … the possibility of using Platonism to renew a corrupted religious tradition – of reforming religion by returning, not upon the beginnings of Christianity, but upon the very sources of religion itself – would become a central theme of Florentine Neoplatonism” (204).16 (The strategy of reforming Christianity “by returning . . . upon the beginnings of Christianity,” is, of course, also the strategy of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and the English Puritans who dominated the Northern thirteen colonies.)
No doubt Pound had hoped that he, too, could influence the future through the Cantos, a compendium of wisdom, both secular and spiritual. Of course, he did not confine himself to poetic utterances. He devoted much of his time and energy from the 1935 publication of Jefferson and/or Mussolini, to his release from St Elizabeths in 1958 and beyond, to the production of prose commentary designed to promote his economic ideas and Italian Fascism to his American compatriots. Whereas Plethon retired to his home in Mistra, after having failed to recruit the Catholics to either his philosophical posture, or the defense of Byzantium, Pound remained in the fray well beyond any hope of success. Even in St. Elisabeths, he continued to attempt to influence events through disciples who visited him and attempted to carry out what they regarded as his political program.17
Pound’s belief in a “secretum,” that is in a stock of wisdom deliberately shielded from the general public by being expressed in coded language, predisposed him to a belief in a political/economic conspiracy to shield the masses from the discovery that the captains of commerce were controlling events from behind the scenes – much like the Wizard of Oz in L. Frank Baum’s novel of 1900. (Sometimes read, incidentally, as an allegory of William Jennings Bryan’s “free silver” campaign in the presidential elections of 1896 and 1900.)18 There is hardly a need to document Pound’s belief in a conspiracy, but the opening and closing sentences of his 1944 pamphlet, America, Roosevelt and the Causes of the Present War can serve as witness to that belief: “This war was not caused by any caprice on Mussolini’s part, nor on Hitler’s. This war is part of the secular war between usurers and peasants, between the usurocracy and whomever does an honest day’s work with his own brain or hands. I don’t know how many books one may have to read in order to understand this simple sentence …” And “The reason for the present publication, at this particular moment, is to indicate the incidence of the present war in the series of wars provoked by the same never-dying agency, namely the world usurocracy, or the congregation of High Finance” (11-12).
It is impractical to discuss all the passages in Masai that Pound marked, and labeled. Accordingly, I am including in this appendix the list of pages Pound included in his self-index. There is only one edition of Masai’s book, so it should be possible to find a copy in any research library. Pound has read this work very thoroughly. He has indexed the following pages on the last page and the facing flyleaf containing “Table des Matières”
68, Tx [= "tax"]
90, 97, 104 Lucretius poggio 1414,
120 theon [in GRK],
134 Ari[stotle] Frob[enius,
190, 193 Ari[stotle], [illegible],
230, 233, [J.] Brucker Chaldean,
247 Synesios de Cyrene,
255 257 patera kosmos,
294, 313 Legrand,
343 Leto, Callimaco,
348 Brooks A.,
At the bottom of the page: Fiorentino; and 319 entry of greeks [illegible].
On facing page below table of contents:
117 common “beliefs,”
140 sages & falses [“sophistes” in Masai],
191 “une intelligence “
76x" [in box],
199 gods choose men,
218 older, elder superior to younger,
323 didn’t want make ally.
At top of this page above table of contents: 208 wop mythology.
Baller, F. W. Trans. The Sacred Edict. Orono, Maine: The National Poetry Foundation 1979.
Barthes Roland, The Pleasures of the Text. Trans Richard Miller. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux , 1975.
Hankins, James.Plato in the Italian Renaissance.Columbia Studies in the Italian Renaissance 1990.
Hall, Donald. “E. P.: An Interview,” Paris Review28 (1962): 22-51.
Marsh, Alec.Ezra Pound. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.
Masai, Francois. Pléthon et le Platonisme de Mistra. Société d’édition “Les Belles Lettres” 1956.
—. Ezra Pound, America, Roosevelt and the Causes of the Present War. Trans John Drummondof L’America, Roosevelt e le cause della guerra presente. Venice 1944.
—. “Ezra Pound Speaking” Radio Speeches of World War II.Ed.Leonard W. Doob. New York: Greenwood Press 1978.
—. Guide to Kulchur. New York: New Directions, 1938. [GK]
—. I Cease not to Yowl: Ezra Pound’s Letters to Olivia Rossetti Agresti. Eds. Demetres Tryphonopoulos and Leon Surette.Urbana & Chicago: U. of Illinois P. 1998. [L/ORA]
—. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions 1998.
—. The Letters of Ezra Pound 1907-1941. Ed. D. D. Paige. London: Faber & Faber 1951.Rainey, Lawrence. Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture. Chicago: U. of Chicago P. 1991. [SL]
Swedenborg, Emmanuel. 1758. Heaven and Hell. New York: Swedenborg Foundation 1952.
—. The Spiritual Diary. 2 vols. London: Swedenborg Society 1962.
Terrell, Carroll F. A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.
Yeats, W. B. The Collected Poems. London: Macmillan 1958.
1. For a thorough and detailed discussion of the composition of the Malatesta Cantos and their sources see Rainey, 1991. Oddly, Rainey pays very little attention to Gemisto Plethon. The Malatesta cantos were composed between late May 1922 and the end of April 1923. A letter to Quinn of 29 May 1923, quoted by Pearlman (303) states: “Have been snowed under, or at least working on my Malatesta Cantos steadily and without let up from middle of Feb. until about five weeks ago.” In July 1923, they appeared in Eliot’s journal, The Criterion. Incidentally, Rainey believes that it was Pound’s visit to Malatesta’s Tempio in Rimini that inspired his interest in Malatesta – rather than the other way around, as I had assumed (Rainey 27).
2. “Futile,” because Byzantium fell to the Ottoman Turks on May 28, 1453.
3. Masai’s view that Plethon was a paganist is not idiosyncratic, but it is not endorsed by Hankins: “The student of Pletho’s [sic] religious thought is faced with intractable difficulties of interpretation. A mark of these difficulties is the sharp differences of opinion about Pletho’s religious views which persists in the modern scholarly literature. The majority of scholars, including Pletho’s two most recent biographers, accept without question the charge of paganism made against him by his enemy Scholarius, while at the same time a number of other scholars of high authority have continued to express skepticism as to whether this accusation could in fact be true” (Hankins 197).
4. The 1970 New Directions edition of the Cantos has a different version of these lines in the English translation: “Who sold Italy and the Empire / Rimini burned and Forli destroyed. /Who will see Gemisto’s sepulchre / The arches down and the walls / of ‘the divine Isotta’s’ resting place /and its symbolic designs burnt out” (72/435). However, Rainey’s translation is more faithful to the Italian: “Chi vedrà più il sepolcro di Gemisto / Che tanto savio fu, se pu fu greco?” The English translation in my text omits the last line.
5. It’s anyone’s guess what Pound means by “animal electoral.” Certainly “animal” means spirit or mind, not beast, so my guess is that he has in mind the modern citizen, more concerned with mundane electoral politics than broader cultural or spiritual matters. See also his expression compagnevole animale, and also feres familiares.
6. McPherson was attempting to recruit Pound as an editor and contributor for a literary magazine he hoped to launch, entitled Pan. So far as I know, the magazine never materialized.
7. I cited this letter 24 years ago in The Birth of Modernism (130-31), but I misidentified it as a letter to William Carlos Williams. The Beinecke had misfiled it with the Williams/Pound correspondence. The Beinecke has since corrected the error. Incidentally, it is clear that Swedenborg’s notion of “angelic language” has strong affinities with Pound’s embrace of the Chinese ideogram as a model case for poetic communication. But that is another story.
8. At the very beginning of Heaven and Hell, Swedenborg informs us that: “Each particular word has an internal sense” and “Clouds signify the sense of the letter of the Word” (1952: 2). Perhaps this line is a recollection of that observation.
9. Oddly, the Companion fails to link its note on hilaritas for canto 98, to its note on the same word for canto 83, where the provenance in Eriugena is recognized. Instead, the note to canto 98 relies on a Paideuma article that labels hilaritas a Poundian neologism.
10. “Car de tels êtres n’apparaissent dans notre monde que par un concours de plusieurs causes, dont chacune en particulier peut être rapportée à ce monde supérieur, mais il n’y a pas dans le monde des Idées une réalité particulière, cause de chacun d’eux; il y a cependant, dans le monde de l’au-delà, Idée qui est la cause unique de toutes les choses qui ici-bas tombent vers l’infini, car les êtres de ce monde supérieure ne participent jamais à l’infini quantitatif. Au contraire, le Dieu supérieur à toute essence ne connaît aucune forme de multiplicité, étant, en effet, un de façon souveraine. D’autre part, au sein de ce monde intelligible existe une multiplicité, mais finie, et d’aucune façon infinie, ni en puissance ni en acte. C’est dans notre monde sensible seulement que l’infinité, pour autant que ce soit possible, peut apparaître, à cause de la matière dont l’infini relève comme de son premier principe. Assurément, c’est du monde supérieur que la matière tient cette causalité, mais elle n’y existe pas de façon infinie.” (Masai 158, citing (in translation) Plethon, De Differentiis, f. 23r, l. 5-fr. 23v, l. 22). Translated from French by the author.
11. The Companion is not helpful here. John Barleycorn is a personification of the grain, barley, in an English folk song, which relates that he must “die” (in order to contribute to the brewing of beer). “Je Tzu” is even more opaque. It is an alternate transliteration for “Shi Tzu,” a Chinese breed of miniature dog. In Pound’s transliteration, it evokes “Jesus.” In any case, Pound seems to have in mind sacrificial figures. In the case of John Barleycorn, one that brings chemical solace. I have no guess for Je Tzu, beyond the echo of Jesus. It is undoubtedly taken from F. W. Baller’s bilingual edition of The Sacred Edict, which is heavily mined for this canto, but I have been unable to find the reference.
12. This is not the place to go into a broad discussion of theories of myth, but it is difficult not to notice the similarity of Plethon’s view of myth to that of Jung, Frye, and Campbell.
13. “La libéralité de Pléthon est donc celle de l’homme de goût, de l’aristocrate suffisamment dégagé des besoins matériels pour pouvoir employer une partie de ses ressources à satisfaire son amour du beau. C’est la libéralité de l’artiste ou du mécène de la Renaissance, non pas celle du chrétien médièval ni, non plus, celle du philanthrope moderne” (Masai 255).
14. “la physique contribue au bonheur tout d’abord parce qu’elle fait vivre l’homme de ce qu’il possède de meilleur en lui: la raison, ensuite parce qu’elle applique cette raison à l’univers qui nous entoure et lui fait examiner ce qu’est chaque chose et pourquoi elle se produit, ce qui est possible selon la nature et ce qui ne l’est pas. Grâce à elle, l’homme ne se satisfait pas de chose mesquines, de la manière de vivre et du plaisir d’une nature humaine quelconque (ce qui ne peut même pas être comparé avec une si grande chose), au lieu de cela par son âme l’homme devient un habitant de tout cet univers qui nous entoure, jouit de la vraie joie et partage les jouissances d’une vie toute pareille à celle des genres supérieurs eux-mêmes” (Masai citing G.P. 257).
15. See Roland Bathes, 1975. Barthes draws a distinction between the merely pleasant aspect of literature and its more potent bliss or jouissance. The French term, jouissance, is used for sexual orgasm as well as any intense pleasure. Miller translates it as “bliss,” losing the sexual connotation.
16. Although the view Hankins expresses here seems essentially in conformity with Masai, he later dismisses Masai with a single sentence: “Masai’s belief, that there was a horde of pagan humanists in the West eager to drink from Pletho’s [sic] cup, has long been exploded. To argue thus a priori for the slightness of Pletho’s influence is perilous, but the surviving textual evidence tends to confirm the supposition” (207).
17. See Alec Marsh, 2011, especially Chapter 11, “Confucian Martyr and Right-Wing Saint,” 184-205.
18. I have never seen a reference to Baum’s novel by Pound, but in Radio Speech #74 (April 6, 1943), he does refer to William Jenning Bryan, and his championing of silver as a monetary metal:
This alternate lifting and debasing the value of money is not accidental. When Kitson met Bryan, Bryan already knew that the silver propaganda was an implement or a camouflage over a major issue, that namely of the control of the national credit, or the national power to buy (Pound 1978: 271).