Berlin: Osburg Verlag, 2008.


review by Roxana Preda

For the naïve reader who approaches Eva Hesse’s book of 2008 “Ich liebe, also bin ich” Der unbekante Ezra Pound [I love, therefore I am. The unknown Ezra Pound] with some expectation of finding biographical revelations about Pound’s illicit love affairs, or else a mapping of the interplay between these and his personal family life will be largely disappointed.

S/he might also be confused by chapters that are exclusively philosophical and don’t seem to be strictly related to love. Starting from the premise that Pound is portrayed in the media as someone overwhelmed by hate, an unredeemable Fascist deep in anti-Semitic prejudice, Hesse maps that other side of a poet who at Pisa realized and affirmed that he is alive to the extent he is capable of affection. Her subtitle “The unknown Ezra Pound” therefore points to the affirmative side of Pound’s personality and intellectual pursuits. “Love” is generically understood as that side of the mind (the Freudian Eros), which affirms and supports our wish and strength to live. Sexual love, certainly, but also human relationships and intellectual curiosity, as well as religious and mystical impulses, the veneration of beauty and the desire for happiness. Hesse’s premise is that love, as a way of getting out of egoism and exploring the world in inextinguishable curiosity for the Other, was the mainspring of Pound’s readiness for constant renewal and experimentation in The Cantos. It is Eros, which stands behind his creative impulse and his desire and ability to include the most disparate zones of interest in stable and personal poetic syntheses. Hesse follows a few of these: her book is framed by historical considerations on the concept of the amour courtois with which she starts her investigation, and the extensive commentary on Cavalcanti’s Donna mi prega as it appears in Canto XXXVI, which ends it. In between, we find the hard nucleus of her philosophical investigations: a consideration of Neoplatonism and its ramifications in Pound’s absorbing interest in the philosophy of light as an expression of transcendent beatitude; an examination of the dialectics between Confucianism and Taoism in the Cantos, and a reflection on the role of language and metaphysics in Pound’s view of the self in its relation to the world.

All through the book she stays true to the principle of the critical confrontation (“kritische Auseinandersetzung”): she follows the instigations of Pound’s poetry which lead her to the study of his sources; she will then present a mapping of this study and a judgement of Pound’s work from this new vantage point. What seems to absorb her most is the delineation of those points where Pound appears to have misunderstood the source or where the personal angle he took on it failed to translate into a viable recipe for life.

She starts her analysis by devoting the first section of her book to the ‘invention of love’ in the Middle Ages. She does this from a feminist point of view – her perspective is refreshing, funny, and interesting. Even if courtly love was a game among men, it had been invented at the court of Eleanor d’Aquitaine and testified of female power such as it could be conceived at the time. Here she examines the crucial difference between the French understanding and the Italian one, as it appears in the dolce stil nuovo. Whereas troubadours assumed they were vassals to the lady and deferred to her as uncontested expert in love matters, Cavalcanti, Dante and their circle made disquisitions about love a male intellectual game and a means of communicating among themselves. Even if Cavalcanti’s canzone d’amore is formally the answer to a lady’s question, it is in fact a point-by point response to a poem by Guido Orlandi. His philosophical disquisitions, drawing on Aristotle and Albertus Magnus could not be addressed to a lady, but to another man who would have been able to understand them.

Hesse goes into the details of historical and philosophical background gauging Pound’s particular perspective on it. Courtly love and its reverberations in Pound’s understanding of the relationship between love and marriage; the role of sex as sacrament in the Eleusinian rites; Gourmont’s theory of sex; Confucius’s view of the role of family. Hesse points out the discrepancy between Pound’s sacramental view of sex and the troubadour’s fin amor and again between these two and the value that Confucius places on the family.

The second section of her book is devoted to Pound’s philosophical interests in Neoplatonism and an elucidation of the various authors he was indebted to: Plotinus, Erigena, Grosseteste and Bruno, showing how this lifelong interest flowed into the adaptation of Brancusi’s art into a personal world of paradise on earth.

In her third chapter, Hesse provides a biography of Confucius and a contextualisation of his position in relationship to Taoism. In her précis of Confucius’s biography it is uncanny to discover analogies to Pound’s own life. Both Confucius and Pound set to a life of wandering, trying and failing to advise princes of a revolutionary ideology. Both established universities of one with a circle of informal students. Even the curricula were similar: history, poetry, philosophy, and politics. Here too Hesse finds that Pound had not gone far enough in his Confucian studies: he had failed to see the difference between the original revolutionary social theory and its later elaboration and application in the running of the Chinese empire.

In her last philosophical chapter, devoted to knowledge and identity, Hesse revisits Pound’s approach to poetic language as opposed to Aristotle’s logic of non-contradiction. She emphasizes that Pound’s language expresses the acquisition of knowledge, accommodating growth, contradiction and discovery. She compares it to the Chinese view, which similarly accepts the simultaneity of contradictory concepts.

Particularly enlightening is her last chapter devoted to a discussion of Cavalcanti’s Donna mi prega, with a very useful detailed commentary. Her conclusion is that even if Pound had loved this poem well enough to devote a great deal of intellectual energy to it, the difference between the fin amor and woman as the object of immediate consumption is denied by Pound’s lifelong belief in the holiness of sex, derived from the Eleusian rites and de Gourmont.

Hesse’s book implicitly invites the reader to be aware of the co-existence of Pound’s contradictory cherished opinions and to be a judge in how these flowed into his poetry and personal life.