William Pratt and Caterina Ricciardi, eds.

Roma/Amor. Ezra Pound, Rome, and Love

New York: AMS, 2013.


Review by Alexander Howard



“What’s love got to do with it?”

In the closing contribution to William Pratt and Caterina Ricciardi’s co-edited collection Roma/Amor: Ezra Pound, Rome, and Love (2013), Ira B. Nadel poses a number of questions. Broadly speaking, Nadel’s essay seeks to get to grips with “the many and sometimes contradictory lives of [Ezra] Pound” (259). To be sure, Nadel is interested in the “near endless retellings of [Pound’s] life” (259). In Nadel’s reckoning, whether they are “polemical or political, literary or cultural, these narratives are never dull and inescapably contextual” (259). Nadel is particularly curious about the last of these terms. Above all, he wants to know what it means to “write a contextual biography” and why such an approach seems especially “preferable” when it comes to constructing critical “accounts of Pound” (259):

Is context the best approach to evaluate his multiple achievements as essayist, editor, poet, agitator and economist (and, for some, crank)? Or is context necessary to defend his life in a world he constructs of social and political unrest? Is context security in his essentially destabilized environment? Of course, there are other approaches, from the psychological to the literary, but for Pound, the weight of biographical narrative has been contextual. (259)

Why might this be so? Do we agree with this? In fact, does it even matter? Nadel tells us that context, when read in purely conceptual terms, “elides action and experience, self and event. It erases differences and enacts a untied modality between the individual and his culture” (259). To put it another way, context can be said to refer “to what immediately surrounds a subject, an awareness of coterminous developments in fields that act as foils for the central character or text” (260). In equal measure, “context elides events and self so that a biographer can best tell the subject’s story by, or through, the situations surrounding that figure” (265-6). Nadel then relates this to Pound. He reminds us of that fact that we tend to tell Pound’s personal “story” in terms of the “cultural or political conditions [that] prompted his actions. Think of Pisa; think of the use of place in The Pisan Cantos.” (266). At this point, having heard so much about context, one longs for something approaching a detailed, analytical discussion of the actual poetry contained in the Pisan Cantos. Failing that, a few words on place and space would have been nice. But this turns out to be little more than wishful thinking. It seems that Nadel is far more comfortable cleaving to a purely contextual line. He continues:       

Context has been both a defense and argument for the more controversial aspects of Pound’s life, his anti-Semitism explained as the result of early suburban prejudices in Philadelphia, his radio attacks on America the result of the fascist environment of Italy in the thirties and the subsequent war in the forties. Context has provided an escape from the more complex issues of Pound’s life, as well as an argument justifying a number of the more polemical positions he expressed. (266)

In this sense, Nadel suggests, “Pound’s career has become increasingly more, rather than less, contextual with critics arguing that the Pound the poet, economic theorist, and radio broadcaster are not separate or one” (266). However, Nadel evidently has some reservations about the seemingly endless critical possibilities offered by the promise of contextualization. He posits that in the case of some authors “context may be clearly limited, circumscribed and subject to intervention from many additional elements (psychology, for one)” (266). And yet the apparently inescapable fact remains. For a writer such as Pound, context “is abundant and necessary. But it is always constructed and must be challenged as we ask how it should be used and why” (266-7). Hence Nadel’s conclusion that, for better or worse, “with a figure as contradictory and complex as Pound, context may offer the most stable approach to a life that continually rewrites itself, framed by texts that are continually being rediscovered, reread, and reinterpreted” (267). 

One can only wonder what Pound’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz made of all this contextualizing conference talk. Not all that much, if the latter part of her short-but-bittersweet contribution to Roma/Amor is anything to go by: 

Research and symposia are highly commendable, but I would appeal to scholars to teach their students how to read Pound’s poetry, to look closely at what’s on the page. All the generalizations about this or that Movement, about his generosity to writers, etc., are no substitute for his Cantos. […] Pound should not be left at the mercy of demagogues and careless reporters, be it in his own country or abroad. The scholar’s job should be to enlighten and transmit the good, the true, and the beautiful in his POETRY. (173)

Now, if we bear Mary’s suggestions in mind, it comes as little surprise to find that the strongest essays included in the decidedly mixed critical bag that is Roma/Amor are those which do more than merely furnish text with context. Notable highlights include Peter Liebregts’s “Between Alexandria and Roma: Ezra Pound, Augustine, and the Notion of Amor,” Tim Redman’s “Ezra Pound and Roman Catholicism: An Overview,” and Catherine E. Paul’s “Ezra Pound in Mussolini’s Rome.” In one sense heeding Nadel’s call, Peter Liebregts emphasizes the importance of adequate contextualization at the outset of his contribution to Roma/Amor. Any discussion about Pound and Augustine of Hippo must, Liebregts writes, “be placed in the larger context of Pound’s own attitudes towards religion or the religious spirit” (133). But Liebregts does more than merely contextualize. For instance, Liebregts’s article, which is unsurprisingly informed by his earlier research into the field of Neoplatonism, also has a number of interesting things to say about Pound’s forthright stance as regards monotheistic religious dogma. Liebregts usefully foregrounds the manner in which Pound repeatedly argued—both in letters and articles—“that our limited knowledge does not allow us to make any definite statements about the nature of mystic experiences, or to ascertain whether they are merely subjective and personal wish-fulfilments or truly objectively occurring manifestations of the divine” (136). At the same time, however, Liebregts stresses the fact that Pound, despite his evident distrust of theological dogmatism, “admired the way the Catholic Church had been an intellectual force and a preserver of the philosophical thought of the classical tradition” (137). 

Tim Redman says something similar in his fascinating account—and analysis—of Pound’s relationship with Roman Catholicism. Pound’s initial interest in Catholicism can be traced back to his reading of Dante. Redman describes how this fondness “evolved into a continuation of Dante’s project” in the early sections of The Cantos, “as Pound considered the enmity between Sigismundo Malatesta and Pope Pius II” (109). In Redman’s retelling, Pound’s subsequent decision to settle in Italy in 1924 “led him to a nuanced appreciation of Roman Catholicism, particularly the Church’s teachings about social justice contained in the great encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadrigesimo Anno” (109). Still, “Pound’s growing respect for Catholicism was never strictly doctrinal” (109). That is to say, Pound used particular elements drawn from Catholicism to construct what Redman describes as “a palimpsestic view of religion, a unique result of his own beliefs and the decades he spent in Italy” (109). Reading this “palimpsestic” version of theology alongside Pound’s paganism, as well as his passion for social justice and ethical rectitude, Redman comes to find that “a somewhat more precise definition of his beliefs would be that he was a Confucian with pronounced Catholic tendencies, if one could include the kinds of pagan influences on Catholicism that he saw in Italy” (117). Redman’s conceptualization of the palimpsest is important here. “A palimpsest,” Redman notes, “is a papyrus or parchment on which the original text has been erased or obscured to make room for a new text, frequently written on top of the old” (117). Mining the metaphorical potential of this historical practice of textual erasure and overlay, Redman argues that our expatriate poet came to regard the institution of Italian Catholicism as a sort of palimpsest itself, “inscribed over the vestiges of the older pagan religion that preceded it” (117). This palimpsestic architectural practice, which gets a mention in Dante’s Paradiso, is, Redman tells us, “eminently pragmatic. People were used to going to a site for worship. The new franchise, as it were, simply builds next to or on top of that site” (117). Accordingly to Redman, Pound simply adored this kind of architectural work, which was indicative of “a basic Italian pragmatism and tolerance” (118). As it happens, examples of this kind of pragmatic practice are clearly evident in Italy’s capital city, “where the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva indicates that the new church of St. Mary was built on top of the old temple to the goddess of wisdom, Minerva” (117). 

Significantly, notions of architectural transformation also come to the fore in Catherine E. Paul’s detailed account of Mussolini’s Rome. Consider Paul’s opening remarks:

It is fair to say that most modern visitors to La Città Eterna have their eyes focused on the ancient monuments and glorious churches. Still, the way we see these sites and understand the interrelationships among them has been shaped by Benito Mussolini’s transformation of the city through vast archaeological and urban renewal projects. Some of the most dramatic building projects of this area are outside the city center, but others affect the center’s historical fabric. (51)    

Moreover, given the Rapallo-based poet’s well-documented “interest in the cultural projects of Mussolini’s regime and the ways that Fascism was creating a national identity for Italy’s previously disparate regions, it is no surprise that transformations of Roma Capitale caught his attention” (51). Paul describes some of these profound transformations in her evocative paper, which also usefully charts Pound’s reaction to them. The most visible and important of these projects was the regime’s excavation—or liberation—of ancient Roman ruins in the modern surroundings of the capital city. For example,      

The Temple of Fortuna Virile was “liberated” from the church built around it, the Mausoleum of Augustus was revealed from under an (admittedly excellent) auditorium, the Palazzo Cesarini was demolished to allow excavation of republican-era temples still visible in the Largo Argentina, and the entire church of Santa Rita was moved to enable a view of ancient structures underneath it. (56)

Paul points out that archaeological recovery projects such as these often went in hand-in-hand with processes of urban renewal. Pound was enthused with the regime’s various building projects. In Paul’s estimation, the most striking of these projects was perhaps the Foro Mussolini. Located in the northern part of Rome, this forum, which is now known as the Foro Italia, “consists of a vast open space, decorated with mosaic pavement, lined on both sides by inscribed marble slabs, and flanked by modern buildings designed for athletic pursuits” (58). Pound found much to admire in architectural configurations such as these, the completion of which he regarded as clear signs of Fascist progress. Paul describes how Pound, in his writings of the 1930s, “emphasizes that this newly imagined capital city does not eclipse Italy’s heteroclite language, culture, and history, nor does it lay yet another layer of “rubbish” onto the pile. Instead, it recognizes disparate elements of value and unites them” (59). But this is not all. She argues that Mussolini’s architectural and archaeological transformation of Rome had a profound impact on Pound’s conception of his own literary praxis. Frustratingly, Paul’s account breaks off at this point, just as things could get really interesting. This is indicative of Roma/Amor as a whole, which represents something of a missed critical opportunity, a chance to properly come to terms with the poetic and political implications of Pound’s true Italian heritage, the repressions of which—if the relatively recent emergence of Casa Pound is anything to go by—continue to reverberate in often profoundly disturbing ways. Despite this, Paul’s concluding remarks on the matter of Mussolini’s architectural transformations are worth quoting at some length, conveying as they do something of Pound’s deep-seated admiration, nay, undying love for the Italian Fascist project:

For Pound, who was during this period working to identify new models for making the cultural heritage of the past useful to the present, these transformations of Rome became a prominent metaphor for how to best read and write. The Fascist transformation of the city showed Pound new prospects for his own writing. He incorporated the regime’s imagery and rhetoric. He adapted their methods of using objects of the past to give power to the present. He learned from them ways of overlaying beautiful things with propagandistic significance. And he learned how to remake the entire fabric of a text. Mussolini’s Rome, then, became for Pound a great source of literary inspiration. (59)