PORTRAIT OF A SCHOLAR
INTERVIEW WITH A. DAVID MOODY - PART II
This second part of the interview with A. David Moody discusses the third volume of his monumental biography Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man & His Work. The Tragic Years, 1939-1972.
interview by Roxana Preda
Your third volume deals with the most problematic and painful events of Pound’s life. It must have been difficult and painful to write.
Not at all. “Difficult,” yes, because challenging, and sometimes “painful,” due to the common pains of writing; but not “difficult and painful” because of dealing with “problematic and painful” matters. The common expectation that it must be painful to confront unpleasant truths misunderstands the relations of biographer and subject. To arrive at the truth of the matter, whatever it may be, is liberating (as Aristotle remarked of tragedy). The problem for the biographer is not in the anti-Semitism or the alleged treason or whatever, but in trying to get at as much of the truth as possible – just the normal problem and challenge of critical and judicial enquiry. Not knowing what is true may be painful, the pain being that of imperfect knowledge. It is also painful to have what is known to be the case denied by those who refuse to accept the truth. But the process of working towards a better knowledge and understanding of the matter in hand, whether the matter be virtuous or vicious, is a positive occupation, and there can be exhilarating moments of discovery and insight. And the more challenging the matter, the more interesting, and in its special way the more pleasurable, will be the work. Writing a tragedy is not in itself painful. I’d like to think that Hueffer/Ford didn’t suffer in writing The Good Soldier, his “saddest story,” and that Shakespeare enjoyed creating King Lear. My point is that the biographer has to be as detached as the novelist and the dramatist. There’s also an analogy with the French juge d’instruction, whose job is to be intent on establishing, objectively and impartially, what can be known about the case and making the best sense possible of the complications and contradictions in the evidence. To put it simply, as a biographer I am caught up in the research and the writing, and am not sympathising with Pound, nor being shocked and offended by his faults. Again, the facts of Pound’s life are not in themselves “problematic”: what may be “problematic” is accepting them as facts, however difficult that may be, but that’s the reader’s problem, not the writer’s.
But surely some of the material you have to deal with is offensive and shocking, or worse. Why else do you call this volume “The Tragic Years” and say that it presents a “five act tragedy”?
It is tragic when a protagonist seeking right goes wrong through hubris and moral and intellectual blindness, and in a kind of natural justice brings down upon himself injustice and the deprivation of his human rights. And the tragedy is compounded when the context and in part the occasion of his error is an infernal world war. No question, this is a tragic story. But there is a difference between the events in themselves and the telling of the story. While the events are simply tragic, the telling goes beyond the events in seeking to comprehend them, to make sense of them. And, in Aristotle’s terms, the pity and horror are purged – I would say, refined into – understanding, “gathering the meaning of things”; and not the meaning of those particular events only, but a grasping of some general, or “universal” truth of human experience. Shocked and horrified as we may be, or even if moved to sympathy, our part is not just to experience the events from our observer’s station, but also to contemplate them with responsive intelligence, and to incorporate our moral and emotional reactions into a more “philosophical” (Aristotle’s word) understanding. Perhaps “acceptance” would be the better word – acceptance of the way things are.
But shouldn’t the biographer give a balanced evaluation of Pound’s support for Fascism, on his treason to the United States, on his anti-Semitism? Do you mean that he is not to be condemned for these?
I wonder what exactly does “balanced” mean in this connection. Does it imply “an even balance”, as between competing views? If so, wouldn’t that prejudge the issue, by assuming that the competing views did or should balance out? In any case, the biographer’s concern is not with others’ judgments but with the primary materials of the life and work. Then Blindfold Justice with her scales comes to mind, but what exactly is to be weighed? A biography is not a courtroom, and it is not the biographer’s business to prosecute or defend, nor to find the subject guilty or not. In the courtroom evidence is selected and shaped to prove or to disprove a predetermined charge. Witnesses are sworn to speak “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, but in their practice all the barristers want from them is evidence for one side or the other. The “whole truth” would, in so many cases, excessively complicate the workings of that form of justice. But the biographer is free, and indeed duty-bound, to attempt to tell the whole truth and nothing but, and to do so without prejudice, and without too much concern for the judgment that may emerge in the end. In simple terms, the biographer should take care of the facts, of all that can be known, and let the judgment take care of itself.
That is perhaps too simple: one way or another, the biographer does pass judgment. But the question is posed in a prejudicial, indeed prosecutorial, form with its implication that Pound is certainly to be condemned for his “support for Fascism”, for “treason to the United States, and for “his anti-Semitism”. But each case is different. Treason, at least, is a criminal charge: the charge was dropped. About his support for Fascism, as about Fascism itself, we should be sure of being fully informed before passing judgment. His anti-Semitism is to be condemned without reservation.
On the general question of condemnation, I mean that we should go beyond the simple condemnation of whatever should be condemned. To pass judgment on his errors from where we are now is easy, correct but easy; and to stop at that is to stop the mind, to prevent any further and deeper understanding of Pound as a man and a poet of his time. Outside the narrowly focused fictions of the court-room people are not simply guilty or not guilty. To carry on as if the only things that need to be said and known about Pound are that he was a fascist, a traitor, an anti-Semite, a money-crank, and besides not beyond reproach in his family life – to carry on in that way is to refuse the challenge to confront the hard truth that he was so much more than that, and that there is generally more to human beings than our prosecution of their faults and follies allows for. “One mistake of the political mind is to underestimate the diversity and discontinuity of the psyche” – that was Donald Hall’s observation in the chapter on Pound in his Remembering Poets. His implication was that the literary mind, a mind informed by the cultures and traditions of literature, should be alive to that diversity and discontinuity, and should be intelligent about complexity and contradiction. But literary studies, in universities and spreading from there, have become politicised, and have neglected that order of intelligence. They have become simple-minded through the devotion to exposing and prosecuting repressed or hidden incorrect attitudes. So we get the reaction that to look beyond what can be said against Pound and to take account also of his positive views and achievements is to be trying “to let him off the hook,” as if the great thing was to have him on “the hook” – presumably like a caught fish, unless the latent image is a meat-hook. It shouldn’t be so difficult to see and to accept that Pound was both a great poet and an imperfect human being; that he was capable of writing and speaking both humanely and inhumanely; that he was committed to envisioning and trying to bring about a just and well-ordered society, and yet could think that Mussolini’s Fascism was a way to it. It should not be difficult to see and to accept his contradictions because his world, and ours, is built on contradictions and delusions. By “accepting” I don’t mean not judging. But the judging must take the whole of Pound into account, the positive as well as the negative, it must celebrate as well as condemn; and it must comprehend that a human being can go wrong without losing rightness, can be both right and wrong, But that’s not where we are. It seems we can never be told enough about Pound’s errors and offences; but few speak as well of his constructive efforts for a better social order and the enduring contribution in his Cantos to our apprehension of what that might be.
And it is not a matter of balancing this against that, as if one cancelled out the other, or as if one mitigated the other. The “whole truth” means accepting, contemplating, comprehending, all that is the case.
In going to the microphone after Pearl Harbour and criticizing his country for being at war with the Axis Pound was helping the Italian Fascist state in every way he knew how. This strikes me as indisputable and amply shown in your biography.
“Helping the Italian Fascist state in every way he knew how” is far too simple a reduction of the detailed presentation through pp. 3-102 of Pound’s very complicated relations with both his own country and Italy. That he wanted the Axis to win is certainly part of the story, but his reasons for doing so constitute the interest of the case and carry us beyond any simple verdict. When I wrote in the preface to volume 1, “This book is devoted to recovering a sense of the complexity of the man,” I meant it. To simplify complex matters is not intelligent, a lesson our politicians never learn, but writers and critics and academics should know better.
How do you respond to the common view that Pound was no tragic hero but simply a traitor who evaded justice by pleading insanity?
That is certainly a commonly expressed view, but commonplace doesn’t necessarily mean correct. Received opinion and prejudice need to be tested against the relevant facts. There are three matters here: (1) was Pound a traitor? (2) the insanity plea; (3) did he evade justice?
It is often stated that the mere fact of broadcasting over an enemy radio constituted treason; and that at that time any jury in America would have found Pound guilty on that ground alone. But these opinions are mere supposition unsupported by any serious argument or evidence, and with no basis in law - they amount to an act of faith in mob-law, if not in lynch-law.1 Treason, after all, is a criminal act determined by law, a fact which those who hold those opinions seem able to disregard. My chapter 9, “American Justice,” gives an account of the law of treason under which Pound was charged, and records the Justice Department’s own assessment that it would encounter “extreme difficulty . . . in meeting our burden of proof if Pound were declared sane and the Government forced to trial.” So the Justice Department’s view was that Pound would not be found guilty of treason. And if a jury was determined to find him guilty in spite of that, there would remain the right of appeal to a higher court.
The insanity plea, given that Pound was not actually insane, was a stratagem to prevent the charge being brought to trial, but it also meant that Pound would remain under indictment and be committed to a federal institution for the insane sine die. The justification for the plea was that it saved Pound’s life. It is true that the penalty for treason could be death, but in practice, no-one convicted of treason in a U. S. court at that time was executed – life imprisonment with a fine of $10,000 was the most severe sentence, and that was imposed on just two of the seven others indicted with Pound, one of whom died in prison, and the other was released after sixteen years. But three of the seven had their charges dismissed as failing to meet the burden of proof. So yes, the insanity plea did prevent justice being done to Pound, but that’s because the charge should have been dismissed, not because he was guilty.
Accompanying the assertion that Pound evaded justice, there is often the view that he had it easy in St. Elizabeths. I wonder what it is, what failure of imagination or what malice, that can lead anyone to suppose that it could be pleasant, or even tolerable, to be imprisoned for over twelve years in an insane asylum. The fact that Pound bore with it stoically and managed to go on translating and composing shouldn’t make us think he didn’t suffer. MacLeish was so struck by the horror of his situation that he moved the mountains of the Justice Department and the State Department to get the indictment dropped.
Was Pound “a tragic hero”? Well, at the least, he is the protagonist of a tragic story. Beyond that, the interesting tragic hero will be in some sense a representative figure. And as I wrote in the preface to volume one, Pound “was in his own way a hero of his culture, a genuine representative of both its more enlightened impulses and its self-destructive contradictions.” The tragic hero is unlikely to figure as a simple “hero.” Think about Oedipus, Pound’s Herakles, Othello, Hamlet, Lear . . . And think about the contradictions of our world under “democratic capitalism.”
As an epigraph to the chapter on the trial you print a note of Pound’s saying “I don’t want a fake defense against a phoney charge. If a man isn’t ready to go to jail for his opinions, neither I nor Thoreau wd/ think that either the man or the opinions were worth much.” And yet, he acquiesced in the insanity plea and agreed to remain mute throughout the court proceedings, and he kept up the pretence of insanity in St Elizabeths. Isn’t this a failure of nerve, due to the fear that if the case came to trial he would be executed as Laval, Quisling, and Joyce, had been?
I don’t know, and I don’t pretend to know, precisely why Pound went along with Cornell’s stratagem. I note the reason given by Laughlin and others in justification, that it was to save him from execution. But about Pound himself I would not say that “it was a failure of nerve.” I raised the question of motive, but all I could offer in the way of explanation was that “Cornell had told him that if the Court accepted that he was unfit to plead, then he could expect to be ‘back in Italy in six months a free man.’” It’s likely there was more to it than that. Best to leave a gap for what one doesn’t know.
Pound’s passivity and resignation, his leaving it to others to secure his release, seem strange in retrospect.
Well, yes, but what could he do? Given his predicament it really was up to others to get him out, and he was simply being realistic in saying so. And then he had his priorities, and rated his personal freedom below his cultural agenda. But in the end isn’t it a revelation of his character, one might say of his Confucian disposition? We see that again in his submission to his “Committee” in his latter years at the cost of his civil rights even though he knew, and Dorothy knew, that the “Committee” had no legal standing outside America. That beats explanation and is just a fact we must accept and come to terms with. “Harve was like that,” he quotes his grandmother saying “re a question of conduct” – that’s in Drafts and Fragments. Well, that’s just how Pound was. And the stark fact is more resonant than any “explanation” is likely to prove.
Why did Pound change so dramatically after he was released? All the while he was in St Elizabeths he was actively encouraging dissent in young people: Kasper and his circle, Stock, Cookson. But after he regained his freedom, he started regretting and apologizing.
“Actively encouraging dissent in young people” is hardly an accurate description of Pound’s efforts to teach the young, especially if “dissent” is to be associated with Kasper. Kasper was an exception, not the rule, and Mullins was another. Horton, so far as I can tell, is not to be lumped in with them. Otherwise, according to Guy Davenport, “One learned about Louis Agassiz, Leo Frobenius, Alexander Del Mar, Basil Bunting, Arthur Rimbaud, Guido Cavalcanti, Confucius, Mencius, Raphael Pumpelly, and on and on . . . such a spray of energies we have not yet charted them all.” Pound instructed Dallam Simpson that the aim of his little magazine, Four Pages, should be to concentrate on Confucius and Gesell “as seed,” and on Fenollosa, Brooks Adams, Frobenius. The main contents of Stock’s little magazine, Edge are given on p.388 – no active encouragement to Kasper-style dissent there. Cookson was told to read Coke and Del Mar. David Gordon was set to translating Mencius, and to making a selection from Blackstone on English law; MacNaughton was encouraged to translate Zielinski’s La Sibylle. Michael Reck recalled “lectures on economics and sermons on the state of the nation,” and certainly Pound was encouraging everyone who would listen to do something constructive about the financial system and the state of the nation.
I don’t see him “regretting and apologizing” for what he had been trying to teach the young in St Elizabeths. He did come to regret and apologize for his anti-Semitism. And he came to object to his own use of “violent language.” But the things he said in his severely depressed states, such as that the Cantos were a botch, have to be understood as expressions of his depression. Contexts are a dimension of meaning.
And context includes related things. I’m thinking of the Grazia Livi interview in 1963, where Pound was said to be “not himself any more,” and was quoted as saying “I spoil everything I touch. I have always blundered.” But then he declared his belief in “something ‘seminal’ in humanity” that “will remain, despite everything . . . and be able to fight against the forces of mindlessness.” He had not given up on the human potential “To make Cosmos--- / To achieve the possible---.” Complementing that there was this further affirmation, “The universe is so very marvellous.” Behind that might be, “it coheres alright / even if my notes do not cohere.” His sense of personal failure had not clouded his vision of “the vital universe.” As for the young, he had said to a New York reporter in 1960, “Young people today need more courage than any generation in the past. But they can find their moral values in the beauty of nature.” There was a new humility going along with a clarification of his ideas and perceptions. His conversations with Buckminster Fuller near the end of his life, as reported by Fuller, show that there had been no change in his fundamental commitments.
Outwardly, of course, he was changed from the teacher of St. Elizabeths, and before. But then he was no longer in St Elizabeths, no longer needing to resist that environment, to assert himself and his values against it. There was a collapse after his release, a major failure of energy, while the accumulated exhaustion took over; and then there was the loss of hope when Marcella left; and there was his morale-sapping physical illness and serious depression – little wonder that he was changed.
In commenting on Rock-Drill and Thrones you note that Pound excluded his immediate world of St Elizabeths, as he had not done in The Pisan Cantos, and instead immersed himself and the reader in recondite books, as in a sort of inner exile. Does this separation from contemporary history mark a regression in his poetry, or is there some compensating advance?
In fact St. Elizabeths is explicitly mentioned once, and only once, “Grevitch, bug-house” etc. in canto 100. But it is surely its “woodland” that is transformed in the visionary scene at the end of canto 90, and which also provides the motif of the sky “leaded with elm boughs” in 106 and 107. That St. Elizabeths should figure hardly at all and yet figure in that way, in visionary transformation, tells a lot about Pound’s will-power and its direction.
I wouldn’t see his immersion in recondite books as “a sort of inner exile,” or a “separation from contemporary history.” After all, large tracts of the first seventy-one cantos are drawn from books too, notably the entire decades of the “China” and “John Adams” cantos. There is also much drawing upon memories as in The Pisan Cantos. But the main point would be that the mind in these St. Elizabeths cantos is a mind active in its present moment quite as much as in those previous cantos, and just as engaged in mobilizing historical precedent to enlighten and direct the present.
I see no regression. I do see both continuity and progression in his method, or an acceleration, a swifter perception of relations among more finite, and often more recondite, “things.” The main development of course is thematic. A way of putting it might be that in the preceding cantos he was concerned with process, with how the Monte de Paschi was created, or with the rise and fall of dynasties in China, and that now he was more directly concerned with the formative concepts of good government, as with the Eparch’s regulations of Byzantium’s marketplace, or Coke’s clarification of the laws of England. Then there is the development of the universal light theme, “all things that are are lights,” into the paradisal vision of the all-creating light as animating love, and the affirmation of love as the first cause of justice. In these St Elizabeths cantos Pound was moving, in his own very different and wholly original way, into the same realms of thought as Dante in his Paradiso.
A last question. The dust-jackets of volumes one and two feature photographs of Pound superimposed upon portraits, one by Sheri Martinelli and the other by Wyndham Lewis. But the dust-jacket of volume three features a “Rock face” in Southern France – do you mean that to be taken as a portrait of Pound?
Yes, I do. But the likeness is not all. I wanted it there as an image apart from the familiar portraits, as an object that might provoke a different way of seeing Pound now. But it does have a particular significance for me, and for Joanna. For many years past we have spent part of the summer in a village in Provence and walked nearly daily in its neighbouring hills. One path leads through rosemary bushes and garrigue in a small but craggy valley, and there’s a point where, if the light is right, you see this rock face just ahead of you to the left of the path. The image on the dust-jacket is not photo-shopped in any way, that’s exactly how it was. And it was strange, eerie, to come upon this striking resemblance, this presence, just when I was at the end of my work on the book. We had walked that path for years without noticing the face in the rock – perhaps the sun was at the right angle on that day, and suddenly there it was for us. It could have been the Wyndham Lewis portrait transformed into stone – “the stone is alive.” The face is of course not shaped by a hand but by an accident of natural forces, and the more impressive for that. I think of it as an image of Pound in his afterlife, serene in his mystery, a weathered rock and an enduring presence, though our perceiving that may depend on the light.
1. Partial exception should be made for an article with the subtitle “Treason, Insanity, and the Trial of Ezra Pound” by The Honorable Milton Hirsch, a Judge in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida, in St. Thomas Law Review 25.2 (2013) 143-81. Judge Hirsch, who doesn’t hide his bias against Pound, argues that he would certainly be found guilty of treason in his Florida court, and he presents a case for the prosecution; but his argument is partial; he fails to take into account either the specific charges against Pound or the crucial requirement of intention to do harm to one’s country; and he prejudices his case by bringing in, despite admitting the irrelevance of these matters, Pound’s anti-Semitism and generally objectionable character. His judgment would give compelling grounds for appeal to a higher court.