Thursday, February 20, 2020


Review of book: Christopher S. Wood, A History of Art History (Princeton)

A common perception is that the discipline of art history is of recent vintage.  Actually, its lineage goes back to the Italian Renaissance, and it probably began even earlier - in ancient Greece.  In this impressively learned book Christopher S. Wood seeks to characterize the fullness of this story.  Refreshingly, he does not limit himself to the European and American contributions, but takes note of traditions of other provenance.

As a general observation, there are various ways of writing about art, including art criticism and personal memoirs.  What are the qualities that distinguish art history as such?

  1. There must be due recognition of the contributions of innovative artists.   In this light, the achievements of such towering figures as Giotto, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Turner, Cézanne, and Picasso are not just notable In their own right but serve to move the narrative forward.
  2. The history must reveal a meaningful sequence whereby the successive stages exhibit an      adherence to an ideal of Art as a unitary process, and not just a recitation of individual works and artists.

In this latter category, Wood fails, as his addiction to digression and arbitrary comparisons undermines narrative coherence.  For example, he concludes his discussion of Giorgio Vasari with a short account of Dust Muhammad, a sixteenth-century Persian artist and writer.  Yet only in the formal sense can these two figures be regarded as contemporaries as they were unacquainted with each other.  While his inclusivity is in principle admirable, Wood fails to give a context of Islamic art.

This lack of context is particularly evident in his discussion of Chinese art history, an impressive achievement that deserves its own account.  Instead, the coverage is parceled out in some dozen separate mentions.

Not long after the start of his section on Lorenzo Ghiberti, Wood breaks into an account of the art chapters of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.  In fact Pliny is a major source for what we know of ancient Greek art history.  As such this account deserves a special place near the beginning of this History.  However, Wood does not care much for chronological sequence, as we know from other writings of his.

At times this compulsive topic switching reminds one of The Cantos of Ezra Pound.

Towards the end, Wood portrays the rise of modern art as a basic challenge to traditional art history.  Yet there is no adequate discussion of the historiography of modern art, and the names of such major protagonists as Warhol, Rothko, and Duchamp do not appear.

There is a remedy for this lack of narrative coherence.  It is found in the two-volume work, The History of Art History (2016-2919), of Wayne R. Dynes (not cited by Wood).

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Pound and world civilizations

Once a staple of the curricula of American universities, Western Civilization courses are being phased out.  Of course there is a case for semester-long studies of other major cultures, such as China, India, Islam, and the Pre-Columbian societies.  But these interests should not be achieved at the cost of deep-sixing Western civ.

In recent years some historians have rallied to the cause of Big History.  What in fact is Big History? It is an emerging academic subdiscipline that extends its purview all the way back to the Big Bang. By its very nature, Big History resists specialization, searching instead for universal patterns or trends. It embraces long time-frames using a multidisciplinary approach that combines numerous disciplines from science and the humanities.   

Other scholars are attracted to an ambitious framework, but keep to the human sphere.  They may be termed multiculturalists in the broad sense.  This essay asks what is the role of Ezra Pound (1885-1972) in this context.

For their part, readers of The Cantos, Pound’s major life work, are inevitably struck by his range of references to a variety of civilizations, from ancient Greece to modern times, with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance ranking as important components along the way. Yet he was not limited to Europe, as through much of his life he turned approvingly to early China and early Japan.  More sporadic were his incursions into Islam, ancient Egypt, and sub-Saharan Africa. Pound, it seems, was a culture vulture - though of what sort remains to be established.

Pound’s early education - which seems not to have included history courses - provided little foundation so that in this realm he was self-taught.  In college he took courses in Romance languages, especially Provençal (Occitan) and Italian.  In those days philologists held that the early stages of these tongues were crucial - hence Pound’s focus on the Middle Ages.  In this way he joined a major current of Victorian literature and art, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Robert Browning were important creative influences, in part because of the lure of the Italian connection.

Remarkably fertile was his encounter with Mrs. Ernest Fenollosa, who in late 1913 presented him with a collection of manuscripts by her deceased husband, an early Japanologist who was also interested in ancient China.  Hence Pound’s ongoing concern with the historic civilizations of the Far East.

In addition to this cultural richness, readers encounter difficulty with the overlay principle, already evident in the first thirty Cantos, where he seems to veer unexpectedly from one topic to another.  Another obstacle is the many quotations in the original languages.  In an age like today with the study of languages in decline, we read works from other traditions in translation.

With a rare display of modesty Pound once characterized his Cantos as “a poem containing history” (ABC of Reading, 1934).  Yet what history? Not the chronicle of any particular nation - though his own United States figures significantly in some sections - but the history of civilizations - at least of those that he deems important.

Pound’s approach to the panoply of civilization shows similarities, as well as differences with another approach.  This is the cultural morphology of Danilevsky, Spengler, and Toynbee.  On the one hand, these writers emphasized the distinctiveness of each civilization.  At the same time they showed similar patterns, not unlike that of a single human life: infancy, adolescence, adulthood, and senescence.   Fear of the latter takes concrete form in the example of the decline and fall of Rome.

First we take up the little-known founder of the cultural morphology approach, the Russian Nikolay Danilevsky (1822-1885). He pioneered the use of biological and morphological metaphors in the comparison of cultures. Danilevsky compared cultures and nations to biological species, denied their commonality and argued that each nation or civilization is united by its language and culture, which it cannot pass on to any other nation. He thus characterized Peter the Great's reforms in Russia as doomed to failure, as they had attempted to impose alien values on the Slavic world.

Danilevsky distinguished four categories of historical-cultural activity: religious, political, sociopolitical, and cultural.

Interacting, they generated ten identifiable historical-cultural types:

Roman or ancient Italian
Hamitic or Egyptian

Danilevsky applied his teleological theory of evolution by stating that each type went through various predetermined stages of youth, adulthood, and old age, the last being the end of that type. He characterised the Slavic type as being at the youth stage, and he developed a socio-political plan for its development, involving unification of the Slavic world, with its future capital at Constantinople (now Istanbul), ruled by an Orthodox emperor. While other cultures would degenerate in their blind struggle for existence, the Slavic world should be viewed as a Messiah among them. Danilevsky, however, believed that there is no genuine or absolute progress, as history is circular.

Aspects of Danilevsky's book prefigured some of the theories in Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. Arnold J. Toynbee mentions them in A Study of History. The Danilevsky hypothesis became the subject of much controversy and polarized its readers. 

In his Decline of the West (1918-23), apparently conceived without knowledge of Danilevsky’s work, Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) lists eight Hochkulturen or "High Cultures" that have existed:

Mesoamerican (Mayan/Aztec)
Classical (Greek/Roman)
Faustian or Western (European)

I retain his original terminology, including such neologism as Indic and Sinic; Magian is his term for Islamic civilization.

The "Decline" is largely concerned with comparisons of the Classical and Western Cultures, but some examples stem from the Islamic, Chinese, and Egyptian Cultures. Each Culture arises within a specific geographical area and is defined by its internal coherence of style in terms of art, religious behavior and psychological perspective. Central to each Culture is its conception of space which is expressed by an “Ursymbol.”  Although not amenable to a strictly logical examination, Spengler's idea of Culture is, he claims, justifiable through the persistence of recurrent patterns of development and decline across the thousand years of each Culture's active lifetime.

Spengler excludes the Southeast Asian and Peruvian (Incan, Tiahuanaco, etc.) cultures from Hochkulturen. He thinks that Russia is, while still in the course of defining itself, may be bringing into being a Hochkultur. The Indus Valley Civilization had not been discovered at the time he was writing, and its relationship with later Indian civilization remained unclear for some time.

A Study of History is a 12-volume universal history by the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975), published in 1934–61. For a number of years it garnered enormous popular attention, but according to historian Richard J. Evans, "enjoyed only a brief vogue before disappearing into the obscurity in which it has languished.”  Toynbee's goal was to trace the development and decay of 19 world civilizations in the historical record, applying his model to each of these civilizations, detailing the stages through which they all pass: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration.  In this way he recognizes both the autonomy of civilizations, while also seeking to detect morphological similarities in their course of development.

The 19 major civilizations Toynbee posits are: Egyptian, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumerian, Mayan, Indic, Hittite, Hellenic, Western, Orthodox Christian (Russia), Far Eastern, Orthodox Christian (main body), Persian, Arabic, Hindu, Mexican, Yucatec, and Babylonic. In addition there are four "abortive civilizations" (Abortive Far Western Christian, Abortive Far Eastern Christian, Abortive Scandinavian, Abortive Syriac), and five "arrested civilizations" (Polynesian, Eskimo, Nomadic, Ottoman, Spartan), making up a grand total of 28.

Pound had (it seems) no knowledge of these three figures, but he was acquainted with the somewhat similar work of Leo Frobenius, a German culture morphologist who specialized in sub-Saharan Africa.

What then was Pound’s delineation of civilizations? His initial preoccupation was with what may be termed the central Middle Ages in Southern Europe in the period from about 1100 to 1300.  Bypassing the Chanson de Roland, he posits the major accomplishment of the era as the highly intricate poetry of the Provençal troubadours.  He then traced this heritage to the slightly later Italian development of the dolce still nuovo as seen in such figures as Dante and Gudo Cavalcanti,  These concerns were implicit in the way he was taught Romance languages in college, which focused on origins.  Later, after he settled in London he embodied his discoveries in his prose book entitled The Spirit of Romance.

Having grappled with one of the most creative epochs of the Middle Ages, his attention traveled forward, extending itself into the Italian Renaissance, the era of the American Revolution, and the modern times in which he lived. In the other direction Ancient Greece remained a cynosure. 

Thanks to his access to the Fenollosa manuscripts in the period just before World War I, Pound contracted a long-lasting commitment to historic Japan and especially China.  By contrast his concern with Islam was relatively slight, though later in life he became concerned with Africa, based on his knowledge of the work of Frobenius. Since the Africa material is chiefly of tribal origin, his perspectives were not limited to the higher societies, though clearly, because of his reliance on written sources, his emphasis lay there.

There are some salient differences between the approach of Pound and that of the three culture morphologists.  As a rule he does not offer an overall assessment of each civilization, but relies, as stated in an early prose essay, on his method of “luminous detail.”  Occasionally, the historical record, often dreary and problematic, is broken by “magic moments.”  This particularism tended to work against a holistic approach towards any particular civilization, though it could be asserted that such preferences are implicit as in the cases of ancient Greece, the European middle ages, the early days of the American republic, and imperial China.

Pound’s first inclinations to cultural otherness emerged in his decision in college to study the early literature oft the Romance peoples of southern Europe.   His particular foci were the Italian writers of the Dolce Still Nuovo.   Through much of his creative life he sought to produce adequate renderings of Guido Cavalcanti.  This general path had been followed earlier by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other Victorians.  By contrast, Provence was relatively unfamiliar, though some philologists held that it was the primordial Romance tongue from which the others derived.  The modern preoccupation with the troubadours as supposed adherents of Courtly Love was to come after Pound’s encounter.  For his part the poet came to believe that Provence fostered an esoteric continuation of the Eleusinian culture of ancient Greece.

Unlike Toynbee and the other cultural morphologists, Pound’s interest in world civilizations was usually selective rather than holistic.  One factor that guided his choice of elements - “luminous details” if you will - was his encounter with the occult, a major theme in intellectual circles during Pound’s London years.  His mentor William Butler Yeats was heavily involved in such interests, including the practices of spiritualism. 

Pound was reluctant to follow this trend, preferring the approach of a learned private scholar George Robert Stowe Mead (G. R. S. Mead; 1868-1933).  Initially active in the Theosophy movement, Mead seceded with a number of others to form the Quest Society, which focused on Neo-Platonism and other historical aspects of the hermetic tradition. Together with his wife Dorothy, Pound attended a number of lectures by Mead.  Prompted by this example and others, Pound was eventually to settle on the Hellenic Eleusinian Mysteries as a kind of red thread running through much later European history, including the work of the Provençal troubadours.  Arguably, this preoccupation played a significant role in his selection of positive events and personalities through the centuries.

Pound’s approach combines a recognition of the inherent value of other civilizations with his discovery of perceived links among them, as well as with our own.  A possibly relevant comparison is with an approach unknown to Pound.  The Axial Age is a concept first advocated by German philosopher Karl Jaspers in a German book of 1949.   During the period from about 800 to 200 BCE., in Jaspers' view, new ways of thinking appeared at this time in Persia, India, China and the Greco-Roman world in religion and philosophy  In a striking parallel development, without any obvious direct cultural contact among the participating Eurasian cultures, a number of key innovators appeared who had a profound influence on future ways of thought.   Jaspers presented his outline of the Axial age in a series of examples:   “Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, scepticism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers—Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato,—of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India and the West.”

At first little noticed, the concept of the Axial Age became widely discussed in the closing years of the twentieth century.

From his early days in London, Pound regarded the senior poet William Butler Yeats as his mentor.  They shared certain mystical inclinations, though Pound declined to follow Yeats onto the stranger paths of spiritualism.  To be sure, on this basis Yeats evolved his own version of comparative historiography.  With the first version of the book appearing in 1925, Yeats's "A Vision" offers an esoteric and occult view of the nature of civilizations.  It was the product of years of collaboration between the poet, W. B. Yeats, and his wife, George, in automatic writing. The system presented in the book regards everything as subject to cycles, known as "gyres", with the stages of each cycle symbolized by the phases of the Moon. This process and its phases apply to human incarnations, yielding character types.  While the examples given are mainly European, some also stem from ancient Greece and Islam, showing that the system has a broad comparative scope.

Yeats was not satisfied with the first edition of “A Vision,” and not long after its appearance he journeyed to Rapallo to confer with Pound.  No complete record of their conversations exists, but the opening chapter of the revised edition (1937) is entitled “A Packet for Ezra Pound.”  If the intent of the Irish poet was to convert his colleague he failed, but may have been correct in detecting affinities linking their approaches.  Clearly Pound differed in his approach, subjective as it may sometimes seem, as he was committed to drawing attention to cultures at their maximum, disregarding other phases.

Why the disregard?  For Pound, an ongoing theme, a negative one, is his denunciation of usury, a kind of plague he believed, to be shunned as eroding the integrity of a civilization.  This idea shows some affinity with the normative ideas of John Ruskin, who held that good art could only arise in the context of a decent society, while a bad society will produce bad art.

Another general theme, imperfectly realized, is the contrast between order and disorder.  Order, he held, is best achieved through the guidance of certain gifted individuals, such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the US and Chinese rulers who followed Confucius.  In the last analysis he is unable to state what the principles of order consist of, nor to indicate a path to achieve them.

During his Italian years Pound became briefly interested in the work of Brooks Adams, a scion of the Adams family.  The Law of Civilization and Decay is a book published by the latter-day Adams in 1895, wherein he sought to prove that the rise and fall of civilizations follows a definite cycle of centralization and decay. Unfortunately, Adams restricted the exemplification of his approach to Western history. In his Italian book Carta de Visita (Rome, 1942), Pound relates Adams’ work to the Kulturmorphologie tradition.

We turn now to The Cantos themselves.  Presentationally, in keeping with his generally modernist approach, Pound adopts a poetic practice in terms of overlay, splicing together items from different eras.  An example occurs in Canto 4 with the story of Itys.   Itys was the offspring of Procne and Tereus, king of Thrace.  Discovering that Tereus had raped Philomela, Procne cooked their son, feeding him to her husband.  From this gruesome tale Pound segues to the story of the twelfth-century figure Guillem de Cabestan.  According to a legendary account, he was the lover of Margarida or Seremonda, wife of Raimon of Castell Rosselló. On discovering their affair, Raimon fed Cabestan's heart to Seremonda. When he told her what she had eaten, she threw herself from the window to her death.  The alignment of these two similar stories shows the “rhyming” of events over the centuries.  More generally, Pound’s modernist method of splicing together persons and events of different times and cultures serves to inhibit any straightforward narrative of the type usual in megatheories of history, with their template of rise, apogee, and fall.

A major exception to Pound’s non-sequential approach is the Chinese Cantos (52-61).
These are based on the first eleven volumes of the thirteen-volume Histoire générale de la Chine by Joseph-Anna-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla, a French Jesuit missionary who had resided in China for many years. Completed in 1730, it was not published until 1777–1783.  Pound was able to purchase a set of this vast compilation, relying on it heavily in Canto 52, out of sequence, presents a rendering of the classic Chinese text known as the Li Chi or Book of Rites, especially those parts that deal with agriculture and natural increase.  The remainder of the set (Cantos 52-61) deals with an orderly sequence of imperial China from prehistoric times up to the eighteenth century.  Created with the authorization of the court in Peking, the work adheres to the then-dominant Neo-Confucianism, castigating Taoism, a prejudice Pound endorsed. Some confusion has ensued from Pound’s rendering of the Chinese names in the French forms found in Mailla.

Until this point, in the 1930s. Pound’s concern with China had focused on two eras: the early (pre-imperial) period, centering on Confucius: and the Tang period (618-907 CE) with its lyric poetry as seen in his iconic Cathay. The incorporation of the Mailla material greatly widened the scope - with significant consequences, for arguably his preoccupation with China constitutes Pound’s only sustained effort to characterize a specific civilization as a whole.  His more usual procedure is to identify specific events and personalities as exceptional - sometimes having a particular radiance.  Moreover, each particular radiant instance is capable of “rhyming” with such instances of radiance in other civilizations.  In this way he broke with usual orthodoxy of culture morphologists holding that each civilization is purely autonomous in its development, though they may arise out of earlier precursors and generate offspring in turn.

It is instructive to follow the early instances of Pound’s Sinophilic preoccupation and its union with other themes.  In the cycle of Cathay, first published in book form in March, 1915, Pound inserted his translation of the contemporary Anglo-Saxon “Seafarer” as a contemporary work  - representing two poles as it were, East and West, of the vast Eurasian landmass.  Turning now to the Cantos themselves, the first sixteen are dominated by Europe (ancient Greece and Italy, Renaissance and modern); yet China gets a look-in near the start of Canto II, with the legendary So-Shu, who churned the sea,  Then there is a big Sinic incursion in Canto XIII, where Confucius (Kung) stands for a concept of the Ideal society.  At that time, the late ‘twenties, Pound had been reading French translations of texts ascribed to the Chinese sage.  Exceptionally, Canto XVIII opens with brief account of the visit of Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. 

Pound first approached the writings of Confucius as early as 1907, apparently reflecting his parents’ interest in missionary work in China. However, his serious engagement with the ancient Chinese philosophy began in 1913 when AllenUpward, the author of The Sayings of K’ung the Master (1904), introduced him to Guillaume Pauthier’s French rendering of Confucian texts,
Les Quatre livres de philosophie morale et politique de la Chine(1841). In a letter to his wife, Dorothy Shakespear of 1913, Pound reported, “I’m stocked up with K’ung fu Tsze [Confucius], and Men Tsze [Mencius], etc. I suppose they’ll keep me calm for a week or so.” Pound’s introduction to Confucian works (via Pauthier) yielded the publication of his first article on Confucius in the periodical The Egoist.  Entitled “The Words of Ming Mao ‘Least Among the Disciples of Kung-Fu-Tse’,” the article stresses the importance Confucius placed on self-cultivation. In fact, Pound argued that this endeavor was the “core” value in Confucianism.  Pound’s first poetic creation based on Confucian works is Canto XIII, which explores the concept of self-cultivation extensively. In it, Pound relies on Pauthier’s translations to synthesize and condense two of the Confucian classics, Daxue. [The Great Learning] and Lunyu
 [The Analects]. In Canto XIII, the reader encounters a series of dialogues between Confucius and his students. Whenever Confucius asks a question, the student must contemplate a range of possible answers. One of the students, Zeng Xi, asks Confucius, “Which [student] had answered correctly?” Confucius calmly replies, “They have all answered correctly, / That is to say,each in his nature.” Notably, Pound’s rendering diverges from the original text. In
Lunyu 11.25.  Confucius evaluates his students’ answers critically, favoring Zeng Xi’s answer over the other students’ responses. As noted above, Pound revises Confucius’s apparent preference, claiming that Confucius accepts all the answers equally. In doing so, Pound aligns this canto with ideas he had previously expressed in his essay “Provincialism the Enemy” (1917). Here, as in Canto XIII, he maintains that Confucius respects the students’ individuality and diversity even though the original text suggests otherwise. Hence, Canto XIII neither follows the traditional views on Confucianism nor aligns with critical studies on the ancient philosophy. Instead,Pound’s interpretation of the text suggests that different ideas and discussions are to be valued in their own right. In Pound’s version, students are asked to reject the practice of blindly following instructions in favor of thinking independently – a trait that Pound highly admires and promotes. After the dialogue between Confucius and his students in Canto XIII, Pound presents one of the most important passages, one which develops the philosophy of self-cultivation and assertion of the self: If a man have not order within himHe can not spread order about him;And if a man have not order within himHis family will not act with due order;And if the prince have not order within himHe can not put order in his dominions. While the original text (Daxue 1.4) opens with Confucius reasoning with the prince about the necessity of ordering the state, Pound starts not with the state but with the individual. In the passage above, Pound’s repetition of the word “order” in every line creates a sense of urgency and compels the reader to take careful note of the word. His speaker notes that order must first be created in oneself, adding that it will consequently irradiate outwards to family and state. The Chinese scholar Zhaoming Qian points out that Pound uses the word “order”six times whereas his source only used the word twice. Through its frequent repetition,Pound stresses the importance of order for both Confucius’s moral and political system and his own beliefs.According to Pound’s rendition, Confucius taught his students that a prerequisite to achieving order in human affairs is to achieve order in oneself. A peaceful, stable world thus depends on a carefully integrated program of personal self-cultivation, harmonized family life, and well-ordered states.

After the publication of Canto XIII, Pound’s enthusiasm for Confucianism culminated in the 1928 rendition of theTa Hio: The Great Learning,  once again based on Pauthier’s translation. Pound regarded his version as “[n]ewly rendered into the American Language”, a statement that points to his self-perception as a Confucian disciple, one who was compelled to convey the virtues of this ancient philosophy to his English readers. In “Date Line”(1934), Pound answered T. S. Eliot’s earlier query: “What does Mr Pound believe?” with the simple, emphatic sentence: “I believe the Ta Hio.

The ninety-ninth Canto concerns some aspects of the Sacred Edict (Sheng Yu), a document issued in 1670 by the Kangxi Emperor.  This text comprises sixteen maxims, each seven characters long, serving to inculcate the basic principles of Confucian orthodoxy. To be publicly posted in every town and village, they would each be read aloud twice. 

Eventually, as his knowledge of the Chinese language improved, Pound went on to translate the three major works ascribed to Confucius and his circle, together with the early Book of Songs, traditionally regarded as edited by the sage.  

Pound was imperfectly aware of the lines of transmission whereby enthusiasm reached the West.  They stemmed from Jesuit missionaries, who in order to obtain their goals “went native,” learning Chinese customs and steeping themselves in the Classics of that language, which they claimed were in accord with Christianity.  With due changes, this enthusiasm for ancient China was adopted by such Western thinkers as Leibniz and Voltaire.

In his mature years Pound identified as a Confucian.  In fact his day was not propitious for this allegiance as modernization pressures in twentieth-century China diminished the reputation of Confucius, a disparagement culminating during the Communist Cultural Revolution.  
Pound did not live long enough to see a massive change in the sage’s home country, for in recent years the People’s Republic has reversed course, financing a chain of Confucius Institutes.  There are now internationally some 500 of these, including 90 in the United States.  Generally attached to universities, the Institutes are dedicated to the promotion of Chinese language and culture.

Given the massiveness of Pound’s commitment to China, one has to wonder if he did not see world civilization as a partnership between two major components: the West, starting in ancient Greece; and the Celestial Kingdom.  Yet the situation was more complicated than this dyarchy would suggest.

Late in life Pound became interested in a non-Han people of southern China, the Naxi or Na Khi.  The idea of paradise is manifested in two Cantos that make explicit reference to the life of the Naxi. In Canto CI and CIV. Only a few researchers on the works of Pound have realized the importance that the Nakhi culture had in the last part of The Cantos.  Yet in the context of the search for a Confucian paradise as the main theme of the works, the Naxi paradise figures in the realization of this dream.

In a sense the Chinese concern was reinforced by a lesser interest In Japan, as seen in his citations of his rendering of the Noh plays, mediated in the first instance by the Fenollosa manuscripts.  In 1917 Pound wrote to Harriet Monroe that The Cantos was based “roughly on the theme of Takasago,”  This particular claim seems exaggerated, yet it does show his enthusiasm for these venerable dramas.  In addition, Canto XLIX - the “Seven Lakes” - was largely based on an illustrated Jaoanese manuscript owned by the poet’ s father.  Sadly, Pound was never able to visit either of these major Far Eastern nations,

Over time there were other components, such as ancient Egypt, where the poet was guided by his father-in-law, the Egyptologist Boris de Rachewiltz. Yet Pound’s knowledge of ancient Egypt was never secure or extensive, as seen in his references (beginning in Canto XCI) to “Ra-Set,” a conflation of two deities.

Connections with the Islamic world were also sporadic.  One indication is the first name of Omar Shakespear Pound, evidently alluding to the famous Persian poet, Omar Khayyam.  The boy was born in a hospital in Paris, the son of Dorothy Shakespear, the long-time wife of Ezra Pound. Omar entered the world fourteen months after Maria (the future Mary de Rachewiltz), who was the daughter of Pound and his long-time mistress, violinist Olga Rudge. Dorothy was separated from Pound for much of 1925. She spent the autumn of 1925 in Siena with her mother, then headed to Egypt from December 1925 to March 1926. Dorothy was pregnant on her return. Nonetheless, Ezra Pound signed the birth certificate for Omar and assumed responsibility for this son.  At around 18 months, Omar was sent to London to be reared by his maternal grandmother, Olivia Shakespear. While his mother visited annually, after being sent to England Omar did not see Ezra Pound again until he was 12.

We turn now to Subsaharan Africa.  Instrumental herein was the direct influence of the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius (1873-1936), the one cultural morphologist to occupy this honor in Pound’s work.  In 1904 the German scholar undertook his first expedition to Africa to the Masai district in Congo,  Over the years he traveled to other parts of Africa. In 1920 he founded the Institute for Cultural Morphology in Munich.   Frobenius served as a professor at the University of Frankfurt. In 1925, the city acquired his collection of some 4700 prehistorical African stone paintings, currently housed at the University's institute of ethnology, which was named the Frobenius Institute in his honor in 1946.   From Frobenius Pound derived his ideal of paideuma, the systematic study of culture.

Pound never traveled to Subsaharan Africa.  Yet the contact with Frobenius seemed to have influenced his sympathetic relations with African American soldiers during his confinement in Pisa.

Other parts of the world were more scantily represented.  in due course Byzantium and Islam received some attention, especially as regards monetary policy.

Some light is thrown on Pound’s overall procedures, which at first seem disconcerting,  by a concept that originated in  critical thought in Russia in his time, with which he was evidently unacquainted.  This is estrangement (ostranenia),  Also known as defamiliarization or disautomatization, estrangement originated as a principle of literary and poetic theory within Russian formalism in 1917, being elaborated largely through the work of Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky. In essence, estrangement is a method of exploring the artfulness, rather than the psychological import or logical message, of imaginative works of prose and poetry.  Focus on these aspects leads, by virtue of its very unfamiliarity, to new perceptions.

When all is said and done, The Cantos remains a poem.  In this light there are other relevant aspects, such as the method of shifting Personae, that is, adopting the mask of a historical figure.  This approach, dominant in his early poetry, was less common in The Cantos, where he was in quest of bigger quarry.

It goes without saying that the approach followed in this essay, emphasizing civilizations, leaves much out.  For example, it neglects the element of poetic metric - and more generally of music.  The Cantos could be translated as The Songs. Pound's ear was attuned to the motz el son - words and sounds -  of troubadour poetry where, as musicologist John Stevens has noted, "melody and poem existed in a state of the closest symbiosis, obeying the same laws and striving in their different media for the same sound-ideal.”   

In his middle years Pound composed two operas, one called Le Testament on François Villon, the other on Guido Cavalcanti.  Needless to say, they are rarely performed.  Reflecting his friendship with the avant-garde composer George Antheil, he also wrote a Treatise on Harmony.

More generally, we sense musicality in many passages of The Cantos. “In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it.” (Canto 11)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Political journeys

The republication of Isaiah Berlin’s numerous essays, beginning with Four Essays on Liberty (1969) and Vico and Herder (1976), and continuing at an increased pace from 1978 under the general editorship of Henry Hardy, has revealed a central theme of Berlin’s thought: his advocacy of the doctrine of value pluralism. Key to this approach is the idea of incommensurability: the resistance of contrasting world views to any amalgamation via an overarching harmony of principles and intentions.
Since the early 1990s value pluralism has captured the attention of many admirers as Berlin’s "master idea." As such, it ranks as the most discussed, most praised, and most controversial of his findings.
I have long been sympathetic to this view, perhaps because my own political evolution has been so complex and diverse. Discarding the Marxism inculcated by my "progressive" parents, I became a liberal Democrat and something of a Cold Warrior. For considerable periods, though, I have been attracted by both anarchism and libertarianism. Briefly, Neo-Conservatism also engaged my attention. Now I am left with only shards collected in this complex journey: call the result empiricism if you will.
So maybe this eclecticism counts as my master idea. Yet it cannot rank as a harmonious conjunction of diverse views, since only fragments are collected. For example, I still hold with libertarians that in many respects there is too much government regulation. Just so.  Yet in some areas, having to do with pollution and other quality of life issues, we may need MORE regulation.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Film history

The medium is generally acknowledged as starting in France in 1895.  In retrospect one can distinguish two poles: that of the Lumière brothers (realism) versus that of Georges Méliès (fantasy).

The twenties, the golden age of the silents, witnessed a duel between Germany and the US, though the industry eventually centered in Hollywood.The Germans excelled in dark fantasies such as Nosferatu, The Golem, and Metropolis.  For its part, Hollywood developed a special affinity for comedy, with such stars as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

In due course silent films yielded to the talkies, originally most of them in black and white.  Early on, Hollywood fostered the star system, where such early idols as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were succeeded by favorites like Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and Robert Redford.  A number of major foreign imports achieved renown, including the performers Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Ingrid Bergman, as well as directors such as Ernst Lubitsch, Michael Curtiz, and Billy Wilder.  

During the early 1930s a perception developed that Hollywood movies were too salacious, requiring corrective action.  The Motion Picture Production Code provided the set of industry moral guidelines that applied to most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. It was also popularly known as the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays, who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945. As the country began to experience the sexual revolution in the 1960s these restrictions faded and were ultimately abandoned, except with regard to young people.

Ever in quest of mass audiences, Hollywood developed several distinctive genres, from screwball comedies and Westerns—the latter eventually expanded by a subgenre— i.e. Italian spaghetti Westerns. This development was preceded by a major Italian contribution in the wake of World War II, when Neo-Realism came to be espoused by such directors as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini.

For a long time in theaters the most common videographic aspect ratios was 4:3 (1.3:1); in other words somewhat broader than high.  Eventually, in order to compete with television and lure back patrons to theaters some videographers began to utilize a wide-screen format, as in the 1953 Western film Shane.  This film was also in color; and this palette increasingly became the norm.

The 1940s and 1950s rank as the "classic period" of American film noir. Films of this genre display a low-key, black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography. Many of the prototypical stories and much of the ethos of classic noir stem from the hardboiled school of crime fiction prevalent in the United States during the Great Depression.

Despite the foreign influence and name, noir was homegrown.  That was emphatically not true of another trend, as Rashomon (1950) marked the entrance of Japanese film onto the world stage.  Starring Toshiro Mifune, it was directed by the soon-to-be-famous Akira Kurosawa. Although the film borrows the title from Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's short story “Rashōmon," it is actually  based on Akutagawa's short story of 1922 "In a Grove.”  The film excels in a plot device that involves various characters providing subjective, alternative, self-serving, and contradictory versions of the same incident.

During the 1960s, art-house cinemas, generally featuring intense, adventurous works of European origin, became popular, at least among the intelligentsia.  These films commonly derived from such directors as Federico Felliini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, and Jean-Luc Godard.  This flowering in turn fostered a form of criticism known as the auteur school, demoting the role of the actors in favor of directors and writers.  In the US version, art-house films were typically independently-produced, outside the major studio system. This trend led to what was termed the Indie film, a genre featured in the annual film festival known as Sundance.

The era also witnessed the popularity of porno films, now free of censorship, normally shown in special theaters.  These locales are now all but extinct, and so the internet serves as the natural conduit for those seeking this material.

The growing popularity of television seemed to pose a threat to cinemas in the 1950s (at least in the U.S. and other western countries), fostering response in the form of efforts to make theatrical films more attractive with technological innovations. New widescreen formats invited filmmakers to create more epic films and spectacles that looked better on a big screen than on television. For their part, 3D films experienced a short golden age from 1952 to 1954. 

Television, at first considered threatening, also opened up a new market for filmmakers, introducing new possibilities that led to new genres, especially in serialized form. One might think of classic film serials such as Tarzan; Flash Gordon; and classic Disney cartoon shorts, paving the way for feature-films like the Indiana Jones trilogy and Pixar animé. As the famous saying goes: “It has all been done before”.

Beginning in the 1950s video emerged as a viable, cheaper alternative to film, forming a more accessible moving-image medium for artists and amateurs to experiment with. This led to video art in the late 1960s, and to more home movies being made.

By the 1980s home video had opened a big market for films that already had had their theatrical run, giving people easier access to titles of their choice in video rental shops - now alas mostly defunct. Direct-to-video (niche) markets usually offered lower quality, cheap productions that were not deemed suitable for the general audiences of television and theatrical releases. Improving over time, digital production methods became more popular during the 1990s, yielding realistic visual effects and feature-length computer animations.

Since the 2000s streaming media platforms like YouTube provided avenues for any persons with access to the internet and cameras (a standard feature of smartphones) to publish their own videos. Also competing with the increasing popularity of video games and other forms of home entertainment, the industry sought to make theatrical releases more attractive with new 3D technologies, while epic films (fantasy and superhero) became a mainstay in cinemas following the record-breaking success of Avatar (2009), most of which works were redesigned into multiplex formats such as 4D, HDX and ADVX. Next will likely be bubble technology. The sad reality is that many of these devices offered little more than new recipes for inferior filmmaking. As such, the box office has seen a dramatic decline in all of these respective formats over the past decade.

The start of the new millennium brought other significant changes. Fantasy film franchises dominated the box office with The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Star Wars prequel trilogy (beginning in 1999), and The Chronicles of Narnia. Comic-book superhero films became blockbusters following the releases of X-Men, Unbreakable, and Spider-Man. The Roman-era Gladiator similarly sparked the revival of epic films, while the Bollywood-inspired Moulin Rouge! did the same for musical films in the Western world, where Indian musicals such as Lagaan and Devdas also gained some mainstream exposure.

In addition, film genres not previously known for their popular appeal in North America became increasingly attractive to filmgoers.  Examples included offerings in foreign languages such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Passion of the Christ, and Letters from Iwo Jima.  At the same time documentary films such as An Inconvenient Truth, March of the Penguins, Supersize Me, and Fahrenheit 9/11, enjoyed success.

Animated films in the 2000s displayed an increased use of computer-generated imagery, as in Shrek, Madagascar, and Happy Feet. Anime films gained popularity with the release of Spirited Away, and similarly with stop-motion animation with Chicken Run, and motion-capture animation with The Polar Express and its mapping-technology whereby dots are placed on the live performers to map them into computer-generated imagery, commonly known as CGI, a game-changer in the industry.

The latest trends point towards all things Asian, in particular China, excelling in its ability to push a mainstream film into the stratosphere as a box-office phenomenon. A slew of films came out of China that are self-sustaining due to an internal cultural autonomy reflected by the trend during the last few years for Asian cinema to dispense with other countries as sustainers of their industry. Films such as Ne Zhi; The Wandering Earth; Operation Red Sea, and even sequels to lesser properties such as Wolf Warrior 2 and Detective Chinatown 2 seem to have commanded the zeitgeist, reflecting the increasing popularity of mass-marketing based on North American properties. These films have accumulated well over five billion dollars in their home country alone. 

It is rare for films from America being banned in China going on to achieve record numbers without critical support from elsewhere  The few examples that spring to mind, ironically, are antihero epics The Dark Knight (starring Oscar-winner Heath Ledger) and the polarizing Joker film (with Joaquin Phoenix in the same role) playing characters from the criminal underworld. Both films managed to gross over a billion dollars without playing in China. They were banned there, however, owing to their perceived anti-China politics.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019


Immanuel Kant looked forward to a future in which humanity would no longer be burdened with the curse of nonage (Unmündigkeit), which he defined broadly as encompassing the various types of restriction and unfreedom that afflict us, whether maintained by law or custom. Alas, most of us are a long ways from attaining that happy state of independent judgment and action.
One of the defects of libertarianism is that it assumes that such freedom is generally attainable; yet it is not. An appeal to reason, such as it is, will not guarantee responsible behavior.
In the US at least, libertarianism has also failed because getting elected and reelected means impersonating Santa Claus, promising lots of "free stuff."  Alas, it is not free, for the bribes use money taxed from citizens, either in the present or the future.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Changing interests

The contrast of the fox and the hedgehog is a reference to a fragment attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: πόλλ' οἶδ' ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ' ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα ("a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing"). The contrast is the subject of a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin. At any rate in the range of my intellectual interests I am very much a fox.
Once I made a list of almost 100 such interests, though some are dormant now. The living ones range from ancient Egypt to 20th-century abstract painting. Lately I have developed a passion for the older noir films - easily satisfied through the presentations on Turner Classics.
Why do some interests decline and then fade away? I used to follow Pre-Columbian archaeology closely, but now that i no longer make regular visits to see the sites, the books on this subject - I have quite a few - stare back at me in their neglect. For most of my teaching career I taught medieval art, but of late I have become weary of medieval studies, which are now riven with ideological disputes about whether they are racist or not. I would just as soon skip this stuff. And when gay studies got taken over by queer theory I pretty much shipped out.

As a rule I am drawn to subjects because I see - or saw - some positive value in them.  But not entirely.  Once upon a time I followed the Manson case because it seemed to say something about those turbulent times. But as we entered calmer waters my interest faded. Still, I suppose that cults and their gurus are a continuing but sporadic interest, going back to my stepfather's naive involvement in Dianetics, which later morphed into Scientology.

Monday, July 29, 2019

John Adams on religion

Here is a useful compilation from FB about Adams’ views on religion.  It is a collection of what Adams had to say about Dupuis, who maintained that Jesus never existed.

It is more worth your while to live to read Dupuis than Grim. Of all the Romances, and true Histories I e
ver read, it is the most entertaining And instructive, though Priestley calls it “dull.”

Conclude not from all this, that I have renounced the Christian Religion, or that I agree with Dupuis in all his Sentiments. Far from it. I see in every Page, Something to recommend Christianity in its Purity, and Something to discredit its Corruptions.

Dupuis has increased my Attachment to Christianity; but not to Catholic, Lutherian or Calvanistic Christianity.

I advise you to procure Du Puis; and answer him. I have read him in twelve large Volumes besides a Volume of Platis.

I could answer him in ten Pages, upon my Principles.

For the last Year or two I have devoted myself to this kind of Study: and have read 15 Volumes of Grim, Seven Volumes of Tuckers Neddy Search and 12 Volumes of Dupuis besides a 13th of plates and Traceys Analysis, and 4. Volumes of Jesuitical History! Romances all! I have learned nothing of importance to me, for they have made no Change in my moral or religious Creed, which has for 50 or 60 Years been contained in four Short Words “Be just and good.” In this result they all agree with me.

I must acknowledge however, that I have found in Dupuis more Ideas that were new to me, than in all the others.

My Conclusions from all of them is Universal Tolleration.

Is there any Work extant so well calculated to discredit Corruptions and Impostures in Religion as Dupuis.

Jesus is benevolense personified. An Example for all Men. DuPuis has made no Alteration in my opinions of Christian Religion in its primitive Purity and Simplicity, which I have entertained for more than Sixty Years. It is the Religion of Reason, Equity and Love. It is the Religion of the head and of the heart.

It would be idle for me to write Observations upon Dupuis. I must fill 13 Volumes. If I was 25 Years old and had the necessary Books and Leizure I would write an answer to Dupuis. But when, where or how should I get it printed. Dupuis can be answered to the Honour and Advantage of the Christian Religion, as I understand it. To this End I must Study Astrology as well as Astronomy Hebrew Greek Latin Arabic Persic and Sanscrit.

But to leave Dupuis to be answerd or reviewed in Edinburgh or London, I must enquire into the Attributes given by the Antient Nations to their Divinities, Gods with Stars and New Moons in their forheads or on their Shoulders; Gods with heads of Dogs, Horns of Oxen Bulls Cows Calves, Rams Sheep or Lambs. Gods with the Bodies of Horses; Gods with the Tails of Fishes; Gods with the Tails of Dragons and Serpents; Gods with the Feet of Goats. The Bull of Mithra; The Dog of Anubis; The Serpent of Esculapius!!!

Is Man the most irrational Beast of the Forrest? Never did Bullock or Sheep or Snake imagine himself a God. What then can all this wild Theory mean? Can it be any Thing but Allegory founded in Astrology? Your Manillius would inform you as well as Dupuis.

The Hebrew Unity of Jehovah, the Prohibition of all Similitudes, appear to me the greatest Wonders of Antiquity. How could that Nation preserve it’s Cread among the monstrous Theologies of all the other Nations of the Earth? Revelation, you will Say, and Special Providence and I will not contradict you; for I cannot Say with Dupuis that a Revelation is impossible or improbable.

Christianity, you will say was a fresh Revelation; I will not deny this. As I understand the Christian Religion, it was and is a Revelation. But how has it happened that Millions of Fables, Tales Legends have been blended with both Jewish and Christian Revelations that have made them the most bloody Religions that ever existed? How has it happened that all the fine Arts, Architecture Painting Sculpture Statuary, Musick Poetry and Oratory have been prostituted from the Creation of the World to the Sordid and detestable Purposes of Superstition? and Fraud? The 18th. Century had the honour to discover that Ocellus of Lucania, Timeus of Locris, Aristotle, Tacitus, Quintillion and Pliny were in the right. The Philosophy of Frederick, Catharine, Buffon, De La Lande Diderot, D’Alembert, Condorcet, D’Holbach and Dupuis; appears o me to be no more nor less than the Philosophy of those ancient Men of Science and Letters whose Speculations came principally from India Egypt Chaldea and Phenicia. A consolatory Discovery to be Sure! Let it once be revealed or demonstrated that there is no future State; and my Advice to every Man Woman and Ch[ild] would be, as our Existence would be in our own pi[. . .] to take opium. For I am certain there is nothing in this World worth living for but Hope, and every Hope will fail Us, if the last Hope, that of a future State is extinguished

I am Still a Spiritualist, in spight of Priestley Grim and Dupuis, and Tracy; and believe a God, a Soul and a future State. I Should with Berkley, call in question the Existence of matter as soon as with Priestly and Dupuis, that of Spirit ... An active cause must exist and have always existed. I See no reason, in all the Subtelties of the Phylosophers to hesitate in believing and Adoring the Being and Providence of the God of Abraham and Sir Isaac Newton. I have read Chateaubriand, as well as Dupuis and Eustace.

When you have once read Dupuis You will find yourself, irresistably impelled to read Court de Gebeline Primative World; and then Bryants Analysis of ancient Mythology; and then Sir William Jones’s Works, and then Herodotus and all the Greek Historians, and then over again Your Eustace, and Simondi and last not least Hugh Farmers four Volumes containing all his Works, viz, his Temptation &c, his Worship of human Spirits, his Miracles, and his Demons. To these you will wish to add Sir John Malcoms recent History of Persia, and the millions of Authorities quoted by all these Writers.

And when you Shall have done all this You will find yourself, precisely where you are now, an Adorer of the Christian Religion in its Purity; mourning over the Knavery And Folly of your Species; and above all deploring the Corruptions and heathenish Superstitions and Idolatries introduced into the Religion of Jesus by his professed disciples, and “most holy Priests.”

But there are many bad Books, and I have read many.—Excepting a gratification of curiosity, I know not whether they have even done me good or harm, they have made little alteration in my natural sentiments, opinions or feelings; You would be suprised perhaps at the Catalogue ... The primitive world of Court de Gebellin, Bryants Mythology, and Dupuis Universal religion, and Volneys new researches into the History of Ancient Nations; Have not converted me to their system of Philosophy."

Whitehead on Plato

Some reflection is needed to interpret this famous utterance:  The renowned British philosopher A.N Whitehead once commented on Plato’s thought: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them.”