Saturday, September 07, 2019

Pound and multiculturalism


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 adopts long time-frames using a multidisciplinary approach that combines numerous disciplines from science and the humanities.   

Other scholars are attracted to a broader 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 ambitious range of references to a variety of civilizations, from ancient Greece to modern times, with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance important components. 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’s early education - which seems not to have included history courses - provided no foundation so that in this realm he was self-taught.  In college he emphasized Romance languages, especially Provençal (Occitane) and Italian.  In those days it was held that the early stages of these languages were crucial - hence the focus on the Middle Ages.  In this way he joined a major current of Victorian literature and art.  Rossetti and Browning were particularly important to him, 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 China, and to some extent, Japan.

In addition to this cultural richness, readers encounter difficulty with the overlay principle, already evident in the first thirty Cantos, and 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 a number 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 founder of the cultural morphology approach, the Russian Nikolay Danilevsky (1822-1885), who 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.

A partial exception to his usual emphasis on particularism is his denunciation of usury, widespread he believed, and to be shunned as eroding the integrity of a civilization.  This idea shows some affinity with John Ruskin, who felt that good art could only arise in the context of a decent society, while a bad society will produce bad art.

Moreover, in keeping with his generally modernist approach he utilizes a presentation 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 twelve-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.  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 sequence (Cantos 52-61) deals with an orderly sequence of imperial China from prehistoric times up to the eighteenth century.  Some confusion has ensued from Pound’s rendering of the Chinese names in the French forms found in Mailla.

Some light is thrown on Pound’s overall procedures by a concept that originated 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 is 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 tuned 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 on François Villon, the other on Cavalcanti.  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)


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