Ezra Pound Finally Makes The Library of America
March 26, 2004 6:17 AM   Subscribe

Some Of Our Best Poets Are Fascists: An interesting article by Guy Davenport. My own theory is that an inordinate percentage of great (and minor) Modernist writers were, politically speaking, bonkers. Ezra Pound, Fernando Pessoa and T.S.Eliot were all distastefully authoritarian, anti-semitic and, in general, rancorous old farts. Why is this, if anyone still cares? [Via Arts and Letters Daily.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (22 comments total)
I think a stronger case could be made for the opposite proposition
posted by Outlawyr at 6:34 AM on March 26, 2004

Perhaps they're just the same as ordinary people, but their prejudices and pecadillos are more observable.

There are an awful lot of ordinary people with truly shocking opinions, that you probably wouldn't know about unless a particular subject comes up in conversation, or something; even friends or family who you have every reason to think share the same values as you, can suddenly, and rather disturbingly, be revealed to have quite astoundingly different world-views on certain subjects, that you may find quite distasteful.

I'm not entirely sure the percentage of artists with non-moderate views is out of the ordinary.
posted by Blue Stone at 6:34 AM on March 26, 2004

self-double post?
posted by matteo at 6:34 AM on March 26, 2004

because during that generation a fair chunk of europe was distastefully authoritarian, anti-semitic and, in general, well, fascist.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:35 AM on March 26, 2004

The French doctor-novelist-fascist spring to mind...I distinguish between the time when it was "fashionable" (aka acceptable) to be anti-semitic and anti-democratic (elitist) and when fairly recently this sort of thing was seen as unpalatable. Thus, for example, films till recently seldom if ever used blacks even as extras, walking around in cities. (recall: segregated troops in WWII)...quotas for elite schools etc....now much of this, has changed. And the Indians (Native Americans) once always the bad guys are now always (mostly so) the good guys...Hemingway, Fitzgerald et al all had streaks of anti-semitism...(I think too Wallace Stevens)...and thus it is NOW that should matter about our writers, artists etc and not a dwelling on the past, when it was "clever" to be against this and that (esp anti Jewish)...the important thing was that it was believed that good and evil etc carried in the Blood, as even Tom Buchannon believed in Gatsby...and so too Hitler...you were undesirable because your blood carried the "virus" that was detested...and no: there are not genetic explainations now used to make a case against this or taht people. In fact, genetics shows how closely we all are in just about everything, no matter who we are or where we live.
posted by Postroad at 6:45 AM on March 26, 2004

Does anyone care that the poet Swinburne had sexual proclivities that some people might find distasteful, or that Charles Dodgeson had that little girl thing? The problem is that people tend to see political opinions as somehow "real," like some kind of objective journalism of the mind, rather than realizing that political opinions are roiling, gaseous fantasies, highly psychological and deeply personal, that should not be taken into account -- any more than sexual proclivities -- in our judgement of others. My political opinions, for the most part, are completely different depending on the time of day you ask me, the state of my digestion, or the attractiveness of your smile.
posted by Faze at 6:45 AM on March 26, 2004

For those playing at home, Charles Dodgeson is Lewis Carrol.
posted by Outlawyr at 6:56 AM on March 26, 2004

Sorry: the French fascist: Celine. It is true, as one poster has put it: trust the art and not the artist. But if a meme is spread by a well-known and great poet, and that meme is viscious and rotten, then why should it be simply dismissed as unimportant? Richard Wagner springs to mind. And can you also dismiss political figures or say they need to be condemned etc because they are not artists? Try this on a great potential candidate for the White House! (yes: from a right wing paper but then trust the message and not the publication) : Ralph Nader: The Unchallenged Hero of Muslims
posted by Postroad at 6:59 AM on March 26, 2004

And some of our best poets are communists: Vallejo & Neruda, MacDiarmid, Mayakovsky & Khlebnikov, Aragon & Éluard, for example. And the article doesn't have anything to do with the point you are trying to make. So this strikes me as a pretty weak post.
posted by misteraitch at 7:00 AM on March 26, 2004

because during that generation a fair chunk of europe was distastefully authoritarian, anti-semitic and, in general, well, fascist.

That's very true, unfortunately. But not the Brits, bless'em, apart from certain wackos, GBS not excepted.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:00 AM on March 26, 2004

Metafilter: There are an awful lot of ordinary people with truly shocking opinions.
posted by rushmc at 7:04 AM on March 26, 2004

Postroad: I love Wallace Stevens so much; he's such a knock-out, constantly surprising poet, that I sort of mentally catalogued him as being merely a conservative, staid insurance executive. I've read a couple of biographies - I know that he loved convention - but I'd never thought such a balanced individual could be inspired by firebrand anti-humanist rubbish like fascism. Do you know anything I don't? Please don't tell me if you do. It's bad enough as it is.

As for the "communist" analogy, I reject it outright. I actually had to sit through years of political philosophy and science and debate the whole "totalitarianism" concept. It applies to regimes. The idea of communism is noble and all-embracing. Fascism is intellectually destitute, nothing more than a reaction to Marxism, a simple-minded, vulgar glorification of superiority and hierarchy.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:14 AM on March 26, 2004

hmm wasnt hitler a piss poor artist though migs ? /godwin
posted by sgt.serenity at 7:15 AM on March 26, 2004

Isn't modernism and fascism basically the same thing?

As I understand it, modernism seeks to find the perfect universal method for anything, fascism forces everybody to use said method.

Where as your post-modernist doesn't believe anything is universal.

Perhaps a modernist is just a facist with no actual power. Sounds like a poet material to me.
posted by Leonard at 9:02 AM on March 26, 2004

MiguelCardoso: The idea of communism is noble and all-embracing. Fascism is intellectually destitute, nothing more than a reaction to Marxism, a simple-minded, vulgar glorification of superiority and hierarchy.

Hmm.. The thing that always comes up in discussions like this is that the main difference between communism and fascism is that, for communism, theory and practice are two different things, while fascist theory and practice are the same. Fascist theory is "we wanna kill you" and that's what they'll do if they rise to power. Communist theory, on the other hand, is pretty good, at least when compared to communist practice. When communist practice is criticized, its sympathizers always switch the subject, point to the theory and say, "but look at the theory, the theory is fine!" Just like the free market believers, they prefer talking about their castle in the air, not about reality on Earth.

On preview: this "Isn't modernism and fascism basically the same thing?" is wrong and needs a good reply...

posted by Termite at 9:15 AM on March 26, 2004

Termite, that's basically why I posted. Excuse the 2nd rate university I went to, but I've never been completely clear on this distinction and despite making people really upset, nobody ever explains it to me.

As I see it, a modernist is somebody who thinks they know how things aught to be done, universally. A fascist tries to make everybody do it that way. The distinction between theory and practice is relevant for communism, but there you're talking about economic systems rather then social systems. Basis of authority rather than wealth generation.

Why aren't modernists just whiney fascists?
posted by Leonard at 10:14 AM on March 26, 2004

Miguel, I don't understand this post at all. The linked article is the best review of the new Pound edition I've seen, and I thank you for it. It's long, thoughtful, and picky in the right way. It has exactly one paragraph about the tedious, overemphasized issue you choose to highlight—the very same issue you started a thread about a few days ago. Couldn't you find a better way to frame it, so that the discussion isn't a carbon copy of the Larkin one?
posted by languagehat at 10:21 AM on March 26, 2004

Leonard, I'd recommend reading the last chapter of the book Mimesis by Erich Auerbach, called "The Brown Stocking." It talks about Virginia Wolff's To the Lighthouse Joyce's Ullysses and an episode from Proust called "Du Cote de Chez Swann" (francophones: you can fill in the accents).
The whole book is great, but the final chapter treats Modernism. In the period between the wars - when both fascism and modernism take root - it's pretty clear to everyone that the established ways of thinking, of understanding the world, of structuring European society and assessing one's place in it are as applicable as a bucket of shit. The world is going to hell in a handcart, every thing has been working toward blowing up since at least 1848 and and it all seems to be coming to a head, with more and more questions and fewer and fewer answers. There are especially fewer answers that seem to provide "a universal" or mutually adequate frame for understanding the world that make the current state of things seem just or acceptable.
Modernism and Fascism are contrary, but contemporary responses to this situtation.
Fascism is a movement that is based on an agreement to accept a perspective for understanding and framing the world that includes a will to bulldozer or elide anything -persons, ideas, institutions, perspectives that offer counter evidence,arguments against, or resistance to the agreed upon perspective.
Modernism tries to find a true picture of the world by first, limiting its subject matter - To a lighthouse covers 2 days, Ullysses covers 1 day, both are focused on a small cast of characters and not large historical or political forces.
Second it tries to find a truth, a real universal perspective by bringing a multiplicity of perspectives together that are focused on the same topic/item/person.
I think in particle physics there are investigations that "shine a light" on a particle from many different angles, and while you can't see the particles directly, you can draw an inference of their properties by comparing the evidence from each perspective. Modernism follows that kind of principle to try and find a real truth.
posted by putzface_dickman at 10:50 AM on March 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

Of course, Auerbach is more nuanced and curses less, but this is MeFi.
posted by putzface_dickman at 10:54 AM on March 26, 2004

Whoa there. Communist theory tends to be pedantic, boring, trite, and wrong. One line summations of Communism based on quips from Marx are "noble and all-embracing," but don't think for a moment that "From each according to his ability to each according to their needs" is in any way an intellectual formulation of scientific socialism, whether Marxist or otherwise.

And frankly, Fascism wasn't intellectually destitute, as this FPP in fact shows - Pound was both a brilliant poet and a fascist. Similarly, Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant film-maker and yet at the same time, very good friends with Adolf Hitler. Easy as it would be for us to brush aside that portion of humanity's history by claiming that they were just a bunch of stupid barbarians, frankly, they weren't.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:05 AM on March 26, 2004

putzface_dickman: Nuts. That's probably explains why I never understand. I can't do philosophy via Wolff and Ulysses, I'm too left brained and read too much SF as a teenager. I like my philosophy mathematical. It's probably why I ended up in communications, it's like anti-english.
posted by Leonard at 12:34 PM on March 26, 2004

putzface -- Thank you for summarizing the last chapter of "Mimesis" for me. It explains a lot. Now I've got to go back and read the whole thing. (I kid you not, I just took "Mimesis" back to the library yesterday morning. I didn't have time to really take it much past the third chapter, and the thing was way overdue.)
posted by Faze at 2:16 PM on March 26, 2004

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