Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

The Poet-Fascist

Pound’s mug-shot, there, after he had been captured by the US Army. He was arrested for aiding and abetting the Italian fascist regime against the Allies — for treason, that is. They put him in a cage. He was, I suppose we can say, ‘lucky’. Others were executed on just such charges. Pound was declared insane and transferred to St. Elizabeths, a high-security hospital in Washington D.C. (One detail that has stuck with me about this period of his life: Pound was only prepared to talk to Gentile psychiatrists. Any psychiatrist with a Jewish name who attempted to help him was dismissed as a ‘kike-iatrist’). Pound was released in 1958, partly as a result of a campaign by other prominent writers. He immediately took a boat to Europe, declaring that the whole of America was an insane asylum. As he disembarked at Naples he gave the fascist salute to the waiting press.

What went wrong with this man? In Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode argues that the fundamental problem was Pound’s inability to keep his mythic imagination cleanly separate from his social intelligence. Peter Schwendener summarises:

To Kermode, the “paradigms” that shape our lives are, and always have been, literary. Specifically, our ideas about literary form — about, for example, what constitutes a good ending to a novel or poem — are incapable of being detached from our various senses of how the world will someday end. … Kermode believes that social sanity depends on drawing a firm line between the “fictions” we meet with in literature and the “myths” that we allow to guide our conduct. The overt fascism of Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound is a result, according to Kermode, of their failure to keep fiction and myth in separate, airtight compartments.

Graham Hough, reviewing Sense of an Ending for The Listener disagreed:

Now I do not believe that the political attitudes of these men were due to errors in their theory of literary criticism. They made wrong political choices. They shut their eyes to things that anyone could see. . . . And the moral to be drawn is not that we should attempt some impossible isolation of imaginative fiction from the world of social practice, but that when imaginative fiction makes its appearance there, as it will, it must be subjected to judgment and criticism of another kind.

I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m honestly not sure whether Kermode or Hough is right. Hough’s position seems, I suppose, more common-sense. But I wonder whether Kermode isn’t on to something.

I don’t ask out of merely historical or literary-critical curiosity. I ask because we’re in the middle, now, of a resurgence in whatever it was that persuaded a clever, creative man to become a fascist, and it seems to me understanding how this kind of thing happens would be a useful thing.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.