Monday, June 14, 2004

They're not unenjoyable to read, but Cantos 52-61 are like a crazy high speed chase through thousands of years of Chinese history. For someone who doesn't know as much as he should about that history, only repeated phrases and tropes (low taxes good, eunuchs and Taoists bad) and names (petty triumph of recognizing the few familiar names, principally names of dynasties and "Ghengiz Khan") provide coherence (the timeline in the margins is also helpful). The Cookson trot isn't much help here, though it does define a few of the pictograms; I'm almost ready to break down and fetch the two volume Terrell guide from the library. But I'm not sure this impressionistic history isn't exactly what I'm supposed to carry from these poems. There are occasional allegories to pick up on; if the good emperors are like Mussolini, the "Tartars" are like Hitler (this is made explicit in Canto 54, where a visit by "the tartar king" is compared with a 1938 submarine demonstration put on for Hitler: "(Pretty manoeuvre but the technicians / watched with their hair standing on end / anno sixteen [of the Fascist regime], Bay of Naples)". None of which does much to rebuild this reader's confidence in Pound's political judgments. His fatal weakness, repeated in all sorts of ways, is his confidence in individual character: again, good men are seen as capable of doing only what are essentially good things, while bad things are blamed on bad guys. It's Ezra Pound, Cowboy Poet; George W. Bush would love this guy. Not only does this wilfully ignore the structural difficulties of any complex society but Pound's poor judgment of character (Il Duce the Good Man) makes him difficult to take seriously. What's left to value? Chiefly the glimmers of Chinese culture, which Pound's love for is obvious, most evident in the fragments of poems he translates. In Canto 56, a little Li Po:
Mt Ta Haku is 300 miles from heaven
          lost in a forest of stars,
Slept on the pine needle carpet
Elsewhere he seems to find a plan for the liberal capitalism he despised; the difference, I suppose, is the active intervention of the wise ruler:
HAN came from the people
How many fathers and husbands are fallen
Make census
Give rice to their families
Give them money for rites
Let rich folk keep their goods by them
Let the poor be provided
I came not against YUEN
          but against grafters and rebels
I rebelled not against KUBLAI, not against Ghengizkhan
          but against lice that ate their descendants.
I'm also interested in one of Pound's primary figures for this decad, "Between KUNG and ELEUSIS": between the pragmatic Confucian principle of order and the Eleusinian mysteries, the Greek religion. Is he trying to describe a middle path between enlightenment and myth? He errs strongly on the "enlightenment" side (given his rejection of Taoism, seen as too passive, too acquiescent to the cycles of nature); his personal history and opinions make the domination present within Kung/enlightenment all too visible. But it does at least suggest that the problems Pound was trying to solve (albeit with hopelessly inadequate intellectual tools) was THE problem that the 20th century raised, and which the Frankfurt School (perhaps with inadequate poetic tools?) also tried to solve: the regime of the subject over the object, and the subject's draining of subjectivity vis-a-vis the commodity, enacted by industrial capitalism. Cookson offers this translation of the untranslated lines from Confucius that appear on the first page of 55: "The humane man uses his wealth as means to distinction; the inhumane becomes a mere harness, an accessory to his takings."

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