Fascism

In 1921 Pound moved to Paris; in 1924 he left Paris for Italy. Italy had always played an important role in Pound's life and poetry: he regularly holidayed there, he read and researched medieval Italian poetry, and he considered the early Italian Renaissance the high point of human civilization. In 1922 he began researching the life of Sigismondo Malatesta (1417—1468), the fifteenth-century ruler of Rimini. Sigismondo was a tyrannical ruler, but in The Cantos Pound chose to emphasize instead his patronage of the arts and his love for his mistress (later wife), Isotta degli Atti. Pound thought that these two defining aspects of Sigismondo came together in his rebuilding of the thirteenth-century church of San Francesco, known as the Tempio Malatestiano, which Pound erroneously believed to have been dedicated to Isotta (Rainey 1991: 33—36). Pound saw the Tempio as a monument to productive patronage and romantic love, and he was willing to argue that Sigismondo's duplicitous and violent nature was justified by his achievements: 'tyrants / Were most efficient in all that they set their hands to (1994: 31)'.

1922 was also the year that Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party seized control of the Italian government, and there is evidence to suggest that this was a factor in Pound's move to Italy. Certainly, his journalism and letters demonstrate that he saw Italy as more vibrant than London or Paris during this period, and by 1924 he had begun to hope that Mussolini's rule would inaugurate a new Renaissance and, what is more, that there would be a role in it for Pound himself. Pound gained an audience with Mussolini in 1933, at which Mussolini pronounced The Cantos 'divertente' (amusing), as Pound tells us in Canto 41: he chose to interpret this comment as evidence of Mussolini's perspicacity. Though some of his economic and social reforms shared common ground

Fascism, Term first used by Mussolini in 1919 for his Italian political movement, and later adopted by Adolf Hitler in Germany and Francisco Franco in Spain, Common elements of fascist movements are nationalism (often racist and anti-Semitic in nature), anti-communism and anti-democracy, and a cult of strong leadership, with Pound's ideas, Mussolini did not see Pound as a potential adviser. Nevertheless, Pound actively promoted Mussolini and Italian fascism, notably through his book Jefferson and/or Mussolini (1935), his letters to US politicians and his radio broadcasts to US troops during the Second World War. For Pound, Jefferson and Mussolini were examples of intelligent leaders who acted decisively to improve material and cultural conditions — like Sigismondo. Their actions were creative, according to Pound, and by the 1930s the distinction has disappeared between the strong leader and the artist: both are seen as bringing order to chaos.

How do we approach The Cantos, knowing the extent of Pound's fascist sympathies? Should we protect ourselves from its propaganda and remove it from our reading? Should we read it despite the fascism and seek out its less politically charged sections? The weight of critical opinion is against both repression and censorship: fascism is part of our history, including our cultural history, and to pretend otherwise is to delude ourselves. It is in this intellectual climate that critical attention has begun to extend from Pound's early cantos and the lyrical Pisan Cantos (1948), to the authoritarian Rock-Drill (1955) and Thrones (1959). In 1943 Pound was indicted for treason against the United States, and in 1945 incarcerated by the US army in Pisa. The cantos he wrote while imprisoned there begin with a lament for Mussolini and the sense of hope he had represented for Pound and, Pound thought, for the Italian people. The execution of Mussolini represents, he writes, 'the enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant's bent shoulders' (1994: 439). After his release from St Elizabeth's Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1958, Pound neither reiterated nor recanted his fascism. His retreat into depression and virtual silence during the last decade of his life, and the last fragmentary lines of The Cantos, have been interpreted by some as contrition.

Pound and Eliot are usually seen as part of a single political trend in modernism, but in fact their politics are in many ways antithetical. Both were anti-democratic and, from the 1920s, authoritarian, but Pound's politics were revolutionary, whereas Eliot's were conservative. Eliot himself spelled out the difference between their politics in his notorious After Strange Gods (1934), three lectures delivered at the University of Virginia in 1933. There Eliot criticizes Pound's 'Hell Cantos' for not distinguishing between 'essential Evil and social accidents' (1934: 42). Eliot is right: Pound, unlike Eliot, does not believe in 'essential Evil': he believes evil to be socially produced, and that education and knowledge can eradicate it. The Cantos is, therefore, directed towards educating its readers and providing a blueprint for a paradise on earth. Eliot, on the other hand, believes in the reality of original sin and therefore that the human race cannot create an earthly paradise. In 'Catholicism and International Order' (1933), he contrasted his own Anglo-Catholic position with that of the 'heretic', a category in which he included Pound:

The Catholic should have high Ideals - or rather, I should say absolute Ideals - and moderate expectations: the heretic, whether he call himself fascist, or communist, or democrat or rationalist, always has low ideals and great expectations. For I say that all ambitions of an earthly paradise are informed by low ideals.

Pound's support for Italian fascism was unequivocal; Eliot's position on fascism is the subject of continued debate. Central to the issue is his editorship of The Criterion, founded in 1922 as a literary review, but by the time of Eliot's conversion in 1927 eschewing the 'narrowly literary' in favour of presenting the 'tendency' of classicism as exemplified by Sorel, Maurras, Julien Benda, Hulme, Jacques Maritain and Babbitt (1926: 3, 5). In 1928, Eliot published 'The Literature of Fascism' in The Criterion, a review of five books that argued for and against Mussolini's government. His tone is sceptical: while approving of a political system that prioritizes order and authority, he doubts these are the preserve of Italian fascism, or that an exported fascism would establish those values in England. He recommends instead the politics of Charles Maurras's Action Française: 'Most of the concepts which might have attracted me in fascism I seem already to have found, in a more digestible form, in the work of Charles Maurras' (1928b: 288—89). It seems clear, therefore, that Eliot explicitly rejects fascism and reasserts his support of Action Française. But, as C.K. Stead has pointed out, 'in every respect Action Française, which he favoured, was more illiberal, more "reactionary", than Mussolini's party' (1986: 205). Maurras, indeed, collaborated with the fascists after France fell to the Nazis in 1940, and was found guilty of treason in 1945.

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