Understanding Alice

Understanding Alice

Alice is at an age when adult expectations are being placed upon her and she doesn’t fully understand what they are or what they mean.  Being a girl, she is eager to fulfill these expectations, as boys would not be, so her struggle to understand is especially poignant.  The white rabbit, whom she follows into the hole, is one of the more starkly allegorical elements of the story.  He represents adulthood as a destiny.  Everyone will become an adult.  As such, he is full of cares and fears and is always checking his watch, as it is time that brings adulthood closer.

The central question of the story gets posed by the caterpillar: “Who are you?”  Alice answers that she doesn’t rightly know.  Is she an adult?  Is she a child?  She doesn’t understand what it means to be either and can’t answer the question.  The caterpillar instructs her to eat the mushroom, telling her, “One side makes you taller, the other makes you small.”  Alice, good girl that she is, follows the instructions and grows alternately enormous and miniscule, again, symbolic of her predicament in which she is simultaneously a child and an adult and can’t control how she is seen in any given moment.

Wonderland is the adult world turned upside down and revealed for what it really is.  Everyone here is mad because they accede to adult norms and conventions that are inherently absurd.  The Mad Hatter’s Tea party is a case in point.  A Victorian tea party is the height of formality, having strict codes for deportment and even what can be discussed.  Alice tries to observe those forms and finds it just doesn’t work anymore.  Those codes come back to her as arbitrary and absurd, which, of course, they are.

There are several mother figures in Wonderland who are also inversions of the norm, the Duchess who beats her son for no reason and the ironically named Queen of Hearts who is arbitrary and cruel instead of loving and warm.  Mothers, who demand and enforce conformity to the absurdity of adulthood upon emerging adolescents, seem especially cruel as they shed their former warmth as indulgent mothers of children.

Alice’s final revelation, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” is both rejection and acceptance of the adult world.  Like the adult world, a pack of cards is ordered, ranked, and regulated.  Having a healthy appreciation of the absurdity of those orders and conventions is what’s needed to enter adulthood without going mad.  

Barthes

Reading Roland Barthes

For someone trained in the art of close reading, reading Barthes raises problems.  Consider the following passage:

As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.

 

Before we get into Barthes’ peculiar distortion of the nature of text so he can ride his favorite hobby horse about origins and destinations, we can ask some simpler questions of this passage.  In what sense is the thing being narrated a fact?  If it comes from a text such as Balzac’s Sarrasine, it derives its possible status as a fact only from the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, a temporary contract entered into by the reader and the text.  Even so, there is no thought that this phenomenon, transparently masquerading as a fact, has any direct relationship with reality, a relationship which Barthes blithely assumes but never actually demonstrates.  Is Barthes talking about the stipulated reality of the text or the world at large?  We do not know.  Without greater clarity on the context of “reality,” it is difficult to assign this statement much meaning.  The passage moves by indirection and rhetorical sleight of hand.

We are told that when this nebulous “fact” does not act directly on a nebulous “reality,” it is acting “outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself . . .” In what sense does a symbol have a practice?  Is he suggesting some kind of agency for the symbol, a reasonable assumption given that he posits a function for a fact?  If so, what is it?  The point is these words float free of any context and become reflections of each other.  They only have meaning if one assumes a context which Barthes does not provide.  As a result, by the end of the passage, we end up with the meta-concept, “writing,” called into being by a rhetorical flourish that demands belief instead of offering proof.

In the previous paragraph, after quoting a passage from Balzac’s Sarrasine, Barthes asks the rhetorical question: “Who is speaking thus?”  He answers his rhetorical question, claiming, “We can never know.”  But he is wrong.  The answer to his rhetorical question is complex, but not difficult.  The sophisticated reader knows very well that narrators vary in degree of knowledge from omniscient to deficient and vary in reliability from trustworthy to perilous.  Those narrators who are not reliable range from naïve to outright mendacious.  There is a complex relationship among author, narrator, persona, and character that the skillful writer uses to his advantage and in which the less skillful writer becomes trapped.  Balzac was a master at playing with those kinds of ironic distances and is enjoyable to read as a result. 

Barthes isolates one thread from this complex tapestry and elevates it into the meta-concept, “author.”  He reduces the authorial voice into one version of it and claims that the one version represents the whole thing.  It does not.  This reduction creates a straw man that he knocks over with ease.  Later in the essay, he elevates the meta-concept, “author,” into the “author-god” and posits the existence of a “scriptor” to counter that malevolent deity.  The scriptor seems to be a literary sub-atomic particle that exists only at the moment of utterance.  Its existence can never be proved or disproved, only inferred from the existence of the author-god.  But Barthes has failed to dent my atheism.  Since he has not convinced me to believe in his author-god, I cannot believe in his scriptor.

But Barthes doesn’t stop there.  He tells us:

The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice.

 

Again, his terminology is full of loose and baggy monsters.  What is “ordinary culture?”  Is he talking about philistinism, the received ideas prevalent among the unsophisticated, or is it something else?  If it is the beliefs of the unsophisticated, does it really have the kind of influence on those who are more sophisticated about culture that he claims for it?  If “ordinary culture” gets the “image of literature” wrong, does that wrong image determine the shape of criticism?  There may be critics who say those things about Baudelaire, Van Gogh, and Tchaikovsky, but to claim that “criticism” consists of those kinds of statements is false.  Critics who might make such statements are simply doing bad, unreflective criticism, yet Barthes elevates that bad criticism into the meta-concept, “criticism,” and throws it over. 

In all three instances, Barthes has used questionable, uninvestigated premises to construct meta-concepts which are reductions of the issues they are drawn from.  In negating these meta-concepts, he is knocking over straw men constructed for the purpose.  The problem is that what he counters to these specious meta-concepts are equally specious because they are merely their reverse images.  Barthes is at least guilty of intellectual laziness, if not intellectual dishonesty.

But wait! There’s more!  He gives us yet another meta-concept, the “reader:”

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.  Yet the destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.

 

Really?  Is the reader some kind of bloodless tabula rasa, entirely divorced from any culture whatsoever whose job is to ensure the unity of the text?  Can such a reader exist?  Such a creature would be required, given Barthes’ concept of the text.  But Barthes cannot simply call this creature into being like some kind of critic-god without calling into question the concept of the text that demands it. 

The problem is that there is a term missing from Barthes’ equation, i.e., the world.  Barthes imagines the text as an infusion of the writer’s mind into the reader’s mind.  But the origin of the text is not the writer’s mind.  The text emanates from the writer’s engagement with the world and the engagement with language.  The destination is not the reader’s mind, but the reader’s engagement with the world and his ability to use language to penetrate that world.  Barthes wants to imagine the text as an entity unto itself, divorced from the world, so he imagines a reader divorced from the world to ensure the unity of that text.  It is Barthes’ concept of unity that is specious.  The book, from cover to cover, is merely a provisional boundary, a convenience for the purposes of analysis.

Perhaps the unity of the text lies neither in the origin nor the destination, but in the relationship of those two as mediated by the world.  There is a large and influential body of work that says so.  The great nineteenth century poet-critic, Matthew Arnold, pointed out that the relationship between the writer and the reader is determined by the historical moment in which the text emerges and that there is a primary relationship between the text and the historical moment.  John Ruskin wrote voluminously about the idea that taste and artistic style are related to the social and political conditions of the society that produced that style.  Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde built on these foundations.  More recent critics, such as Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton have taken this tradition in a more political direction.  All of this work impinges on what Barthes is trying to say.  The person familiar with this body of work will find Barthes’ ideas rather thin soup.

The absence of the world in Barthes’ aesthetic philosophy I find characteristic of French academicism in general.  It leads to a sterile oscillation between opposing forces, imagined as reductions of more complex phenomena.  In Barthes’ work, it is the oscillation between origin and destination, between writer and reader.  In the work of Jacques Lacan, for instance, there is the oscillation between the self and the other.  Once you add the world, however, these oscillations lose reality and credibility.  Barthes treats the Rationalism vs Empiricism debate very much like the general whose solution to the Viet Nam war was to declare victory and go home.  Barthes has declared the victory of Rationalism and then pothers on as though the world and experience no longer need to be considered

In After Theory, Terry Eagleton points out that someone who knows he is profound seeks clarity and that someone who wishes to be considered profound seeks obscurity.  At the very least, Barthes does not seek clarity.  I do not see much of value in this essay.  Barthes’ reasoning is poor and circular.  He bullies you with the voice of certainty into believing assertions he never bothers to prove and then creates false conclusions based on these presupposed certainties.  I see little here but an ego strutting across the page.

Literary Biography

This statement comes from a letter to a colleague who sent me an article about a recently published biography of Melville.

Thanks for sending the WSJ article; I hadn’t seen it before.  I have mixed feelings about it.  There is something Casaubonish about spending fifty years digging into every detail of a writer’s life, although Parker does have a point.  While I am sympathetic to Parker’s contention that the New Critics and subsequent intellectual fads of the French variety “deprive literature of the very life out of which it springs,” I am also sympathetic to Edmund Wilson’s “savaging” of the MLA as I am sympathetic to anyone who savages that moribund organization for any reason.

But I’ve always felt that there’s another fallacy at the heart of literary biography that the article doesn’t mention.  If you spend fifty years contemplating the life of a particular writer, you will undoubtedly find an arc to the writer’s life and work which falsifies the actual relation between the writer and the world the writer is responding to.  The literary biographer tends to see the writer’s oeuvre as a seamless whole, the early works as precursors to the later works and the later works as culminations of the earlier works. 

There is something false about this.  As the New Critics and French faddists separate the text from the world, so the literary biographer separates the writer from the world, and the world only becomes important only as it affects the story arc the biographer is trying to create.  What fascinates me, in terms of contextualization is not so much the writer’s life but the resonance between the text and the world into which it is introduced as well as the subsequent history of that resonance.  What in the world prompted Melville to write Moby Dick and how did it percolate into the intellectual world at that time and beyond.  That, to me, is more interesting than its relationship to Omoo or any particular details of Melville’s life, although those may be of secondary importance.

In a recent PBS special about Phillip Roth, he said that he is at time of his life in which he has two misfortunes to contemplate, death and biography.

Literary Modernism

Literary Modernism is notoriously difficult to define because it is not any one thing.  Most identify Modernism with a particular set of techniques such as stream of consciousness or free verse or other modes of interiority and subjectivism.  Another tendency is to identify Modernism with feelings of alienation in which the individual is estranged from a world suddenly without meaning.  But these explanations tend to be descriptive and do not tell us what drove these radical divergences from traditional form.

I see Modernism as a set of reactions to the death of the aristocratic world in WWI and the betrayal by central authority that the war entailed.  The loss of certainty impelled artists, in Ezra Pound’s words, to “make it new.”  But Modernism was anything but a uniform reaction to that death.  We can identify two poles of response that attracted Modernist poets, a reactionary response, best typified by Pound and Eliot, and a more progressive response, perhaps articulated best by William Carlos Williams. 

The reactionary response resents the loss of the old order and seeks to create new sources of order.  We can feel that resentment in Eliot’s “I have shored these fragments against my ruins.” Eliot wants to counteract what he perceives as the fragmentation of culture and resents the loss of wholeness.  The poets of this stripe felt impelled to invent new methods of imposing poetic order, hence Imagism, Vorticism, Futurism, for Pound, the ideogrammic method, for Eliot, the “objective correlative” and the “still point.”  A number of this type of Modernist felt a profound attraction to fascism as a way of establishing a new order and a new foundation for meaning. 

On the other hand, Williams, who called Eliot’s “Wasteland” a “great catastrophe in our letters,” celebrates the fragment, telling us “So much depends on the red wheelbarrow.”  For Williams, the meaning is in the fragment, the fragment is capable of defining the world.  Williams represents a more optimistic and democratic response to the loss of central authority.

Most academic depictions of Modernism see it primarily and importantly as a radical break from previous traditions, but in this, they mistake the role of tradition in the pre-Modernist world and fail to understand that all great art is a criticism of tradition in some way.  Breaking with tradition doesn’t make art great.  If Modernist poets can be considered great, they are so for the same reasons that poets of any era can be great.

Ezra Pound

This essay is a condensation of the first chapter of my dissertation submitted to the University of Chicago.  At the time, it was not popular to look at Ezra Pound’s politics seriously, which, I suppose is why it was published in the Partisan Review (Spring, 1981, Vol. 48, No. 2) and not in a more standard literary journal.  While it has become more acceptable, recently, to look critically at Pound’s politics, I still have not seen anyone address the issue as I do here.  I was surprised to discover, some years later, that the article had been translated into Polish and published there, unbeknownst to me.  Still, it’s good to know that somebody is listening.

 

Charles Berezin

POETRY AND POLITICS IN EZRA POUND

Ezra Pound's anti-Semitism poses a problem that literary critics, by and large, have not handled with distinction. Such concerns are considered un-literary and beyond the immediate scope of the text.Sometimes a critic will include in his account of Pound a minute description of Major Douglas's economics, but only to demonstrate how Pound made use of that theory in The Cantos. But having seen that use, what then should the reader make of it? Until literary critics are willing to face anti-Semitism, Social Credit, and fascism as issues, as problems of the literary texts that make-use of them, we shall be unable to come to a realistic appraisal of the work of Ezra Pound or of modernism  as. a cultural  phenomenon.

Most critics, when confronted by Pound's anti-Semitism attempt to sweep it under the nearest apology, leaving conspicuous bulges in their arguments. Christine Brooke-Rose, in a remark characteristic of one type of apology, asserts: "His anti-Semitism is (or was) nasty, an aberration, even if in intention focused on the financial question." Calling his anti-Semitism an "aberration" is a disservice to Pound. Brooke-Rose counsels readers not to take him seriously. As Hyam Maccoby recently pointed out: "Pound himself would not have wanted to be judged as a moral incompetent who happened to have a knack for poetry." If we learn nothing else from Pound we learn that ideas do not exist in a historical vacuum. Denying this truth is perhaps the greatest harm Pound's "friends" can do when they treat his anti-Semitism as though the Holocaust never happened.

Another method of apology focuses on Pound's big-Jew-little- Jew distinction. In Canto LII, Pound says: "... sin drawing vengeance, poor yitts paying for ...paying for a few big jew's vendetta on goyim." Some feel that in statements such as this Pound absolves the "poor yitts" from responsibility in the "big jew's" crimes. But this argument falls down if we consider that the only difference between thetwo is the "poor yitts"' lack of power. In Guide to Kulchur Pound remarked: "Meyer Anselm had, let us say, a purpose, a race (his own race) to 'avenge."' Here, the "big jew's vendetta" is carried on in the interests of the "poor yitts." The "vendetta" becomes a racial character­ istic. Meyer Anselm takes on the "vendetta" because of his "bigness," not as the result of a moral choice.

Some critics, notably Hugh Kenner and Clark Emery, feel that Pound absolved himself from the charge of anti-Semitism by making distinctions between "big jews" and "poor yitts" or by making statements like: "Usurers have no race. How long the whole Jewishpeople is to be sacrificial goat for the usurer, I know not." Hugh Kenner, in The Pound Era, remarked: "It is a pity Pound's distinction between the financiers and the rest of Jewry was not allowed to be emphasized while he was still in the habit of making it. Correctly or not, it attempted a diagnosis, and one tending rather to decrease than toencourage anti-Semitism." It is hard to say whether Kenner's statement is more remarkable for its paranoia or its naivete. Who, we might ask, prevented the distinction from being emphasized? If the distinction was merely a habit that Pound fell into and out of, how important could it have been in the first place? And since when is a diagnostician not responsible for his incorrect diagnosis? And, lastly, how does Pound's distinction discourage anti-Semitism since it merely excuses the poor Jews from the usurious tendencies of the Jews as a whole?

But one need not condemn "the whole Jewish  people"  to qualify as an anti-Semite. The literature of anti-Semitism is filled  with  just such  distinctions  as  Pound  makes.  It is  useful  in  this  context  to compare Pound's statements with those of his contemporaries. Pound was hardly unique during the period between the world wars in featuring anti-Semitism in an analysis of social and economic ills. Understanding anti-Semitism as a cultural phenomenon rather than as isolated incidents of prejudice will help provide a context for Pound's work and thought.

Another American anti-Semite to whom Pound bore a more than superficial resemblance was Henry Ford. Pound always spoke of Ford with  praise, and in Canto LXXIV, a copy of  Ford's autobiography appears on the bookshelf of the virtuous mayor of Worgl along with Dante  and  Heine.  Between 1920 and  1922, Henry  Ford's  weekly magazine,  The Dearborn  Independent,  published  a  series  of  anti­ Semitic articles. Ford's biographers characterized  this series, saying: "Its general thesis was that the international Jew, a secret leadership of the race, was bent on disrupting all Gentile life by war, revolt, and disorder, and thus finally gaining world control of politics, commerce, and finance." The "secret leadership of  the race" resembles Pound's feelings about "big jews" and Meyer Anselm. Like Pound, the editors of The Dearborn  Independent  claim  not  to be against  the Jewish people:

The Jewish Question is not in the number of Jews who here reside, not in the American's jealousy of the Jew's success, certainly not in any objection to the Jew's entirely unobjectionable Mosaic religion; it is in something else, and that something else is the fact of Jewish influence on the life of the country where Jews dwell. ...It is not the Jewish people, but the Jewish idea,and the people only as vehicles of the idea, that is the point at issue.

Critics who would defend Pound against the charge of anti­ Semitism by pointing out Pound's distinction between "big jews" and "poor yitts" make an error when they consider anti-Semitism as merely a prejudice. Someone who is prejudiced against black people may assume that all black people are alike, but it rarely occurs to the-bigoted imagination that all blacks are secretly conspiring together against whites-as the anti-Semite assumes that Jews are secretly conspiring against Gentiles. This added intensity enters anti-Semitism because it is a rationalized doctrine that defends a set of interests, rather than simply irrational feelings. Henry Ford identifies these interests for us: "The Jewish philosophy of money is not to 'make money' but to 'get money.' The distinction between these two is fundamental. That explains Jews being 'financiers' instead of 'captains of industry.'" Pound also makes a fundamental distinction between financiers and industrialists and pits  them  against  one another. He assigns virtue to the "producers" and evil to the Jewish position, the usurious financiers:

But the monopolies, the sanctions, the restrictions imposed by the guilds were, at least, monopolies of producers. The various monopo­ lies which culminate in the monopoly of money itself, key to all other monopolies, were, and are monopolies of  exploiters.
The situation is complicated when the same man has his hand in both the production and the finance. Henry Ford found himself forced into this situation in order to defend himself against Wall Street.

Pound's conception of artists as "producers" may have contributed to his acceptance of the doctrine of anti-Semitism as a defense of "producers," but there can be no doubt that he accepted the doctrinewhole and propounded it whole. Nevins and Hill, Ford's biographers, defend Ford from the charge of malicious intent by pointing out his naiveté and ignorance. But no one has claimed that his words were any the less harmful for that. Clark Emery, however, makes exactly this claim for Pound when he says that in the following quotation from one of Pound's radio broadcasts for Mussolini, "Pound had at least dissociated himself from Dachau and Buchenwald, the gas-chambers and the cattle-trains":

 Don't start a pogrom. That is, not an old style killing of small jews. That system is no good, whatever. Of course, if some man had a stroke of genius, and could start a pogrom at the top ... there might be something to say for it. But on the whole, legal measures are preferable. The 60 Kikes who started this war might be sent to St. Helena, as a measure of world-prophylaxis, and some hyper-Kikes or non-Jewish Kikes along with them.

Pound has hardly dissociated himself from the gas-chambers.  The pogrom is "no good, whatever" not because it is immoral, but because it is ineffective. Pound feels that eliminating only the "big jews" would be sufficient. But he is still advocating a "system" of judenrein, i.e., a system for ridding the world of Jewish influences. Pound's phrase "world-prophylaxis" is a distinct echo of the offensive German term. Neither does Pound specifically abjure murder. He merely says "legal measures are preferable." Emery wishes to dissociate Pound's words from the acts of the Holocaust. But the Holocaust was a feature of the doctrine that Pound accepted and propounded. The judenrein concept lies very much behind Pound's words.

There  is another  danger  in  this  dissociation  type of  apology.  Emery ends his discussion of Pound's anti-Semitism, saying:

I have made somewhat more of this matter and of Pound's Fascist sympathies than I should have liked to do. It may be argued that, seen in their  proper perspective and in strict terms of literary criticism, they are of minor importance. The critical evaluation of the Faerie Queenor of Paradise Lost does not hinge upon the anti­ Catholicism or anti-monarchism of their authors.

Emery's "terms of literary criticism" are perhaps too strict if they do not admit ideology to be an important component of Pound's work (or of Spenser's or Milton's, for that matter), and his perspective is hardly proper if it allows him to think that the vulgarity of Pound's remarks is an  unimportant  feature.  But  Emery's  statement  manifests  an  even grosser historical  blindness than considering anti-Semitism  and fas­ cism unimportant. Anti-Catholicism  and anti-monarchism, as well as their respective opponents, were the representative ideologies of coher­ ent sets of interests, backed by governmental structures and military power.  Emery  implies that  Judaism  is just  such a coherent set of interests. He cannot make this argument without adopting an attitude very much like the one he wants to excuse.

A third type of apology accepts the meanness of Pound's senti­ments, but tries to diminish their importance by attributing them to a loss of control. William Chace adopts this method in The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot:

At times it seems merely that Pound is enraged at a certain general mode of thought and behavior but must, in accordance with his habitual procedures, give it a special designation-here "Hebrew." It is as if Pound, suddenly realizing that he, adamant against abstrac­ tions, was using abstractions, decided to obscure that fact by a sudden infusion of intemperance.

Here, anti-Semitism does not indicate a central flaw in Pound's argument so much as that argument erupting into intemperance. Chace's position differs from the "aberration" type of apology in that Chace feels that Pound's anti-Semitism "may be evaluated most productively as an altogether logical corollary to his philosophic and aesthetic principles, not as an inexpliCable divergence from them." But Chace steps into a contradiction when he says pf Pound's April30, 1942 broadcast ("Don't start a pogrom," etc.): "There is perhaps only a clinical explanation for such utterances. They issue from an anger gone far beyond reason, from a desperation grown extreme." Chace makes a dangerous equation between reason and moderation. If Pound's anti-Semitism is truly "an altogether logical corollary to his philosophical and aesthetic principles," would those principles have been more reasonable ifPound's statement of them were more moder­ ate? Would the doctrines with which Pound suffuses his poetry have been less pernicious if Pound's vitriolic anti-Semitism had not sur­ faced? If we take Pound's anti-Semitism seriously we must understand it as indicating a central flaw in his theoretical framework which takes its toll almost every aspect of his work.

The point  of  confluence  of  anti-Semitism,  fascism  and  Social on Credit, occupies the center of Pound's thought. Although they some­ times occur simultaneously, these three concepts are not superficially connected. While anti-Semitism is a component of many fascist movements, Mussolini himself was not overtly anti-Semitic. There was no official Jewish persecution in Italy until 1938 when the first anti­ Semitic laws were passed. Even then, the laws were resented by many Italian fascists as a symbol of Mussolini's domination by Hitler. Douglas  consistently  claimed  to  champion  democracy  and  to  be unimpressed by either fascism or communism, although he was given to occasional Jew-baiting.

Pound's  anti-Semitism  bears  the  outline of  much  of  the anti­-Semitic propaganda that preceded World War II. In The Cantos and throughout his prose works we find the familiar anti-Semite's picture of the Jew as unproductive, parasitic and conspiratorial. In Canto XXXV we find:

this is Mitteleuropa
and Tsievitz
has explained to me the warmth of affections,
the intramural, the almost intravaginal warmth of
hebrew affections,  in the family, and nearly everything else.... pointing out that Mr. Lewinesholme has suffered by deprivation
of same and exposure to American snobbery ... "I am a product," said the young lady, "of Mitteleuropa,"
but she seemed to have been able to mobilize and the fine thing was that the family did not
wire about papa's death for fear of disturbing the concert
which might seem to contradict the general indefinite wobble.
It must be rather like some internal organ,
some communal life of the pancreas .... sensitivity without direction ... this is ... (35/172-3)

 For Pound, creativity was masculine, phallic and individualistic. He depicts the Jews as feminine and communal. Pound considered a "direction of the will" to be an important component of culture. TheJews' "sensitivity without direction" suggests that they are incapable of producing or sustaining a culture. Because "sensitivity" seems to emanate from "some internal organ," the Jews do not have to strive for it. This passive receptivity is the opposite of the will. The flabby, indecisive language with which Pound describes the Jews, such phrases as: "it must be rather like some internal organ," can also be taken as an indication of Pound's feelings that the Jews were incapable of the kind of precision and hardness necessary to be artistic, produc­ tive people.

Pound's type of the productive man was Sigismundo Malatesta who asserted his will against all the obstacles Renaissance Italy could put before him and built the Tempio. Pound said of his MalatestaCantos: "No one has claimed that the Malatesta cantos are obscure. They are openly volitionist, establishing, I think clearly, the effect of the £active personality, Sigismundo, an entire man." Lacking Sigis­ mundo's type of individual will, a Jew could not have a "factive" personality, could not be a creative, "entire man."

Pound undercuts the importance of individual exceptions to this rule by referring to that possibility with a double subjunctive. Such an exception "might seem to contradict the general indefinite wobble." The "wobble" remains "general," characteristic of the Jews as a whole despite individual exceptions. The exception that Pound shows us in Canto XXXV is ironic. Pound felt that emotion was essential toproducing good art. He said in a letter to Iris Barry: "Also one must have emotion or one's cadence and rhythms will be vapid and without interest." Pound does not accuse the Jews of being unemotional. The drift of the passage from Canto XXXV is to accuse them of sentimental­ ity. But by not wiring "about papa's death for fear of disturbing the concert," the Jews are keeping the emotion "in the family," exactly in accordance with Pound's complaints about them.

Creativity  and  masculinity  were  closely  associated  in  Pound's mind.  In  a  postscript to  his  translation  of  Remy  de Gourmont's Physique de l'Amour, he claims:

 The brain itself, is, in origin and development only a sort of great clot of genital fluid held in suspense or reserve ....This hypothesis would  perhaps  explain  a  certain  number  of  as  yet uncorrelated phenomena both psychological and physiological. It would explain  the enormous content of the brain as a maker or presenter of images.

As a "maker … of images," the artist would seem to be in close contact with the origin of his brain as semen. The feminine Jew, whose affections are "intravaginal" and whose religion forbids the making of images  of   the  godhead,  would  seem   to  be  excluded  from  artistic creativity  in  Pound's  view.  In  the  letter  to  Iris  Barry  cited  earlier, Pound compares writing poetry to the working of a sculptor: "It is as simple as the sculptor's direction: 'Take a chisel and cut away all the stone  you   don't  want.'"  Here  again  is  the  artist  as  the  phallic, aggressive male. The state of mind in which one must "cut away" is the opposite of the Jews' feminine "warmth" and "sensitivity."  Sentimentality, the  opposite  of  the  sculptor's  ruthlessness,  is characteristic of the Jewish artist:

The tale of the perfect schnorrer: a peautiful chewish poy wit a vo-ice dot woult
meldt dh heart offa schtone
and wit a likeing for to make arht-voiks
and ven dh oldt lady wasn't dhere any more
and dey didn't know why, tdhere ee woss in the
oldt antique schop and nobodty  knew how he got dhere. (35/174)

The Jewish approach to stone is to melt it, to destroy its essential nature, while the sculptor wants to realize the essential nature of the stone by chipping away at ·it. This view of sentimentality resembles Pound's complaint against usury, that it destroys the essential nature of money by creating money that does not represent  work. Usury violates the nature of money as a "certificate of work done within a system."

Pound delineates the conspiratorial aspects of the Jews in Canto XXII:

And we went down to the synagogue, All full of silver lamps
And the top gallery stacked with old benches;
And in came the levite and six little choir kids And began yow ling the ritual
As if it was crammed full of jokes,
And they went through a whole book of it;
And in came the elders and the scribes About five or six and the rabbi
And he sat down, and grinned, and pulled out his snuff box, And sniffed up a thumb-full, and grinned,
And called over a kid from the choir, and whispered, And nodded toward one old buffer,
And the kid took him the snuff-box and he grinned, And bowed his head, and sniffed up a thumb-full, And the kid took the box back to the rabbi,
And he grinned, e faceva bisbiglio,
And the kid toted of( the box to another bunch of old whiskers,
And he snif£ed up his thumb-full
And so on till they'd each had his sniff
And then the rabbi looked at the stranger, and they All grinned hal£ a yard wider, and the rabbi Whispered  for about two minutes longer,
And the kid brought the box over to me,
And I grinned and sniHed up my thumb-full. And then they got out the scrolls of the law
And had their little procession
And kissed the ends of the markers. (22/104-5)

 The constant repetition of "And" at the beginnings of lines, although one of Pound's standard devices, is meant here to resemble the intoning of a liturgy. But the activity that the observer reports as ritualistic consists of grinning, whispering and taking snuff. He says of the actual ritual that the Jews treated it "as if it was crammed full of jokes." It seems to the observer that the Jews in this passage do not take seriously the content of their texts. What they do take seriously is some kind of secret  that gives rise  to all the whispering and grinning. The snuff-taking is the ritualistic confirmation of this mysterious compact. The outsider can take snuff and grin, but that does not make him privy to the Jews' secret because the ritual is only incidental to that secret as the Jewish Law is only incidental to the real content of Judaism.

The notion that the Jews do not take seriously the moral content of their texts, that there is a disparity between the Jewish Law and the propensities of  the Jewish people, appears elsewhere in Pound's writings. In his pamphlet  "What is Money For?" he states:

At this point, and to prevent the dragging of red herrings, I wish to distinguish between prejudice against the Jew as such and the suggestion that the Jew should face his own problem.
DOES he in his individual case wish to observe the law of Moses?  Does he propose to continue to rob other men by usury mechanism while wishing to be considered a 'neighbor?'

 Pound refers to the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures expressly forbid usury. But an ominous note creeps in when Pound suggests that usury is the Jew's "own problem." The Jews seem to be afflicted with aninability to follow their own law as a  racial characteristic. This "problem" ·becomes more serious in Canto XXII where not taking the Scriptures seriously has become incorporated into the practice ofJudaism.

We should note, however, that Clark Emery felt the description of the Jews in Canto XXII to be favorable: "In Canto XXII Pound describes the Jews in the synagogue and finds them to be characterized by two of his favorite virtues, hilaritas and humanitas." But to look upon this passage as a quaint description of Jewish mirth and good fellowship is to ignore, somewhat, its context. Immediately preceding the description of the synagogue Pound gives us a bleak little confron­ tation between fools and knaves played by tourists and guides respec­ tively. Yusuf,  the Jew, is the principal  knave:

And Yusuf said: Woat, he iss all thru Eetaly An' ee is nevair been stuck, ee iss a liar. W'en I goa to some forain's country
I am stuck.
W'en yeou goa to some forain's country
You  moss be stuck; W'en  they come 'ere I steek thaim.  (22/104)

 The description of the synagogue continues in this vein as the naive tourist-observer is taken in by a quaint scene  filled  with  ominous, ironic  undertones.

We stated earlier that anti-Semitism is a rationalized doctrine and not merely a prejudice held by irrational individuals. To see how anti­ Semitism interconnects with other portions of Pound's thought,specifically with fascism and Social Credit, we need to understand how that argument works and to examine its components. Yet if we string together all of Pound's anti-Semitic statements we still have only a description of the Jew and not a discursive argument as to why he believed the Jews to have certain characteristics. As Pound himself stated in Jefferson and/or Mussolini, albeit in  relation  to another topic: "I am not putting in all the steps of my argument but that don't mean to say they aren't there." We can fill in the steps of Pound's anti­ Semitic argument, show the framework he was working out of, if we again compare his statements with those of his contemporaries.

While European anti-Semitism has a long history, its emergence into nineteenth and twentieth century race theory marks the beginning of a special chapter. At this point, anti-Semitism evolves from a prejudice or philosophical vantage point, however degraded, into adoctrine that pretends to explain movements of world history and to be full of import for the present moment. One of the founders of this type of anti-Semitism was the British Germanophile, Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Chamberlain published his theories in a two-volume work, entitled Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, which was first published in 1899 and had gone through twenty-eight editions by 1942.

One need not demonstrate direct lines of influence between Pound and a seminal twentieth century anti-Semite like Chamberlain to point out that Pound appropriated many of the forms that  Chamberlain pioneered. Compare, for example, Pound's comment on Meyer An­ selm: "Meyer Anselm had, let us say a purpose, a race (his race) to 'avenge'. He used the ONLY weapons available for a tiny minority for a lone hand against organized goy power, pomp, militarism, rhetoric, buncombe," to Chamberlain's comment on what he termed "the forgeries of Ezra and the great synagogue":

The many millions who were massacred by or for Christianity, as well as the many Jews who died for their faith, are all victims of the forgeries of Ezra and the great synagogue. But we cannot suspect the motives of these men. They acted in the greatest despair; they wished to accomplish the impossible-to save their nation from downfall. Certainly a noble goal They could conquer only by employment of the most extreme means. It was a delusive but not an ignoble aim, for above all they wished to serve their God.

 Both statements picture Jewish leaders overcoming tremendous odds and using desperate means to preserve the Jewish people. Also, both Pound and Chamberlain begrudge admiration for Meyer Anselm and Ezra respectively for their tenacity and willingness to use desperate means.

For Chamberlain, the interests of  the Jewish people as a whole were institutionalized in the "nomocracy," the rule of law, which "unites the Jews, no matter how scattered they may be over all the lands of the world, into a firm, uniform and absolutely  political  organ­ ism .... This national idea culminates in the unshakeable confidence in the universal empire of the Jews which Jehovah promised." Cham­ berlain makes no distinctions among the Jewish people, their sup­ posed political organization, the "nomocracy," and the goal of that political organization, the Kingdom of God on Earth. But the King­ dom of God on Earth becomes distorted in Chamberlain's view into the "universal empire of the Jews." That the Kingdom of God on Earth meant that the Jews would possess material things follows from Chamberlain's notion that the Jews accept only material proofs of the existence of God. He claimed that the Jewish conception of God "is always ... a question of outward experience, not of inner; the concep­ tions are always thoroughly concrete, material." The characterization of the Kingdom of God on Earth as a conquered "empire" follows from Chamberlain's inability to distinguish between rule-governed and rule-constituted behavior.

An example of rule-constituted  behavior  would be the game of chess which is nothing if not its rules.If one moved a bishop in a straight line instead of a diagonal, one simply would not be playing chess. Driving a car, for instance, is a different matter. If one chose to drive through red lights and stop at green ones, no one could say that this type of behavior was not driving a car. In rule-governed behavior,the rules are arbitrary. They are not intrinsic to the activity they govern. In rule-constituted behavior, the rules are the activity.

Chamberlain  believed  the  Jewish  Covenant  to  be  rule-governed behavior:

Pure materialism is the bargain which Jacob enters into with Jehovah (Genesis xxviii, 20-22), in which he makes five conditions, or, as the jurist would say, stipulations, and then concludes: as thou doest this so thou shalt be my God.

He believed that the activity the Jews were engaged in was the acquisition of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The Jewish Law is the means by which they acquire that Kingdom. To consider the keeping of that Law to be a type of rule-governed behavior instead of rule-constituted behavior is to deny moral content to that Law, a complaint similar to the one Pound made in Canto XXII. The Kingdom of God is a reward for keepin'g the rules, not the result of any activity involved in carrying them out. Chamberlain paraphrases Ezekiel, saying: "No, Israel is not in the world, to toil and wage war like other peoples, to work and to think, but to be the sanctuary of Jehovah; let it observe Jehovah's law, and all will be given to it."

The crucial point here is that the end point of the Jew's desires is not entailed in the means he uses to acquire it. The Kingdom of God on Earth becomes a conquered empire in Chamberlain's view becausethe Jews are not capable of working directly for anything; they can only take a kingdom, they cannot build one of their own. On the one hand, this conception has given rise to the picture of the Jews as an unproductive, parasitic people:

If the Israelites had destroyed the old settled inhabitants, they would have made a desert of the land and robbed themselves of the prize of victory. By sparing them and, as it were, grafting themselves upon them, they grew into their culture. They made themselves at home in houses which they had not built, in fields and gardens which they had not laid out and cultivated.

 And on the other hand, Chamberlain's view gives rise to the ubiquitous notion among anti·Semites of the Jewish plot:

In humility he shall bow before God, but not in that inner humility of which Christ speaks-he bows his head before Jehovah because of the promise that by the fulfillment of this condition he will put his foot on the neck of all the nations of the world and be Lord and possessor of the whole earth. This one basis of Jewish religion includes, therefore, a direct criminal attempt upon all the peoples of the earth, and the crime cannot be disavowed because hitherto thepower has been lacking to carry it out; for it is the hope itself which is criminal and poisons the heart of the Jew.

 Conspiracy and lack of productivity coincide in Pound's chief com­ plaint against the Jews: usury.

While this analysis might be difficult to reproduce in Pound's own words, it is not less central to Pound's thought because he was less specific than Chamberlain about the source of his anti-Semitic sentiments.  Pound believed that an antiproductive principle was at work in history. The Jews, who do not work for their reward, became, in his mind, the chief purveyors of that principle.

If we understand fascism to be the political movement of the petite bourgeoisie organized in its own defense, we shall see how anti­ Semitism fits into the fascist conception of the world. The petitebourgeoisie exists as a special prerogative of the bourgeoisie. During times of economic expansion, the petit bourgeois artisan or small producer can become capitalized to the extent that he actually joins theranks of the bourgeoisie. And during times of economic contraction he can be squeezed out of existence entirely and be forced into the ranks of the working class, i.e., be forced to work for wages. But the petite bourgeoisie. has a much more concerted enemy than the seeming arbitrariness of economic cycles: the need at all times for the capitalist to expand or die. This need expresses itself as the tendency of capital towards concentration: more and more property in the hands of fewer and fewer capitalists. The concentration of capital produces a like concentration .in the working class, whose' interests as a class become more coherent vis-a-vis the increasing coherence of capital and provide more of a focal point for organization. But it is not until the organized working class is powerful enough to wrest some of its demands from the bourgeoisie, which the petite bourgeoisie sees as an attack upon its special prerogatives, that the fascist attacks. Wherever fascism came to power, it rode the crest of the white terror that followed the Russian Revolution and the many smaller and less successful proletarianrevolutions that took place in Europe after World War I.

The fascist attack is two-pronged. It comes primarily as an attack upon working class organizations such as trade unions and socialist political parties, but it also includes an attack upon capital. The petitebourgeoisie cannot attack the bourgeoisie as a whole because it derives its special significance from the bourgeoisie. So, the fascist attacks that segment of capital which seems to him to provide the impetus for concentration, finance capital. The equation of Moscow and Wall Street in much of fascist propaganda reflects the fascist's quandary, as does Pound's unabated fury at banks and financiers throughout his whole life.

The Jews enter this configuration at various levels. At a simple level, Jews tend to be prominent in both financial and revolutionary circles. At a deeper level, we again find the concept in both sides of thefascist attack that the Jew's reward is not entailed in the Jew's activity. Pound makes the fascist's distinction between industrialist and finan­cier:

The terms  'labour',  'work', throughout  this discussion  apply to the man with the shovel, the clerk, the transporter, the entrepreneur, etc.
Everyone who acts in the transportation of the article from mother earth to the eater (eye of beholder, hand of user).

The "entrepreneur" or industrialist is a productive person, not so the financier:

A certain part of the credit slips received by the entrepreneurs was wormed down a sort of tube....And nothing was done against this amount of credit taken in from the public and hidden. It flowed continually down into the ground, down into somebody's pocket.
... Manifestly we have seen companies building new plants out of 'profits'. Manifestly we have seen crises.

Here, financiers, the ones who "take in credit from the public," are pictured as hatching dark and mysterious plots to "worm" money away from the virtuous "entrepreneurs."Bankers and financiers create money from ''paper paradoxes'' that do not represent anything actually made. When Pound blames the trickery and plot-hatching of financiersfor "companies building new plants out of 'profits,'" instead of circulating those profits, he blames finance for capital's need to expand. Similarly, he blames finance for economic crises. Although Pound pointed  out in many cases that not all those responsible forfinancial trickery are Jews, the anti-Semitic style predominates as those non-Jews become "non-Jewish Kikes."

Pound's analysis is close in style to that of the Dearborn Indepen­dent. The following is that journal's analysis of how the Jews have affected the other flank of the fascist's enemies, the working class:

Now, previous to the advent of Jewish socialistic and subversive ideas, the predominant thought in the labor world was to "make" things and thus "make" money. There was a pride among mechan­ ics. Men who made things were a sturdy, honest race because they dealt with ideas of skill and quality, and their very characters were formed by the satisfaction of having performed useful functions in society.... The only way to break down this strong safeguard ofsociety-a laboring class of sturdy character-was to sow other ideas among it and the most dangerous of all the ideas sown was that which substituted "get" for "make." With the required manipula­ tion of the money and food markets, enough pressure could be brought to bear on the ultimate consumers to give point to the idea of "get," and it was not long before the internal relations of American business were totally upset, with Jews at the head of thebanking system, and Jews at the head of both the conservative and radical elements of the Labor Movement, AND, most potent of all, the Jewish Idea sowed through the minds of workingmen. What Idea? The old idea of "get" instead of "make."

What we have been calling lack of entailment, the Dearborn Independent calls "'get' instead of 'make.'" In this remarkable bit of analysis, the "Jewish Idea" of get becomes a mysterious tactic that the Jews use to insinuate themselves into positions of prominence Notice again that the areas that the editors of the Dearborn Independent think the Jews are most interested in are the banking system and the labor movement. Like Pound's financiers, the Jews are pictured as hatching insidious plots and using financial trickery as one of their principal weapons. The manipulation of credit is an essential ingredient in Ford's conception of the Jewish plot. It is the mechanism that forces the idea of get  on the working class.

It is a supreme irony that Henry Ford, as one of the pioneers of mass production which contributes to the alienation of the worker from his product, should blame the Jews for that alienation. The erroneous  notion  that  the  Jewish  Law  has  no moral  content  is a purposeful if not a conscious misunderstanding. It enables the Jew to become a convenient screen upon which the fascist can project his bad dreams. Ezra Pound is no exception to this phenomenon.

Major Douglas, Pound's  mentor in economics, also indulges in explanations of social and economic woes as the result of the plot­ hatching of "the hidden hands of finance." Douglas's statements on credit and finance are more moderate than Pound's, but that is the onlydifference. Douglas provided the analysis for Pound's more hysterical pronouncements. Although Douglas claims to be a democrat, like the fascist he identifies his enemies as the banks and the unions, finance capital and the organized working class:

With the Trust and joint-Stock Banking System came agreements restricting price-competition, and with that came the apotheosis of Trade Unionism, forced to meet the situation by methods identical in principal, leading in both cases direct to sabotage.

 Pound's economic theory hinges on a distinction between capital and property: "My bust by Gaudier is my property. Nobody is expected to do anything about it. My bond of the X andY railroad is capital. Somebody is supposed to earn at least 60 dollars a year and pay it to me because I own such a bond.'' To Pound, property means control over things and capital means control over men. In Anti-Dühring,Engels predicted that such a distinction would lead to saying: "the capitalist mode of production is quite good and can remain, but the capitalist mode of distribution is no good and must be abolished." Pound accommodates Engels exactly when he says:

But in 1918 we knew in London that the problem of production was solved, and that the next job was to solve distribution and that this meant a new administration of credit. I don't think there was any ambiguity about that. ... The question being how and who was to break down the ring of craft, of fraud, and of iron.

 Engels points out that control over men results from a previous control over things. Pound's false distinction between production and distribution, which was also held by Dühring, underlies the following false analysis:

But what is it that makes Herr Dühring concoct this false definition of wealth, and why has he to sever the real relationship which has existed in all former class societies? In order to drag wealth from the domain of economics over into that of morals. Domination over things is quite all right, but the domination over men is an evil thing; and as Herr Dühring has precluded himself from explaining the domination over men by the domination over things, he can once again do an audacious trick and in a trice explain domination over men by his beloved force.

 Engels offers an explanation for why economic problems appear to Pound as moral problems. Pound's question, "how and who was to break down the ring of craft, of fraud, and of iron," is phrased entirely in moral terms. "Solving distribution" means overcoming the evil designs of evil men. There is no essential flaw in the economics of the situation that overcoming evil cannot cure. Pound's and Dühring's positions are similar because they both lacked the perception that control over things precedes and enables control over men.

Major Douglas claims that a factory, as a distributor of financial values, makes two kinds of payments: "Group A-All payments made to individuals (wages, salaries, and dividends). Group B-All payments made to other organizations (raw materials, bank charges, and other external costs)." Douglas points out that the price of a commodity is determined by A+B, and since A will not purchase A+B, societywill never have enough money to purchase its entire output. Douglas blames the banks:

B  is  the  financial  representation  of  the  lever  of  capital,  and  is constantly increasing in comparison with A. So that, in order to keep A and  the goods purchased with A at a constant value, A+B must expand with every improvement of process, while at the same time this increased production  must, in the nature of things, be of such a nature as will enable it to be paid  for under group B. It must not, therefore,  be an ultimate product-something  that human beings, as such, require  for  their  personal  use-but  must  take  the  form  of factory buildings, machinery, etc., for the production of which bank drafts can be obtained, or else be production  for export.

For Douglas, the impetus for capital improvement comes from the banks. By causing a need for capitalists to expand, they are exploiting their favorable position  "in the nature of things."

When Douglas says "in order to keep A and the goods purchased with A at a constant value, A +B must expand with every improvement of process," he merely reports backwards. A +B does not expand whenproductivity is increased, rather, A diminishes with respect to B; labor costs represent less of the full value of the commodity. Because Douglas reports backwards, he is mystified as to the source of the downward pressure on the value of labor power. He assumes that because banks make money from loans for "improvement of process," banks must be the culprits.

But why do Pound and Douglas consistently blame finance for the problems created by capitalism as a whole? How did they arrive at a picture of financiers and industrialists constantly at each others'throats? To further his argument, Douglas quotes a colleague saying:

In highly developed countries such as ours practically all purchasing power commences life as credit created by the banks. These credits are created at the instance of manufacturers and dealers; are distri­ buted by them in the shape of wages, salaries, and profits, and spent.

 This statement is simply false. No financier will remain solvent very long who makes loans to industrialists who do not already own some means of production and at least potentially have a labor force at their disposal. Once again we are back to Engels's point that those who do not see the connection between production and distribution do not understand that men dominate other men through the things they control. "Purchasing power" does not commence "life as credit created by the banks," it commences as ownership of the means of production. Pound and Douglas did not follow the source of their problem back to production because they did not want to see ownership, the conditionwhich precedes and enables exploitation, as an evil.

The inability of Pound and Douglas to see the chronology of the exploitative relationship is really a general. blindness to chronology, which reflects the fascist's resentment of history. If capitalism contains "the seeds of its own destruction," then the fascist's enemy is history inasmuch as the development of capitalism signals the demise of class privilege.

The anti-Semite is the victim of a similar resentment and blindness. Chamberlain is enraged by the Jewish belief that the Kingdom of God would be a historical, earthly kingdom:

But the Jew lived only in history, ... and so he judges a phenom­ enon like the revelation of Christ from a purely historical stand­ point, and became justly filled with fury, when the promised kingdom, to win which he had suffered and endured for centuries­ for the sake of possessing which he had separated himself from all people on the earth, and had become hated and despised of all­ when this kingdom, in which he hoped to see all nations in fetters and all princes upon their knees "licking the dust", was all at once transformed in to one "not of this world."

 The belief that the Kingdom of God is not entailed in the Jewish Law results from an inability to see a causal relationship, one that takes place in time.

The point of confluence of anti-Semitism, fascism,  and Social Credit occupies the center of Pound's consciousness, and that center is the attitude toward history and time just delineated. It is not a new idea to suggest that Pound had an overarching concern with time. Daniel Pearlman has said:

Pound was setting himself the considerable task of discovering the first principles of human behavior. If, in working toward this goal, he felt with greater and greater urgency the need to determine the nature of time, it is probable that he felt it to be a question of fundamental importance, not only to the poet but to humanity at large.

 Pearlman feels that Pound's attitude towards time resulted from his creative methods and intentions. On the contrary, I would suggest that Pound's understanding of time is the a priori element in his thought and colors those methods and intentions. It is discernible in every aspect of Pound's creative work from his poetic syntax to his theory of culture. Understanding Pound's attitude towards time is not simply a noncontroversial tool for evaluating those equally noncontroversial methods and intentions, but is itself a method for questioning those methods and intentions and for examining the social role of the poet and poetry.

Baudrillard

Baudrillard is very typical of French post-modern theorists who see reality as an endless oscillation between the self and the other.  The upshot of that belief is that reality disappears in the hall of mirrors and, ultimately, nothing is knowable.  Baudrillard says as much in his introduction: “Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference, between one and the other, that constituted the charm of abstraction.”  Baudrillard simply accepts this oscillation as QED, as so obvious that there’s no need to justify it, and moves on from there.  Since nothing can be determined, he can never be wrong, so his argumentation degenerates into a series of pronouncements which can never be proven or disproved.  While some of his pronouncements might contain a grain of truth, others show a shocking lack of proportion as when he equates the Viet Nam War with Apocalypse Now.  Ultimately, I find Baudrillard intellectually bankrupt.  He seems uninterested in anything he’s talking about except as it provides grist for his particular mill.

 

His language turns into a celebration of indeterminacy.  He is so hard to read because clarity is not his goal.  In his section on history, he quotes Orwell’s statement from 1984 that “War is Peace” as an example that proves his point.  But for Orwell, that statement had resonance in the world of 1984 only because language had become so debased by collective oligarchy that it was impossible to distinguish between war and peace.  Baudrillard celebrates what Orwell feared.

 

The problem is that there is a middle term between the self and the other that the French would prefer not to recognize, i.e., the world.  All this harkens back to a major disagreement in European philosophy between the French Rationalists and the English Empiricists.  The French Rationalist tradition was established by Descartes, who said, famously, “Cogito ergo sum,” I think, therefore, I am, which effectively subordinates being to thinking.  Baudrillard, for whom thinking eclipses being entirely, is a direct descendant of Descartes.  If I could quote my own bon mot, I once wrote: “Ever since Descartes subordinated being to thinking, the French have been trying to make the world disappear.  The problem is they think they’ve succeeded.” 

 

The English Empiricists, on the other hand, started with the world and moved out from there.  The Empiricist tradition seeks to define understanding, hence Orwell’s radical ideas about the importance of precise language as an instrument for knowing.  The French Rationalists reject understanding as a goal, hence Baudrillard’s total misrepresentation of Orwell.

 

Baudrillard’s popularity came at a time when post-modernist literary theory was in the ascendancy in American universities.  Initially, it was called Deconstructionism.  The high mandarin of Deconstructionism was Paul de Man at Yale.  De Man taught, like Baudrillard, that history is unknowable.  Then it turned out that de Man had some history that he would have preferred remain unknown, namely, his having been a Nazi collaborator in his native Belgium when he was a young man, and having published a number of venomously anti-Semitic articles.  As a result, Deconstructionism lost a little of its luster.

 

Around this time, I was teaching at Tufts.  The English department there had twenty-five part-time lecturers, of which I was one, and only one junior faculty, tenure track, assistant professor.  He had been at Yale and had been a student of Paul de Man.  The part-time lecturers all had Ph.Ds. from prestigious universities, and, at one point, the department took pity on us for the unconscionable exploitation to which they subjected us, and allowed us to host some symposia to burnish our academic credentials.  I jumped at the chance and gave a presentation on Orwell.  I spoke at some length on Orwell’s ideas about precise language being necessary to understand the world and to resist the encroachments of reactionary forces and detailed the reactionary and anti-democratic forces leading to the debasement of language.  At the end of my presentation, the Yalie, who had been leaning the back of his chair against the wall in the back of the room, intoned, “Clarity is a rearguard action,” and ostentatiously left the room.  I knew at that moment that I had no future in academia.

 

Ironically, the best students of Baudrillard turn out to be Karl Rove and the Republican party who are adept at exploiting the ambiguity between truth and representation, as Stephen Colbert adroitly points out.  Remember Karl Rove’s sneering at journalists for being “members of the reality-based community.”  We feel outraged by Republican cynicism because we retain the conviction that there is some truth to be known.  Baudrillard would disagree.