Thursday, March 18, 2010

"An Immorality" by Ezra Pound

An Immorality

Sing we for love and idleness,
Naught else is worth the having.

Though I have been in many a land,
There is naught else in living.

And I would rather have my sweet,
Though rose-leaves die of grieving,

Than do high deeds in Hungary
To pass all men's believing.

When considering the meaning behind this poem by Ezra Pound, we must first consider the fact that the title is "An Immorality." And, if we are not to ascribe the ideas of the poem to the author himself, we have two narrators (one of which is the author,if we do ascribe one level of the ideas to the author). The first narrator is the one who titles the work "An Immorality." If this is the title, then it follows that what follows it is considered by that narrator to be "immoral." Thus, singing a song of "love and idleness" is, to this narrator, immoral. But who is doing the singing? That would, of course, be the second narrator, whose ideas the first narrator considers to be immoral. Clearly the second narrator sees love and idleness to be the highest things in life:

Though I have been in many a land,
There is naught else in living.

He is a man who simply wants love and peace (he does NOT want to do high deeds in Hungary). But the first narrator calls this "an immorality." What is immoral about such liberal sentiments? That they are liberal sentiments? If this is an immorality, then the opposite must be morality: action and war.

Next, we must also consider the date of its publication, in 1912, in Ripostes. What was happening around the time Pound likely wrote this poem -- around 1910-11 -- in Hungary? And why are we to contrast it with "love and idleness"?

To begin with, my own quick survey of Hungarian history around this time period uncovered nothing much worth noting. With one exception: serious tension with the Jews living there. Of particular note, one of the main controversies surrounding the Jews involved the issue of language. Whether the Jews learned the Hungarian langauge Magyar or not, they managed to anger somebody living in Hungary. What "high deeds" might Pound have in mind in Hungary? This may be a hint at Pound's antisemitism. Indeed, the implicit identity of action and war with morality in this poem points early on to Pounds incipient fascism -- and certainly to his antiliberalism. Indeed, Ludwig von Mises, in his 1927 book "Liberalism", points to a certain breed of antiliberal thinker who "believe it is through war and war alone that mankind is able to make progress" and that "Man degenerates in time of peace. Only war awakens in him slumbering talents and powers and imbues him with sublime ideals. If war were to be abolished, mankind would decay into indolence and stagnation" (5). Certainly if this is true of war, then a love of peace and idleness is immoral. Who would support stagnation, degeneration, burying our talents and powers and ideals, and indolence (idleness)? This too was an idea later promoted by the fascists, including the Italian Futurists.

One might find here an implicit criticism of a particular theory of culture as well. Pound's mention of "idleness" suggests Thorsten Veblen's thesis in "The Theory of the Leisure Class," published in 1899, where Veblen suggests that only with the emergence of a "leisure class" could artistic culture emerge. But he also argued that this same class held power through coersion and maintaining a monopoly on warfare. For Veblen, idleness is necessary in order to have an artistic culture at all. Did Pound know Veblen's work when he wrote "An Immorality"? Well, he certainly knew it when he wrote his pro-fascist diatribe Jefferson and/or Mussolini. Both were antiliberal, though certainly in different ways, and Pound may have by this point found some things in common with Veblen's ideas. Of course, I do not know for certain that Pound had read Veblen by this point, so both men's antiliberalism may have merely resulted in parallel conclusions -- it would be up to a far more serious Pound scholar than myself to answer the question of what Pound had read by around 1910.

It seems then that the title of the poem acts as a critique of what follows in the body of the poem. If we just take the body of the poem, it seems like a lovely little romantic poem extolling love and idleness. But if we take the title into consideration, we have to understand that the first narrator -- the one giving the title -- sees what follows as immoral. As such, we can see in it the narrator's (Pound's, most likely) antiliberalism.

I suppose that it's not much of an interpretation to find fascism in Pound's work, but what if, in fact, that is all there really is in this poem?
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