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?


Internet John said...

I'm not sure about this one. The literature suggests that Pound was indifferent to politics until the mid to late 20's, and anti-war until at least 1935 when Italy invaded Ethiopia. IMO, Tim Redman's argument that Pound embraced fascism because he incorrectly believed that Mussolini would implement the kinds of economic reforms that Pound was calling for, i.e. a hodge podge of Clifford Douglas' social credit theory and Gesellian stamp scrip, is pretty convincing, and the main reason Pound supported Douglas was because he believed social credit had the power to prevent another world war. Even Pound's anti-semitism was inconsistent until the 30's--sometimes he railed against Jews, and others he called racism a disease. He saw prominent Jewish banking families as implicated in usury, which he believed was at the root of a historical dialectic responsible for major conflicts, but he was usually careful to distinguish between "big Jews" and "poor yits," but, again, he condemned the practice of usury precisely because it started wars.

I'm not saying you're wrong, exactly--there's stuff in Pound's early work that suggests to me an amenability to authoritarian solutions, and he was in love with Mussolini precisely because he saw him as a man of action, an artist in a "new medium" halfway between art and politics (Lenin too). But this all came much later.

Troy Camplin said...

That's why I suggest that this shows more of the early roots of Pound's fascism, that he was anti-liberal, more than that he was explicitly pro-fascist (the suggestion of my last line notwithstanding). How else would you make sense of this poem, if we are not to explain Pound's identification of the promotion of love, idleness, and peace as "immoral," as the title says the second narrator's attitudes are? And what else was going on in Hungary at the time the poem was written that was notable, except tensions with the Jews? I don't believe anyone just woke up one morning and decided they were a fascist. Pound may not have known that's what he would turn into, but the seeds were there early on. That's what this poem subtly suggests to me, at least.

Of course, I mostly raise a lot of questions with this analysis, because I don't have the answers. But what are we to make of the attitudes of the narrator of the body of the poem being titled "An Immorality"? And why mention Hungary?

In the end, I am suggesting that this poem suggests that the seeds of fascism are more than present in Pound early on. Romanticizing action and criticizing someone who loves idleness and love are at the least antiliberal attitudes, which was the foundation of socialism, communism, and fascism, and which was all too often tied up with antisemitism.

Internet John said...

Fair enough. Part of the difficulty is that Pound was highly inconsistent. On one hand, this should in no way suggest that he wasn't responsible for his extremism, his anti-semitism (especially in his radio broadcasts), etc., although he did express his regret for his participation in the "suburban prejudice of anti-semitism" later in life.

On the other hand, he was, in many ways, a generous, peaceful, humane, and civilized person--not just like the concentration camp director who reads Goethe in the evenings, but in actual word and deed.

I don't think it's possible to dismiss Pound's fascist tendencies as merely a part of the contemporary zeitgeist. I do think one should be careful to keep Pound's work in its historical context, perhaps even more so than many other writers.

Although I don't particularly care for Redman's class or much of Pound's work, I do recommend Redman's book Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism. You might find it too sympathetic and maybe too equivocal and historicist, but it really helped me to see that Pound's reputation as a fascist and a lunatic doesn't really do the man justice, even if it's not entirely undeserved.

John said...

Posted another comment here. Not sure where it went.

Troy Camplin said...

Things are inevitably complex when it comes to human things. Especially over time. Especially when someone is faced with some pretty harsh feedback for holding certain beliefs.

Internet John said...

Here's an interesting double-edged quote from Pound's dubious ABC of Economics:

An economic system in which it is more profitable to make guns to blow men to pieces than to grow grain or make useful machinery, is an outrage, and its supporters are enemies of the race.

Troy Camplin said...

There is a certain knee-jerk agreement one has to such a sentence. However, Pound didn't realize that in fact there is much more profit to be had in wheat, etc. than in guns. Indeed, as Mises observes in "Liberalism," the liberal critique against war "starts from the premise that not war, but peace, is teh father of all things. What alone enables mankind to advance and distinguishes man from the animals is social cooperation" (6). In other words, if Pound really believe it, he should have been a liberal, and fought against rather than for antiliberalism. It is in the socialist, communist, and fascist economies where guns are more profitable than wheat.

Anonymous said...

Great dialogue. Nowithstanding the history informing Pound's work, we have to, I think, take the poem at face value--it says what it says, nothing more, nothing less.

Malcolm P. MacPherson

Troy Camplin said...

All works of literature worth reading require a certain level of interpretation. Anything that "says what it says and nothing more," meaning, the only thing there is the surface meaning, is applicable only to the lightest forms of entertainment, and not to literature. Literature is much more complex.

William said...

Just wanted to mention that I found your blog and Oh what a wonderful thing that is.

I've read much of Pound and also a biography, but it is hard for me to come to grips with him, to pin him down to whatever it was he believed he believed.

I will say I think he authored a few of the most perfect poems in English, among them "A Virginal", and "Envoi".

Troy Camplin said...


Glad you found me. :-) Pound is certainly a complex thinker and artist. IN many ways he was a preeminant man of his time.

CatCat said...

"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?"

If your interpretation is indeed correct, I will salute Pound for bringing up this principle against fascism. Though, i can't find immorality in leisure and idleness, and love and peace. Yet in too much leisure and idleness yes. haha. And with regards to love and peace, which is the opposite of hate and war, I do believe that war is not the way to peace and hatred to love. I'm totally against on the adage that when we speak about war, we speak about peace, eh.

Cathy@medical scrubs

Eden Shuster said...

"Sing we for love and idleness,
Not else is worth the having."
Not a political position, not a stance or dialogue of multiple authors, not even a window into Pounds unfortunate antisemitism, but rather an ode, an ode to the young, the worry-less, the dreamers, and the believers in a love.
"though I have been in many a land,
There us bit else in living"
He is trying to break free of social understanding of human quality and misinterpretation of material progress. A cry out, an understanding, even more so, commending; Pund agrees with the , instinctual as they may be, drives of those who love, he accepts it full heartily.
" And I would rather love my sweet, though rose leaves die of grieving,"
He takes it a step farther by showing us the challenges which derive from living such a life. The hardships, the losses, matched by no other lifestyle, for in a life of love, we have the most to loose, The most to grieve for.
"Then do high deeds in Hungary, To pass all men's believing."
A message to those who choose to squander the little time they have on this earth to values so useless as legacy. Live For YOURSELF not for others is the message that we should take from this poem. Live and lead a life of love, of instantaneous satisfaction with long term gratification.
My Name is Eden Shuster. I am an Israel high school student living in america.

algohun said...

Bullshit. It has nothing to do with Jews or Pound's later anti-Semitism. You are abysmally ignorant of all things Hungarian and guilty of a colossal fault: reading into a poem your private hates and prejudices. And your explication de texte is abysmal. Désolé.

Hungary had three great heroic struggles in living memory: the Rákóczy rebellion 17O3 to 1711 against Habsburg absolutism, the Revolution and freedom fight that being a Hungarian term szabadságharc meaning war of independence, and the Kossuth ditto of 1848 49 crushed by the Czar, and the ditto of 1956 against Soviet tanks. Great deeds in Hungary can mean nothing else but the heroic struggle for independence from Tatars Turks Austrian Germans and Tsarist Bolshevik Communist
Pravoslav Great Russian PanSlav Soviets. Now you know.

As far as Hungarian Jews are concerned they supported these struggles and many died for Hungary their country.
There was one year of horror when the Nazi Arrow cross fascist if you like thugs murdered many Jews but also Hungarians who resisted and hid the persecuted. For 11OO hundred year the Jews had it so good in Hungary that many flocked from all over EU to the only safe welcoming country. There never was a pogrom in Hungary or extrajudicial persecution until 1944 after the Wehrmacht took over.

So great deeds in Hungary means the quintessence of just and heroic struggle. It has SFA to do with militarism, every society has a right to fight for its freedom. All nations countries peoples had to do it not out of choice but because they were compelled to do so by their oppressors or adversaries. Do you now get it?

Obviously Ezra Pound chose Hungary not say Ireland or Greece say
as the most noble and heroic and just cause.
And of course that to impress his hyperbole, even great deeds in Hungary are inconsequential compared to his love life.

Ironically the great Hungarian poet Babits got into trouble with the authorities during WWI when he published a poem with the same sentiments that his love is more important than military glory.

Make love not war even in Hungary.
And the chick could be Judith or Emese.

Albert Camus wrote Le sang des hongrois and Kadar a eu son jour de peur. There is no work in any language including Magyar which explains so well what great deeds in Hungary means even if used pejoratively.
As I said many of the greatest heroes of 1956 were Hungarian Jews even Communists they joined even led the fight against the Soviet tanks!!!
Are you now beginning to understand?

That is and only that is the meaning of Ezra Pound's words.

Troy Camplin said...

I have no private hates nor prejudices. That is you reading yours into what I have written. I suppose that Pound just woke up one day, magically fascist and anti-Semitic? I think not.

You should be upset that Pound used these struggles to support a terrible ideology. That's on Pound, not on the one who sees what he's done.