Walter Benjamin describes the "destructive character" as one who "knows only one watchword: make room; only one activity: clearing away" (1978: 301). Benjamin's destructive character "sees nothing permanent. But for this reason he sees ways everywhere.... What exists he reduces to rubble, not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it" (1978: 302-303). At the same time, Benjamin says, the "destructive character obliterates even the traces of destruction" (302). Benjamin-the-destroyer saw the world as a text of ruins in which the past and present, fragmented though intertwined, offered themselves materially as capable of both lulling the masses into a dream state or awakening them into awareness and control of their own surroundings.
Benjamin, according to Susan Buck-Morss in The Dialectics of Seeing, "was committed to a graphic, concrete representation of truth, in which historical images made visible...[his] philosophical ideas. In them, history cut through the core of truth without providing a totalizing frame" (55). The works we have by Benjamin demonstrate his desire to read historically our text of ruins in order to "blast" historical details out of the continuum, so that we may become aware of the ideological backdrop in front of which we act out our lives. Paradoxically, his own work, the Passagen-Werk, which might have more fully explained his concepts and prescriptions, remains unfinished, a collection of notational fragments and essays, so that what we have is only "traces" of his great work of destruction. There is no danger of "totalizing frame", Buck-Morss implies, because "it must not be forgotten that there is no [extant] Passagen-Werk" (1991: 47).
Benjamin's "destructive character" might also serve as a paradigmatic description of Ezra Pound, his critical and poetic methods, and The Cantos, a work which, like the Passagen-Werk, remains unfinished. Granted, many modernists, i.e. those Benjamin discusses in "Surrealism", might easily fit into such a paradigm--"modernism" might even be defined as "a response intended to destroy the dumb response of the masses to ideology." But while Eliot turns to Christianity and its apocalyptic awakening, and Stevens is content to give all over to the "roller of big cigars" (64), it is Pound who most closely resembles Benjamin's destructive character. For Benjamin and Pound share a desire not only to awaken the masses to the ideology, but also to point out the means for overcoming it; both writers desire a sort of earthly utopia that comes about only by establishing a radical socio-political reformation, a utopia whose existence depends upon the awakened masses.
In his attempts to establish the "reformation" Pound-as-destroyer saw "ways everywhere", at crucial moments, shifting his means for instituting the reformation. That is, Pound begins with the notion that if the art/architecture of a society could be reformed, then the socio-political order would naturally reform, and he manifests these ideas in his art criticism. As he grows increasingly suspicious of this notion, and of architecture's ability to "awaken" the masses and to reform institutions, he begins to invest his cultural critique in poetry--especially in The Cantos, where the architectural images he uses are fragmented, but nonetheless powerful in their socio-politically/historically significance. Then, as The Cantos progresses, Pound abandons material ruins, imagistic poetry, placing his faith in increasingly fragmented language. And as his confidence in images wanes, so does his confidence in the ability of art to change the present society. Pound comes first to believe that the utopia can exist if government changes, but Pound's views shift, until finally, his hope for utopia rests only in a future which acts upon the ideas he establishes in the language of The Cantos. Unfortunately, Pound's failure, as I hope to show, resides not in the fragmented nature of his epic--neither in its images nor its language--but in his failure to comprehend the importance of the rubble which, in Benjamin's thought, has the greatest potential to awaken the masses into beginning the risorgimento.
What is important in Benjamin's notion of the "destructive character", is that it implies a dual response to the world: one of "clearing away" and one of "seeing ways" in order to lead through it. In this way, Pound's critical tenets cohere, for throughout his life, Pound remained interested in clearing away the debris of language--in "A Retrospect" he advises "direct treatment [of the object], economy of words... no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something" (1935: 4); the debris of bad art (vide ABC of Reading among other works); the debris of bad governmental and social institutions, and that of bad fiscal practices. Much of Pound's early and late criticism is concerned with blasting away the dream-like stupor induced by America's institutions. In "Provincialism the Enemy" from 1917, Pound defines society's problem as "provincialism," saying that "provincialism... is ignorance plus a lust after uniformity" (1973: 190), propagated by the university system which "is evil" because it separates the masses from their "humanity" (191) Pound attacks the university's method of instruction, claiming that
At one point in "Patria Mia," Pound declares that this situation has made him "put all belief in Utopias...." (124) out of his expectations. However, we may read this as an isolated moment of convictionless complaint, for throughout the same essay, Pound calls for an American "risorgimento", a movement for renovation, and this is the destructive character at work who "sees ways everywhere" in order to establish a sort of utopia. Pound explains, "A Risorgimento implies a whole volley of liberations, liberations from ideas, from stupidities, from conditions and from tyrannies of wealth or army" (112). Pound as destructive character is at once a destroyer and a creator who wants to reconstruct in the masses the means and ability to think.
But just as Benjamin's notion of destruction doesn't mean a destruction of the past, Pound's risorgimento and its "liberations" imply not a "reborn/newly-born" ideal, not a "renaissance", but a "renewal", an awakening which, instead of severing ties to the past, reawakens the past into the present. As Pound's cultural criticism progresses, so does his insistence on the importance of the past on the present. In the Guide to Kulchur, Pound argues that "We do NOT know the past in chronological sequence....[W]hat we know we know by ripples and spirals eddying out from us and from our own time" (1970b: 60), and, he continues, "A man does not know his own ADDRESS (in time) until he knows where his time and milieu stand in relation to other times and conditions" (83). Pound insists that we have to think of the past outside a historical continuum because we can only know ourselves if we understand how the past is involved in our present. The theory implies more than a mere contrasting of eras in which the present either appears to have declined or progressed. Discussing "an hierarchy of values" in a letter to The New English Weekly, Pound says that the hierarchy shouldn't be based on the premise that "past is good, present is bad"; this is something, he says, "I certainly do not believe and never have believed" (1933: 96).
The past has value, as Pound understands it, because of its ability to show us our "address in time"--that is, to awaken us to that which surrounds us daily, not just to tell us how our time stacks up. The past become even more important to Pound, because he grows increasingly aware that "history [even] as it was written the day before yesterday is unwittingly partial...telling us nothing of the causes [which are]...economic and moral" (1970b: 31). In other words, Pound begins to see that the past, as presented in the continuum of time, allows for falsifications and covert attempts to hide what he considers to be the cause of present-day ills. History in the continuum for Pound allows for the falsified notions of progress and decline; he saw both "good" and "bad" in the past, according to its "causes," and as Benjamin puts it in "N", "Overcoming the concept of 'progress' and the 'period of decline' are two sides of one and the same thing" (1989: 48). Overcoming this concept is itself a small awakening which mankind desperately needs, as Benjamin says, because "nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past...." (1968: 254).
What is also important about the past for Pound, as well as for Benjamin, is its energy, that which gives it the ability to awaken in order to redeem mankind to an understanding of its socio-historic milieu. For both Pound and Benjamin, to "know our own address in time" means much more than understanding our relationship to the past. The notions of a "redeemed mankind" and a paradisal risorgimento carries with them religious overtones. Even the very language that Pound and Benjamin use to describe the process of the "awakening" evokes religious revelations in which God or the gods reveal themselves in a swirl of energy, a shower of light. Until 1914, Pound searched for a language to describe that moment of awakening, intuitively relating the energy in objects as he describes them in his Imagistic tenets--direct treatment of the thing itself for maximum meaning. But it took the Vorticist movement for Pound to come up with the mot juste. As Pound explains in Blast, it is the vortex which becomes for Pound that intense moment of awakening:
It is the "Then" and "Now" that best describes the configuration of past and present in Pound's notion of awakening, because they are directly tied to material objects or to images. Benjamin explains:
Because, as Benjamin says, all history is available, and available in images, then all objects are potentially dialectical. That is, when the mind unites itself with the object, the object has the potential to redeem both the Then and Now. And that is why material objects are so important to Benjamin and Pound. In his essay "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," Benjamin claims that "To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return" (1968: 188). In other words, material objects speak their own language, for as Benjamin explains, "Every expression of human mental life can be understood as a kind of language.... There is no even or thing in either animate or inanimate nature that does not in some way partake of language..." (1978: 314). That also means we can read in the object/image what it has to say about our culture. Pound realizes this as well. Bernstein points out that Pound "fashion[ed] an epistemology that... permitted him to think that the most fundamental truths could be grasped by means of individual and even fragmentary 'luminous details'" (1980: 37), that is, in those objects and images he contemplated.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the function architecture assumes first in Pound's cultural criticism, and later in his poetry. Architecture serves especially well as a dialectical image for Pound because of the multiple facets of its language, and because of its obvious ubiquity. As Pound says, "This is a form of art which does concern every man.... [because] Every man... lives inside something, and every man walks the street" (1980: 82). As Keith Tuma explains, "Architecture is important to Pound because it is intimately connected with the daily life of the masses" (1990: 86), and whatever most often confronts the masses, Pound may have surmised, has the most power to change consciousnesses.
Architecture functions also as a historical object. As Benjamin explains in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", architecture's "history is more ancient than that of any other art, and its claim to being a living force has significance in every attempt to comprehend the relationship of the masses to art" (1968: 240). Moreover, architecture-as-dialectical image speaks to us out of the continuum of history. Pound says in "The Renaissance":
Pound thinks it important that the people develop the ability to blast architecture out of the continuum because as much as architecture has the ability to awaken the masses, it also has the capability to dull their sensibilities. As Susan Buck-Morss explains, if the people misapprehend architectural signs, the object may keep them lulled into a stupor of "commodity fetishes and dream fetishes," until they see in the falseness of the object "a manifestation of truth" which binds them passively into the encompassing capitalistic ideology (1991: 118).
Pound, an elistist, perhaps, but not an advocate of destructive consumer capitalism, was concerned with capitalism's power as exhibited in the commodification of architecture. In 1934, living isolated in Mussolini's Italy, he could proclaim with idealistic bravado that "the capitalist system is fucked out/ thank gawd and cant last" (Letter to T.S. Eliot), but in his more lucid moments, fresh out of America in 1912, Pound realized that crass capitalism was informing some of what the architecture was saying. "In 'San Zeno' at Verona one finds columns with the artisan's signature at the base. Thus: 'Me Mateus fecit.' That is what we have not and can not have where columns are ordered by the gross" (1973: 107). Mass-produced, ornamental architecture spoke to Pound, telling him that something was wrong with the system. For Pound it was an awakening, but he realized too that it had the capability to keep the masses dreaming. Pound understood the language of this corrupt art to be a falsification. Describing a section of London, Pound exclaims
"Effective" architecture, according to Pound, would bring about the risorgimento. Discussing "Patria Mia," Tuma points out that Pound saw New York's Penn Station and the Metropolitan Life Tower as signs of a beginning risorgimento because the structures "have transcended functional utility and achieved something of the splendor on display that might signal a new civilization" (1973: 86). Before Pound became disheartened with America, his optimism ran high, for as he says in "Patria Mia,"
"Good" architecture for Pound is architecture that puts "ideas into action," architecture which exhibits "a fine spirit of experiment at work" (106), transcending the banality and mendacities of false art. Architecture that adhered to the craftsman principles of the builders of San Zeno would become a luminous detail in a culture, capable of creating a cultural utopia, for as Hugh Kenner explains, to Pound's way of thinking "the column [at San Zeno] exists; what it proves about forgotten possibilities it proves by simply existing...because nothing is so irrefutable as stone" (1971: 325).
Early on in Pound's cultural criticism, the possibility of a utopia propagated and nurtured by an awakening of the masses to the importance to the arts, and even an awakening of the arts themselves. What Pound valued as paradisal was craftsmanship, and his utopia coincides more with the Ruskin's dreamy Stones of Venice, than with Benjamin's concept of a final awakening. Benjamin's utopian awakening is "Messianic," as Susan-Buck Morss says, "interpreted through the objects in which [the wish image] found expression" (1991: 114-15). Benjamin's notion sees a utopia of awakenings mediated by matter, Buck-Morss says. But Pound's early critique sees the utopia as created by the material, not just mediated by it. Pound's utopian risorgimento relies on the establishment of an orderly capital; Pound says in "Patria Mia" that "no nation can be considered historically as such until it has achieved within itself a city to which all roads lead and from which there goes out an authority" (1973: 101), and
Pound's super-college never materialized, and in his ensuing London years, Pound began to be less convinced of architecture's possibility to awaken. For the architecture Pound describes as "false art" is that which he witnessed in London. What the architecture said to Pound there was this, that there were some things that could not be corrected by a cleaning up of architecture. Pound's London criticism becomes increasingly gloomy. Although he praises some architectural "efforts," he begins to curse the mendacity of London architectonics, noting the "horror of machine-cut stone trimmings" (1980: 74).
What the architecture says to Pound in London changes, too, because of World War I's destruction, not of architecture, not of arts, but of the artists (and the masses) who, Pound realizes, are the creators of that which begins the risorgimento. In his war-era criticism, Pound begins to shift his opinions, divesting architecture of the messianic power he had earlier attributed to it. In Gaudier-Brzeska, the memoir Pound wrote of the young French sculptor whom he had befriended, lauded, and for whom he had acted as agent, Pound notes with dejection that Gaudier "went to his death, though his own genius was worth more than dead buildings" (1970a: 54).
The war changes not only what the architecture says to Pound, but how it says it. For even though Pound had not totally ignored architecture before in his poetry, with the war, it comes to play an integral part, not just as images, but as images which reveal the horror of the current state of affairs in the various European capitals. In "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," dead artisans such as Gaudier (and Pound's friend T.E. Hulme), die because of "old men's lies" and "For an old bitch [England] gone in the teeth, / For a botched civilization / .... / For two gross of broken statues... (1990: 188). And the artisan, the unappreciated craftsman must do so "Beneath the sagging roof" which "Leaks" (192). It is not only that the arts and architecture have failed to keep the social roof from sagging and leaking. What is behind it, Pound comes to see, is a state which must itself be directly reformed--not by the reformation of architecture--because what has to be battled in the capital is "old lies and new infamy / usury age-old and age-thick / and liars in public places" (188), a hell which resembles Dante's inferno.
With the shift to poetry as a vehicle for cultural criticism, architecture-as-physical-object loses its ability to physically activate the risorgimento. With The Cantos, Pound begins to place more trust in the power of the image/object-as-word to show the people how to set their culture right. It is not that Pound gives up the notion that the arts can reform the culture, but he comes to privilege poetry as the vehicle for beginning the risorgimento. He begins also to see poetry as a better vehicle than prose criticism for leading the way out of the rubble. As Michael Bernstein explains, according to Pound's 'almost theological' conviction, both prose and verse can portray the negative aspects of life, but only poetry is genuinely capable of articulating a vision of... crystallizing the possibility for a better existence, and therewith of providing an impetus for the attainment of that good (1980: 22).
But using The Cantos as a means of mending cultural ills, Pound doesn't totally give up on the power of the dialectical image; he just invests its energy in the object-as-word, imagistically. For the war changed the way Pound thought about physical cultural monuments and their ability as physical objects to initiate and maintain the order of a full awakening. In "The State" (1927), Pound lays out a grid of items, rating them according to their ability to be "'consumed' but not destroyed by consumption" (1973: 215); he labels "well-constructed buildings" as "durable," but he labels "works of art" as "permanent," and as Bernstein shows us, Pound valued poetry more than any other art. That is, only poetry could sustain the movement and energy of the risorgimento.
World War I had taught him the transiency of architecture, since much of it was reduced to rubble in those years. With the post-war Cantos, architecture-as-word enters Pound's criticism in literal ruins. The Cantos begins with the implicit ruins of smoldering Troy, as Odysseus and his doomed-men set "forth on the godly sea...." (1986: 1/3).
But as word, as a dialectical linguistic-image, architecture in ruins becomes re-empowered in Pound's work. The lessons Pound's epic means to teach are similar to those he thought architecture could materially teach; Bernstein even argues that "the element of instruction... is deliberately foregrounded in... [The Cantos] which offers its audience lessons presumed necessary to their individual and social survival...." (1980: 14) in the milieu of what Pound called the "usuracracy."
Pound's choice to use architectural ruins linguistically seems sound according to the Benjaminian paradigm of the destructive character trying to awaken a society, to bring the Then into the Now. Using fragmented images, Pound's understanding shifts; he comes to see that the risorgimento can come only by mediation of the objects, not by their actual materiality. Benjamin's metaphoric analysis of language helps to explain the method of The Cantos:
Carroll Terrell notes that one recurring image is the "arena at Verona, to which Pound refers in order to define his position as onlooker throughout the ages and levels of time" (1980: 15). Tied up in Pound's nous as it is, by allowing Pound to observe all times at once, it allows him to blast the past out of historical continuum, so that his mind can become fully integrated with it as a dialectical image. The arena, crumbling slowly, is transient, but its longevity attests to the care its architects and builders took when making it. Like the column at San Zeno, such an arena can be constructed only in a sound state. But that is only part of the arena's lesson; Pound also means for the arena to teach us about the presence of the past not only in the present, but throughout time, so that the continuum of time is destroyed. When the arena first appears in "Canto IV", Pound simply announces, "And we sit here.../ there in the arena..." (1986: 4/16), but in doing so, he melds multiple pasts with the present, through his juxtapositional montage, even "monadological," method: within "Canto IV," "Cadmus of Golden Prows", the creator of Roma (4/13), the well-constructed church at Poitiers which signifies, like the arena, a state in order (4/14); the "liquid and rushing crystal," fertile "light" of the gods (4/15); and with the poetic perfection of the sky in present-day Paris--"Torches melt in the glare / set flame of the corner cook-stall, / Blue agate casing the sky (as at Gourdon that time" (4/15); "Ecbatan of plotted [and therefore well-designed] streets" (4/16). And by the ellipses of "there is the arena...," he connects all of these pasts with those in the proceeding cantos. Pound refers several times to the arena--11/50, 12/53, 29/145, 78/481, and 80/505--so that we keep in mind just how present the past remains throughout. Pound does much more with the arena than connect the past and the present, since the past is present, so that when at the beginning of "Canto XII," when Pound repeats "And we sit here / under the wall, / Arena romana... / quarante-trois rang‚es en calcaire" (12/53), he emphasizes the order of the arena, but also its ability as a historic object, capable of connecting other historical objects, for it is placed between the events in "Canto XI" which deal with Sigismundo Malatesta (Pound's ideal of the man who puts his ideas into action) those in "Canto XII" from the present day--Baldy Bacon, the self-actualized legitimate maker of money, and the "buggering" and hypocritically dishonest bankers. Here, Pound uses the arena monadologically; his careful juxtaposition allow him to comment on the orderly practices of some and the sordid practices of others, but without commentary. As Buck-Morss describes Benjamin's method, Pound's method here allows the "fore- and after-" histories "of an object" to reveal themselves, so that "In the traces left by the object's after-history, the condition of its decay and the manner of its cultural transmission, the utopian images of past objects can be read in the present as truth" (1991: 219). As she further explains, "it is the forceful confrontation of the fore- and after-life of the object that makes it 'actual' in the political sense...and it is not progress but 'actualization' in which ur-history culminates" (219). Pound imagined that his method would 'actualize' the truth in the objects he mediates with the arena.
The orderliness of Ecbatan, an ancient persian city now in ruins, is one of the things Pound hopes to actualize. Pound describes Ecbatan in "Canto V":
By 1937, however, Pound began to doubt the possibilities of a present day risorgimento even though he hadn't yet given up hope in beginning that grand awakening in the whole of the culture (both in America and in Europe). Living in Mussolini's Italy and becoming obsessed with the notion of usury as the reason for all societal ills, "usury" began to dominate Pound's criticism and poetry. "Canto XLV," the "Usury Canto," marks another shift of architecture in Pound's work. For now it becomes the unmistakable sign that the present is irreversibly corrupt.
After World War II and the defeat of Italy, much of whose architecture was destroyed, the role of architecture shifts again in Pound's work. With the Pisan Cantos, written while Pound was proscribed in Pisa and then at St. Elizabeth's, Pound's poetry becomes more inward, its images more naturalistic. Too, Pound comes to rely less on images; his emphasis shifts to language. Michael Bernstein explains that with the Pisan Cantos, Pound's epic "becomes more dominated by the theme of language because: instead of being directed at the present audience, The Cantos' public discourse is now addressed primarily to the future" (1980: 154). And even though Pound still proclaims in "Canto LXXIV" that "Le paradise n'est pas artificiel," he claims that the paradise exists "only in fragments" (1986: 74/438)--not in the fragments, however, of dialectical images, but of time, and only in language.
Language becomes the focal point of Section: Rock Drill. Instead of juxtaposing images of architecture, of art, of objects, Pound's juxtapositions are predominately juxtapositions of language--Hart Benton's language next to Kung's ideograms. And even the ideograms themselves, based (in Pound's mind) on actual objects, appear in Rock Drill because of the abstract qualities they designate--sincerity, virtue, life energy, wisdom--all things which Pound saw as instituting the risorgimento, but flattened into words, mere linguistic signs, or at best, a poetic sermon. That one ideogram--"HE" (1986: 86/565)--which he uses to designate Roosevelt, shows just how far Pound was getting from the dialectical image, for "he," even though it is printed in thin characters, in order to comment on Roosevelt's abilities, it is a purely linguistic ideogram, a sure, if momentary, departure from Pound's earlier concept of the ideogram's function.
The shift away from architectural images coincides with Pound's loss of faith in the possibility for a present-day risorgimento. With these shifts, Pound aging and his trials exhausting, Pound developed a sense of urgency in getting the message across for the future generations. In "Canto 85," the opening canto in Rock Drill, he gives us a clue for his urgency: discussing the "Sagetrieb"--that is, the passing on of cultural traditions--Pound tells us that it depends on us, for "We flop if we cannot maintain the awareness" (85/557).
And yet it seems too that Pound began to think that the utopia could exist only in language as language. Humphrey Carpenter quotes Pound, who said to Donald Hall in 1953, "'My Paradiso will have no St Dominic or Augustine, but it will be a Paradiso just the same, moving toward final coherence. I'm getting at the building of the City....'" (1988: 812). The "'main thesis'" of Rock Drill, Pound said, was "'hammering'" (1988: 813). What Pound wanted to hammer into his readers was the notion that "the City" could exist, even if only in his words; Pound hammers in Rock Drill in order to establish the royal seat of his work in Thrones, so that, as Pound puts it, "God can sit on [it] / without having it go sqush" (1986: 88/581). But this in no way implies that Pound thought that seat was possible in the present material world, for a few lines down in "Canto 88," he tells us his new intent: "Get the meaning across and then quit" (88/581).
In the end, because Pound displaced his faith from the "thing itself" or even the object-as-word into the word-as-word, The Cantos could in no way cohere, because they did not originate as an exercise in linguistics. The real failure exists not in The Cantos as an attempt to awaken the people; it existed for Pound only in its inability to cohere by the rules of language as language. The Cantos failed for Pound because he forgot the value of the images, the ruins, and the fragments that the "destructive character" uses in order to lead "the way through." And The Cantos failed for Pound because they failed to bring about even the slightest tangible sign of a visible and lasting awakening. It is this sense of failure that informs Drafts and Fragments, where Pound proclaims,
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William M. Northcutt
Englische Literaturwissenschaft GWII