How should an audience respond to artwork by a creator whose personal behaviour or ideas lack credibility? The #MeToo movement, especially in the United States, has put the careers of major figures like Woody Allen, architect Richard Meier, and artist Chuck Close under intense pressure for their treatment of women. Allen’s ability to attract young actors could collapse; Meier has taken a leave from his own firm; plans to present Close’s work in major museums are under evaluation or have been cancelled.
The swiftness of reaction and repercussions in these cases is notable and new.
Daniel Swift’s The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound examines the best-known 20th century case of a creative career falling under a cloud because of an artist’s behaviour and ideas.
In the 1930s and ‘40s the American-born Pound was a prominent supporter of Italian fascism and its leader Benito Mussolini.
Pound’s devotion to the movement began in the 1920s, when he lambasted democratic society as an “old bitch gone in the teeth.” In 1925 he moved to Rapallo on the Italian coast, and began courting Mussolini, whom he first met in 1933. Presenting him with the first volume of his Cantos, Pound offered Il Duce a quip about the poems’ language imitating the way “a continental Jew would speak English.”
The most egregious highlight of Pound’s propaganda work was the period from 1941 to 1943 when he broadcast pro-fascist, often anti-Jewish speeches on Rome Radio. The broadcasts, carried on American and British short wave, were introduced grandiosely with the words “Europe Calling. Ezra Pound Speaking.” Mussolini, Pound assured his listeners, was a leader on the model of Thomas Jefferson.
At the end of the war he was brought back to the U.S. under a charge of treason and spent 13 years incarcerated at St. Elizabeths asylum outside Washington D.C.
Swift’s portrait of Pound in the bughouse details his experience of incarceration alongside his quick return to cultural influence, especially among poets and critics in the postwar years. Pound’s support of racist ideology and a fascist order did not prevent his poetry from regaining the status that had led a key British critic to call the first half of the 20th century “the Pound era.”
Not all of Pound’s compatriots agreed with this outcome. Ernest Hemingway wrote: “He is obviously crazy… He deserves punishment and disgrace.” But colleagues who recognized his failures were not certain how to respond to them. William Carlos Williams, writing to President Harry S. Truman in 1946, suggested that “Pound is a distinguished poet… and though in many ways a fool he does not rightly belong in an insane asylum as a criminal.”
Pound’s postwar political activities gained some notoriety, but not enough to damage his return to the centre of our literary tradition. Among these was his habit of writing pseudonymous letters and essays for U.S. and Australian publications that harped on the importance of American “race pride,” while insisting that it “is perfectly well known that the fuss about ‘desegregation’ in the United States has been started by Jews.”
Though Pound’s supporters in the 1950s may have been unaware of his pseudonymous rabble-rousing in support of American segregation, they would have known these themes were expressed in his major poetic work The Cantos. And they would have been hard-pressed to miss the news that the same themes had underwritten the Rome Radio broadcasts at the height of the Holocaust.
Swift cannot fully explain Pound’s appeal to postwar American poets. Those who made pilgrimages to sit on the grounds at St. Elizabeths represent a catalogue of the rising talents of the era: Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Olson, and Robert Lowell, who brought his friends Randall Jarrell and John Berryman. Lesser-known figures attached themselves to Pound, too, including the now forgotten white supremacist agitator John Kasper.
Swift’s presentation of Pound’s ideas reminds us of the contemporary resurgence of similar views in American political life. Through the 2016 campaign and the presidency of Donald Trump, race baiting, coded language, attacks on the media, conspiracy theories aimed at Jews and non-whites reflect a resurgence of what Richard Hofstadter called in 1964 the “paranoid style in American politics.”
Pound’s political speech landed him in the bughouse for 13 years, but it had little impact on his stature worldwide. (Writing in 1968 in advance of the Chicago Democratic party convention, the usually sensible Allen Ginsberg gave Pound’s batty economic theories a nod; and throughout Ginsberg’s autobiographical writings Pound remains a key creative forebear, mentioned often as a freeing source for the new American poetic tradition).
One excuse offered for Pound’s bad ideas and action is madness. But this diagnosis was never confirmed during Pound’s stay at St. Elizabeths. Hemingway may have felt sure his old friend was nuts, but the psychiatrists who examined him were rarely in agreement about whether the poet could properly be called insane.
Swift’s book succeeds at laying out the full case for considering Pound’s creative accomplishments alongside his utterances and actions, which were, over decades, beneath contempt. Yet The Bughouse, like many studies before it, arrives at no confident position on how we should understand Pound’s creative output in light of his ideas and political acts.
The legacy of a contemporary of Pound’s – the iconic French-Polish modernist painter Balthus – provides an analogy. At the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, Balthus’ penchant for painting sexualized teenage girls has lead to the call for his paintings to be taken down. So far, the Met has demurred in the name of “informed discussion and respect for creative expression.”
Which acts and ideas, as underpinnings of art, cannot be countenanced? Which forms of personal behaviour entitle a creative worker to remain an inspiration, and which assure that a work of art or an oeuvre must be demoted from its position of influence?
The case of Ezra Pound, whether you count him mad or simply bad, offers an excellent test case alongside contemporary discussions.