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Ezra Pound and the Aristocratic Spirit

On the Pursuit of Artistic Excellence

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Like many of the great, early American writers—Hawthorne and Melville, for instance—Ezra Pound could trace his family back to the first American settlers.

The Wadsworths were a Puritan family that landed only 12 years after the Mayflower. Joseph Wadsworth was a framer of the Connecticut constitution. When James II tried to renege on its charter and sent someone to seize it, Joseph stowed it away, inside of a huge oak tree.

Ezra Pound would spend his entire life acting out his own version of Joseph Wadsworth’s rebellion: Whereas Joseph sought to protect a charter from the threat of a monarch, Ezra would seek to protect the aristocratic spirit of artistic excellence from the dual threats of democracy and capitalism.

In many ways, he succeeded. He is largely responsible for TS Eliot and James Joyce coming to fruition. In other ways, he failed. Later in life, he finds himself praising Hitler from a radio station of Mussolini’s.

How should we understand this adventure of Art against both Democracy and Capitalism? Is there a lesson for us?

Pound originally thought he might become a professor. So in 1907, he took a job at Wabash College in Indiana. It was a complete fiasco, but here I do believe we find one important lesson indeed.

The young Ezra Pound

At Wabash, Pound immediately defied conventions—wearing flamboyant clothes, smoking, and talking about graphology, palmistry, and spiritualism. He turned an elementary French class into a course on Dante. Students found him exhibitionistic, self-indulgent; they complained to the dean.

Pound met an English actress who worked as a male impersonator. They started a scandalous relationship, violating local propriety. He says he never slept with her, though I find that hard to believe. They were caught spending the night together and he got fired.

In a poem at the time, he wrote:

For I am weird untamed
that eat of no man’s meat.

His reputation in his hometown was ruined, and obviously academia would not be for him. This was a crucial break from respectability, which he certainly needed, to achieve what he would achieve. But it's also a cautionary tale, however: For this would be arguably the seed of his demise.

Pound’s mistake was that he begins to let bitterness into his heart.

“I’m so damn natural and trusting and innocent,” he writes, “that I create scandal about my ways continually.” Universities exist to “perpetuate routine and stupidity.” This is, of course, self-aggrandizing nonsense.

Pound was clearly a literary genius. He out-studied his peers, and his vision and verve were unmatched. He obviously wasn't going to be happy at a small midwestern college. Neither could he have succeeded on that track, if he tried to.

Ezra Pound (1939) by Wyndham Lewis

The lesson? He should have just calmly accepted the poor fit, and gone his own way.

Resentment is like cancer; if you allow a tiny tumor, eventually it spreads and kills you. The Wabash fiasco contains, in miniature, the tragedy of Pound's entire life. 38 years later his resentment, matured, would get him nothing but disgrace and a charge of Treason.

I am reminded of Nietzsche. To avoid resentment, one should always adopt the attitude of amor fati:

“That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it... but love it.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

Break some rules, if you need to. Set sail from respectability, if you need to. Chart your own course with complete independence, if you wish. But don't for one second believe anyone else is to blame for anything.

Just do your work and be grateful to have your spirit tested.