European Modernism has been understood from the beginning as a broadly transnational event: writers, artists, composers, and choreographers gathered together in such capitals as London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and New York, collaborating and dissenting across national, linguistic and artistic lines to produce a truly transcontinental movement (especially when considering American and Argentinian writers in Paris, for example). When understood from this conventional viewpoint, one of the more exotic threads of Modernist transnational poetics is found in Ezra Pound’s use of Chinese art, literature, and written language. His fascination with Chinese writing received significant scholarly attention from the mid-twentieth century, some of which was produced by Chinese native speakers and scholars trained in sinolinguistics. Pound’s early enthusiasms concerning Chinese were considered to be well-intentioned but naïve: he often worked from materials translated via Japanese into French or English, such as Ernest Fenollosa’s notebooks which formed the basis for Pound’s famous 1915 volume of ‘Chinese’ poems, Cathay, and the collaborative essay, ‘The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry’ of 1919. Following the Second World War, Pound made a serious attempt to learn spoken Mandarin and to understand the composition of written Chinese, which is partially reflected in later instalments of his epic poem The Cantos. More recent scholarship has sought to disentangle Pound’s obvious sinolinguistic shortcomings from the ways in which he installs a translated Chinese aesthetic into his poetic practice: in other words, to see how a certain model of ‘China’ might be seen as a Modernist invention, but one which makes available the double (or triple) vision of translation for critical examination. In this sense, then, Pound’s Chinese word-signs might offer new ways of thinking about East-West transnationalism beyond the European Modernist zone of cultural production, especially with regard to Pound’s surprisingly positive reception amongst contemporary avant-garde poets in China.
This paper will take aim at two texts – Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) and John Banville’s The Sea (2005) – each of which appears to neatly satisfy its formal narrative requirements and temporal implications but actually leaves these radically unresolved. I will first read Woolf’s text along conventional schematic lines: Part One, ‘The Window,’ establishes the problems and demarcations of space; Part Two, ‘Time Passes,’ provides a nuanced narrative reflection on time, history, and the psychology of traumatic events; and Part Three, ‘The Lighthouse,’ resolves space and time in the completion of Lily’s painting and of the quest to reach the lighthouse by Mr Ramsay and his two youngest children. But does Woolf in fact resolve this family romance by aesthetic and formal means? Lily might finish her painting, and therefore establish her place in the Ramsay saga, but standing alongside her at this pivotal moment is the one inscrutable character left unresolved by everyone else, and especially by the presiding shade of Mrs Ramsay: Augustus Carmichael. He is a shaggy Poseidon, equally indifferent to fame as a poet as he is to the opinion of these overthinking mortals, and he (p)resides in mythic time, outside of and untouched by the historical time and psychological time governing the narrative and its characters. In this way he presents a fundamental challenge to an understanding of Woolf’s modernist experiment in this novel, whereby he opens up an aporia unplugged by any available experimental means. John Banville’s The Sea charts uncannily similar territory and topology: the second half of my paper will make a case for Banville’s emulation of Woolf’s aporetic and mythic Carmichael, doubled in the diabolic Grace children, Chloe and Myles. Banville has Max Morden recall a tragedy from childhood that allows him space to grieve his recently deceased wife, as well as to indulge his self-consciously pompous and digressive narrative compensations. But here too Banville leaves open the way for the ‘strange tide’ to sweep mythic indifference beneath the local urgencies of human affairs. Why these shaggy sea monsters? What exactly are we missing (or gaining) in not reeling them in?
Ezra Pound’s lifelong poetic project, The Cantos, aspired to comprise ‘the best that had been thought and read’ in history by way of citation, gloss, allusion and quotation of a formidable variety of sources. Although Pound intended his poem to perform a paideutic function as a repository for important ideas and their often-precarious textual transmission, his project was also aimed at the poetic representation of a paradiso terrestre, an ideal state of intellectual community at the end of history. Consequently, in a critical phase during the 1930s he was drawn to models of theological and political eschatology, not least those of the Confucian cosmos and Italian Fascism. This intensified interest was to have drastic consequences: Pound was arrested on charges of treason as detained in the US Army Detention Training Center outside of Pisa for his radio broadcasts during World War Two in Italy. During his incarceration Pound wrote much of The Pisan Cantos, in which pastoral observation is combined with political vituperation and nostalgic reminiscence. Pound also makes sustained reference to Johannes Scottus Eriugena, the ninth-century Hibernian-Carolingian theologian and poet who was condemned on account of disseminating heretical doctrines during his lifetime and then posthumously in the Averroist condemnations at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century.
Eriugena serves a critical function in Ezra Pound’s thinking on medieval theology and its formative role in his aesthetics. In particular, Eriugena’s masterwork, the Periphyseon or De Divisione Naturae, provides Pound with a totalising account of history in its exegetical model of the reditus (the return of creation to the godhead), an eschatology to accompany Pound’s other preferred model in the paradiso terrestre. Although there is minimal critical scholarship on Eriugena’s significance in Pound’s prose and poetry, this Carolingian thinker plays a crucial part in Pound’s development of an anti-Aquinian view of medieval theology, part of an obscured tradition that is in itself millennial, and which serves to overturn what Pound saw as conventional, retrograde religious and social eschatologies. Eriugena’s significance is evident in critical passages of The Cantos – particularly Canto 36, the ‘Donna mi prega’ canto, and The Pisan Cantos – as well as in Pound’s prose. Pound also drew up extensive notes for a book on Eriugena, to form a trilogy with his books on the Ta Hio or Great Learning and Mencius, but which never eventuated in publication. These notes throw additional light onto the crucial role Eriugena plays for Pound in his vision for the paradisal poet who speaks for and from the end of days.
The influence of medieval literature and thought on Anglophone High Modernism is well known: the Aquinian strain in James Joyce’s novels; the influence of Troubadour lyric on the poetics of HD and Ezra Pound; and Dante’s long shadow cast over the entire movement, to name just three examples. Looking beyond these august examples, there remains a surprisingly rich network of medeival influences upon the modernist literary scene yet to be fully explored. One such example is the role of early medieval philosophy and theology on the poetics of Ezra Pound, not least the work of the Irish Carolingian thinker, John Scottus Eriugena, and his late classical (Martianus Capella, Boethius) and Eastern Christian (Pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa) sources. Pound absorbed much of this recondite knowledge intuitively, without consulting many of the source texts, a good number of which were simply not available to him during the height of his interests in the 1930s and early 1940s. In reading whatever was available to him, Pound also absorbed several facets of early medieval textual culture, and these are clearly visible in his poetry and prose. Eriugena developed the discipline of the line-by-line glossatory schema, and the production of florilegia and annotative systems flourished within his intellectual circles in the Carolingian Palatine and Cathedral Schools. Pound adapted his interests in classical textual forms and their modern legacies – the papyrus fragment, classical texts with precarious stemmatic histories (Stesichorus, Apollonius of Tyana) – to this changing textual world in Western Europe during the eighth and ninth centuries. The text of The Cantos is significantly altered in its physical layout during this period of intensive reading and research in early medieval textuality. Pound even produces cantos on unrelated historical subjects – the life of John Adams, the dynastic history of China – that mimic and emulate these earlier transformations in textual culture, and perform these textual histories on the text’s surface.
This relation between the medieval manuscript and the modernist codex (printed, bound and published by another set of technologies and conventions altogether) provides a fruitful challenge when contemplating the notion of digital representation of Pound’s texts and their own sources. My recent work on Pound’s manuscript notes on Eriugena resulted in a print edition of these notes, extensively annotated and accompanied by critical commentary. Such material could plausibly be digitised, and this may be a desirable notion for conventional reasons: to provide clarity to deeply enmeshed texts and their sources; to trace out links from heavily fragmented and abbreviated notes to significant and extensive source material; and to accept the opportunity to compare the author’s notes with the actaul sources available to him, as well as to updated and/or more accurate editions of medieval texts. But what might such a digital edition tell us about the intellectual relations between modernist authorship and early medieval scribal cultures? How might digital forms of these modernist frays into the medieval take advantage of the well-known sympathies between medieval and digital textual cultures, and what differences might be wrought in having modernist textual intermediaries?
The pivotal role of medieval European poetry on the aesthetics of Ezra Pound is well known: he received graduate training in Provençal and was committed to lifelong study of the Troubadours, whose innovations in poetic form he saw as precursors to Dante’s great elder contemporary, Guido Cavalcanti. Pound placed sufficient stock in Guido’s shaping role in the European poetic tradition that he undertook to publish a deluxe edition of the Rime, complete with photographic plates of manuscripts on vellum, putting more than one press out of business in the process. It was not only poetry that drove this fixation for Pound, but a conviction that medieval poets kept alight a flame of Gnostic wisdom counter to the predominating currents of Thomistic inflections of Aristotle. He saw in Cavalcanti and Arnaut Daniel the preservation of light philosophy reaching back beyond Grosseteste and Eriugena to the Presocratics and the early Neoplatonists. A tenuous but pivotal part of this hidden heritage resided in the Arabic transmission of classical texts, as well as major commentaries, especially those of Avicenna and Averroes on Aristotle’s De Anima. Scholars such as Peter Liebregts and Peter Makin have done admirable work in identifying and annotating the various citations and suggestive hints of this tradition throughout Pound’s poetry and prose. This paper seeks to establish wider aesthetic and strategic contexts for Pound’s use of medieval Arabic light philosophy: what purpose did this heritage serve for the poet who urged his peers to Make It New? How does it inflect his poetics, and how does it intersect with his personal and professional circumstances at particular points in his career? This attempt to give a broader picture to Pound’s very particular medievalism aims to give perspective on Modernist poetics, shaped in significant part by his influence.
A recurring dialectic is established at numerous critical points in Pound’s poetry and prose: between a centre of power and a perceived hostile threat. This structure commonly occurs when Pound is dealing with historical material, especially in the Cantos: Imperial China and the barbarian threat of Buddhists, Taoists, and Mongols; the crumbling Roman Empire of Justinian and the military and economic threat of Abdl Malik in the eastern Mediterranean; and even the threat posed by the engineers of war in Pound’s lifetime, mobilising conflict for perceived financial gain at the cost of civilisation and humanity. What does this recurring structure tell us about Pound’s thinking more generally? Is it a necessary or otherwise desirable mechanism by which to legitimise centralised power, especially when that power is Pound’s subject in poetry or prose (such as the China Cantos)? How might this mechanism of centre and periphery be resolved with Pound’s earlier expression of opposition to authority in the Vorticist / Blast era, in the cultural centre of London? Or indeed his valorisation of the Na-Khi late in his poetic career? This paper will explore some examples of this mechanism in the prose and poetry, to establish the kind and strength of any emergent pattern, and to evaluate its significance more generally for Pound’s thought.