Critical Dreams: Orientalism, Modernism, and the Meaning of Pound's China

By Hayot, Eric | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Critical Dreams: Orientalism, Modernism, and the Meaning of Pound's China


Hayot, Eric, Twentieth Century Literature


No figure of twentieth-century literature has had a more overt relation to China than Ezra Pound. From the early moments of his career in London to his final days in Italy, Pound made China part of his general project to rethink the nature of the West, to discover in poetry the best that humans had ever said or thought, painted or sung, and renew it. As a young man, he translated Chinese poetry into English, and through that poetry developed an aesthetic theory rooted in an ontology of Chinese writing. Later on, he intertwined Chinese characters and philosophy with his cantos, published translations of Confucian texts, and partially explained his interest by insisting that the texts belonged as much to him as to the Chinese. Such ideas stayed with him till the end of his life: a video segment made in the 1960s (Ezra Pound) shows him carefully explaining to the camera the pictorial relation between the Chinese characters for sun, tree, and east, a relation that he first brought to notice in a short book he edi ted and published in 1918, more than 40 years earlier (Fenollosa).

[CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ACSII]

Cataloging Pound's relation to China has been the work of literary critics, who over the years have produced a vast discourse on the subject of Pound and China. Following Pound's literary canonization in the 1950s, scrupulous attention has been paid to his readings of Chinese history, to the sources of his Confucianism, and especially to his translations of Chinese poetry. These have been subjects of innumerable chapters and critical essays, dissertations, and books. They range from meticulously researched discussions of Pound's original source material--John Nolde's Blossoms of the East, for instance, compares every single line of Pound's 1940 Chinese history cantos with Joseph-Anne-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla's 13-volume Histoire generale de la Chine--to more contemporary work on the role of the East in the construction of Western modernism. Between the practical and the theoretical we find a number of takes on Pound's techniques of translation, ranging from the critical (Dembo) to the comparatively neutral (Yip), all struggling to decide how far Pound saw into China or, in some cases, how far it saw into him.

The critical discourse on Pound and China thus has a life and history of its own, one symbiotic with but ultimately separate from the person Ezra Pound and his interest in China. It begins in reactions to Pound's earliest translations of Chinese poetry and extends well past Pound's death and into recent literary and cultural criticism. It includes the major texts of Pound criticism when they discuss China, the many essays and books that focus exclusively on Pound's Chinese material, and texts that situate the subject of Pound and China within larger frameworks of literary theory.

As "Pound and China" grows and changes, modifies its premises and reorganizes its conclusions, it reshapes the commonly understood relation between Ezra Pound and China. The latticework that has been built around the original relation between Pound and China can be read not only as a history of that particular relation but also as a history of a particular Western literary understanding of China and the Chinese language. And as a side effect--or perhaps its most important symptom--"Pound and China" also produces various understandings of the West's relation to China in general, understandings influenced by judgments both literary and moral. I am interested, therefore, not only in the ways in which Pound speaks to us about China today but also in the way Pound's perceptions have been either repeated or refused by critics working with a substantially different apprehension of the West's relation to China, their critical visions often dreaming through Pound's literary ones.

FRAME: ORIENTALISM AND MODERNISM

In 1995 Zhaoming Qian published Orientalism and Modernism: The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams, a book in which he claims that China's substantial influence on both the principles and the principals of Anglo-American modernism has been sorely overlooked. …

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