Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

A Necessary Blindness: Ezra Pound and Rhythm

Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

A Necessary Blindness: Ezra Pound and Rhythm

Article excerpt

If we had to think of one feature by which to define the transition from the late nineteenth century to something we call Modernism it would probably be the shift from music to painting as the privileged model for avant-garde writing. The linguist Roman Jakobsen expresses this shift in definitive terms: "The Romantic slogan of art gravitating toward music was adopted to a significant degree by Symbolism. The foundations of Symbolism first begin to be undermined in painting, and in the early days of Futurist art it is painting that holds the dominant position." (2) This is from an essay on Pasternak, and Jakobsen is thinking primarily of developments in Russian art, but the proposition is familiar to us as perhaps the definitive way of thinking about the evolution of AngloAmerican modernism, as it navigates its way out of the self-reflecting, interiorised world of the fin-de-siecle decadence and into the light of an external world which is, as it were, seen clearly again for the first time since Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. Italian Futurism launches this modernism with its vociferous reaction to the symbolist association of music with forms of ideality and to the poetics of memory, loss and desire which that produced. The new painting and sculpture offered the basis for a radically different aesthetic, one for which spatiality coincided with the avant-garde preoccupation with modernity--with dynamism, simultaneity, multiple points of view, and so on. This emphasis provides perhaps one consistent strand linking the various modernist avant-gardes. Even surrealism, with its fascinated attention to the occulted movements of the unconscious, saw the historical transition in much the same way, with the editors of the journal Surrealisme writing, for example, in 1924 that "Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the ear had decided the quality of poetry: rhythm, sonority, cadence, alliteration, rhyme; everything for the ear. For the last twenty years, the eye has been taking its revenge. It is the century of the film." (3)

In considering this set of developments, Ezra Pound is an almost inevitable point of reference, since the movements and tendencies we associate with him--principally imagism and vorticism--were both closely tied to parallel developments in the visual arts, and particularly to Pound's growing interest in the work of artists such as Wyndham Lewis, Gaudier Brzeska and Jacob Epstein. What is more, the trajectory of Pound's early career, from the Pre-Raphaelite tonalities of his first collections through to the imagist poems of Lustra, seems a clear enactment of that shift from music to painting which Jakobsen finds at the origins of modernism. Pound's thinking on these matters was shaped in part by Wyndham Lewis's arguments for what he called his "philosophy of the EYE" (4) and the related "external method" of satire, and Pound's own attempt to work free of the Browningesque dramatic monologue certainly resonated with Lewis's contempt for the forms of inwardness he associated with Freud, but especially with Henri Bergson. (5) As Martin Jay observes in his monumental study of "occularcentrism" or the privileging of vision in the Western tradition, it was not until Bergson that "the rights of the body were explicitly set against the tyranny of the eye." (6) For Lewis, Bergson's turn to the body and the dark "stream" of the inner life epitomised the "empiric of sensational chaos" which Lewis saw as the distinctive feature of contemporary culture. Bergson, he said, "is indeed the arch enemy of every impulse having its seat in the apparatus of vision, and requiring a concrete world." (7) By way of contrast, the spatialising eye of the painter looked out upon an intelligible world, where the clear separation of subject from object allowed the operation of intelligence rather than mere sensation. Lewis put it like this:

   Much as [Bergson] enjoys the sight of things "penetrating" and
   "merging" do we enjoy the opposite picture of them standing
   apart--the wind blowing between them and the air circulating freely
   in and out of them: much as he enjoys the "indistinct", the
   "qualitative", the misty, sensational and ecstatic, very much more
   do we value the distinct, the geometric, the universal,
   non-qualitied--the clear and the light, the unsensational . … 
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