Italian Fascist Exhibitions and Ezra Pound's Move to the Imperial
Paul, Catherine E., Twentieth Century Literature
In or about May 1936, Ezra Pound's method for teaching neophytes about culture changed. During the 1930s, he had become increasingly invested in the ideals and rhetoric of Benito Mussolini's fascist regime, so it is no surprise that his writings from the time of Mussolini's declaration of empire have a decidedly imperialist quality. Where he had, during his years in London, practiced a form of cultural guidance that offered readers the tools for making their own decisions, his writings of the later 1930s, such as Guide to Kulchur (1938), share a sense of purpose and method with the totalitarian propaganda efforts of Mussolini's cultural ministers. While early fascist propaganda allowed and even expected a certain amount of participation from viewers, propaganda from the midthirties and onward presented Italian culture as sealed and complete, something to be docilely consumed. In this essay, I read two fascist exhibitions from the 1930s to represent the regime's changing approach to culture, and then I argue that Pound's writing of this period, exemplified by his Guide to Kulchur, reflects the ideological and iconographic imperialism of this late-1930s fascist propaganda. I further argue that because Pound's conception of culture in this period is shaped by Italy's position as a colonizing power, his attempt to embrace all of culture in his Guide must fail.
The shift in Pound's thinking about the function of poetry and criticism is visible in his writing about literature and in his critical methods. In "Ubicumque Lingua Romana," written in 1937 though not published until 1939, Pound contends that if he were "asked to organize a sindicato of men of my own profession ... Among other things I shd/ treat literature as communications service, not as the quantitative production of merchandise" (45). In a letter to C. H. Douglas also written in 1937, Pound asserts, "The masterworks or the best of its time is like orders from the STAFF, from the high command" (Papers 18 Nov. ). These related claims that poets, like other propaganda artists, work in the service of a regime, passing on a leader's ideas to the masses, shock readers of Pound's London poetry and criticism, accustomed to his sense in 1915 that "it is the artist's job to express what is 'true for himself,'" and that "the man who tries to express his age, instead of expressing himself, is doomed to destruction" (Gaudier-Brzeska 102). This change in Pound's thinking from 1915 to 1937 occurs not merely on the level of content--his shifting view of the role of the artist from offering self-expression to purveying propaganda--but also on the level of rhetoric: his employment of terms like "sindicato," "communications service," "orders from the STAFF, from the high command." Such a transformation bespeaks the extent to which Pound had absorbed the fascist imperialist discourse surrounding him.
His change in critical methods demonstrates a similar adoption of fascist techniques. Many of his works preceding Mussolini's declaration of empire in 1936--works as early as The Spirit of Romance (1910) and as late as ABC of Reading (1934)--rely on an exhibitionary method, in which he lays out texts for readers to explore: he wants his readers to access the materials through which he comes to his conclusions. In other words, they enact what Steven Conn in the context of museum history calls an "object-based epistemology," the belief popular in the late nineteenth century that original objects can speak, representing the entire culture from which they come (4). Pound translates this notion into his criticism by asserting that criticism is not a viable substitute for first-hand reading and critical thinking. He famously comments in "How to Read, or Why" (1929), that "I have been accused of wishing to provide a 'portable substitute for the British Museum,' which I would do, like a shot, were it possible. It isn't" (Literary Essays 16).
Guide to Kulchur asserts, on the other hand, that such a substitute is not only possible but preferable. …