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Jonathan Morse <[log in to unmask]>
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Ezra Pound discussion list of the University of Maine <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 27 Mar 1999 03:43:29 -0500
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H-Antisemitism, an H-Net list devoted to the history of antisemitism, has
recently been spinning a thread about Pat Buchanan, whose public language
has seemed antisemitic to a number of readers. A recent post by Mark
Worrell (quoted below with his permission) moved the discussion in the
general direction of language, and that let me say something about Pound,
as follows. Bear in mind that most members of H-Antisemitism have heard of
Pound but haven't read him.
In a post that's well worth thinking through in detail, Mark Worrell
writes, in part:
> The decisive importance of Buchanan is, in my
>opinion, not whether he is or is not antisemitic (it seems pretty clear that
>he is) but how he articulates an antisemitic-like worldview that is generally
>free of refrences toward Jews.  This is really important.  Remember, merely
>because Buchanan is an antisemite does not mean that his supporters
>automatically are too.  He knows this.  His task, it seems, is to give his
>people all the feeling and taste of antisemitism without appearing so.
>Mainstream political discourse and "critiques of society" that aim toward
>recognition in contemporary America are generally prevented from venturing
>into explicit antisemitism.  Even people who might subconsciously harbor a
>secret antipathy toward Jews are greatly inhibited by the moral concensus of
>this society.
Of course I agree with this. It's simply the historical fact that
antisemitism has largely been discredited in the contemporary United
States, both as a social force and as a mode of thought and speech. Still,
AS a mode of thought and speech antisemitism is polysemous. If an
antisemite says something antisemitic without uttering the word "Jew," this
may be a political tactic, as Professor Worrell suggests: a matter of using
euphemism and code words to suggest what can't be said under current norms
of niceness. On the other hand, Buchanan's delicacy may also be an
interesting characteristic of the way language always works, regardless of
the speaker's motive.
Consider, for instance, the way W. C. Fields used to get around the
Hollywood production code that forbade him to utter profane or obscene
words on the soundtracks of his films. In one of his early talkies, _The
Golf Specialist_, the evasion is simple and straightforward: Fields's
blonde student glances contemptuously at her husband, looks straight into
the camera, and quite unambiguously mouths (but doesn't say out loud) the
words "Well, fuck you." As Fields got better at the technology of the sound
film, however, he realized that he could create all the shock value he
needed by simply uttering one of the permitted euphemisms in a way that
communicated irony -- that is (in this context), the message, "You, viewer,
know what I'm REALLY saying." Onscreen, Fields as the shabby-genteel Harold
Bissonette ("Mister BissoNAY") or Egbert Souse ("With an _accent grave_")
is clearly a man pretending to be what he is not. When such a man exclaims
"Suffering sciatica!" or "Mother of pearl!" or (most magnificently of all)
his definitive "DRAT!" we cheer him on. We too, after all, suffer from
impostor syndrome. We too know (but are afraid to admit) that under our
respectable exteriors we aren't nice at all. We know that Fields speaks for
us, and in a deep sense we know exactly what he means.
So when a suspicious Fields says, "Ah, there's an Ethiopian in the fuel
supply," the mere fact that we can decipher his code and understand it to
say "There's a nigger in the woodpile" assures us that we are complicit in
the agon of this heroic clown. When Fields touches pain, he touches pain
for us. And something cathartic follows. Laughing out our shame, we are
And now consider two different ways that a seriously antisemitic master of
language could write and read the word "Jew."
The letters in  _"I Cease Not to Yowl": Ezra Pound's Letters to Olivia
Rossetti Agresti_, ed. Demetres P. Tryphonopoulos and Leon Surette
(University of Illinois Press, 1998) dwell obsessively on a single subject:
you, Olivia Agresti, should be an antisemite. In these letters you see Old
Ez at his craziest -- for instance, when he complains in letter 70 that
Hitler was "very lucid re/ money/ unfortunately he was bit by dirty jew
mania for World DOmination [. . .] this WORST of German diseases was got
from yr/ idolized and filthy biblical bastards. Adolf clear on the bacillus
of kikism/ that is on nearly all the other poisons. but failed to get a
vaccine against that."
That particular letter was written during Pound's incarceration in St.
Elizabeths Federal Hospital for the Insane. Its tone is all too
representative of the other letters in this volume. Just last month,
however, Oxford UP published another volume of letters from the same period
which shows Pound in a wholly different light: as a loving husband, writing
tender and consoling letters to his wife. This is _Ezra and Dorothy Pound:
Letters in Captivity, 1945-1946_, ed. Omar Pound and Robert Spoo. I suppose
the word "kike" may appear somewhere in this book, but I haven't found it
yet. What there is, though, is antisemitism -- antisemitism of the special
kind that Professor Worrell discusses.
Pound, who was a great critic as well as a great poet, knew how that
language system worked. In letter 44, he wryly asks his wife to "Tell
Mother you noted the family style in her letter i.e. allusiveness to
matters not in the mind of the general reader." That family style was
acquired by marriage as well as birth. At least in the early years of their
marriage, Dorothy Pound was more antisemitic than her husband, but after
decades with the author of _The Cantos_ she learned to express her feelings
in his language. You have to read her letters, therefore, as if they were
footnotes alluding to a text somewhere off the page. One interesting
example can be found in letters 40 and 43.
The subject of letter 40 is a visit to Mrs. Pound from an Italian
publisher, Aurelio Marasa, who proposes to produce an edition de luxe of
Pound's work -- "anything you want." This flattering offer is accompanied,
in Mrs. Pound's letter, by an exercise in anthropological description: "He
has a fairly heavy jaw bone: very nervous & quick, light brown eyes -- dark
straight hair, a trifle jap: this last. He reads English easily but can't
speak it. I suppose there are newrich or oldusury in the show: haven't yet
If you've read _The Cantos_ you'll know exactly what that word "usury"
means in the Pound lexicon. If you haven't, though, you'll be at sea -- if
not here, then in letter 43, where a whole interrogation regarding the
publisher's racial purity is condensed into a single parenthesis: "Marasa
(Arabs in 800 in Sicily) & [his partner] came this a.m. [. . .] They are
full of friendship & kindness." What that parenthesis means, if you've read
Pound, is: We can trust this man; he doesn't have Jewish blood. But Dorothy
Pound doesn't have to say anything that crude. Now a proud native speaker
of her husband's language, she speaks it allusively. A loving wife, she
knows how to say _ce que va sans le dire_. It brings her closer to the man
she loves and serves.
And Pat Buchanan and his audience? Maybe something of the same intimate
kind is happening between them. Comments, anyone?
Jonathan Morse
Department of English, University of Hawaii
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