Commentary Magazine


Wager and Pound

To the Editor:

With regard to Samuel Lipman’s “Wagner Comes to Broadway” [January] . . .: a quarter-century ago Peter Viereck wrote of two kinds of Wagnerians; those whom he called the “Gentle Wagnerians” and the “Tough Wagnerians.” The former, Viereck pointed out, “loved Wagner as a pure musician”; while the latter “preached his proto-Nazism and anti-Semitism and . . . included Houston Stewart Chamber-lain and Adolf Hitler.” At this point Viereck adds this significant warning: “In Wagner’s day those who, like Nietzsche, prophetically feared Wagner’s political influence were ridiculed: how could a ‘crank artist’ ever be a political ‘danger’? Yet in the century that followed, Wagner’s metapolitical credo became the main fountainhead of Hitler’s ideology.”

A bit strong, perhaps, but Viereck was employing the Wagner parallel to demonstrate that just as in Wagner’s day there were “pure Wagnerians,” in our own time there are those within (and without) the academy who persist in defending Ezra Pound for the “purity” of his verse. Surely it is easier to identify the sordid brutality—the appeal to Schrecklichkeit—in the poetry of Pound than it is to discover such themes in Wagner’s music. Only one as learned in the subject as Samuel Lipman is able to match the words to the music of the German composer. Moreover, Mr. Lipman is on solid ground when he dismisses the Broadway production of Meistersinger in terms of a prophylactic puerility, demanding that if Wagner be done at all, he be done with all the harsh accents the performance (in text and inspiration) demands. . . .

But music is an abstract art, too subtle for the unsophisticated listener to get the message which Wagner spelled out in his writings, which include venomous attacks on the Jews. Poetry, of course, has its own subtlety, yet it is not ever so obscure as to make meaning absolutely unintelligible. In the works of Ezra Pound, it is true, the “meaning” is often obscured by vague allusions, an incredible intrusion of ancient and forgotten dialects, including some of the most flagrant abuses of Provençal, a language he knew as little as he did the other ancient tongues he abused. (Robert Graves has written with much intelligence on this aspect of the Poundian “paideums,” while Gilbert Highet’s hilarious parody of Pound’s Provençalese remains a masterpiece of the genre.)

But Pound, be it said in his defense, did not want to be misunderstood, or to have his magnum opus, The Cantos, confined to the aesthetic blandishments of sycophants or sophomores. Nor did he savor the “purity” of Yeats or Eliot in approaching his masterpiece. What he wrote—he insisted—was an epic in which usury was defined as the supernal evil of this world on top (or bottom) of which stands the Jew, “disease incarnate.” He brushed aside Yeats’s aesthetic appreciation of the hidden linguistics in The Cantos as being so much eyewash, at the same time he told T. S. Eliot that he would never “achieve understanding” until he rid himself of the “Jewish poison.”

Moreover, in his epic he wrote with unusual harshness of “yidds” and “kikes” and “usurers,” always meaning those lower-case “jews” whose only purpose in life is to send nice, decent, peace-loving “goyim” to their death:

the yidd is a stimulant, and the
    goyim are cattle
in gt./proportion and go to saleable
    slaughter
with the maximum of docility. . . .

Wagner would surely have loved to put these words (from the first of the over-prized Pisan Cantos) to music. In fact, the second of this series of canticles consists almost entirely of a musical score attributed to an obscure minnesinger. Pound loved music, Wagner loved anti-Semitic lyrics. In any case, Pound is not without his coterie of adulators, not only for the “purity” of his poetic talents, but even for his “toughness.”

Wagner, it has been noted, served as intellectual Wegweiser for a future Great War in which Germany would triumph over all—Deutschland iiber alles—as the martial anthem has it. The kind of Gehenna Ezra Pound anticipated, and helped to articulate in verse and prose and via the spoken word over the Rome radio during World War II, was realized in the crematoria and gas chambers of the “perceptive” Hitler—“furious from perception,” Pound called him in one of his Cantos. He knew what the “yidds” and the “kikes” had in store for the world unless they were dealt with firmly, forcefully, once and for all. And if Pound, toward the end of his life, vented his venom at democracy as something from which only the “kikery” benefited (see Canto 91)—“democracies electing their sewage/till there is no thought of holiness/a dung flow from 1913/ and, in this, their kikery functioned”—it remained for a well-entrenched academic in one of our most prestigious universities (Dartmouth) to hail Pound as a “civilizing force,” at the same time Professor Hugh Kenner of Johns Hopkins University saw fit to single out Canto 52 as proving that Pound had in mind only “to decrease rather than to encourage anti-Semitism.” As proof of this, I quote the following from the Canto, the “Ben” referred to being Benjamin Franklin:

Remarked Ben: better keep
  out the jews
or yr/grand children will
  curse you. . . .

Here, it will be noted, even the word which speaks for itself is perverted to serve a baneful end. So that it can be said, if Wagner’s muse reached out for the grim heroics of war—war in all its bloody gore—Pound’s muse calls for something more, namely, the destruction of a people to further his quest for perfect understanding, one not tainted by that “Jewish poison” he warned Eliot against. Thus, if Wagner served as guide to World War I, and Pound sang the glories of Mussolini and Hitler in anticipation of Holocaust I, it can be said with little trepidation that what the uncritical adulators of both Wagner and Pound demand of us is that we await gently (if mournfully) . . . Holocaust II.

Max Geltman
New York City

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