January 22, 2018
s George Orwell lay dying from TB in a hospital bed in 1949, he summoned one last burst of energy. The occasion was a requested response by Partisan Review, a leftist American magazine, to Ezra Pound receiving a literary award. Was the Bollingen Foundation correct in this action, given that the American poet committed treason with his anti-American, pro-fascist radio broadcasts in Italy during World War II? Orwell wrote that he supported the award if based on Pound’s literary merit, but spent the bulk of his response attacking Pound’s “disgusting” politics and criticizing the Award Committee for not mentioning the poet’s fascism. Orwell’s essay put to the test his belief that a writer’s literary ability could be judged independent of his politics, no matter how odious―and Pound's were certainly odious.
Daniel Swift, a Senior Lecturer in English at the New College of the Humanities in London, lays bare these odious politics in his excellent new book, The Bughouse. Swift acknowledges that Pound was a fascist, two decades before his anti-American WWII broadcasts, but his focus is on Pound’s thirteen-year incarceration, starting in 1945, after he turned himself over to the American army. At first held in a military prison, Pound was eventually moved to St. Elisabeth's, a federal hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, D.C.
Was Pound truly insane, or merely shamming to avoid the death penalty? In attempting to answer this, Swift raises a larger question: is attraction to extremist political movements a mark of mental instability?
Swift does not provide a clear answer as to whether Pound was a fruitcake or a rational manipulator. Instead, he takes the more complex view that the poet was both. Swift offers proof of Pound's rationality. Intellectuals such as T.S. Eliot—visiting Pound's bizarre “bughouse” literary salon—found him lucid. And if good poetry requires a stable personality (though Jack Kerouac’s flight-from-reality poetry, reflecting the beatnik’s mental instability, makes this debatable), then Pound's continuing to write award-winning poetry speaks to his reasonableness.
There is also proof that, far from being a drooling nutcase, Pound knew how to placate his critics. Although he publicly denounced his wartime anti-Semitism (which actually was present since the 1920s) upon his release in the late 1950s, he privately held to his view that Jews led a string-pulling world conspiracy―holding, for example, that they were behind the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, Swift shows that Pound was, politically, all over the map, which at the very least suggests an oft-confused mind. The poet who bashed American democracy and pined for the mass murder of American Jews also professed his love for the American Constitution. The committed fascist foe of world communism nevertheless praised Joseph Stalin.
But the praise for Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini might simply have been born of a love of unrestrained power. The sanity of those who hunger for power has never been agreed upon by the psychiatric community, then or now. Swift does not make much of Pound's brutalizing by the American army. For two months, he was housed in an outdoor six-by-six cage. It provided scant protection from the elements―or from the rapists and murderers who shared the prison.
However toxic Pound’s beliefs, his punishment was for merely speaking, rather than carrying out any criminal acts against the Jews he so hated. Having raised the important question about sanity and extremism, Swift too quickly abandons it in favor of focusing on Pound's meetings with visiting poets. The bulk of The Bughouse involves Swift trying to ascertain what was discussed between Pound and both his visiting contemporaries and his young disciples.
Swift is a historian, not an essayist, and is not confined to shaping his work around a controversial point. Instead he examines the whole man, and shows that Pound was a fascist, both manipulative and insane. As a result, he has produced a complex look at a controversial figure, and the reader benefits from his grown-up attitude.