Bad People And Good Art

Review: 'The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound' by Daniel Swift

Ezra Pound / Getty Images

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In 2013, the film version of Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel Ender's Game was released, and at the movie's preview, the actor Harrison Ford was asked by a reporter how he could appear in a film based on a book by an author who opposed same-sex marriage.

Instead of replying, as a previous generation might have, that art is independent of its creators, Ford made careful noises about his own support for same-sex marriage and the movie-makers' resolute scouring of the story to make sure that no suggestion of the novelist's 2013 politics were present in the script adapted from a book he had written 30 years before. The producer even took to the pages of Entertainment Weekly to reassure us that Card had no real involvement in the film (apart from, you know, writing the book) and, anyway, if you think about it, maybe the film is enough removed from the author that it could be judged by itself. He was roundly mocked for that retrograde idea, and activists continued to organize a boycott of the film—on the grounds that the author's current political views made it impossible for him to have created an independently worthy piece of art.

Five years later, here in 2018, and the incident seems almost quaint. By now, claims about the ethics, ethnicity, and politics of artists and their artworks have taken aesthetics by the throat and choked art into submission. To read much about artistry these days is to encounter an insistence that only people of the right ethnic background are allowed to work on certain topics. It's to discover a revivified bowdlerization that purges impolitic words from republications of old texts. It's to find a new set of copy-editors who scour manuscripts looking for inadvertent signs of wrongthink. It's to learn that immoral actors are erased from films.

In other words, we have somehow managed to marry the prissiest of Victorian librarians with the most Stakhanovite of Soviet censors. Or, to put the point another way, this is exactly the wrong moment for The Bughouse, Daniel Swift's new account of Ezra Pound's 12 years in St. Elizabeths mental hospital—the refuge in which the American government stashed the poet, gladly declaring him insane rather than hanging him for his treasonous support of Mussolini during the Second World War. Swift insists that his topic "encapsulates the central questions about art, politics and poetry, about the connection between experimental art and extreme political sentiment," but The Bughouse proves a failure at advancing our understanding of these questions.

Partly that's because the book just isn't much good. Back in 1934, A.J.A. Symons published The Quest for Corvo, a brilliant autobiographical account of a biographer's search for information about his subject. But that genre of biography, the watch-me-research-my-topic school of writing, has palled in subsequent decades, and there's little edifying in learning from Swift that "On a perfect spring break day I went to the National Archives in Washington," and "each hour the files arrive in boxes on a squeaky cart from the vault beneath." Or that "I sat at a metal table outside a pizzeria on a sloping cobbled street in the town above the castle and ordered a carafe of red wine, and read the last" of Pound's cantos. The biographer may find himself fascinating, but the reader comes to The Bughouse for Ezra Pound, not Daniel Swift.

In greater part, however, the book fails simply because we have no cultural possibility of answering the questions that Pound's incarceration poses for us. There's little doubt that Pound actually did commit treason. In 1941, living in Italy, he began the first of what would be more than 200 broadcasts on Roman radio. He railed against the Jewish world conspiracy with a fervor matched only by his denunciations of Victorian poetry. He sneered at America's "chief war pimp, Frankie Finkelstein Roosevelt," in the same impassioned voice he used to excoriate bad translators of Chinese poetry. When Allied troops arrived in Rome in 1945, he was imprisoned in a steel cage, in a prison camp for violent criminals.

In November of that year, he was flown back to the United States, close to insane from the experience—which may have been what gave prosecutors the face-saving idea of having him declared "mentally unfit for trial." He spent the next dozen years in St Elizabeths, where he presided over what Swift calls "the world's most unorthodox literary salon: convened by a fascist, held in a lunatic asylum." The poets T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams came to chat with him. So did a raggedy fringe of American nutballs, from bimetallist currency kooks to anti-Stratfordian Baconists. Anti-Semites were particularly hopeful of chances to visit and hear his view that opposition to segregation was a Jewish plot.

Along the way, he won the Bollingen Prize for the best book of poetry published in 1949—and, considered just as poetry, The Pisan Cantos deserved the honor. Pound was writing at length a poetry that was as good as he had ever done. Except, of course, that he was an unrepentant admirer of Mussolini, a hater of the Jews, and a traitor who escaped punishment for his treason only by tacitly agreeing that he was crazy as a loon. "No comment from the bughouse," he wrote in response to the controversy that followed the awarding of the Bollingen Prize to The Pisan Cantos.

Authors may be responsible for their books, but are books responsible for their authors? Does it matter that François Villon was a thief? Matter, that is to say, to the question of whether he was a good poet. Does it matter that Chaucer was a bureaucrat, or Swinburne a nasty-minded neurotic? No doubt, the lives of artists—their interests, their foibles, and their personalities—influence the topics and themes they take up in their art. But does any of that dictate our answer to the question of whether they were actually good at creating art?

Ratchet the question one more turn: What about their personal beliefs? What about their politics? Is T.S. Eliot a good poet, or a bad one, because he was a churchgoer and his poems from "Ash Wednesday" to Four Quartets are deeply Christian? Is Rumi good or bad because he was a Sunni? Must we declare Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will a poor movie because it glorifies Hitler? Must we dismiss Lampedusa's The Leopard because both the author and the novel are profoundly reactionary? Must we cast aside Neruda's poetry and Brecht's plays because the authors and several of their works were full-throatedly Stalinist?

There was a time within living memory when the answer to all these question was a snorted no. Bad people could make good art, and good people could make bad art, just as an immoral worldview didn't require that artists fail at art, and a moral worldview didn't insure that artists succeed. Arturo Martini's La Sete sculpture was neither good nor bad simply because the sculptor was a Fascist, any more than the question of whether Oscar Wilde was a good writer or a bad one boiled down to his homosexuality. We thought we had learned from Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal that good art is good art even when it celebrates evil, just as we thought we had learned from, say, the 19th-century novels of the Religious Tract Society that bad art is still bad even when in celebrates the pious virtues.

As an understanding of art, this complete separation of ethics from aesthetics was fairly weak, relying on philosophical presumptions that were rarely thought out or even believed in other contexts. Still, we might be forgiven for feeling a little nostalgic for the older understanding. A little sad at its fading. The case of Ezra Pound could put the question for us in a pointed way—but only if we still believed that Pound was a great poet. And who still reads the poetry of Ezra Pound? Who would bother to read him, in a day in which the character of artists is considered the primary character of their art?

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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