In TAC, Scott Beauchamp reviews the new book The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, by Daniel Swift (“Ezra Pound, Locked Away”):
Ezra Pound is a litmus test as much as he is a poet. His cartoonish anti-semitism and support of Mussolini during the Second World War, made famous by a series of almost unintelligible radio broadcasts for which he was charged with treason, have come to overshadow Pound’s poetic genius in the popular imagination. He isn’t Pound the poet, he’s Pound the fascist poet. And his reputation forces us to confront the question of whether art can, or should, stand apart from the politics of the artist. Answer “yes” and you open yourself to accusations of fascist, or at least reactionary, sympathies—regardless of what your politics might actually be. Answer “no” and you admit, in some small way, that art itself doesn’t exist except to serve as a kind of elaborate Trojan Horse for political opinions…
Of Pound’s alleged ‘insanity’:
In 1946 when a jury found Pound to be “of unsound mind,” unfit to face trial, that decision was based in large part on a reading of his poetry during the hearing. Swift writes that Pound’s lawyer was “presenting poetry as proof of insanity.” And obviously it worked. “The doctor is working as literary critic…” writes Swift, “So much depends upon the way in which we might be willing to read Pound’s poetry.”
In 1955, Pound was diagnosed with Psychotic Disorder, undifferentiated. By the time he was released from St. Elizabeth’s in 1958, his diagnosis had changed to Narcissistic Personality Disorder, qualified as “permanent and incurable.” These diagnoses were based almost entirely on interpretations of Pound’s poetry, or things Pound said about politics, literature, and his family history. In searching, elegant prose, Swift shows us how the entire institution of mental health didn’t simply fail to comprehend the vast complications of Pound’s work, but, in a sense, reified Pound himself by construing his mind as a problem to be solved. Probably not coincidentally, the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM) was published during Pound’s time in St. Elizabeth’s. The manual is a comprehensive (although constantly changing) list of definitions of mental aberrations. Nowhere in the manual is there a definition of sanity itself. Swift’s book implicitly suggests that perhaps this is because “sanity” is itself a concept that shifts to adhere to the political and social status quo. A sane person is someone who works comfortably within the logic of capitalist, liberal, vulgar materialist culture—the very things that Pound raged against.
Another complication to the narrative that Pound was completely unhinged from shared reality was the number of luminaries and aspiring artists who visited him while he was in St. Elizabeth’s. “It was the world’s least orthodox literary salon,” writes Swift. “…convened by a fascist, held in a lunatic asylum…Among the many who came to visit – tourists, young activists, ambassadors and academics – were foremost the poets. T.S. Eliot…Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, W.S. Merwin, Charles Olson, Kathleen Raine, Allen Tate and William Carlos Williams…John Berryman…Louis Zukofsky…Randall Jarrell, Archibald MacLeish…” The list is a who’s who of mid-century literati.