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Ezra Pound’s Jefferson and/or Mussolini

[1]1,971 words

Ezra Pound
Jefferson and/or Mussolini [2]
London: Stanley Nott Ltd., 1935

Ezra Pound liked his books charged with meaning. “Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand,” he wrote in his Guide to Kulchur, another one of his, shall we say, B-Sides.

In that book Pound lays down his paideuma, which he believes will be integral in the continuing anti-usura revolution of “Make It New.”

In Jefferson and/or Mussolini (henceforth, and/or), Pound evokes two figures with seemingly different tastes and circumstances and juxtaposes their qualities. This book is not as disciplined as his Cantos or his other poetry books, but it is an important piece for any Pound scholar or fan. It is written in media res while Mussolini reigns in Italy and before the Second World War. He is well aware of how baffling it sounds, but he weaves his literary ideogram of these two men of genius with typical adroitness.

And/or reads as a proto-blog, akin to his ABC books, where he writes sentences that could come off as pretentious or simple and leaves the genuine reader sifting through history and literature trying to exact his meaning. For example, Pound is surprisingly lenient towards Lenin, “who alone may have undertaken more responsibility” than Il Duce. This responsibility is akin to Jefferson’s, who recognized himself as an aristocrat of the soul — or at least the intellect — and followed the path of responsibility. I am not comparing Lenin to Jefferson here. Pound’s views of Lenin are peripheral here.

First it is important to understand Pound’s view of the United States and this will better help us to see how these two revolutionary figures are connected.

Pound’s view on American History is the fulcrum of any argument for his patriotism, and the crux of his sincere views towards European tradition on the American continent.

In brief, Pound’s metanarrative is honest labor and production versus usury. From the Emperor of China minting copper so peasants could feed themselves during a drought to the issue of paper money in the Colonies, primarily Pennsylvania, for Ezra Pound, the root of civilization is honest labor. Below are the major points:


Ezra Pound, America, Roosevelt and the Causes of the Present War (London: Peter Russell, 1951)

It is said that the English colonies rebelled due to “taxation without representation,” one of the Ivory Tower’s most successful kernels of misinformation, but because the Bank of England — the usurers there in the City of London — felt threatened by the provincial money across the Atlantic. “The inability of the colonists to get power to issue their own money permanently out of the hands of George III and the international bankers was the prime reason for the Revolutionary War,” reports Benjamin Franklin.[1]

This is the continuing revolution, the man of public spirit versus the grafters and men seeking private gain.

Early on the reader is told the angle at which Pound is looking at this seeming dichotomy, “I am concerned with what he [Jefferson] actually did, with the way his mind worked both when faced with a particular problem in a particular geography, and when faced with the unending problem of CHANGE” (p. 11).

Jefferson famously said, “The best government is that which governs least.” Pound elucidates that “shallow interpretations puts all the emphasis on the adverb ‘least’ and slides gaily over the verb ‘to govern’” (p. 15).

How did Jefferson germinate this maxim into early American life? This is important since Pound is only concerned with ideas that can be brought into action. That, to him, is the only way an idea should be weighed. Anything that is only good in theory can be thrown in the garbage.

With a limited electorate, Jefferson was able to guide this electorate publicly and share his ideas through conversation with the intelligentsia of his era. These ideas and perceptions were worth their salt, too.

“No man in history had ever done more and done it with less violence or with needless expenditure of energy. . . . Given the obvious ‘weakness of the American colonies AND geography, he committed the greatest single territorial conquest or acquist [sic] that either you or I can at the moment recall,” he writes in reference to the Louisiana Purchase (p. 15). Jefferson knew the nation could not go to war, nor thought it necessary to do so when he could simply throw Napoleon some money to more than double the nation’s borders — and allow Europe to bludgeon itself while the former Colonies went through pre-pubescence.

Pound calls this “the opportunism of the artist” as opposed to the opportunism of “doing the other guy the minute you get the chance.”

The former “has a definite aim, and creates out of the materials present . . . and this is a matter of WILL” (p. 16).

This opportunism brings us to the other side of the coin, Il Duce.

Pound asks rhetorically, “What would Tom Jefferson do and say in a narrow Mediterranean peninsula containing Foggia, Milan, Siracusa, Firenze, with a crusted conservatism that no untravelled American can even suspect of existing” (p. 23).

Some lines later, after setting the stage with the long, layered and idiosyncratic history of Italy writes with emphasis, “AND there are in Italy fascist officials trying their best NOT to govern one whit more than is necessary” (p. 23). This is the first salvo that will bring a good and decent citizen brought up on Allied propaganda to questioning if the spoon is really there. The fascist regime in Italy did not micromanage its citizens, did not over regulate them, was not a corporate plutocracy. Quite the contrary, the fascists wrested the resources from the parasites and drained the swamps that for millennia intellectuals merely talked about draining:

In the eleventh year of the Fascist era, industry was not controlled, but the state was willing to supervise. At the same time, Mussolini placed emphasis on having a government strong enough to get justice . . . various powers in said industry were told to confer, and were asked to work out an agreement of quota production with no finger of government interjected. If they can’t agree the government will take on the job of arranging an agreement. (p. 46)

Pound spends a lot of pages attempting to explain to the reader how complex Italy is, far more complex than Russia, “Lenin did not have the Vatican in his front garden” (p. 25). An excited Milanese curses the Neapolitan for an African, the old civilization of Rome, the duchies and kingdoms united recently — if there is any truth on the Italian peninsula, it is that the truth is different up and down it.

And this is where we get Mussolini the artifex. He has materials and he has the will. “Take him anything as the artist and you will get muddled with contradictions” (p. 34). For Pound, he is a genius. He sees ten things where the common man sees one “PLUS the ability to register that multiple perception in the material of his art” (p. 88). He called bluffs, and Pound touts him as a debunker. He had an interest in machinery only in so far as it could benefit the people and not turn them into cogs (a similar distrust was found in Jefferson). He had to keep labor in Italy, the inverse problem of Jefferson, who never could have conceived men leaving the United States for Napoleonic or Royal Europe (p. 71) . . . The secret, of Mussolini, “is. . . the capacity to pick out the element of major importance in any tangle and go straight to the center . . .” (p. 66). And a major component was the nationalization of banks in March 1936, that is, kicking out the banksters, and Pound reports that after the First World War, Italy was the only “clot of energy in Europe capable of opposing . . . the infinite evil of the profiteers and the sellers of men’s blood for money” (p. 61).

Furthermore, Fascism for Pound is the first anti-snob movement in Italy since Cato the Younger. Mussolini juggled the crusted conservatism and the energy, the north and the south, the Vatican with inspirational enthusiasm. Something Italy needed since the shadow cast by Dante’s Divine Comedy, and going further back, Rome herself. Or as Pound puts in a Jacksonian colloquy, “All right, bo’, you come along with a card deck, set card for each clot of theories, demo-liberal, bolshevik, anti-clerical, etc., and make that junk-shop into a nation, a live nation on its toes like a young bull in the Cordova ring” (p. 67). The types of people to make such a nation are not the opportunists like the all too common war profiteer or young, ambitious usurer fresh out of the Wharton School, but those “who are interested in the WORK being done and the work TO DO, and not in personal considerations, personal petty vanities, and so on. Such impersonality seems to me implicit in fascism . . .” (p. 68). Responsibility to the nation. Just like Jefferson.

Of all the frauds that pretend to serve the people, the worst, perhaps, is the Press. Pound does not hesitate to discuss this freedom, both in Italy and the good old United States. He jokes that he’d read about it (i.e., censorship of the press in Italy) so much in foreign newspapers, that he had taken it for granted. Pound mentions a conversation with a local newspaper editor:

A few weeks ago the editor was . . . surprised when apropos a fairly strong expression of opinion, I asked him if he could print it. Of course he could print it, he could print anything he liked. There was no censorship of that sort. If he made an ass of himself someone would tell him. I have seen several cheery Italians, fascists, bearing up after a series of reprimands. As the Duce pithily remarked: “Where the Press is ‘free’ it merely serves special interests.” (p. 41)

Between this truer sense of freedom of the press, and the government governing least, the “continuing revolution” as Pound is wont to call it, is easily bridged.

With Mussolini and/or Jefferson, we have three major themes with superficial differences that paint their particular histories. They are: direction of the will, duty and responsibility, and genius. Where Jefferson was a polumetis on the frontier of the Atlantic seaboard with raw material and energy to spare, Mussolini had millennia of inherited theories, styles, classes, and regions all with diverse perceptions of one another — with barely a cohesive tongue — and was able to free what energy the peninsula had and put ideas into action and make the young generation excited about their country.

Pound, with an eye for the future, concludes this book with a concise explanation of fascism:

The fascist revolution was FOR the preservation of certain liberties and FOR the maintenance of a certain level of culture, certain standards of living, it was NOT a refusal to come down to a level of riches or poverty, but a refusal to surrender certain immaterial prerogatives, a refusal to surrender a great slice of the cultural heritage. (p. 127)

And Pound finishes with some advice for the spread of fascism into the Anglosphere:

The would-be fascists would have to make a dispassionate analysis of fascism on the hoof, the rivoluzione continua as it has been for over a decade, its main trend, its meaning; and they would profit by such study in considering what elements can be used in either England or America, the general sanity and not the local accidentals, not the advisabilities [sic] of particular time and place but the permanent elements of sane and responsible government.

Towards which I assert again my own firm belief that the Duce will stand not with despots and lovers of power but with the lovers of ORDER τo καλόν (i.e., beauty, nobility in a moral sense). (p. 128)


1. The Money Masters — How International Bankers Gained Control of America, directed by William T. Still (1996), VHS.