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Ezra Pound’s Salo Cantos: Fascism, Anti-Semitism and Anti-Feminism in War-Ravaged Italy

Introduction

Suppressed from publication until 1986, The Salo Cantos were first treated among Pound’s other conceptions like Shakespearian bastard children, hidden in the back of The Cantos until 1989 when they were put in the middle of The Cantos, where they still are today.  The shame and secrecy surrounding these cantos has everything to do with their content, which is not only openly Fascist, but also racist, anti-Semitic and violent.  Conceived at the end of 1944, the poet did not always feel shame in regards to his “songs.”  Originally, the proud Pound sent copies of the propagandistic odes to Admiral Ubaldo degli Uberti, an admiral for Mussolini; to Mezzasoma, the Minister of Popular Culture of the Republic of Salo; to his daughter for the Bafana, the Feast of the Epiphany; and to Mussolini, copies that were later found among Il Duce’s papers after the collapse of Salo. 

On January 23, 1944, with the help of Pound’s friend, Admiral degli Uberti, lines 9-35 of Canto 72 appeared in La Marina Republicana, a naval newspaper in Salo (1).  One week later, on February 1, 1944, Canto 73 appeared in La Marina Republicana in its entirety (2).  But after this brief moment of recognition, the cantos slipped back into oblivion and did not appear publicly again until 1973, when a limited edition (about 25 copies) were re-published for private sale on behalf of the Estate of Ezra Pound.  Typewritten on photocopied sky blue paper in a bound pamphlet, some copies were also distributed to a select group of public libraries in the U.S. and Canada, in the hopes of acquiring an international copyright for them. 

Ten years later the two cantos appeared again printed in their entirety by Vanni Scheiwiller a Milan publishing company, with an introduction by Pound’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz.  In 1986 they appeared hidden in the back of The Cantos, and again three years later, in 1989, in the middle of The New Directions edition, where they are to this day (3).

Historical Context

Written in December of 1944 after Mussolini’s regime had fallen, after Mussolini had fled North to set up the Republic of Salo, when there were bombings day and night in Rapallo, and Fascist functionaries were fleeing to the North, while the Allies were moving offensively in pursuit, the cantos reflect Pound’s last gasp for Fascism.  Pound, at this time has returned to Rapallo from the Tirol, where he fled two days after the fall of Mussolini’s regime, to find Mussolini trying to find recruits and renew Blackshirt (4) loyalty from his base at Lake Garda.  Pound has watched conditions worsen since September 8, 1943, when the armistice began, something he notes in Canto 72 (Purgatorio hai gia fatto/Dopo il tradiment, nei Giorni del Settembre Venuniesimo (5)) He has kept up a steady correspondence with various officials at the Italian Ministry of Culture as well as published articles in newspapers in and around Rapallo.  Through these correspondences and publications, and through the work itself, he provided us with a window through which to see the particular state of mind which brought about the rancid, acerbic cantos.

On May 25, 1944, Pound wrote this article for the Salo newspaper Il Populo di Alessandria (6) :

“I’m sorry…

but I would like to make a distinction.  I haven’t the right to judge the particulars, not to get into internal questions, but really I’m sorry that certain Italians who have strugged for the Fascist ideal and for the cleansing of Italy don’t write in the newspapers anymore.

I should not judge, but I cannot help but remember one who was embittered by the distance between plans and praxis…

I remember another one, March on Rome, Spanish War, who cursed the disloyalty of the high-ranking who today all the world knows were disloyal….

I cannot judge them, but I cannot help but lament their non participation in an operation that seems to me to be the realization of their desires.

Still between those people and they who sabotaged the revolution, there won’t be any dealings…

The mercantilists have about as much civic sense as a rabbit.  Some don’t even have a member and cannot even function as a rabbit.

The slave likes the vice and weakness of the master because he sees his future precisely in this vice and weakness.

Pound’s tone, though defensive, is not yet despairing.  His criticism is more directed at the mercantilists than the silent sympathizers.  His habit of switching from topic to topic survives, and through this desultory writing, the extent of his venom against the mercantilists is somewhat diluted.  What Pound implies, though, towards the silent sympathizers, is not a mere lament, but also an implied demand, though he qualifies his disappointment by saying that “those silent sympathizers” are in no way as guilty as the profiteers. 

One month later Pound’s criticism of the Italian people becomes more pointed and accusatory, as he distinguishes those who resisted July 25th (7) and September 8th (8) from those who did not.  Quoting an Italian who resisted, Pound seems to find a mouthpiece to espouse his beliefs, such as the belief in the superiority of Chinese thought to Christian, the importance of precise terminology, a Confucian notion, and distinguishing between the good and the bad, asserting that the new Italian must love truth and justice and must win back his past good name.  The article begins:

Agreed:

An Italian, one who resisted the 25th of July, who resisted the 8th of September, sends me the enclosed document:

“It is time the Italians become conscious of what honor and duty means.  It is time the Italians, who even brag about their most ancient civilization, learn to discern between the good and the bad.  It is time that the school of the Italian Social Republic (9) teach the children, other than the first elements of knowing, a respect for the spoken word, faith in the agreement that has been clearly settled, the love of the truth and of justice.  This is the way that the new Italian should go about his country and the world if he wants to attain again the good name and the prestige that today, unfortunately, through no fault of his own, he has for the most part lost.

I agree. I am an engineer. I don’t have rights over the Italian will.  Still, I can say that, according to the events in the millennial history, certain results follow certain causes.

Without respecting the spoken word, government does not last.

If one does not teach this faith in elementary school, it will be difficult to learn it later.  Every time that a dynasty has lasted three centuries in China, wisdom was at the base.

From a magistrate one remembers: In the times of good government, it was like an arrow.  In the times of bad government, it was an arrow.  The arrow, being in the Chinese mind, the most direct thing that exists, is considered a symbol of rectitude.

After the death of Confucius, some wanted to contribute to live together under the rule of one of them, but a voice asked: “Washed in the autumn rain, whitened by the summer sun, what whiteness will ever arrive at this whiteness?”

This lyricism has lasted millenniums.  It is mystical and it is civic.

The Jesuits were considered scandalous when they repeated to colleagues in Europe that the Chinese know the true God.

I don’t enter into theological discussions.  I want for the Italian priests to compete sincerely with the moral or with the ethical Confucius.  This does not involve heresy.

Civic order rises out of ethical order.

The Italian Risorgimenento was a light in the world.  That light will rise again. (June 8, 1944, written in Il Populo di Alessandria)

Pound’s belief in a return of the Fascist regime has not yet tired as he still refers to this regime as “the light" and espouses an eerie kind of mysticism that clearly delineates the white from the black and the good from the bad. The good he defines as Confucian ideals, Fascism, a civic sense, and the black as all that is opposed to this, and yet within this absolutism lies a fear as Pound hides behind the shield of the “good Italian” who proves his virtue by resisting the 25th of July and the 8th of September, days which marked the end of Fascism.

Just a few months later, conditions in and around Rapallo have deteriorated so much that, on the 14th of September, Pound wrote this letter to Mezzasoma, the Minister of Popular Culture of the Republic of Salo:

My dear Minister:

You will have to excuse me if I write to you occasionally about matters not directly under your jurisdiction….in Rapallo the main plaza has been devastated by bombs, although several of the arches dating back to the fourteenth century were undamaged.  It now seem that the “genius” of Genoa has ordered them torn down, probably with good intentions, but…

The Riviera has already lost much and we do not want the plaza at Rapallo to be among the treasures lost.  Those old arches resisted the bombing raid and several of them are works of art.

There is one arch in particular with a side panel that was conserved and restored with loving care by the late Luigi Monti, a friend of d’Annunzio, that served as a memorial to him and as a remembrance of the reawakening of ceramics (Ars Umbria).

Perhaps you can put this letter in the hands of someone who can halt the destruction.  The city is so completely abandoned that I don’t know who recognizes me these days.

Finally, if someone were willing, they would also do well to bring a little cement and calcimine to help the people in these mountains make cisterns, so that they can go on a bit longer.  The main problem in these hills is the lack of water, the evacuees (myself included) drink up what little there is left. (Redman 260)

What comes through in this letter is not only Pound’s genuine concern that the art of Italy be preserved, but also his desire to see the Republic function.  The town of Rapallo abandoned, the mountain people forlorn, he assumes a kind of leadership role, leader to the peasants and protector and caretaker of the surrounding area.  His tone courteous, his manner fatherly, he writes the Ministry to preserve the last “treasures” of Rapallo, to inform them of the needs of the people in and around Rapallo.  The arches Pound speaks about must have an image fixed in his mind, for he includes them in the canto when he writes of the destruction of the Temple Maletestiano: “Fallen are the arches, the walls are burned.” Even in the act of writing such a letter, he shows himself still somewhat hopeful about the future of the Republic.

As the allies move further and further North, Pound continues to work on his radio show, but he is growing more and more isolated in Rapallo.

On November 18, 1944, he writes Mezzasoma again, asking him to invite scholars to study the Greek and Latin classics together.  He writes:

All scholars isolated in invaded territory (10) as well as in the Republic are invited to re-read the Greek and Latin classics so as to find therein the reason the enemy wants to suppress or diminish the studies of the sources of our culture and our political wisdom, which is our most precious heritage. (Redman 265)

As one can see, Pound considers himself wholly Italian, referring to Italian culture as “our culture” and “our political wisdom” and “our most precious heritage.”  What also emerges is how disoriented he has become, still maintaining his utopian vision of the Republic.  Through the Allies are gaining ground and encroaching on Mussolini’s Republic, Pound still maintains that those outside the Republic are in isolation, while those inside -  the enlightened and cultured – are busily reading the classics in an attempt to understand why “the enemy wants to suppress” the enlightened thought of Fascism. Pound’s desire to create his own utopian Republic extends so far that he even compares it to the Roman Republic.  For example, on November 21, Pound writes “Cosi Scriveva Marc Antonio” for Il Populo di Alessandria:

Mark Anthony wrote like this:

Brothers! Let’s lick our wounds and prepare to be more men than smoke and also to be more united.  As no enemy can fight against a united people, this harmony must come! For God’s sake! Will we still listen to old gossip? Will sad inner passions make us consider the enemy the one who we ought to consider a friend?

And what?  Will we not be able to forgive ourselves enough to forgive each other?

Don’t horde generosity and forgiveness in a weak spirit.  Should we determine ourselves base and vile?

No, citizens, no: forget and pardon yourselves.  Sacrifice your private rancor, for we cannot be united without private sacrifice.

Let’s begin with controlling our passions, and then at least we will be worthy of not being controlled. (11)

Though fantastical, Pound’s imitation of Mark Anthony is appropriate to a Republic plagued by internal divisions.  As many officials fled or left, many also sensed that the end was coming and turned against each other (12).  As Pound would write two months later: “The common destiny of all the revolution is that of being betrayed.” (23 January 1945. Il Populo di Alessandria)   Imitating Mark Anthony, Pound warns against repeating the same mistakes as the Roman Republic, implying that just as Anthony and Cleopatra were defeated by Octavian in what began as strife within the Republic, so the Republic of Salo will destroy itself through internal divisions.  Quoting  Mark Anthony also aggrandizes the tiny Republic of Salo by comparing it to the great Roman Empire, the empire that Mussolini called the “ideal of force in action” (Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism 25). 

In Mussolini’s vision, Fascists would have to think of themselves as conquerors fixed on the end goal of becoming a modern day Roman Empire, as he writes: “It (Fascism) must be thought of as an Empire—that is to say, a nation which directly or indirectly rules other nations without the need to conquer a single square yard of territory.” For Pound renouncing growth was a sign of the death drive, but a desire for growth was “manifestation of vitality.” (25)  Here in that Pound harks back to Mark Anthony, a man widely known for his commanding rhetoric, he embraces Mussolini’s Fascism, which considered oration a means to strengthen the state.  By awarding the young prizes based on their oration, the regime attempted to develop the children into future orators, as the Roman tradition had developed children’s oratory skills as well (12).

Pound at this time is still busily working on “la Lega,” his utopian vision.  On November 22, he writes a Doctor Yang in China asking why China has not joined the New Europe, “the constructive force” as he calls it.  Railing against usurers and imploring China to act quickly because, as he says, “the speed of the events is so great that everyone needs to stay awake.” He pits Japan against China, dropping remarks about Japan’s cleverness as well as its aggression, implying China’s need for the New Europe to defend itself.  The letter reads:

November 22, 1944

Dear Doctor Yang,

I agree, and respect Chiang K.S. and your patriotism profoundly,  but on the other hand, it seems China owes NOTHING to the League of Nations, because China has not made alliances with the constructive forces of Europe/ does this mean that Japan has been cleverer in choosing alliances?

Then the system of usury always DESTROYS every country that tolerates it.  Witness the story of the San Giorgio Bank of Genoa / that was cannibalizing everything.  It was selling Corsica to France, etc. /

I don’t dispute the rights of China / I dispute only the politic most adept at conquering or conserving them. 

Japan certainly is not going to Peking in order to research the culture.  But wouldn’t it be more opportune for China if Japan had invaded Australia instead?

Perhaps the CONTINGENCIES have confined Chiang K.S. into doing the best thing at the moment he acted./I don’t dispute this: only I worry about seeing him, about trusting him enough to step on rotten wood.

I cannot JUDGE, I can only be curious.  Polonia wanted to preserve the seventeenth-century style of living.  Abysinnia remained in the year 400 before 1000.

All these collections of “modern” banks of China were possibly unnecessary, having seen the contingencies, but NOW we need to know immediately the system proclaimed three days ago by Hitler and already mentioned by Funk and Riccardi.

Let’s leave Japan to the force that counters force for a moment.  In order to HAVE enough force, well, let’s not speak of Japan.  Let’s speak of the INTERNAL economic structure and the relationships between China and the New Europe.

The speed of the events is so great that EVERYONE needs to stay awake.

Your friend,

Ezra Pound (13)

Pound tells Yang that they “ought not to speak of Japan”, but instead to speak of “the relationships between China and the New Europe” because of his evolving philosophy of economic harmony between nations.   Pound subscribed to a philosophy that a state that would cultivate relations between nations rather than aggression and competition, that this kind of state would bring “la forza sufficiente” to any economic situation.  Because Japan was a source of conflict for China, Pound suggests they speak of the future relations between China and Europe.  This call for an internal economic structure harks back to Pound’s earlier plea in which he pins all his hopes on an internal economic structure that will bind fascism together, not just in Italy, but in China, Germany and other countries.  For example, in Pound’s letter to Benito Mussolini written on the 15th of October 1935, he writes:

I propose a LEAGUE that Japan, Germany, Brazil, Hungary, and Austria ENTER IMMEDIATELY and happily. 

The time is not standing still.  We need to act before the English suspect anything.  I would say that in twenty-four hours we will be able to forget Abyssinia.

We can at least “divert” in the tactical sense.

Half of the strength of the S.d.N. resides in the fact that this people, “pacificsts” and idealogues etc.  One canNOT imagine a world without an international or supernational organization (Zapponi 205)

From these two letters, it is clear that Pound’s anxiety about the speed of events has been ongoing since the onset of the war, and the desire to build “an international or supernational organization” has also been building for many years.  Pound’s tendency to capitalize certain words also survives through the years.  Only the coded messages have grown more disillusioned.  Where the Pound of 1935’s coded message reads: LEAGUE ENTER IMMEDIATELY (Pounds letter to Mussolini, capitalized words, October 15th, 1935, Zapponi, 205), by 1944, almost ten years later, it reads: NOTHING DESTROYS CONTINGENCIES JUDGE NOW HAVE WITHIN EVERYONE (Pound’s letter to Doctor Yang, capitalized words, November 22, 1944, Zapponi, 210).  Though it appears he still believes in the Fascist movement, his belief in its ultimate victory has grown shakier. 

Almost one month later, Pound discovers that the Populo di Alessandria’s presses have stopped.  He writes a Salo Republic official on December 14th, “Populo di Alessandria in confusion.  I don’t have an outlet.  Presses stopped” (Redman 267).  The fact that the presses stopped must have preoccupied Pound greatly, not only because it left Pound without any public forum to discuss ideas, but also because it left him uncertain how to survive without the regular income he had been receiving from the newspaper.  At the same time, Pound’s much admired friend Marinetti dies.  On December 16th, Mussolini gives what is to be his speech appealing for a reversal of Axis fortunes and calling for a riscossa, a counterattack.  Pound’s isolation must have not have been improving, for he attempts again to gather intellectuals and artists to the Republic, repeating again that artists and intellectuals could reach some sort of resolution, some way of finding an end to this war. 

On December 22, 1944, he writes to the General Director of Cultural Exchange of the Republic of Salo’s Ministry of Popular culture, proposing a monthly newsletter where “the hundred or fifty of the intelligentsia who worked for the Republic could speak of the things that each believed important” (Redman 268).  One week later, on December 28, the Populo di Alessandria presses begin to run again, and Pound prints the following “Strategy” in the December 23rd edition: “It is conceded to the simple to say and maybe also to print the truth, their truth, that is the part of events that they have seen or saw; but to say or to print it only when it is too late to block the activity of the enemy or of the usurocracy, that is a part of the plutocratic strategy” (Ezra Pound’s Poetry and Prose 240).  In focusing on the “simple,” Pound directs his article to the men and women that by this time constitute most of the Republic, for almost all that are left are the peasants, as Pound’s repeated pleas to attract artists and intellectuals to the Republic indicate.  Not only this, but Pound must have realized the importance of continued contributions to the paper in order to keep it running, so that Pound’s argument that these people must see themselves as pivotal enough to become active could be not only to keep their voices heard but also to keep this uncertain press running.  On January 9, 1945, Pound writes another article called “Ta Pum…Ta Pum…E Ta Pum,” in which he again attempts to rally the Republic together, arguing the importance of maintaining a nation to combat the strength of the usurocracy.  He writes:

…Given

Given but not conceded, that a man can be without a fatherland, but he needs to be either an illiterate or a congenital idiot not to understand that in an economic cosmos the only organization capable of resisting the abomination and the tyranny of the stateless and global usurocracy is the Nation.

The usurers, monopolists, Hebrew-Londoners were already at work in the 1860’s, that is during the American War of Secession.  The attack then was against States’ Rights, the rights reserved to the individual states (already colonies) in the agreement of union. 

The ambition of every other fetal Roosevelt, Churchill, Eden, Lehman, Baruch, or B’nai Birth is to abolish every form of independence, every block of independence capable of putting together a typography and printing a magazine, even clandestinely.  We are not speaking of dailies.  It costs five million dollars to start a daily in New York, and it is dangerous to begin without a reserve, let’s say, of 10 or 20 million (and then it is necessary to be good to the givers of the publicity, the advertisers.)

The sanity and force of the body resides in the cells: there is no need to ask whether the brain nourishes all of the body, nor what digests the food or transports the belly and the head from home to the office.

(Or like Il Duce said “the great umbrella.”)

What is interesting here is the way in which Pound’s raging relates directly to his present situation.  The presses of the Meridiano di Roma, a Fascist newspaper based in Rome, having stopped after the March on Rome. The future of the Populo di Alessandria seems uncertain. Pound – smelling conspiriacy – rants against the Jews in New York and the “usurocracy” which prevents Populo di Alessandria, and other papers like it, from surviving. 

Pound’s first claim indicates much about his own fear.  He writes, “Given but not conceded, that a man can be without a fatherland, but he needs to be either an illiterate or a congenital idiot not to understand that, in an economic cosmos, the only organization capable of resisting the abomination and the tyranny of the stateless and global usurocracy is the Nation.”  The Nation, here depicted as orderly and efficient, combats a force that obeys neither laws nor ethics, regulating what otherwise would tyrannize the people.  Pound’s statement is telling in that it shows not only his fear vis-à-vis the usurers, but also the naivete that drives him to put his trust in a Patria that will protect him from the demon Geryon (the demon of usury), so that through this faith he can be assured that, although the usurers exploit, although the press might fold, and although he feels to weak to confront Geryon alone, a victory will eventually come with the force of the Nation in front and the fascists behind.  Under the guidance of Il Duce, he can believe he will be restored to health, brought back to life clean and healthy, under the umbrella of the Nation that will not only protect and coddle him, but also will help to establish his utopian community. 

This mystical promise of Utopia drives Pound, and yet what drives him as well is a fear and a desire for safety, all emotions not unique to Pound. Similar feelings must have drawn many young fascists to the movement.  As Pound has just competed his Studio Integrale di Confucio, he is prepared to guide the Republic of Salo to wisdom.  Likewise, as he – together with his daughter – has just completed a translation of Cavalcanti’s poetry from Italian into English, he will be prepared to instruct the new Republicans about Cavalcanti’s lofty spirit.  Because the canto draws strength from the past, it is with the dead that Pound communicates, binding himself with ashes and with dust and finding direction through the various ghosts who descend on him, as Ezzelino states, “so that the buried dust may bind itself together/in the deep, and move and breathe” (428). Mapping the past onto the present, Pound harks back to the medieval vision of Dante and Cavalcanti and to the philosophy of Confucius, orienting himself through their eyes.  It is out of this particular context that Pound conceives Canto 72 and 73, creating these violent and mystical poems. 

 

notes

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