By James Dempsey
Worcester, MA, USA
"With usura hath no man a house of good stone
each block cut smooth and well fitting
that design might cover their face,
hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall
harpes et luz
or where virgin receiveth message
and halo projects from incision ..."
Ezra Pound "With Usura"
The recent controversy concerning the movie Ender's Game and the beliefs of the author of the novel upon which it is based, Orson Scott Card, is the latest incarnation of a dilemma that has faced lovers of art and literature for a long time—how should one respond to the fact that an artist one admires greatly also holds opinions that one finds reprehensible?
Card is not popular among those who support gay rights because of a series of statements he has made over the years criticizing homosexuality on religious and cultural grounds. Personally, I must admit to a thoroughgoing ignorance of Card's writings, and I should point out that his point of view regarding homosexuality is apparently not an element in his fiction, but I do sympathize wholeheartedly with those of his readers who love his books and despise his beliefs. I first faced this issue as a young man on learning that one of my favorite poets, Ezra Pound, was a die-hard fascist and anti-Semite (yes, I know of the "suburban anti-Semitism" apology Pound is reported to have made to poet Allen Ginsberg, but the regret is so microscopically little and so unforgivably late in comparison to the waves of hate found in his other utterances, that it is all but meaningless to me). Of course, I quickly discovered that many of my other literary heroes shared similar bigotries, and it is painful, especially to the young mind, to see this apparently incomprehensible mixture of sensitivity, insight, and thuggishness in those we admire. One might ask why it should be such a shock, considering that we can find plenty of bigotry in our own friends and families, as well as in ourselves, perhaps. Many of us are blessed with an Archie Bunker-like family member. But art and literature have a way of burrowing deeply and intimately into our sensibilities; we invite them into parts of our being to which we would not admit even those we love the most, and to suddenly realize that one has welcomed into one's aesthetic bosom a sharp-toothed serpent is indeed unsettling.
Usura-Cantos by Ezra Pound
I had always loved Pound's "With Usura," a poem from his epic The Cantos whose jeremiads roll so resonantly off the tongue, and which states its point of view with the bluntness and unflinching severity of an Old English battle poem. Of course, after becoming cognizant of Pound's ingrained hatred of all things Jewish, one cannot read the poem in quite the same way. But is the poem any less an achievement for that?
On might speculate that part of the attraction of the New Criticism, with its close attention to the text itself and the downplaying of the author, owes its longevity as a critical approach to its ability to disentangle the work of art from its creator's foibles and imperfections. And while the methods of the New Criticism might seem to the lay reader of today as something of a fusty academic exercise, it actually was (and is) quite useful in allowing the reader to ignore what was not relevant. On the other hand, one might see the practice as simply an academic sleight-of-hand that allows a reader to distance him- or herself from morality and therefore from culpability.
Nor does it help a poetry-lover trying to find a way to enjoy "With Usura" to learn that it is rather popular (as are many of Pound's writing) on websites that espouse racism and anti-Semitism.
Another method by which a "problematic" poetic text may be at least somewhat decontaminated is by viewing it as being spoken not by the poet but by a persona created by the poet. This approach has been used in various apologia for some of the work of T.S. Eliot, whose early poems featured ugly portraits of Jews. Eliot even denied the Jews of whom he wrote the courtesy of am upper-case "J." This method, in true modernist fashion, offers the reader the out of ambiguity. Maybe the writer meant what he wrote, maybe he didn't. If you can get your head around the idea that Schrodinger's cat must be viewed as both dead and alive at the same time, accepting the noting of the persona is a piece of cake.
Ezra Pound (1913)
by Alvin Langdon Coburn
How we squirm and wriggle to find a way to get comfortable about the things we like but think we shouldn't!
I believe that intelligent and mature readers and lovers of art have always been able to accept that both works of art and the humans that produce them are imperfect. History going back to the classical period is full of creative people whose politics, religions, practices, and biases would be considered unevolved to the point of barbarism by many today, and yet whose creative works have deservedly lived on.
The straightest of heterosexuals can enjoy the works of Sappho and Whitman, pacifists can benefit from the stern and lovely "The Battle of Maldon," atheists can enjoy the Bible and Milton. Tolerance doesn't necessarily imply disagreement, as Card himself claims, but it does imply the recognition and acceptance of difference. It may be that in loving art and literature one must make something of a Faustian bargain. If we determine to enjoy only those artists whose appetites and opinions we find consanguine, or at least unobjectionable, we're going to find ourselves with a rapidly shrinking list of greats.