The vain theories of a village explainer

 

Literary Criticism: Ezra Pound's fascist views were not those of a romantic outsider

In his 1920 poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Ezra Pound lamented a slaughtered generation who "walked eye-deep in hell/ believing in old men's lies". Twenty years later, amid fresh slaughter, he found himself in Mussolini's Italy broadcasting his thoughts on "British Jew rackets", "the Jew murderous gang over in Moscow", and the desirability of someone having a "stroke of genius" and starting "a pogrom up at the top" of his Semitic adversaries.

Narrowly avoiding execution after the war, Pound recanted but never repented his wartime fascism. It is a squalid tale with little to recommend fresh revisitings, but Meghnad Desai has held his nose against the stench of Pound's politics long enough to come up with a provocative thesis: that, if you take the anti-Semitism out of the equation, Pound may not have been so wrong about economics after all.

Pound's interest in economics predates his fascist madness. Influenced by AR Orage and CH Douglas, he advocated a form of Social Credit to counter the power of the banks and offer a guaranteed basic income for all. A Social Credit party achieved some limited success in New Zealand, but in Europe Major Douglas's greatest achievement may have been to inspire some fantastically dull stretches of the Cantos, full of those Chinese ideograms which Robert Graves joked that Pound had "copied from the nearest biscuit box".

Desai suggests links between Social Credit and today's anti-globalisation movement, and quotes George Monbiot along the way, but the comparison remains somewhat nebulous.

The trouble with Desai's thesis is that, even if he's right, Pound at his sanest is still a tedious egotist driven by petty rages and resentments, fantasising about banning Christianity and disgusted at not being received by Roosevelt. In his 1983 film Zelig Woody Allen incongruously hobnobs with American presidents and appears alongside the Pope on the Vatican balcony, and there's a touch of Zelig about Pound brazening his way into a meeting with Mussolini in 1933. At least Zelig knew he was an impostor; Pound was convinced the Italian dictator was an avid reader of the Cantos (baffled by Pound, the Italians would later suspect him of being an American double-agent).

His utter lack of anything resembling a social conscience could not be starker. There is more truth about the American depression in any short poem by WC Williams or Lorine Niedecker than in all of Pound's blather about Social Credit.

Although Desai doesn't address the poetry much, just about the least convincing defence of Pound would be to split his poetry and politics apart in a spirit of "don't mention the war"; the Pisan Cantos without their fascism would be like pornography minus the sex. He stands as a useful reminder for those, especially now with the war in Iraq, who demand that their writers be political, as if being political in itself is any guarantee of virtue. It isn't. Pound never killed anyone and didn't deserve his appalling post-war treatment, but Desai hasn't convinced me of his saving economic wisdom.

The reality is that Pound, like Francis Stuart, Céline, and any amount of other fair-weather fascists, was no romantic outsider and shouldn't be seen as such: he was a vain, deluded, stupid man who should have known better. "A village explainer," Gertrude Stein called him: "excellent if you are a village, but if you are not, not."

David Wheatley is a poet and critic

The Route of All Evil: The Political Economy of Ezra Pound By Meghnad Desai Faber & Faber, 154pp. £16.99