One of the most influential and controversial figures in twentieth-century literature, Ezra Pound was a great poetic innovator and one of the essential shapers of the cultural movement known as Modernism.
He was also a purveyor of conspiracy theories, some concerning heretical medieval religious cults, and others focusing on modern war and international finance, with the latter type often demonizing Jews. Ultimately, Pound wove these threads together into a grand conspiracy myth.
Born in Hailey, Idaho, in 1885, Pound attended Hamilton College and the University of Pennsylvania, where he distinguished himself in the study of Romance languages and medieval literature. In 1906, Pound traveled to Europe to do thesis research and, though he never completed his dissertation, he made fruitful discoveries, among them a rare collection of troubadour manuscripts at the Ambrosian Library in Milan.
Troubadours, Cathars, and the “Mediterranean Sanity”
Troubadours, the singer/poets who came to prominence in twelfth-century Provence, became for Pound a focus of inspiration and fascinated inquiry. The troubadours were also associated with the Cathars, a religious movement based in Provence, against which the Catholic Church waged a bloody war, the Albigensian Crusade, from 1208 to 1229.
The brutality of the crusade was such that few if any actual Cathar documents survived, a fact that allowed later writers, often of an occultist bent, to contradict Church accounts of the heresy.
In 1909, in London, Pound gave a series of lectures concerning such matters, collected as The Spirit of Romance, in which he suggested that troubadour art reflected an ecstatic state of consciousness rooted in sensuous experience, highly attuned perception, and a sacramental vision of nature.
Framing this sensibility as an outgrowth of Greco-Roman paganism and later labeling it “the Mediterranean sanity”, Pound contrasted it with what he saw as the otherworldly, life-denying thrust of Hebrew and Hindu religiosity. Eventually, he speculated that troubadour culture indicated the survival, underground in Provence, of the Eleusinian mysteries and Hellenistic goddess worship.
Pound’s version of Provençal spirituality contrasted sharply with the Church’s account of Catharism, a fact that aroused Pound’s suspicion. According to the Church, the Cathar heresy was “Manichean”—that is, it preached a pessimistic dualism that framed the body as a prison and the cosmos as the devil’s creation.
But, argued Pound, “If there were any Manicheans” in twelfth-century Provence, they “left no trace in troubadour art”, a point that begged the question: Could two such radically different spiritualities flourish at the same time, in the same small cultural niche? Pound’s answer was that the heresy was not what the Church had claimed it to be. Rather, Cathars and troubadours must have been united in devotion to a neopagan religiosity that the Church had conspired to destroy and misrepresent.
The New Age, Social Credit, and the “Causes of War”
Pound spent much of the period from 1911 to 1921 in England, where he married Dorothy Shakespear and collaborated with older artistic masters like W. B. Yeats as well as avant-garde innovators like Wyndham Lewis.
He produced a large body of poetry, translations, and criticism while studying theosophy, Japanese theater, and Chinese language and philosophy. He also labored generously to promote the work of then-obscure contemporaries like T. S. Eliot and James Joyce.
Pound published much of his prose from this period in The New Age, a London-based journal of politics and the arts edited by A. R. Orage, a proponent of Guild Socialism.
Through Orage, Pound met C. H. Douglas, whose theory of Social Credit proposed to right economic problems by counting the cultural inheritance as a form of wealth held in common by all people of a nation. Like other socialist groups, the New Age circle opposed British entry into World War I, viewing the conflict as benefiting only ruling elites and financial profiteers.
Pound lost several close friends to the war and depicted it in his poetry as the self-destruction of “a botched civilization”. In a biographical sketch from 1949, he wrote: “1918—began investigation of causes of war, to oppose same”.
In 1921 Pound moved to Paris and, by 1924, on to Italy, where he resided until the end of World War II. During this period, he made headway on an ambitious epic poem, The Cantos (1972), and became increasingly isolated from friends and collaborators. He devoted great energy to a campaign to popularize Social Credit, which he now saw as the cure for modern social ills.
Pound became enthusiastic about Mussolini due to the fascist dictator’s apparent openness to Social Credit policies. In various tracts, Pound argued that there were parallels between the thoughts of the Duce and that of U.S. founders like Jefferson and Adams, and he railed against the power of central banks like the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England.
In 1939, he voyaged to the United States for a lecture tour. In Washington, D.C., he spoke with some congressmen about Social Credit and sought, unsuccessfully, to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt, whose policies he detested.
Audiences and old friends were disturbed by his obsession with money and outbursts of antisemitism. Pound now attributed economic insecurity and modern war to a conspiracy of powerful financial interests and, increasingly, he identified those interests with the Jews.
Fascism, Antisemitism, and Private Mythology
Soon back in Italy, Pound began in 1941 to make radio broadcasts sponsored by the fascist regime that, he later claimed, were used only for “personal propaganda in support of the U.S. Constitution” (Pound 1957, n.p.). The broadcasts consisted largely of obscure lectures about money and culture laced with rants about alleged Jewish conspiracy.
At times the twisted logic of his conspiracism seemed to catch Pound up, as in the following passage where he mentions Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious antisemitic forgery purporting to document a Jewish plan for world domination. Pound acknowledges the document to be a forgery, but still attempts to recuperate his conspiracy scenario: “Certainly they are a forgery, but this is one proof we have of their authenticity.
The Jews have worked with forged documents for the past twenty-four hundred years”. In 1941, in a conversation that “shook” Pound, the leftist Romano Bilenchi conveyed the story of an SS massacre of German Jews and insisted that “it was Hitler and Himmler who had organized a conspiracy”; nonetheless, Pound clung to his antisemitic beliefs.
Indeed, these beliefs were key to a private mythology that integrated the many divergent strands of Pound’s intellectual concern. An idiosyncratic variation on Matthew Arnold’s idea that Western civilization swings between phases of Hebraism and Hellenism, this mythology framed European history as a struggle between embattled exponents of the Hellenistic “Mediterranean sanity,” like the Cathars, and groups, like the Calvinists, or the Jews themselves, who supposedly pulled the West in a Hebraistic direction.
Pound’s aversion to abstractions did not prevent him from building his mythology around the crudest racist stereotypes. Far from being part of some imagined Jewish “essence,” the association of Jews with usury tracked back to the late medieval period Pound knew so well, where moneylending, deemed by the Church a sinful occupation for Christians, became for Jews one of the few available professions. Similarly, the image of the Jew as unnatural alien, poisoning the wells of Christendom, was a staple of medieval rhetoric concerning enemies of the Church.
Treason, Mental Illness, Silence
In 1943, the United States indicted Pound for treason and, when the Allies took Italy in 1945, he became a prisoner of war. Initially held in Pisa, he spent thirty-one days in an outdoor cage, eventually being moved to Washington, D. C., to face charges. With a conviction holding out the possibility of the death penalty, defense lawyer Julien Cornell decided to plead Pound as insane.
Indeed, old friends like Ernest Hemingway pointed to Pound’s radio broadcasts as proof that he had lost his wits years before. Ultimately, a panel of psychiatrists and a U.S. jury found Pound unfit to stand trial and he was confined to St. Elizabeth’s, a Washington, D.C., hospital for the mentally ill, where he remained from 1946 to 1958.
St. Elizabeth’s director, Dr. Wilfred Overholser, found Pound to be suffering from some sort of debilitating mental disorder and at times used the word “paranoid” to describe his mental state, though he never diagnosed him as paranoid (i.e., schizophrenic) in the clinical sense of the term.
In 1949, amid much controversy, Pound was awarded the Bollingen Prize in American poetry. In 1957, literary supporters of Pound petitioned the attorney general to drop the treason indictment and in 1958 Pound gained release from St. Elizabeth’s, shortly thereafter returning to Italy.
He remained mostly there until his death in 1972 and for many of his last years he was seldom heard to speak, the silence seeming to some like a sign of illness and to others like self-imposed punishment. On rare occasions when he conversed with visitors, he characterized his work as a wrongheaded failure and “the prejudice of antisemitism” as his “worst mistake”.