Just spent a lovely weekend in Venice, with H; great food, great boozing, lovely company (of course), much architectural beauty, and also of course much time spent looking at art and (as ever) following Ezra Pound around.
This year’s Ezra stalking was particularly successful; our hotel was just round the corner from his and Olga Rudge’s house, and just next door to the quayside where he’d considered throwing the proofs of his first book into the Grand Canal – and, with it, his sense of poetic vocation. He remembered the moment in Canto 76 thus, standing by the:
‘…soap smooth posts where San Vio
meets with il Grande Canale
between Salviati and the house that was of Don Carlos
shd I chuck the lot into the tide-water?
le bozze “A Lume Spento”’
I re-enacted the moment, to minimal dramatic effect. Anyway, from there we hit the Guggenheim Museum, amongst other things taking a look at the Brancusi ‘Bird in Space’ they have there. Here’s that:
And it is, of course, rather lovely. But I also found I had a bit of a problem with it.
My problem is that (this version of) ‘Bird in Space’ an entirely optimistic piece of art. It’s about positive, upward flight; a utopian sense of the possibilities of being; an expression of a desire for, and a faith in the possibility of, transcendence. Brancusi described it as a ‘project before being enlarged to fill the vault of the sky’.
That kind of thing used to inspire me, but now it unsettles me. If the 20th Century was about anything, it was about the problems of transcendence, about the way that transcendent thinking can so easily create an other that needs to be eradicated before paradise can come about.
Brancusi’s work rejects the gross and earthly; in art perhaps laudable, but when that same impulse is translated into politics, and used to image a new, purer reality, one that can be real if only the dross of this world is destroyed – well, you know where that leads.
Which lead me back to Pound. He spent World War II in Italy, broadcasting to America on behalf of the Fascists. After the war, he was locked up in a prison camp near Pisa, and only spared execution by a plea of insanity, which led to 12 years in an asylum in Washington DC.
He then returned to Venice, where he lived out the rest of his life – along the way apologising to a visiting Allen Ginsberg for the ‘stupid, suburban sin of anti-semitism’. The last years of his life were characterised by an almost unbroken silence.
His sense of regret also found expression in one of the final sections of ‘The Cantos’ –
‘I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise
Let the Gods forgive what I
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.’
Begun as a transcendent project, in the full bloom of High Modernism, ‘The Cantos’ came to embody a rejection of that sense of transcendence. Pound lived the mistakes of the 20th Century, and learned from them.
Brancusi sought to purify; Pound understood what that purification could lead to, and pointed his reader back to direct, passive engagement with what’s already there (‘Do not move / Let the wind speak’) rather than an active attempt to create Paradise by carving away and discarding everything that doesn’t deserve to be part of it.