Skip to main content

[Pound’s] highly determinate form of ambiguity, however, has received little attention in recent criticism regarding the Malatesta Cantos. The case of Marjorie Perloff is instructive, for hers has been an influential voice in recent criticism of Pound, while her critical practices are representative of the professional mainstream in the last decade. Her argument proceeds in three steps. First, she advances a reductive notion of content: that the Malatesta Cantos depict "Pound's hero—the Renaissance ruler as beneficent patron of art." She then claims that the work must exceed the grasp of criteria so patently trivial. Yet Pound, it should be noted, was a poet deeply interested in subject matter and content, and one especially concerned with the problem of patronage, a form of cultural production that was, indeed, the central economic resource of literary modernism. From March 1922 to mid-1923, while composing the Malatesta Cantos, Pound was actively engaged in organizing the Bel Esprit project, a plan to create a lifetime endowment for T. S. Eliot. Two years later, in March 1925, when Pound was approached by Henry Allen Moe of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation about candidates for its newly created awards, Pound launched into a thirty-page letter extolling patronage and urging the merits of Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and George Antheil as potentially worthy recipients. After ten pages of pleading for Eliot, he paused to define his ideal of patronage:

    Incidentally I mean(t) to cite chiefly /re Eliot, a letter of Sigismund[o] Malatesta's which I have quoted at length in my VIIth [sic] Canto (Canto VIII, in the Malatesta Cantos, Criterion, I think Aug. 1923) Canto VII in the Three Mountains Press Edtn. 

    I take Malatesta as a prime example of a man who wanted civilization in a small town, and GOT the goods delivered. He had Pisanello, Pier della Francesca, Battista Alberti, the architect, Mino da Fiesole, four certainly of the best men of the time down in Rimini. This letter is to Giovanni dei Medici, persumably re/ Pier Francesca; and says he wants the master painter for life, with a set provision, security to be given, and ends up[:] 

    affitigandose per suo piacer o no, 

    So that he can work as he likes or not. 

Ma(l) atesta got the goods. And he was enough of an artist himself to know that you can't always tell when an artist is loafing. Real work may be done on tennis court or in trolley car, and sham work at desk.

Pound, it is clear, was far more eager to address the issue of subject matter and contents than his critics have been.

Perloff's remarks, however, proceed not from an engagement with either the poem or its relevant context, but from systematic assumptions, which she shares with modern criticism, about the very nature of the literary object. Her tart dismissal of contents and authorial intentions is only a preliminary step toward "beating the material into shape," forcing it to conform to the reigning paradigm of critical practice. By extension, the work's "real contents " must reside elsewhere: "you would hang yourself" if you attempted "to read the Malatesta Cantos for their thematic interest" (p. 181). Rather, it must reside in its formal or systemic features, and therefore she offers a series of local readings that focus on stylistic minutiae. One, for example, concerns a phrase from a 1454 letter which we have already seen, "the bay pony (ronzino baiectino) the which you have sent me." Perloff remarks:

Translated thus literally, the letter has neither the status of fifteenth- century document nor twentieth-century adaptation; it remains a curiosity, removed from a specific time-space context. The introduction of the Italian phrase "ronzino baiectino" is particularly skillful: "ronzino baiectino" does mean "bay pony," but in the context it sounds more like a zoological specimen or a rare disease. (p. 185)

"Context"' is tacitly restructed to minutiae of style, discursive practices stripped to mere phonetics ("it sounds like"), and every link with socio-historical reality dismissed a priori: "removed from a specific time-space context." And these maneuvers are repeated over and over, as in a discussion of the two lines cited earlier from a letter of 1449. Perloff com- ments (p. 186):

Closely related to such artful mistranslation is the purposely incorrect [italics mine] rendering of the Italian itself. In the letter to Giovanni di Medici which opens Canto VIII, for example, Pound has Sigismundo say: "[ ...]And it wd. be merely work chucked away / (buttato via). ..." In the original, the Italian phrase is gettata via, which means "thrown away." Pound substitutes the harsh "buttato via," partly to suit his own meaning—"chucked away"—and partly, no doubt, for comic sound effect.

By "the original" Perloff refers not to the actual document located in Florence and consulted by Pound, but to the published transcription of it that appears in Charles Yriarte's book of 1882 (as her note declares, p. 186 n. 1). Her failure to distinguish these is merely a logical outcome of the assumption that the relationship between inset (quoted item) and frame (quoting agency) is purely "textual" in character: a relationship between text and text rather than a social dynamics of transmission that comprises numerous inscriptures. Perloff takes for granted that investigation proceeds through purely intersystemic or "intrinsic" orders, and when faced with recalcitrant evidence she achieves those orders by systematically destroying its "extrinsic"' dimensions: its specifically material form, its thematics, its problematic textual features. For precisely those features deemed "extrinsic" in ordinary critical discourse are intrinsic for understanding the dynamics of transmission. Indeed, by now it must be clear that the "incorrect rendering" is purely Perloff's creation, and the "comic sound effect" mere speculation. And yet even these local misreadings are significant only insofar as they lead toward the final solution of the work's social actuality in every form. In the Malatesta Cantos, she concludes, "history becomes the impetus for the play of language" (p. 182). It is only an occasion "to create new verbal landscapes" (p. 182), a site where "fact, in other words, is repeatedly transformed into fiction" (p. 183).

To the contrary, the case of the Malatesta Cantos suggests a scenario that moves in the opposite direction: a space where fiction will be repeatedly transformed into fact—at least if we take seriously the affiliation between Beltramelli's portraits of Sigismondo Malatesta and Benito Mussolini, or the genealogy of the new age imagined by Pound in Drafts A and B and its fateful reinscription in later years. To be sure, this may be only to say that social actuality is constituted by a network of real and discursive practices that is exceptionally intricate, and that the distinction between "fact" and "fiction" is a device too crude to ground any account of its essential features. For discourse, like its paradigmatic form the quotation, is Janus-faced: it looks backwards and forwards, soliciting the past in order to imagine the future.

As he wrote Drafts A and B in the summer of 1922, it is certain that Pound knew nothing about Beltramelli, or his biography of Mussolini, or his effort to furnish Mussolini with genealogical links to Sigismondo Malatesta. And yet the routes of reference traced in his quotation from Beltramelli were both wider and deeper than anything Pound could encompass—wider in the sense that they were more intricate, more extensive, and more problematic than he could imagine; deeper in that they extended into the past and future in ways that could hardly have been predicted in the summer of 1922 and yet appear already inscribed in the quotation from Beltramelli. Historical criticism, we begin to perceive, is understood wrongly as the mere recovery of a context that has existed in the past; its most important contexts are those that exist only in the future.

As for Beltramelli himself, his course was increasingly fixed as a party militant (see figure 12). In March 1925 he served as a principal speaker at the Convention of Fascist Culture (also called the Congress of Fascist Institutes of Culture), the pivotal effort of the regime to organize the nation's intellectual life; in April 1925 he signed the "Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals," the central document of its program. Under party auspices he undertook direction of La rivolta ideale, the organ of the "University Youth" movement, and for two years he also served as co-director of II raduno, the weekly newspaper of the "syndicate" of fascist authors and writers. He died in 1930, and in 1937 the anniversary of his death was commemorated by an article that reprinted the marginalia written in 1908 by Mussolini in his own copy of Beltramelli's The Chants of Faunus. Yet though well known in Italy, Beltramelli's work attracted little attention abroad, and holdings of his works are often uneven in other countries. In the United States, for example, only one library reports a copy of the book consulted by Pound, Un tempio d' amore, and surely this is one reason why American scholars have never identified his role in the genesis of the Malatesta Cantos, even though direct quotation from his book is a prominent feature in the final version of the Malatesta Cantos (on this, see chapter 3). For the routes of transmission affect every effort at understanding. . . .

As for Pound, his own understanding of its routes of reference altered with the passage of time: in 1922 an analogy between Sigismondo Malatesta and Benito Mussolini had been only one possibility, and at that a remote one, among many; by 1932, however, it would strike Pound as the central axis for the shape of his magnum opus and his understanding of its place in the modem world. As he would write to John Drummond in February 1932: "Don't knock Mussolini, at least not until you have weighed up the obstacles and necessities of the time. He will end up with Sigismundo and the men of order, not with the pus-sacks and destroyers."


From Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture: Text, History, and the Malatesta Cantos. Copyright © 1991 by the University of Chicago Press.