… [T]he scandals surrounding the work of these men are as nothing compared to the scandal of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. We are amused to think that anyone ever felt Byron might have been mad, bad, and dangerous to know. We are not amused by the Cantos. Like Pound’s letters and so much of his prose, the Cantos is difficult to like or enjoy. It is a paradigm of poetic obscurity because its often cryptic style is married to materials which are abstruse, learned, even pedantic. The poem also makes a mockery of poetic form; and then there are those vulgar and bathetic sinking which it repeatedly indulges through its macaronic turns of voice.
All that is scandalous, but the worst has not been said. For the Cantos is a fascist epic in a precise historical sense.1 Its racism and anti-Semitism are conceived and pursued in social and political terms at a particular point in time and with reference to certain state policies. Those policies led to a holocaust for which the murder of six million Jews would be the ultimate exponent. That is truly scandalous
For anyone convinced that works of imagination are important to human life, however, the scandal takes a last, cruel twist. Pound’s magnum opus is one of the greatest achievements of modern poetry in any language. That is more a shocking than a controversial idea. It shocks because it is outrageous to think so; but it is in fact a commonplace judgment passed on the poem by nearly every major writer and poet of this century. The greatness of the Cantos was an apparent to Pound’s contemporaries as it has been to his inheritors, to his enemies as to his friends, to those who have sympathized with Pound’s ideas and to those who have fought against them.
1. See John Lauber, “Pound’s Cantos: A Fascist Epic,” Journal of American Studies 12 (1978): 3-21; Victor C. Ferkiss, “Ezra Pound and American Fascism,” Journal of Politics 17 (May 1955): 173-97.
Jerome J. McGann is Commonwealth Professor of English, University of Virginia. This essay was originally one of the Clark Lectures delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, and subsequently one of the Carpenter Lectures at the University of Chicago.
In what follows I would like to uncover part of this history [of the phantasmagoria], not just as an exercise in romantic etymology (or for the sake of a certain Carlylean local color) but as a way of approaching a larger topic, namely, the history of the imagination. For since its invention, the term phantasmagoria, like one of Freud’s ambiguous primary words, has shifted meaning in an interesting way. From an initial connection with something external and public (an artificially produced “spectral” illusion), the word has now come to refer to something wholly internal or subjective: the phantasmic imagery of the mind. This metaphoric shift bespeaks, I think, a very significant transformation in human consciousness over the past two centuries—what I shall call here the spectralization or “ghostifying” of mental space. By spectralization (another nonce word!) I mean simply the absorption of ghosts into the world of thought. Even as we have come to discount the spirit-world of our ancestors and to equate seeing ghosts and apparitions with having “too much” imagination, we have also come increasingly to believe, as if through a kind of epistemological recoil, in the spectral nature of our own thoughts—to figure imaginative activity itself, paradoxically, as a kind of ghost-seeing. Thus in everyday conversation we affirm that our brains are filled with ghostly shapes and images, that we “see” figures and scenes in our minds, that we are “haunted” by our thoughts, that our thoughts can, as it were, materialize before us, like phantoms, in moments of hallucinations, waking dream, or reverie.
Terry Castle, associate professor of English at Stanford University, is the author of two books: Clarissa’s Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson’s “Clarissa” (1982) and Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in 18th-Century English Culture and Fiction (1986). She is currently working on a study of the literature and psychology of apparitions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries entitled “Spectropia: Ghost-Seeing and the Modern Imagination.”
Connecting the issues of the female gaze and of the female narrative is the issue of desire. As [Stanley] Cavell repeatedly stresses, a central theme of these films is the heroine’s acknowledgment of her desire of its true object—frequently the man from whom she mistakenly thought she needed to be divorced. The heroine’s acknowledgment of her desire, and of herself as a subject of desire, is for Cavell what principally makes a marriage of equality achievable. It is in this achievement (or the creation of the grounds for the hope of it) that Cavell wants to locate the feminism of the genre: it is the “comedy of equality” (PH, p. 82). There is, therefore, an obvious explanation in Cavell’s terms for the anomalous nature of these films: if their vision is explicitly feminist in embracing an ideal of equality, in approvingly foregrounding female desire, and in characterizing that desire as active and as actively gazing, then they would not be expected to fit an analysis based on films whose view of female desire and the female gaze is passive, absent, or treacherous. If we accept Cavell’s readings, these films provide genuine counterexamples to feminist claims of the normative masculinity of film (in general or in Hollywood).
My affection for these films, and the ways in which Cavell accounts for that affection, leads me to want to believe that his account, or something like it, is true: that there did briefly emerge a distinctively feminist sensibility in some popular Hollywood movies, one which unsurprisingly succumbed to the repressive redomestication of women in the postwar years. But, for a number of reasons, I can’t quite believe it. Some version of the feminist critical theory of popular cinema does, in an odd way, apply to these movies: they are, to use a frequent phrase of Cavell’s, the exceptions that prove the rule. Though they do have some claim to being considered feminist, their feminism is seriously qualified by the terms in which it is presented, by the ways in which female desire and the female gaze are framed.
Naomi Scheman is associate professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Minnesota. She is currently working on the roles played by bodies and by differences in modern and feminist postmodern accounts of knowledge.
Poetry turns everything into life. It is that form of life that turns everything into language. It does not come to us unless language itself has become a form of life. That is why it is so unquiet. For it does not cease to work on us. To be the dream of which we are the sleep. A listening, awakening that passes through us, the rhythm that knows us and that we do not know. It is the organization in language of what has always been said to escape language: life, the movement no word is supposed to be able to say. And in effect words do not say it. That is why poetry is a meaning of time more than the meaning of words. Even when its course is ample, it is contained in what passes from us through words. It does not have the time of glaciers and ferns. It tells about a time of life. Through everything that it names. Even its haste transforms. Since it is a listening that compels a listening.
But traditionally poetry suffers from the effect of the separation between the order of language and the order or disorder of life. It is that the order in which the thought of language is found is an order against chaos. The fabulous is not found in chaos. It is found in order. A mythic thought about language is charged with the maintaining of order. Thus there is an impassable barrier between poetry in terms of life and language in terms of the forms of poetry. Its meters and its rhymes. That is what we have to think about. Through and for poetry, language, life. Against sentimental poetizations of poetry and of life. As much as against formalizations.
Henri Meschonnic is professor of linguistics at the University of Paris—VIII at Vincennes. His penultimate book of poems, Voyageurs de la voix (1985), was awarded the Prix Mallarmé. His other books include Critique du rythme, anthropologie historique du langage (1982) and Modernité, modernité (1988). Gabriella Bedetti, associate professor of English at Eastern Kentucy University, is completing A Meschonnic Reader.
For the West … China as a land in the Far East becomes traditionally the image of the ultimate Other. What Foucault does in his writing is, of course, not so much to endorse this image as to show, in the light of the Other, how knowledge is always conditioned in a certain system, and how difficult it is to get out of the confinement of the historical a priori, the epistemes or the fundamental codes of Western culture. And yet he takes the Borges passage seriously and remarks on its apparent incongruity with what is usually conceived about China in the Western tradition. If we are to find any modification of the traditional image of China in Foucault’s thought, it is then the association of China not with an ordered space but with a space without any conceivable arrangement or coherence, a space that makes any logical ordering utterly unthinkable. Significantly, Foucault does not give so much as a hint to suggest that the hilarious passage from that “Chinese encyclopaedia” may have been made up to represent a Western fantasy of the Other, and that the illogical way of sorting out animals in that passage an be as alien to the Chinese mind as it is to the Western mind.
In fact, the monstrous unreason and its alarming subversion of Western thinking, the unfamiliar and alien space of China as the image of the Other threatening to break up ordered surfaces and logical categories, all turn out to be, in the most literal sense, a Western fiction. Nevertheless, that fiction serves a purpose in Foucault’s thought, namely, the necessity of setting up a framework for his archaeology of knowledge, enabling him to differentiate the self from what is alien and pertaining to the Other and to map out the contours of Western culture recognizable as a self-contained system. Indeed, what can be a better sign of the Other than a fictionalized space of China? What can furnish the West with a better reservoir for its dreams, fantasies, and utopias?
Zhang Longxi, author of A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century Theories of Literature (1986), is currently writing a dissertation in comparative literature at Harvard University. His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry is “The Tao and the Logos: Notes on Derrida’s Critique of Logocentrism” (March 1985).
Literary theory, newly conscious of its own historicism, has recently turned its attention to the history of interpretation. For midrash, this attention has arrived none too soon. The activity of Biblical interpretation as practiced by the sages of early Rabbinic Judaism in late antiquity, midrash has long been known to Western scholars, but mainly as either an exegetical curiosity or a source to be mined for facts about the Jewish background of early Christianity. The perspective of literary theory has placed midrash in a decidedly new light. The very nature of midrash (as recorded in the Talmud as well as in the more typical midrashic collections) has now come to epitomize precisely that order of literary discourse to which much critical writing has recently aspired, a discourse that avoids the dichotomized opposition of literature versus commentary and instead resides in the dense shuttle space between text and interpreter. In the hermeneutical techniques of midrash, critics have found especially attractive the sense of interpretation as play rather than as explication, the use of commentary as a means of extending a text’s meanings rather than as a mere forum for the arbitration of original authorial intention. Some theoreticians have gone so far as to invoke midrash as a precursor, in a spiritual if not a historical sense, to more recent post-structuralist literary theory, in particular to deconstruction with its critique of logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence
David Stern is assistant professor of medieval Hebrew literature in the department of Oriental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Parables in Midrash: The Intersection of Narrative and Exegesis in Rabbinic Literature (forthcoming) and coauthor, with Mark Jay Mirsky, of Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical and Medieval Hebrew Literature (forthcoming).
The pornography debate occupies a prominent site of apparent contradiction in contemporary culture: a site where the interests of cultural feminism merge with those of the far Right, where an underground enterprise becomes a major growth industry, and where forms of speculation turn alarmingly practical. Another more problematic confluence occurs as a result of this debate. That is, by juxtaposing the 1986 Final Report of the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography (known informally as the Meese Commission’s Report) and the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, we will see how pornography and the public discourse on pornography share the same comparative logic. An examination of such a logic shows how the pleasures of comparison—its gestures toward control, limit, and transcendence—are always balanced by its failures, even tragedies: the realization of the situated nature of all measurement, juxtaposition, subordination, and hierarchization. Thus this essay is designed to both discuss and illustrate a series of issues implicit in pornography’s predicament: the impossibility of describing desire without generating desire; the impossibility of separating form and content within the process of sublimation; and, most important, the impossibility of constructing a metadiscourse on pornography once we recognize the interested nature of all discursive practices. We cannot transcend the pornography debate, for we are in it. But by writing through it, by examining its assumptions, we can learn a great deal about the problems of representing desire and the concomitant problems of a cultural desire for unmediated forms of representation.
Susan Stewart, whose most recent contribution to Critical Inquiry was “Shouts on the Street: Bakhtin’s Anti-linguistics” (December 1983), is the author of two books of literary theory, Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature (1979) and On Longing: Narrative of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1984), and two books of poetry, Yellow Stars and Ice (1981) and The Hive (1987). She is finishing a book on “crimes of writing,” of which this essay is a part, and a study of the five senses.