Facilis Descensus

In “Break It Down Logically” I wrote about a 1949 short story by Howard Schoenfeld, originally published in the anarchist journal Retort before being reprinted in F&SF. The editors and publishers of Retort, Holley Cantine and Dachine Rainer, also published Schoenfeld’s account of his incarceration as a conscientious objector to World War II.

Ten years after Schoenfeld’s story was reprinted in F&SF, Holley Cantine also published a story of his own in F&SF. It was called “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble”:

I found that by leaving the city I had shed the radical movement like a bad dream. While I still believed vaguely in the desirability of socialism, once I had the chance to achieve some perspective, it became perfectly obvious that the wrangling little sects that had consumed so large a part of my life would never amount to anything, and I was well quit of them.

To fill the void in my life left by the cessation of political activity, I began to revive my old interest in magic.

Holley Cantine,“Double, Double, Toil and Trouble”, F&SF, 1960.

Cantine’s story is about the narrator’s mastery of a single magical ability, which he calls doubling, whereby he can magically produce a duplicate of any object, including persons. This is an inversion, in a way, of the neat closed loop of Schoenfeld’s rabbit vs. not-rabbit. Cantine posits doubled rabbits instead, a profane multiplying of objects—like Borges’s “mirrors and fatherhood” (which, incidentally, was published the same year that Schoenfeld and Dellinger were in prison, though not published in English until the year after Cantine’s story), an abominable mass reproduction.

The narrator at first merely uses this ability to multiply his scant resources so he can sell them and make money. It’s not wealth he’s seeking: he is content with self-sufficiency. What he really wants is to form an amateur brass band with himself. So he duplicates himself, or rather, himselves, one per instrument, and in the process discovers that the process of duplication is not perfect and his copies are not identical, having inherited different aspects of his moods, interests, and politics. One of his doubles returns to the radical politics that the narrator himself had given up on, by doubling and redoubling himself into an army and invading the Capitol. (This story predates the Marvel Comics character Multiple Man by fifteen years.) The imperfection of the doubling is doubled down upon: the militant self, attempting to defeat a conventional army through sheer numbers, doubles and redoubles himself relentlessly, the fidelity of the copies and the copies of copies becoming only ever more degraded, their politics only becoming more violent and less coherent in every iteration.

Between the publication of these two stories in F&SF, Dachine Rainer founded the Committee for the Liberation of Ezra Pound with, among others, e.e. cummings. Pound was arrested for treason for his pro-fascist radio broadcasts in Italy during World War II, and institutionalized in an American mental hospital for over a decade. Rainer wrote this in his defense in 1991:

It was once fairly common knowledge and it must be stated here that Pound was declared insane as a humanitarian act in order to avoid a trial and what in the hysterical postwar climate would most probably have been an execution.

Dachine Rainer, “Standing Up to Ezra Pound“, New York Times, 1991

Rainer is fully a Pound apologist here, even to the point of denying that he was a fascist or antisemite, which seems to rather fly in the face of Pound’s extensive body of pro-fascist and antisemitic utterances. “He is obviously crazy,” Hemingway wrote of Pound a couple of years before his arrest.

He deserves punishment and disgrace but what he really deserves most is ridicule. He should not be hanged and he should not be made a martyr of. He has a long history of generosity and unselfish aid to other artists and he is one of the greatest of living poets. It is impossible to believe that anyone in his right mind could utter the vile, absolutely idiotic drivel he has broadcast. His friends who knew him and who watched the warpeing and twisting and decay of his mind and judgement should defend him and explain him on that basis. It will be a completely unpopular but an absolutely necessary thing to do. I have had no correspondence with him for ten years and the last time I saw him was in 1933 when Joyce asked me to come to make it easier having Ezra at his house. Ezra was moderately whacky then. The broadcasts are absolutely balmy. I wish we could talk the whole damned thing over. But you can count on me for anything an honest man should do.

Hemingway in a letter to Archibald MacLeish, 1943

A couple of years after this letter, about a month after Mussolini was shot, the sixty-year-old Pound was arrested. They held him at a detention centre in Pisa, apparently within sight of the leaning tower.

For the first three weeks of his detention, Pound was in the specially reinforced cage that can be partially seen at the left in this photo.

A photograph of the row of ordinary cages shows just a corner of this special one. All have concrete slab floors, about six feet wide and six and a half long, simple timber frames, ¼″ wire netting walls, flat wood and tar-paper roofs, except that for Pound’s the steel grille is about an inch deep with four-inch interstices. The cages were open to the elements, to the summer sun, to wind and rain, to the dust blown in from the road to Pisa or from the drill field on hot windy days; and open too to the constant observation of the guards posted to watch him night and day, and to the gaze of passing military police and prisoners on their way in or out of the camp. All night a bright ‘reflector’ light shone on the cage. For furniture he was at first given just a slop pail and six blankets, and slept on the concrete; after some heavy rain, a cot was put in, and took up half the space; then he was given a pup tent which could be arranged to provide shelter from sun and rain. There was a general order that he was not to be spoken with—anyone could stare at him in his cage, but no one was to have a word with him.

A. David Moody, Ezra Pound, Poet. Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 (2015)

A young guard at this camp, David Feldman, wrote about Pound decades later, too.

After about three weeks of his caged existence I could see a change occur, an unpleasant change. He appeared to have lost weight and stopped all activity. He looked terrible in his army ‘fatigues’ that became larger on him daily.

I recall a three or four day gap between my strolls past “The Cage”. When I did find time to return to the area, I found him gone. It was at least a week later that I discovered him in the medical area. A good friend in the dispensary informed me that, “He cracked”. The truth is that he became hysterical, lost his memory, and was having nightmares […]

He made good progress and after about three months he was really fit. He was so fit that he asked for and received permission to use the dispensary typewriter. It was at the typewriter that I approached him just to say hello. (I never thought of him as a criminal, just a poet.)

David Feldman, “Ezra Pound, A Poet in a Cage“, Paideuma: Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, 1981

A lot of sympathetic writing on Pound dwells on the cage. It is part of the iconography of his rehabilitation, or rather, the rehabilitation of his image, as Pound himself continued to associate with fascists and white supremacists during and after his incarceration, and he unsurprisingly continues to be an icon for neo-fascist movements like CasaPound today. The simultaneous project of imagistic rehabilitation is meanwhile ongoing (note The Tragic Years in the title of Moody’s biography above.)

For a particular type of unsympathetic response to Pound, we turn to Malcolm Cowley, to whom Hemingway once referred as a stupid-looking potato face. Cowley wrote:

The spoiled great poet was also a spoiled traitor, despised and laughed at by his foreign masters. After being arrested by his own countrymen he was sent to a mental hospital without being granted the dignity of a public trial. It was the perfect retribution, a spoiled punishment for a soiled crime.

Malcolm Cowley, “The Battle over Ezra Pound”, New Republic, 1949. This is after the imprisoned Pound controversially won a poetry award.

To Cowley, Pound’s imprisonment is “perfect retribution” for what he considers a failed treason, because he finds Pound’s broadcasts “silly and ineffective.” They were of course silly, but fascism is silly—the beliefs, the ideas, are so mind-numbingly foolish that they often hardly seem to bear refutation and yet they must be refuted. Both Rainer and Cowley point out that Pound is not directly responsible for any deaths, though from opposite directions: Rainer uses this to claim Pound’s total innocence, and Cowley to suggest that his guilt is ameliorated by his sheer incompetence as a traitor.

Hemingway, MacLeish, Rainer and others supported Pound’s eventual release, sometimes through gritted teeth. In 1957, Hemingway, then a recent Nobel winner, wrote yet another letter in support of Pound’s release, in which, Michael Reynolds writes in his biography, Hemingway continued to “emphasize that he could not abide Pound’s politics, his support of fascism, or his anti-Semitic and racist views.” When Pound was released the following year—the indictment of treason being finally dismissed because he was judged incompetent to stand trial—he received a cheque from Hemingway for $1,500 to sponsor his relocation to Italy. As he had said to MacLeish over a decade before, Hemingway did what he thought an honest man should do.

Of course, Pound had been a mentor and early champion of Hemingway, along with many of the other writers who supported him. Their campaigning for his release was also, perhaps primarily, driven by their sense of indebtedness to him, their need to rescue his celebrity status as a great poet. Where does that leave the less connected writer at the mercy of the state? Would Pound have been less worthy of support if he had not been a famous and much-admired poet with personal ties to Nobel Prize winners? Well, obviously not—and equally obviously, he would not have received that support either. Celebrity trumps principle, in practice if not in theory.

To become a traitor is easy, so easy that it often seems like treason is the natural point at which the citizen would come to rest, gravitationally speaking, if one were not artificially suspended above the pit, as it were, of this original sin by grace of the state—an unearned support easily withdrawn, if you were to oppose the wars of your state, for instance, or the state of your war, which would make you a traitor regardless of whether you oppose this war because you oppose all war, even a “good war”, or whether you support the enemy. For the paranoid state, it is the same operation in either case. Lacking the discerning organs of principle to distinguish between nonviolence and fascism, for instance (what states tend to have instead of principle are constitutions, which are, as self-proclaimed non-war-criminal Kamal Gunaratne indicated recently, just so much toilet paper) the pareidoliac state can find opposition in a grain of sand, enemies in a wild flower.

“Front rouge” [a poem by Louis Aragon] contained several lines advocating militant aggression against the liberal government of Léon Blum. […] Taking the commands “Feu sur Léon Blum” (“Shoot Léon Blum”) and “Descendez les flics” (“kill the cops”) literally as a call to arms (and extracting them from their poetic context), Blum’s Department of Justice accused Aragon on 16 January 1932 of attempting to incite unrest, an act punishable by a prison sentence of five years. […]

Upon hearing the news of the accusation against Aragon, [André] Breton immediately drafted a rebuttal. He circulated this rebuttal as a petition, acquired over three hundred signatures, and published it […]

Breton’s act of solidarity probably saved Aragon from being brought to trial, for the Blum government, at first incensed by the poem’s treasonous call for violent insurrection, felt even more threatened by the negative publicity it would receive as a result of surrealist agitation […] Not wanting to be associated with the dictatorial tactics of censorshop, Blum’s justice department simply dropped the case.

Carrie Noland, “Red Front/Black Front“, Diacritics, 2006

As Hemingway and others supported Pound despite disagreements, André Breton supported Louis Aragon in this situation despite their having fallen out. Upon his release, however, Aragon promptly doubled down by publishing a repudiation of Breton’s petition, the very one that may well have kept him out of prison. Aragon called Breton counter-revolutionary for arguing for the right of a poem to be read as a poem. He’d wanted it read, it seemed, as a call to direct action, and felt that Breton was unnecessarily muddying the clear waters in which les flics were to be descendu.