My most embarrassing bookish moment occurred 31 years ago, in a diner in Lakewood, Ohio. I was seated in the corner booth by the front window, for the light. Open on the table in front of me was the plump New Directions edition of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, the one with the pumpkin-colored cover that today collects dust on my shelf. The pages on view were from the late sections Pound published in the nineteen-fifties, the pages on which Chinese characters outnumber words printed in the Roman alphabet. I’d been wooing a waitress, unsuccessfully, with winning smiles and tips I couldn’t afford. Now I hoped to impress her with my nonexistent knowledge of Asian languages.
While filling my coffee cup she noticed the Chinese characters and asked, “Can you read that?” With boyish modesty I responded with something like, “Oh, that? Sure, that’s pretty simple.” And she said, “So read it to me. What does that say?” My precise answer I no longer recall but it amounted to, “My Mandarin must be getting a little rusty.” She laughed and called me a liar and continued laughing as she re-entered the kitchen, and I’ve never set foot in that diner again. That night I got even drunker than usual.
I rehash my humiliation because of Clive James’ essay, “The Arrow Has Not Two Points,” in the December issue of Poetry, in which the author of Cultural Amnesia reevaluates his one-time devotion to Pound’s Cantos, and then reevaluates his reevaluation. It’s a critic’s unusually candid inspection of his own evolving critical standards:
“When I fell out of love with the Cantos I fell all the way out, but one of my critical principles, such as they are, is to take account of the history of my critical opinions, on the further principle that they have never existed in some timeless zone apart from the man who held them, but have always been attached to him, like his hair, or, lately, like his baldness. There is a promising analogy there, somewhere: my hair yielded baldness as my enthusiasms yielded disenchantment. First the one thing, then the other, and the second thing clearly definable only in terms of the first.”
This is useful and possibly unprecedented. Readers and critics, myself included, seldom possess the honesty and willingness to chronicle and evaluate their own critical histories. I feel a strong, pride-driven instinct to cover my tracks, to distance myself thoroughly from previous enthusiasms that now embarrass me. I once genuinely enjoyed the fiction of Robert Coover. Today, “The Babysitter” seems shallow and puerile, unfit for grownups. I once pretended to admire and enjoy Juan Goytisolo, the Spanish novelist, when in fact I found him empty, dull and occasionally offensive. I think such dishonesty and posturing is especially common among devotees of much “experimental” writing, as I fancied myself at the time. I’m reminded of an English professor I knew who claimed to love Charles Olson and Albert Ayler. Such a stance is essentially an adolescent: “I like and understand this difficult, transgressive avant-garde work and you don’t, which makes you a reactionary and not terribly bright bourgeois.” James continues:
“But just as we can scrutinize the aging remains of our bodies in the mirror and decide that these loose remnants would not even be here to be looked at if we had not been strong and healthy when we were young, so we can look back to when we were wrong, and decide whether we were as wrong as all that. Youth and health have their virtues even in envious retrospect, and perhaps some of our early and ridiculous appreciations were pure and nourishing. Maybe, that is, we later overcorrected, like one of those terrible old men who write articles against the sexual laxity of youth when they are no longer capable of pursuing their notorious careers as indiscriminate lechers. Maybe we overdid the disillusionment.”
James’ candor is refreshing. He’s not waffling or qualifying his reevaluation of Pound. Here’s the beginning of his next sentence:
“In the case of the Cantos, I don't think I did. I think I can nowadays go right through the long text of that doomed project and show that although it has some arresting passages, they are not quite as arresting as their author meant them to be, and indeed claimed them to be by the way he chose their diction and set them into position. I hasten to admit that for my younger self the claims seemed valid, and that I could not have been more arrested if I had been caught breaking into a liquor store.”
Read the whole essay for a first-rate demolition of this imposing, sacrosanct Modernist cathedral, though parts of it may make you uncomfortable:
“To the end of his life, [Pound] went on believing that if he could just define every aspect of existence clearly enough, it would all add up. Not all that far in the future, his central belief would be echoed all over the Internet, and really the Cantos is, or are—or perhaps was or were—a nut-job blog before the fact.”