By Lawrence “Mack in Texas” Hall (Rated G)
The Poets of Rapallo by Lauren Arrington (Oxford University Press) is a brilliant first draft; one looks forward to reading the completed work.
As it is, Dr. Arrington has accomplished brilliant research on the poets – Yeats, Bunting, Pound, Aldington, MacGreevy, Zukofsky – and their acquaintances who happened to be in the Italian resort town Rapallo (they were not a coterie) in the 1920s and 1930s. The notes alone run to 54 pages of too-small type, and the bibliography to 8.
Unhappily, the text appears to have been rushed, possibly by an impatient publisher, and along with numerous small mistakes there are some serious failures in stereotyping, hasty generalizations predicated on little evidence, and a few condemnations more redolent of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor than a scholar.
One of the best things about The Poets of Rapallo is the exposition explaining why a great many intellectuals were attracted to Italian Fascism as it was idealistically presented through propaganda early on and not as the moral and ethical disaster it soon proved to be.
Mussolini cleverly promoted his program as primarily cultural, a reach-back to the artistic and architectural unities of an imagined ancient Rome restored and enhanced with modern science and technology. He promoted the arts for his own purposes, of course, but deceptively. In almost any context the construction of schools, libraries, museums, theatres, and cinema studios would be perceived as a good and, absent of any close examination, accepted by everyone. But in Mussolini’s scheme, these cultural artifacts, like Lady Macbeth’s “innocent flower,” concealed the lurking serpent: wars of conquest, poison gas, bombings of undefended cities, death camps, institutionalized racism, mass murders, and other enormities.
The Fascist sympathies of W. B. Yeats and other influencers (as we would say now) in the Irish Republic, including Eamon de Valera, are certainly revelatory. That the new nation came close to goose-stepping through the Celtic Twilight might help explain Ireland’s curious neutrality during the Second World War.
Professor Arrington explains all this very well, and initially is professionally objective. Most of the Rapallo set were not long in learning what Fascism was really about and quickly distanced themselves from it in some embarrassment. Some were later even more of an embarrassment in their denials and deflections; few seemed to have been able to admit that, yes, they were suckered, as we all have been from time to time
But with the exception of the unrepentant and odious Pound, who was himself a metaphorical serpent to his death, Professor Arrington seems to lose her objectivity with the others.
And why Pound?
As with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it is difficult to take seriously someone who considers Pound’s pretentious, pompous, show-off word-soup Cantos to be literature. Pound is now famous only for being famous, and while Arrington appears to forgive Pound for his adamant and malevolent anti-Semitism and his pathetic subservience to Mussolini, in the end she is ruthless toward anyone else who, under Pound’s influence, in his or her naivete even once told an inappropriate joke, appreciated Graeco-Roman architecture, or perhaps saw Mussolini at a distance. This is inexplicable in a text that is otherwise professional and compassionate in avoiding what C. S. Lewis identifies as chronological snobbery.
One also wishes the author had discussed Pound’s post-war appeal as a fashionable prisoner adored or at least pitied by a new generation (Elizabeth Bishop, how could you?).
The book ends abruptly, as if the author were interrupted by a demand by the printers for it now, and so, yes, one hopes for a complete work to follow.
The Poets of Rapallo is not served well by the Oxford University Press, who appear to have been more interested in cutting costs than in presenting a work of scholarship to the world. The print is far too small, the garish spine lettering is more suited to a sale-table murder mystery, and the retro-1930s holiday cover would be fine for an Agatha Christie yarn but not for a book of literary scholarship.
A question outside the scope of this book but more important is this: why, in a free nation, do so many people feel the desperate need to almost worship a leader? Yes, of course we have presidents and chiefs of police (some of whom love to sport shiny admiral’s stars on their collars, and what’s that about?) and bosses and so on, and we depend upon their wise leadership. But why do people wear pictures of some Dear Leader or other on their clothing and chant his name?
I think the president or the famous movie star should wear YOUR name on his shirt and pay YOU for the privilege.