Adolphe William Bouguereau,
"The Education of Bacchus."
Gods float in the azure air,
Bright gods and Tuscan, back before dew was fallen.
Panisks, and from the oak, dryas,
And from the apple, maelid,
Through all the wood, and the leaves are full of voices,
A-whisper, and the clouds bowe over the lake,
And there are gods upon them…
— Ezra Pound, Canto III
No matter house dense or obscure or preachy the Cantos of Ezra Pound can
be at times, there are moments that can amaze you. Most of the scholars
in his own day considered him eccentric or even literally mad. Fortunately
for history, T. S. Eliot didn't agree — to the great benefit of Eliot's poetry.
Il miglior fabbro Eliot called him, "my better master."
You sometimes have to wonder how Eliot, one of the most conservative
personalities of all artists, ever got along with the eccentric Pound.
Sometimes, genius just finds itself. And sometimes it is helped on its
way. Eliot knew greatness — genius — when he ran into it. I'm sure
that helped. And for all of Eliot's "Englishness" (Pound hated the
English, really) Pound liked and respected Eliot, both for his poetry
and his well-tooled scholarship. If there was one thing Pound valued,
it was always good scholarship.
One of the best books on the subject of Pound and Eliot is Hugh Kenner's
The Pound Era
. The book is not in any way dry, literary criticism. In fact
it is one of those books that brings a period of history to life in a way
that makes you want to keep turning the pages, wondering just what
great clarity you will find next.
If you were to add up all the words written by the great writers of the
West, and if you were to put those up against all the words that have
been written about or concerning those writers and their works, I am
sure that the later would outweigh the former by at least a couple of
exponents. And it is strange that in a field that has seen some of the
greatest innovators in history — Dante, Shakespeare, Bryon et al. —
that the area of literary scholarship is so maddeningly conservative.
While most academic departments accept or even thrive on new thought
and controversial views, Literature is a field that is in the main
dominated by those who consider themselves God's gift to scholarship,
no dissent allowed. It is a wonder that Kenner's very creative thinking
even got through such an establishment.
Back in 1970, a movie came out called Getting Straight. Based upon the
novel by Ken Kolb, it followed the pilgrim's progress of a returning
Vietnam vet (played by Elliot Gould) through the tempestuous environment
of the late 60s. Harry (Gould) just wants to get through his Master's
degree in Literature without starving to death. Nevertheless there are many
temptations and tests along his way — women, the academic establishment,
and the protests against the war. He develops an attraction to Jan (Candace
Bergen), a young radicalized woman who tries to get him involved in the
protest movement. Much as he would like to stick his head in the sand,
he finds it increasing difficult to do so.
At the climax of the movie, Harry defends his thesis while all hell is
breaking loose on campus. His ideas on Cervantes are non-traditional.
Which of course does not sit well with the majority of professors on the
committee. Finally, sick of the conservatism he finds around the table,
and at that point pretty much knowing his thesis will not pass, he goes
a little crazy. He gets up on the table and, rising above the academic
gods on their clouds, dances like a mad modern Bacchus. There is nothing
else to do.
As the Seal song goes, we're never going to survive — unless we get a
little bit crazy. Let's hope that the craziness is of the good, creative
sort. Currently, most of the college teachers who became radicalized
during the 60s and 70s are retiring. And you can only wonder what sorts
are and will be replacing them.
One thing is for sure. The literary establishment isn't going to change
much. And Conservatism is always out there, trying to wrap its metal
straight-jacket around our skulls. Which is a good reason to seek out
rare scholars like Hugh Kenner. Or to indulge in the Bacchic rites of
movies like Getting Straight.
Elliot Gould in Getting Straight (1970).