A Guest Post By: Jordan Casstles – @JCASSTLES on Twitter
Note From Chance Lunceford: Jordan Casstles is a young man I’m glad to be able to call a friend. He’s a brilliant fellow, and I’ve had the opportunity to offer him some mentoring and guidance from time to time. The following is an excerpt from a book he’ll be releasing in the coming months, and it will require you to spend an hour or so with it. Soak it in, and contend with the ideas put forth, do not shy away. I’ll meet you on the other side.
I: The Competent Man And The Last Messiah
Part One: On Archetypes And Meta-Archetypes
Part Two: Odysseus, Achilles, Aeneas – The Competent Man, The Blinded Warrior, And The Castrated Proto–Patriot
Part Three: The Terrors Beyond The Boundary – The Crucible Of Truth And The Double Birth
Part Four: A Medal For Every Man – The Age Of Zombification, The Modes Of Distraction, And The Monster-Hero
Part Five: Ligotti’s Puppet Theatre – The Trouble With Volition, The Power Of Genetics, And The Virtue Of Disobedience
II: The Perils Of Pound’s Factive Man
Part One: Ezra and Homer – The Poet’s Odyssey And The Factive Man
Part Two: Ezra and Ovid – The Fatality Of Metamorphosis And The Dionysian Apotheosis
Part Three: Ezra and Virgil – The Externalised Priest–Hero And The Factive Father
Part Four: Ezra and Mussolini – The Perverse Resurrection Of The Epic And The Factive Spectacle
THE COMPETENT MAN AND THE LAST MESSIAH
Part One: On Archetypes And Meta-Archetypes
Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
- Homer’s Odyssey
Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
- Thus Spoke Zarathrustra, Friedrich Nietzsche
The world in which we live is not a world of pure and objective atomic structures.
It is not a world that is governed by the unyielding demands of pure, rational science.
It is not a world that functions in the manner that the mathematicians, biologists, physicists, and chemists would declare it to – that is, through abiding by the laws of simple, functional logic.
There is a simple reason for this: due to the fact that you exist and are capable of conscious thought, you are not able to process the world as it truly is. The entirety of reality is filtered through your own personal biases, both conscious and unconscious, and the structure of your psyche projects and imprints narratives onto the events you face on a day to day basis. Therefore, we must first accept that the world we experience through our senses and thoughts is a highly subjective world: a world formed though the accumulation of symbols, narrative, concepts, dreams, and archetypes. This is a world where, with the correct bisection of a long vertical line by a short horizontal line, one is able to encode the entirety of one of the oldest books in human history and the over-encompassing concept of self-sacrifice for the greater good. This is a world where, by making some strange noises with our vocal chords, we are able to cause people to behave in exactly the way we desire them to. This world is one where I am able to press keys on a block of metal that will make strange, intricate symbols to appear on a page that does not exist, and through your viewing of them speak directly into your mind. By virtue of existing, human beings enter the purity of the world-as-is and contaminate it with deep, rich meaning, thereby transforming it into the world-for-us.
Furthermore, this act of projecting and assigning meaning into each of our perceived realities is not solely applied to the things which exist outside of ourselves. Whether we are conscious of it or not in any kind of capacity, it must be understood that we take on archetypal elements from the psychic narratives we produce on a daily basis and embody them as we move from situation to situation and context to context. After you have woken from slumber, washed yourself, and dressed yourself, I am willing to guarantee that you will have carefully chosen the masks that you will wear over the course of the day without even realising it. The boxer in the ring reaches into the ether and draws out the mask of the raging Warrior to steel himself and summon his courage before the bell rings and the fists start flying; the singer on the stage of an open mic night summons forth the mask of the Bard to conjure forth the right words and the right cadence to carry him through a performance that will have the audience screaming for more; the timid man might draw the mask of the Lover when he sees a chance to speak with the beautiful blonde at the bar.
This behaviour is universal: we all have masks we wear, and the origins of these masks – these archetypes – go back millennia. When we engage with them in an analytical, intelligent, and understanding manner, we find that most of them are actually rather easy to understand and content with when we find ourselves embodying them or having to engage with those who are embodying them. We see the young, courageous Hero who charges into the unknown with a silvery sword raised high and a pure heart that can resist all evil; we witness the work of the Wise Old Man, surrounded by the sagely tomes in his study as he seeks to uncover the secrets of the universe; we perceive the immense rage of the Warrior, who seeks to obliterate all that stands in his way; and we see the Devil, whose cruel smile and sly words betray his desires to trick and deceive every innocent he encounters into damnation. These archetypes exist within all of our minds in some capacity and form, and they play themselves out in all dimensions where the narratological structure of the mind is able to be unleashed – especially in the domain of the fictional, where storytellers take them and amplify them in order to illustrate how we might engage with them in the most intelligent and moral manner. These archetypes take on exaggerated shapes that allow us to make sense of them and engage with them in a clearer manner than we might engage with our own psychic iterations: Achilles is a perfect embodiment of the raging Warrior, Harry Potter is a strong modern embodiment of the young Hero, and Hannibal Lecter provides us with a pitch perfect Devil.
But there is one archetype that stands out among these, not so much for its prominence (though indeed, it could be argued quite strongly that this particular archetype holds the most cultural and psychological value of them all, and has played a critical role in the formation of the modern collective human psyche) as for its curious ability to avoid being pinned down and understood. This, dear Reader, is the focus of our investigation: the understanding of an archetype that bypasses the simplistic, mask-like properties of all other archetypes. Wandering through the weirding shades of the collective unconscious, you may catch a glimpse of this character separated from all of the others. It is a man, exceptionally-built and watching out over the entirety of the psychological landscape you are travelling through. He stands with his arms folded, his steely gaze fixed on the highest point in the sky. This archetype is something of a contradiction: he is too unscrupulous and deceptive to be categorised as being the pure and noble Hero, yet he is too benevolent and good-natured to be considered as the Devil (though this has not stopped some people); there is a youthful energy and a love of dynamic action that radiates from him unlike the Wise Old Man, but at the same time he is too cunning and serene to match the unrelenting rage of the Warrior. This is a man of perfect balance between mind, body, and spirit. There is some form of morality here, but it is not born of some ethereal desire to live forever in the lands of some kindly god: it is born of skill.
In short, he is the Competent Man: a rebellious polymath who strives with every ounce of his being to become a master of all things, and in the process transforms himself into a monumental force of nature in the world. He is the movement from the static position of the common mortal towards the electric speed of Nietzsche’s Übermensch: he is the swirling air before the lightning that heralds the new age. Within the Competent Man, we find the scientific genius, the master artist, the wise magician, and the cunning trickster combined in a singular dynamic entity – his mask is that of the man who can wear all the masks perfectly and switch between them seamlessly. As such, we must consider the Competent Man to be a meta-archetype.
How can one make sense of the concept of the meta-archetype? Imagine, if you will, watching a biographical film in which an actor is playing another actor that is in the process of playing a character. In this way, the character that is being played by the semi-fictional actor (for it would seem that the writers and directors of Hollywood cannot resist rearranging the strange and outré facts of reality in order to produce palatable narratives for their paying customers, and thus all real people are transformed into pastiches of themselves) is the archetype, and the semi-fictional actor being played by the real actor is the meta-archetype. This understanding of the meta-archetype brings with it some implications, with the most prominent of them being that the meta-archetype can only really be accessed in its totality when all other possible archetypes have been engaged with on a deep enough level to allow for the necessary development.
With this in mind, we can therefore proceed with an investigation into the meta-archetype of the Competent Man – but there is a critical caveat that must be taken into account. After all, it would stand to reason that there cannot simply be one meta-archetype – and indeed, this is the case. There are several possible combinations of all lower archetypes, and one of the most unsettling and grim of them all is that which may be dubbed the Last Messiah. Just as there is the hope that is brought by the man that can bring the future into being through his superhuman will, so too is the despair that is brought by the man who has come to the final conclusion. Both have witnessed the greatest of horrors – the cold, relentless world-as-is – and both are capable of immense feats.
Which of them shall mankind side with?
Part II: Odysseus, Achilles, Aeneas – The Competent Man, The Blinded Warrior, And The Castrated Proto–Patriot
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians…
- Homer’s Iliad
I tell about war and the hero who first from Troy’s frontier,
Displaced by destiny, came to the Lavinian shores…
- Virgil’s Aeneid
The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid can be understood as the foundational texts of the Western world: they are vast, grand epic poems, and together they provide a curious philosophical progression over the course of history that begins with a question, provides an answer, and then displays a reversal derived from a curious shift in power dynamics and morality. The Iliad is the earliest of the works, which was orally composed and performed by the poet Homer (or the collective of poets known as Homer in our modern age) between 1260 and 1180 BC in order to tell the story of the quarrel between the demigod Achilles and the Mycenean king Agamemnon in the tenth year of the Trojan War and the tragedies that followed it. It is the grittiest and most realistic of the works (barring the more explicit and dynamic cases of divine interference and intervention that take place within it, which even then are markedly less bizarre than the cases shown in the other two works), being heavily grounded in the brutal and painful reality of warfare and the agony of loss. The core thematic focus of this first text is drawn from the tragic interplay between the worth of kléos (fame and greatness gained from heroic actions) and the concept of the ‘beautiful death’. Achilles, the protagonist (or perhaps deuteragonist, depending on how you are willing to perceive other characters such as Hector) of the poem, is a brash and brutal embodiment of the Warrior archetype, and we see throughout the story how it both empowers him in immense ways and blinds him in a way that ensures his ultimate (if unseen, at least within this piece) demise. The solutions to all of the problems that rise against him are painfully simplistic: no matter whether he is under threat from an enemy soldier or being mocked and insulted by his commanding officer, the answer of Achilles always lies in the speedy use of a spear or a sword. For you see, there is nothing in the world that is more meaningful in the worldview of Achilles than kléos – no insult can go unnoticed, and the most important aspect of life is being able to die admired more than anybody else. Even he ends up destroying himself in the process (which he indeed does), Achilles makes it crystal clear through both his words and his deeds that his sole aim is to become the greatest hero of the Greek world. In this way, his face has the mask of the archetypal Warrior practically stapled onto it, and as a result of this he is both immensely empowered and cripplingly blinkered by the singular tunnel vision and relentless superhuman focus that it provides.
As a direct contrast to Achilles as the ancient embodiment of the Warrior, the succeeding epic – the Odyssey of Homer – provides us with an embodiment of the Competent Man meta-archetype in the form of Odysseus. The context that this meta-archetype is displayed to the audience in is markedly different from that of the Iliad: while the earlier epic is based in the definitively real tragedy of warfare, the Odyssey presents us with a world beyond the boundaries of the map that is brimming with dangerous elements of the weird and eerie kind (the terms “weird” and “eerie” used here in the manner established by the philosopher Mark Fisher as being the active presence of something which does not belong in a certain context and the passive absence of something that should belong in a certain context respectively). These are wholly alien events in the context of the human experience, and they can be seen in this psycho-archetypal context as being representative of the things that lie beyond the boundaries of conscious understanding. Out on the edges of the Irreal, the Competent Man must contend with forces that the Warrior could not even comprehend, let alone conquer: simplicity and brute force can not win the day on the psychic frontier.
Achilles wouldn’t have lasted one minute.
The straightforward and simple are crushed by the horrific might of the cosmic.
Instead, we find that the diagonal virtues of the Competent Man’s nature – his cunning, his variety of skills, his ability to improvise, and his humility – are what allow him to triumph here: it is through these elements of his nature that Odysseus is able to come out of his hellish encounters alive and capable of continuing homeward bound without loss of hope or courage in the long run. The idea of humility being a necessary virtue of the Competent Man must be taken note of here: time and time again over the course of the Odyssey, our hero is forced to actively debase and degrade himself in the eyes of his enemies in order to avoid annihilation and to buy himself enough time to work out their flaws and weaknesses. This is a far cry from Achilles’ monumental pride: could you even imagine the demigod of Greece disguising himself as a dirty, homeless beggar and not giving the game away when faced with one-hundred and eight rapacious wannabe usurpers clutching at his wife and trying to kill his son? And yet we find Odysseus being forced into the same situation and making the best of it, ultimately liberating his family from the threat that faces them and restoring his home of Ithaca to order.
Through this contrast, the Odyssey can be seen as providing its audience with the most effective answer to the philosophical question that is posed by the Iliad regarding what the best way to engage with the world may be and how one might navigate the issue of the balance of life and death. The Odyssey provides us with a more detailed and helpful metaphysical map to be used in the navigation of life than the Iliad, allowing the savvy reader to harness the narrative structure in order to have a healthier psychic state and a more fulfilling way of engaging with the world than the prior epic, and nowhere is this made more blatant than in the eleventh book (the Nekuia) of the Odyssey. In this section of the poem, our heroic Competent Man travels across the River Ocean in order to access the Underworld in a katabasis (“down-going”) in order to consult the prophet Teiresias. In the process, he meets Achilles and speaks with him for a while.
“Son of Peleus, far the greatest of the Achaians, Achilleus…
no man before has been more blessed than you, nor ever
will be. Before, when you were alive, we Argives honoured you
as we did the gods, and now in this place you have great authority
over the dead. Do not grieve, even in death, Achilleus.”
But the response that Achilles gives to Odysseus shortly after this exaltation completely shatters this conception of the demigod that was constructed through the story of the Iliad:
“O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying.
I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another
man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on,
than be a king over all the perished dead.”
Here, the great champion of the Greek people makes it blatantly clear through his declaration that he would rather be forced to work under a peasant than in his current situation: the Warrior, once fixated upon the ‘beautiful death’, realises all too late the virtue of living the ugly, exhausting, strenuous but fulfilling life. There is a longing for the life that Odysseus has here: the Competent Man, willing to accept the necessity of humility in life, will have a wife, a son, and a father to return to at home, while the Warrior will have to wait for his beloved family to join him in death.
Another crucial difference in the modes of being that Achilles and Odysseus embody that must be noted here is the balance between the creative and the destructive methods that they employ when engaging with the world around them. Achilles, being a manifestation of the perfect Warrior, is all destruction and no production: we do not see him ever engaging in crafting or creating anything, but instead we find that he is repeatedly granted and gifted weaponry with which he ventures forth to go forth and destroy any man who dares to oppose him. Odysseus, on the other hand, succeeds through his creative impulses (shown, perhaps, through the extended conceit of his patron goddess being Athena, the deity ruling over the spheres of strategy and craftsmanship). The city of Troy is not brought to its knees by the unearthly might and rage of Achilles, but rather by the intelligent craftsmanship and cunning of Odysseus and his wooden horse stratagem. It is not through mere mindless brute force that he is able to defeat the men who sought to take over his domain and steal his wife, but through the conscious and clever crafting of his “lying tales” in order to convince them that he truly is harmless – right up, of course, until the moment that he definitively isn’t. Furthermore, while Achilles’ main adversary Hector (the Trojan champion from the Iliad) is clearly shown to be a productive member of Trojan society and an attentive father to his son Astyanax, the main adversaries at the end of the Odyssey – the suitors – are compared to ravenous locusts in a direct contrast to Odysseus’ skills in agricultural production and the implication of his generation of sustenance for both himself and others. As such, we see that this creative, productive streak is crucial to the Competent Man: Odysseus is a man who is just at home rigging together a seaworthy raft on his own in five days (as is seen in Book 5 of the Odyssey) and acting as a charming diplomatic figure as he is engaging in espionage and diving into the heat of battle, and all of these elements lend themselves to his ability to continue through life and emerge victorious from the grim unknown. The man who strives to embody a meta-archetype that is based in fluidity and adaptation is able to move through the world in a manner that cultivates success, whilst the man who becomes too attached to a specific base archetype and its fetishistic narrative elements – in this case, Achilles’ fixation on the mask of the Warrior and the sacrificial ‘beautiful death’ that comes as part of that archetypal mindset – is blinded to other possible outcomes in his life by it. We must work to play the role of the man who can play all other roles, lest our attachments to an overly static mode of being annihilate us through its practice in the arena of the Real.
Combining what we have found so far and delving deeper into the implications of our analysis, we can see that at the core of the Competent Man is a dynamic and mercurial spirit that strives for excellence in the realms of complex creation rather than simple destruction. He is a man who has built his body, his mind, and his soul rather than simply received his power from a higher authority like the demigod Achilles. It is by virtue of his recognition that he is a mere mortal that he is able to transcend the status of the common man: he knows and understands the boundaries that confine him and his ability to enact his agency within and upon the world at large, and therefore is able to actively and intelligently work to surpass them every day of his life. He is as effective in the spheres of direct practice and dynamic action as he is in the spheres of theoretical investigation and deep pontification, and owes his immense balance to the great degree to which he is grounded within the world proper in comparison to some ‘great men’ of history who allow themselves to be overwhelmed and hijacked by the archetypal masks they wear, leading them to become more and more removed from reality as they proceed. The creative, shapeshifting Competent Man knows this all too well, and does what he can to avoid being crippled and castrated by the roles he undertakes.
This psychological castration is shown best not by Achilles, but by Aeneas – the proto-Roman protagonist of the third of the epic poems analysed in this chapter, the Aeneid. Aeneas was originally a Trojan warrior shown in the Iliad by Homer, but he was taken and adapted by the Roman poet Virgil in order to play out the leading role in what was effectively an elaborate (yet highly derivative) propaganda piece that sought to legitimise the new imperial age brought on by Augustus Caesar. Aeneas is shown by Virgil in this text as a man heavily bound by the Augustan cardinal virtues of pietas (duty to one’s family, father, gods, and nation), iustitia (fair play and just action), virtus (bravery and manly courage), and clementia (mercy shown towards one’s adversaries). As such, Aeneas may be considered the first great moral hero of the epic tradition in comparison to the more individualistic and amoral champions of epic presented to us through Achilles and Odysseus. We can see the origins of this with the way in which the Romans perceived the outcome of the Trojan War: while the Greeks lauded their mythic heroes as being intelligent and strong enough to overcome their adversaries, the Romans claimed to have descended from the Trojan people through Aeneas and his allies and claimed that they were the moral victors of the war against the cunning and manipulative Greeks. (Here, we might be able to see the origins of what would ultimately become Nietzsche’s codified dichotomy of herrenmoral and sklavenmoral: when the Romans conquered the Greeks and found themselves unable to compete in artistic and cultural terms, they were forced to frame these forms of excellence and quality as ‘evil’ and effeminate in order to fully perceive themselves as worthy of what Virgil dubbed the imperium sine fine – the glorious ‘empire with no end’. We can see this process through Virgil’s projection of the idea of the ‘evil’ Warrior onto the Italian prince Turnus, the “second Achilles” prophesised by the Sibyl in Book 6 and the final human antagonist of the Aeneid.)
But through the attachment of these strict, proto-patriotic morals (for, over the course of the poem, Aeneas finds himself as a man without a home – and even with the prophecies that promise the foundation of Rome, it is made clear that he himself will not live to see its creation) to what was initially the same archetypal framework that generated Achilles and Odysseus, we readers of the modern world perceive a curious shift. To us, Aeneas does not come across as heroic and bold as Achilles or as resourceful and courageous as Odysseus: instead, we see an overly timid man whose beliefs depend heavily upon the decisions of his father Anchises (to the point that he must still be commanded in order to move on with his quest by Anchises after he passes away) and who has absolutely no agency in his own life. Every action he undertakes is either ordained by the gods or corrected with extreme prejudice: in many ways, he is more of a Winston Smith than an epic hero. Even though he stands in the same exclusive company as Odysseus as a protagonist who has undergone a katabasis (that is, traveling down to the Underworld whilst still alive and surviving to tell the tale), there is something definitively lacking in this Trojan soldier.
It is clear to anybody who has read the Iliad and the Odyssey prior to reading the Aeneid that Virgil’s work is incredibly derivative, and this may lend itself to the sense of lack in the effect and depth of the poem’s main character. Yet despite acting as a extended pastiche of these Homeric works, the Aeneid remarkably fails to carry over the charisma and curious nature of the Homeric heroes. In fact, the more colourful antagonists of the piece are far more captivating and engaging than the protagonist we are supposed to be cheering on: for example, Turnus – the macho-to-the-point-of-utter-ridiculousness Italian prince who acts as the main antagonist of the second half of the poem – displays far more dynamic feats of strength, courage, and skill than the priest-like Aeneas. And this, I believe, is where we might find the key issue: Virgil has taken the Homeric hero and castrated him through making him a priest figure. He has taken a man who would best suit the mask of the Warrior or the Hero, and has proceeded to weld the mask of the Cleric onto him with no thought of possible ill effects. As a result, we find ourselves being forced to watch a neutered “hero” play the part of a cosmic pawn – and we find ourselves tempted more and more to throw the book at the nearest wood-chipper with the turn of every page as we realise that there is no way on earth the man can lose. There is no demand of skill or strength on Aeneas’ part, and there is no need for him to be tested or challenged in any real way. He is a manifestation of Augustan propaganda, and any danger he faces is rendered so painfully impotent by divine (and authorial) intervention that the idea of any actual narrative conflict or threat becomes a lousy running joke.
A very strange direct comparison between the two archetypes emerges in the 23rd Canto of the infamous renegade poet Ezra Pound, where his ‘factive personality’ (a singular embodiment of the Competent Man archetype that originates through the character of Odysseus and proceeds to, over the course of the epic, move through the bodies of men with potential across time and space in order to do battle with the dark and destructive forces of usury and bureaucracy) possesses the body of Anchises on a voyage:
And that was when Troy was down, all right,
And they were sailing along
Sitting in the stern sheets,
Under the lee of an island
And the wind drifting off from the island.
what is it?” said Anchises.
“Tethnéké,” said the helmsman. “I think they
“Are howling because Adonis died virgin.”
“Huh! tet…” said Anchises.
“well, they’ve made a bloody mess of that
Here, the Modernist Pound conflates three separate myths – the ancient death of Adonis, the lover of Aphrodite born of the first myrrh tree; the Bronze Age character of Odysseus shown through the shapeshifting and time-travelling factive personality that emerges through Anchises here; and the imperial Roman story of Aeneas, who is here reduced to being nothing more than a member of the “they” sailing along. Pound thus robs Aeneas of all agency and all vitality in reference to his perfect slavery to the will of the gods, and allows his father to be the host for the factive personality. This relegation of the Roman cleric–patriot to the role of background scenery and the temporary transformation of a doddering old man into a wisecracking Competent Man presents us with a strange tableau in which the witty Odyssean elder is able to overshadow and obliquely mock his stolid and staid Aeneidean progeny.
The character of Aeneas was devised at least partly as a tool by Virgil in order to legitimise and codify the role of the imperator in Roman society, and as such the archetypes in play are denigrated through a misstep in propaganda production. In comparison, Odysseus is a character embodying a functional meta-archetype which carries its own agenda and mission along with it: it is not that the story of the Odyssey has had to be attached to its protagonist (much in the way that the gods force Aeneas’ adventure upon him due to the forces of Fortune and Fate), but rather that any and all manifestations of the Competent Man cannot help but go forth into the world on their own Odyssey.
Part III: The Terrors Beyond The Boundary – The Crucible Of Truth And The Double Birth
To see things as they really are renders life almost completely intolerable. Myself because I have, I believe, at least in part, seen things as they really are, I could never act. I have always remained on the fringe of actions. So, is it desirable that people come to see things as they really are? I don’t know. I believe that, in general, people are incapable of it. So therefore it is true that only a monster can see things as they really are, because the monster lies outside of humanity.
- Emil Cioran
The most memorable section of Homer’s Odyssey by far is the second third, in which our protagonist recounts his bizarre ten-year long voyage that led him from Troy to Phaeacia by way of the strangeness that exists on the fringe on the map. It is here that we witness the Competent Man pitting his wits against witches, Sirens, sentient whirlpools, giant cannibals and the infamously brutal Cyclops – the eye-catching, ongoing battle between the epitome of dynamic intelligence and the harrowing nightmare world that lies beyond the edge of the known world. Time and time again the hero Odysseus is shown that, despite his exceptional intellect and breadth of knowledge, his understanding of the world at large is hideously handicapped regarding the forces that he finds himself facing off against – and yet, as lost as Odysseus does end up over the course of the poem, we find that he is repeatedly able to summon his courage and overcome the odds that are clearly stacked against him, which culminates with his emergence from this terrifying other world triumphant and stronger than ever before.
How might we characterise these strange encounters on the edge of reality, then? If we are to remove the supernatural from this mythological tale and make a decent attempt to understand the Odyssey in relation to the meta-archetype of the Competent Man, then what might we glean from these bizarre events? We must begin with the core conceit of this section: a man of great knowledge is taken out of the world he understands, and is forced to contend with the fact that the world he lives within does not operate by the rules he expected it to. This is the symbolic land of Chaos, the realm of the unknown and unbound that will not obey the laws of mortal men. It is clear to Odysseus and his audience that adherence to the rules that control typical Homeric heroes will destroy him, and indeed we find towards the end of this section that other, more ‘typical’ heroes like Achilles and Agamemnon were brought low by their reliance on what they believed to be the way the world works. Agamemnon, in particular, provides the audience with an excellent example of the failings of the typical Homeric hero in contrast to the meta-archetype of the Competent Man. When Odysseus meets him in the Underworld and asks him what led to his death, he replies:
“…not in the ships, nor did Poseidon, rousing a storm-blast
of battering winds that none would wish for, prove my destruction,
nor on dry land did enemy men destroy me in battle;
Aigisthos [Agamemnon’s cousin], working out my death and destruction, invited
me to his house, and feasted me, and killed me there, with the help
of my sluttish wife, as one cuts down an ox at his manger.”
He proceeds to provide Odysseus with some crucial advice:
“When you bring your ship in to your own dear country, do it
secretly, not in the open…”
The Great Man, then, can be understood as appearing to the sound of a great fanfare in any context – meanwhile, the Competent Man knows when to stay silent and hidden. If we reduce the resolution of the advice given here and look instead for the broader metaphorical instruction contained within this, we find a simple message being passed to both the character of Odysseus and the audience experiencing the meeting through his eyes: The way which we believe the world to work is wrong. Either change the way in which you would typically engage with the world, or suffer the fatal consequences.
It is at this stage that we must start to consider the second meta-archetype that will have to be engaged with in this work: the Last Messiah, named for the titular conceptual figure in Peter Wessel Zapffe’s seminal essay on philosophical pessimism. Where the Competent Man revels in life, the Last Messiah preaches the ways of death; while the Competent Man extols the virtues of dynamism, the Last Messiah encourages a static state that will bring about the end of the human race; the Competent Man electrifies the world with meaning, and the Last Messiah drains the meaning of the world with his presence. While being polar opposites of one another, it must be taken into consideration that these two meta-archetypes demand the same event as a catalyst and crucible – namely, the realisation that the world does not work the way we want or understand it to. It is this understanding and this achievement of horrific cosmic truth that the human race is forced into the choice: do we choose to become the Competent Man or the Last Messiah? But before we engage with this choice, we must develop a solid understanding of this crucible of cosmic truth that leads to the creation of these meta-archetypes proper – and to do this, we must leave the work of Homer and turn to the analyses of Eugene Thacker.
The first book of Eugene Thacker’s ‘Horror of Philosophy’ series, In The Dust Of This Planet, provides us with a solid outline of what this cosmic, tragic realisation entails. He lays out two worlds that we exist within simultaneously. The first is the ‘world-for-us’:
This is the world that we, as human beings, interpret and give meaning to, the world that we relate to and feel alienated from the world that we are at once a part of and that is also separate from the human.
The second is the world we are only able to witness when reality refuses to be shaped by our narratives and actions, the ‘world-in-itself’:
This is the world in some inaccessible, already-given state, which we then turn into the world-for-us… this (world-in-itself) constitutes a horizon for thought, always receding just beyond the bounds of intelligibility.
We are unable to perceive this world-in-itself without it manifesting itself, and even then we can never view it directly – Thacker makes it clear that the closest we come to seeing the ruthless and tragic power of the world-in-itself is through events such as natural disasters. However, there is a strange quality of the human psyche that desires to experience this world-in-itself (despite the paradoxical problem that emerges when a human being enters this raw version of the world – namely, as soon as we can sense and perceive it, it becomes the world-for-us by virtue of our conscious minds translating the world into the symbolic narrative we live through automatically). This leads to the creation of a third, strange world that exists within the same psycho-archetypal space as the Competent Man and the Last Messiah – the ‘world-without-us’:
To say that the world-without-us is antagonistic to the human is to attempt to put things in human terms, in the terms of the world-for-us. To say that the world-without-us is neutral with respect to the human, is to attempt to put things in the terms of the world-in-itself. The world-without-us lies somewhere in between, in a nebulous zone that is at once impersonal and horrific.
Let us then take these schemata and apply them to the context of the character of Odysseus in order to understand how our meta-archetype might relate to these three worlds. Odysseus spends most of his life within the world-for-us, revered by his fellow chieftains as the most intelligent and skilled of them all. He is able to easily outwit the people around him and control the events he faces (with perhaps the only person he is unable to manipulate completely being Achilles himself, which brings forth the implication of the furious demigod’s deeper connection to the edge of civilisation – his homeland being Phthia, which was right on the edge of the civilised Greek world at that time – and thus a deeper connection to the world-in-itself and the world-without-us that Thacker presents to us). However, after Odysseus brings about the sacking of Troy with his wooden horse strategem and attempts to return home, his travels lead him far, far away from the world-for-us. The active hostility of the forces he encounters during his voyages in the Odyssey make it clear to us that the Competent Man has entered the world-without-us – that world existing in the “nebulous zone that is at once impersonal and horrific” – and must now face off against the strange forces that exist within it in order to return to whence he came and reclaim what is his.
The Odyssey provides us with the psycho-archetypal implication that the Competent Man, unlike his fellow Great Men such as Achilles and Agamemnon, is almost magnetically drawn to the world-in-itself and will at some stage be drawn into the world-without-us as a result. Odysseus, for the most part, is recognised by virtue of his ability to voyage beyond the boundary and face the horrors beyond our understanding – therefore, the meta-archetype he represents practically depends upon the world-without-us as a crucible. The strange, subconscious desire that Thacker notes the human race has to engage with and attempt to understand the world-in-itself could be perceived by us to be a subconscious manifestation of the Competent Man meta-archetype that dwells within us, aiming to manifest and then go on to be properly realised and allowed to flourish in the trio of worlds that we operate within.
There is something else in the work of Thacker that can help us to make sense of how the Competent Man archetype can and should engage with the world in this new era, and that is through his analysis of the monstrous forces that our hero engages with in the world-without-us. Thacker draws upon the Aristotelian elements of human anatomy to explain the manner in which we produce the monsters that populate our cultural fictions. There are four elements that Aristotle stated made up a man: the flesh, the blood, the meat, and the spirit. Thacker argues that supernatural horrors tend to take one of these metaphysical principles and overextend it at the detriment of the others – the zombie tends to appear in a multitude and embodies the element of shambling, mindless, rotting flesh; the debonair but fundamentally thirst–driven vampire is driven by a need for the element of blood; the demon – which can “(transform) the human into a beast and the beast into a god” – embodies the element of meat; and the immaterial ghost acts as a representation of the spirit. We can transpose these classical, metaphysical elements of anatomy onto the horrors that Odysseus faces in the Odyssey: in particular, the greatest threats that are posed to our hero are the Laestrygonians – the giant cannibals found on the isle of Telephylus – and Polyphemus, the man-eating Cyclops. (While Odysseus does encounter the spirits of the dead during his famous katabasis, it must be noted that these ghosts do not pose a threat to him: if anything, they provide him with some vital information on how to continue on his quest and succeed at its close. As such, they will not be considered monsters in the same manner as the Laestrygonians and Polyphemus here.) Both of these dangers, due to their deep connection with the consumption of human meat, can be connected with Thacker’s demon. (It may also be noted here that the underlying metaphor Thacker reveals of the demon archetypically having the ability to “(transform) the human into a beast and the beast into a god” also translates relatively well to the character of Polyphemus, being the hideous son of the god Poseidon who forces Odysseus to debase himself in order to just survive the encounter with him.) This overextension of the idea of the Aristotelian meat and the strange bending of rules that it brings with it is a perfect entity to dwell within the realm of pure, unrelenting Chaos that Odysseus is forced into: this barbarism built upon the defiance of the laws of the land and the manipulation of social mores is exactly the kind of madness that would push a Homeric hero to the brink of insanity. Interestingly, we see that the Competent Man is able to succeed even in this demonic world-without-us – Odysseus’ manipulative streak and penchant for weaving clever lies is what saves his skin time and time again, and this divergence from the social mores he existed within initially makes him the perfect man for surviving the strangeness of these encounters.
The Competent Man must be part–monster in order to survive.
He must understand the forces he faces, and take on a little of their strangeness to truly combat them.
Odysseus’ world was bound by a strong code of heroic action and sacred hospitality, so it stands to reason that the world-without-him would have far more flexible morals and codes than the world-for-him. As such, his ability to manipulate positioned him perfectly to succeed in this grim domain.
So now we must contend with the next key question: what is the metaphysical element that governs our world-without-us, if not the meat of the Odyssey?
What is the overextension of our bodies that lies in the shadows of the 21st century and governs the horror-show that we secretly crave?
Part IV: A Medal For Every Man – The Age Of Zombification, The Modes Of Distraction, And The Antifragile Monster-Hero
Enter the ludic element of this precession. The visage of the noir antihero oscillates between detailed estuaries of expression and deliberate iconic abstraction. In the Quotidian tradition, a pedagogy of valence marks the soft coordinates. I behead minotaurs and outplay mariachis – nothing escapes my amniotic jaws.
– “Abattoir”, Battle Without Honour Or Humanity
D. Harlan Wilson
In his seminal essay on philosophical pessimism, The Last Messiah, Peter Wessel Zapffe explained the problem that humanity faces in terms of consciousness and self-awareness. In the eyes of Zapffe, we are faced with the tragic agony that comes from being far too well-equipped in a psychological sense. Our existence is, in his own words:
A breach in the very unity of life, a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature.
We are forced to engage with a painful paradox: we are grounded in the world and act as a fundamental part of it, yet we are self-aware enough to be able to perceive the world as being separate from ourselves. We seek answers from the universe and from nature when it owes us no such answers: it has created itself through some strange mechanism, and it actively resists complete understanding. He compares us to the now-extinct giant deer, which was both empowered and destroyed due to its gargantuan antlers – our intellect weighs upon us with that same great weight, and becomes more cumbersome for us the more we come to understand about the universe. According to Zapffe, this horrific paradox – this crippling cognitive dissonance – ends up inspiring a great Cosmic Panic within us, and our inability to cope with it directly leads to our application of four methods of distraction to help us continue with our lives under the illusion of meaning – in a sense, ways to trim down the antlers and allow us to avoid extinction.
The first of these methods is isolation. Zapffe explains this as being “a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling”, and Thomas Ligotti (in his book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race) expands upon it by stating that, in this method, the facts of life can be equated to being “the lunatic family members in the attic whose existence we deny in a conspiracy of silence”. This is reacting to the shriek of the void with silent ignorance: if we can just pretend that it isn’t there, then it isn’t there and we can go on with our lives. This is the most basic of the modes of distraction that people employ in order to avoid this Cosmic Panic, but it doesn’t really achieve much beyond getting us to look the other way. It’s the most likely method to fail against the power of Cosmic Panic.
So then we come to the second of these methods of self-distraction: anchoring. Instead of just trying to ignore the horror of the universe outright, we fixate on a single point and use it to anchor ourselves in time and space. The human race expands this tendency of taking single concepts and using them as a stabilising factor in our lives, as Zapffe notes:
Any culture is a great, rounded system of anchorings, built on foundational firmaments, the basic cultural ideas. The average person makes do with the collective firmaments, the personality is building for himself, the person of character has finished his construction, more or less grounded on the inherited, collective main firmaments (God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the law of life, the people, the future). The closer to main firmaments a certain carrying element is, the more perilous it is to touch. Here a direct protection is normally established by means of penal codes and threats of prosecution (inquisition, censorship, the Conservative approach to life).
It is true that we are able to gain some illusion of stability from this, but the real trouble arises when we find that these fixed points are arbitrary. We take on goals and pursue them, but when we achieve them we are left with the Cosmic Panic still looming over us. We will always have that spectre over our shoulder, no matter what we are able to achieve through the pursuit of this salvation.
So what next? There is the third method: outright distraction. This is the blatant act of enthralling ourselves with the shiny and the new, following the myriad fingers that point to the new activities and new novelties that emerge in the world-for-us. This was once the method of high society, but now we find that all people of all classes are all too capable of engaging with this mode of distraction with the advent of the Internet and the smartphone. We are fully conscious of the fact that we are barely evading Cosmic Panic, and so we busy ourselves more than ever before with shiny objects and flashing lights that feed our ludic impulses. When we fail in this attempt to escape from the Void, many of us find ourselves struck with deep depression.
The fourth and final method of distraction that we employ in order to avoid having to contend with the full force of Cosmic Panic is sublimation: instead of fully repressing this Panic, we can take it, transform it, and create something new with it. If we are to work on the same principles that Zapffe sets out, both his paper and this book are examples of sublimation. This is not a direct view of the Abyss, but a view seen through a warped lens that allows for the aesthetic world of symbols to override the true cruel ambivalence beyond – the somewhat hostile “world-without-us” of Thacker, if you will, standing in for the pure and cold “world-in-itself” that we cannot will ourselves to see directly due to the existence of consciousness.
Towards the end of his essay, Zapffe joylessly states:
If we continue these considerations to the bitter end, then the conclusion is not in doubt. As long as humankind recklessly proceeds in the fateful delusion of being biologically fated for triumph, nothing essential will change. As its numbers mount and the spiritual atmosphere thickens, the techniques of protection must assume an increasingly brutal character.
In order to ignore the brutality of the Cosmic Panic we all face, we must increase the brutality of our distractions – and increase it we have. Our modern age has doubled down on the third method of pure distraction while doing away with anchoring and meaningful sublimation: ours is the era of free pornography, blockbuster movies, hedonistic escapism and mindless self-indulgence. There is no grand mission in our era, only confusion and dismay barely covered over by the silent shrieking of the tabloids and the barrage of new objects to invest the remnants of our souls in – if we are willing to believe we have such a thing in the first place. The world-for-us, in a strange way, has become emptier than the world-in-itself through the outright attempts to reject any sort of meaning. There is no mountain for man to ascend, and there are no longer heights to ascend to. The best thing that the common man has found to do is completely level himself: all smoothness, no rugged edges or coarse sides on him. The brave new world in which we live is a world where every man shall have his reward, and all rewards shall be of equal value. There is no use in striving for excellence when the achieving of such a heightened state will only lead us to Cosmic Panic: better to sleep, say the people of this bland new era of pure distraction – an era embodied by what Ligotti dubbed “the most operant method for furthering the conspiracy” – and avoid the horror.
The man of the modern age would rather murder excellence than risk self-awareness.
In this way, the Competent Man has become the newest resident of the world-without-us.
The Last Messiah meta-archetype can start to be properly analysed and understood through the fleeting glimpse that we are given of him at the very end of Zapffe’s essay:
And humans will persist in dreaming of salvation and affirmation and a new Messiah. Yet when many saviours have been nailed to trees and stoned on the city squares, then the last Messiah shall come.
Then will appear the man who, as the first of all, has dared strip his soul naked and submit it alive to the outmost thought of the lineage, the very idea of doom. A man who has fathomed life and its cosmic ground, and whose pain is the Earth’s collective pain. With what furious screams shall not mobs of all nations cry out for his thousandfold death, when like a cloth his voice encloses the globe, and the strange message has resounded for the first and last time:
“– The life of the worlds is a roaring river, but Earth’s is a pond and a backwater.
– The sign of doom is written on your brows – how long will ye kick against the pin-pricks?
– But there is one conquest and one crown, one redemption and one solution.
– Know yourselves – be infertile and let the earth be silent after ye.”
And when he has spoken, they will pour themselves over him, led by the pacifier makers and the midwives, and bury him in their fingernails.
He is the last Messiah.
This Last Messiah, then, is to be seen as something of an anti-Moses in the manner of his final declaration, with “Know yourselves – be infertile and let the earth be silent after ye” standing in direct opposition to the “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” of Exodus. This meta-archetype does indeed bring freedom to the people of the earth, but not in a manner that brings them new life: rather, the great act of liberation is from these forms of distraction and from the agony of Cosmic Panic at the cost of life. The dichotomy brought to us by the common man and the Last Messiah is the choice between beautiful illusion and righteous extinction. The nature of the age of distraction is summed up excellently by Ligotti:
“None of us want to hear spoken the exact anxieties we keep locked up inside ourselves. Smother that urge to go spreading news of your pain and nightmares around town. Bury your dead but don’t leave a trace. And be sure to get on with things or we will get on without you.”
Unless your specific pain can add to the grand parade of distractions, it doesn’t matter to the majority of the world. There is the urge to run and hide from anything that carries the scent of that all-encompassing Cosmic Panic that threatens to lead us to annihilation. Conversely, the Last Messiah is able to fully embrace this annihilatory response, and is instinctively drawn towards the world-without-us just as much as the Competent Man – but while the Competent Man meta-archetype is determined to pass through it and emerge in a more realised form, the Last Messiah meta-archetype seeks to be completely overwhelmed by it. One is an entity and a process in one, whilst the other is a dead end and an escape route combined. Both of these psychic entities ultimately come to the conclusion that their opposite is somehow deluded and immoral, and both of them end up going far beyond the boundaries of common morality in order to achieve their monumental ends.
So now we come to the fundamental core of the clash between the Competent Man and the Last Messiah and the foundational question of this intellectual endeavour: if we were to start with the same first principles as the philosophical pessimists and the nihilists of the world by dismissing the active metaphysical completely (i.e. the existence of divinity and actual objective meaning in reality) – thus only enabling us to make allowances for the passive metaphysical (i.e. the structures contained within and perceived by the psyche that we produce constantly on a subconscious bio-psychological level) in this grand experiment – is it possible for us to find a meaning for our continued existence and consciousness that is not merely robust, but outright antifragile in its rigour?
Some readers may at this stage may find themselves somewhat confused by the terminology here: what exactly do we mean by the terms ‘antifragile’ and ‘antifragility’? These terms were coined by the statistician and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb in order to accurately describe a state of being that stands directly in opposition to the state we know as ‘fragile’. If we consider something to be ‘fragile’, then we understand it to be easily broken and ill-suited to pressure and attack. It is the champagne flute shattering under the stamping boot: it cannot bear the weight, and it is destroyed the second its threshold is surpassed. Now, most would use the term ‘robust’ to act as a counter to this – the state in which an object can survive exposure to pressures in the same manner it did before it came into contact with them – but Taleb disagrees with this. The direct opposite of the ‘fragile’, he argues, is something that actively improves when exposed to these pressures. He takes the mythological example of the Hydra as an ideal illustration of this state of antifragility: if you cut one of the heads off, two more grow in its place. Applying stress only makes it stronger, and applying pressure only makes it more capable of dealing with pressure.
With this in mind, we can now understand the necessity for this element of antifragility in our conception and understanding of the Competent Man meta-archetype. If we are to take on the first principles set out by the philosophical pessimists, then we are faced with a world that only has a relentless and agonisingly crushing pressure as a universal constant. Therefore, if we are to move forward with the understanding that the Competent Man meta-archetype that resides within the collective human psyche must be inherently antifragile in order to stand in opposition to the Last Messiah (which is dependent upon the human spirit being completely broken by the power of Cosmic Panic), then we are led to the further realisation that the main factor that causes the Competent Man to stand out in comparison to the common people and Last Messiahs of the world is his inherent and uncanny ability to draw immense strength from the realisation of Cosmic Panic. The natural attraction that Thacker noted all human beings feel towards the world-in-itself and the world-without-us becomes less a mild curiosity and more a factor in the relentless hunger for power that resides within the Competent Man.
For the Competent Man, existential terror is rocket fuel.
We have found ourselves, through our collective desire to discover a non-lethal escape from the overwhelming dread and horror that is brought into our lives by Cosmic Panic, trapped in the Age of the Zombie. We find ourselves locked into strange and arbitrary tribes that we end up identifying with to the point that the individual no longer matters, and we shamble through life enslaved to the conceptual anchors that we have tied ourselves to out of existential terror. We have reached a stage where we are intensely dependent upon the comforts that pure distraction is able to provide us with, lest we gain enough self-awareness to be able to see that rotting Aristotelian flesh in the mirror looking back at us with sorrowful eyes and a jaw dropped with terror. If we are to truly surpass the shallow, distracted state of the common man while avoiding the suicide-inducing agony that the awareness-provoked surrender of the Last Messiah presents to us, then the answer must be found in the power of the antifragile Competent Man and his ability to draw strength from horror. The words of Emil Cioran immediately come to mind when we consider this state:
…it is true that only a monster can see things as they really are, because the monster lies outside of humanity.
From the perspective of both the common man and the Last Messiah, the Competent Man is indeed somewhat monstrous. This meta-archetype is ultimately a force of nature unto itself, and is fundamentally tied to some of the most primal forms of excellence that human beings are capable of comprehending. I find that my mind is cast back to Warren Ellis’ darkly humorous take on the human condition when thinking of the terrific potential of those who can truly embody the Competent Man:
…if there is other life in the universe then they would probably view us as horror movie monsters because we are awful stalking nightmare killers with surreal healing abilities who have dedicated ourselves to the fashioning of death tools for tens of thousands of years and we fuck and eat everything in our path.
This is perhaps the most bestial possible manner of articulating the nature of modern man: this, to the extent that we are able to imagine it, is the closest we can get to a view of the human condition from the perspective of a denizen of the world-without-us. This is the thought process of the great Cyclops, struck blind and tormented by these strange little creatures that worship glory and refuse to die point blank.
And so, in order to not simply reject the Abyss outright but instead undergo the treacherous voyage into its depths in order to gain newfound strength and power from it, we must make the decision to embody this monster-hero; this grand, Odyssean master of the world and all things within it; this Competent Man, utterly unbound and completely unstoppable.
Part V: Ligotti’s Puppet Theatre – The Trouble With Volition, The Power Of Genetics, And The Virtue Of Disobedience
We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.
- The Selfish Gene,
The common man, perceiving his world-for-us while existing in the world-in-itself, is shown by Thomas Ligotti through the recurring metaphor of the puppet. His grim introduction of this metaphor alone in his book The Conspiracy Against The Human Race immediately brings our issue of Cosmic Panic into focus, and as such deserves to be engaged with in full:
…a puppet possessed of life would (…) negate all conceptions of a natural physicalism and affirm a metaphysics of chaos and nightmare. It would still be a puppet, but it would be a puppet with a mind and a will, a human puppet – a paradox more disruptive of sanity than the undead. But that is not how they would see it. Human puppets could not conceive of being puppets at all, not when they are fixed with a consciousness that excites in them the unshakable sense of being singled out from all other objects in creation. Once you begin to feel you are making a go of it on your own – that you are making moves and thinking thoughts which seem to have originated within you – it is not possible for you to believe you are anything but your own master.
It is here that we are able to gain a deeper sense of Zapffe’s conception of Cosmic Panic and how nihilistic and pessimistic philosophy contends with it – and through our engagement with this phenomena and its interpretations on a deeper level of analysis, we can begin to understand how the Competent Man can be revivified and energised by this horror while the Last Messiah surrenders to it and the common man does all he can to evade it in fearful ignorance. Ligotti’s elaboration on Zapffe makes it painfully clear that free will as we know it is an illusion: a thousand invisible forces from within and without act upon us every second of every day, and we – due to the limits of our perception – are unable to see these spectral puppet masters from the world-in-itself.
This leads us to the monumental problem of volition – that is to say, whether or not we have any kind of free will at all. Hinging upon this question of whether or not human beings have the capability to freely choose how they act within the world are a myriad number of issues: can we be truly held responsible for our actions? Does praise have any effect on what people will do? Does guilt have any purpose in a world where people have no choice but to do what they do? Does the concept of sin? Without the concept of free will in place, these philosophical questions become serious problems very quickly, and as such they must be addressed. Philosophical pessimism and nihilism both tend toward the same answer, and that answer is a resounding “no” that echoes around the vast, empty blackness of the universe. Our actions, in the eyes of men like Zapffe and Ligotti, are predetermined by our natures and kept hidden from us by our own limited powers of perception and our unwillingness to contend with the horrors of the world-in-itself. Ligotti sums up this position with brutal accuracy, and provides us with the pessimistic response to such a grim situation:
This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are – hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones. Nonhuman occupants of this planet are unaware of death. But we are susceptible to startling and dreadful thoughts, and we need some fabulous illusions to take our minds off them. For us, then, life is a confidence trick we must run on ourselves, hoping we do not catch on to any monkey business that would leave us stripped of our defence mechanisms and standing stark naked before the silent staring void. To end this self-deception, to free our species of the paradoxical imperative to be and not to be conscious, our backs breaking by degrees upon a wheel of lies, we must cease reproducing.
It is here that we can see and start to properly understand the thought process that is brought on through the embodiment of the Last Messiah meta-archetype in this modern era: if human beings are bound to suffer through the paradox of having to limit their consciousness so as to avoid the full crushing weight of Cosmic Panic, and if the production of more human beings is brought on solely by our selfish genes rather than any real free thought of our own, and if the only way to truly enact free will – and thus, one may conclude, some form of virtue in a world where virtue cannot really exist in the manner we can conceptualise it within the bounds of the world-for-us – is to cease reproducing so as to end this continued generational suffering, then it does seem reasonable to heed the Last Messiah’s dread command: to know thyselves, to be infertile, and to finally let the world be silent after us.
That depends on a lot of ifs.
Let us consider them one by one.
The first of the ifs to contend with is the idea that “human beings are bound to suffer through the paradox of having to limit their consciousness so as to avoid the full crushing weight of Cosmic Panic”. This if depends upon the idea that human beings are not capable of contending with or comprehending the world-in-itself and the world-without-us properly without going utterly insane, much in the manner of your typical H. P. Lovecraft protagonist. Yet Ligotti himself writes in a fluid and intelligent manner, as do Thacker, Zapffe, Brassier, and their ilk. Does this stand as enough proof of their sanity? Perhaps not – though it is definitely proof of a functional intellect (certainly on a high level of cognition to contend with such ideas in such a rigorous manner). It must be understood that most people are locked into the mode of the Thackerian zombie, distracting themselves as much as they can to avoid having to contend with Cosmic Panic directly, and in this way we can understand why Ligotti and Zapffe may reach the conclusion that we are only able to function when we are sufficiently distracted from the void. But again, we find that these men are still able to engage with the world in a rich manner – Zapffe in particular standing out as an exceptional mountaineer, lawyer, and playwright as well as a philosopher and metaphysician – while looking the void dead in the eye all the while. Perhaps it could be said that their works are merely acts of sublimation rather than acting as a proof of any lack of suffering due to an exposure to Cosmic Panic – and furthermore, due to the fact that all of their works are heavily coloured by this hideous Cosmic Panic, it could be argued that their works are in fact proof of the opposite case. My response to this is ultimately quite simple: philosophical pessimism and nihilism is ultimately generated by a fundamental misunderstanding of that great Cosmic Panic that we as human beings are both horrified by and drawn to like moths to a flame. The very existence of the Competent Man meta-archetype stands in defiance of both the common man and the Last Messiah by finding a way to thrive and gain strength from the horrific realisation that the world does not operate in the manner we expect it to. There is something inherent and latent in the human psyche that is able to, when awakened through direct contact with the world-in-itself, is able to embolden and empower us rather than cause us to shrink in terror or sacrifice ourselves to escape the cruelty of the grand puppet show that is our existence. Rather than these distinctly passive and negative responses, the monstrous element of the monster-hero leaps into dynamic action and allows us to engage in a true transvaluation of values à la Friedrich Nietzsche: an honest and deep understanding of the way things actually are allows us to adjust the way in which we see ourselves and our roles in the world at large. When we summon the courage to rip away as many of the flimsy illusions and zombifying distractions that the world-for-us places before us and willingly take on the crushing weight of that Cosmic Panic that the world-in-itself places upon us, we begin to become stronger and stronger – and when we have understood and we choose to walk among our fellow men again, we will find that we have come resemble the monsters that lie beyond the boundaries of human reason in our newfound power and awareness while finding in our hearts a more vibrant and electrifying iteration of the same love of life that kept us in the world-for-us in the first place. It can be understood, then, that through the act of understanding and correctly balancing the paradox of consciousness in the world-in-itself, we actually have the potential to alleviate suffering through the development of our correct perception and existential antifragility.
The second of the ifs to contend with here is the idea that “the production of more human beings is brought on solely by our selfish genes rather than any real free thought of our own”. This is the argument that is levelled at the human race en masse by those of the antinatalist persuasion as well as philosophical pessimists and nihilists: due to the suffering in the world outweighing the pleasure in it, it is immoral to bring new sentient living beings into the world. David Benatar sets out this asymmetrical dynamic in his book Better To Have Never Been:
We have a moral obligation not to create unhappy people, and we have no moral obligation to create happy people. The reason why we think there is a moral obligation not to create unhappy people is that the presence of this suffering would be bad (for the sufferers) and the absence of the suffering is good (even though there is nobody to enjoy the absence of suffering). By contrast, the reason we think there is no moral obligation to create happy people is that although their pleasure would be good for them, the absence of pleasure when they do not come into existence will not be bad, because there will be no one who will be deprived of this good.
In the eyes of Benatar, the equation is simple: if a child does not yet exist, it cannot suffer (which is good) and it cannot feel pleasure (which is neither good nor bad). If a child is born, then it is able to feel pain (which is bad) and feel pleasure (which is good). Therefore, in accordance with this logic, the asymmetry of existence and non-existence makes it clear that the best option is to never have been born. However, a major issue emerges when we ask the question of what an antinatalist considers to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and what acts as the foundation for these beliefs. The main argument seems to be based in a paradox all its own: they demonstrate that the world does not operate by the rules that we would like it to abide by, and then attempt to convince the people of the world through these same rules that they have proven to be defunct and irrelevant to the world-in-itself that it is better to not exist than exist. The thought process of the common man leads him to shrink from pain and move towards pleasure, and we can accept that this process is based in Zapffe’s methods of distraction from Cosmic Panic – but if the Competent Man is emboldened and empowered by directly engaging with Cosmic Panic, then we must understand that the best thing for a human being is to actively move towards suffering in order to become stronger. Attempting to make sense of the world on the basis that human suffering is something to avoid rejects the very notion that the potential for being created in order to become strong enough to produce fundamental effects of the existential asymmetry of the world could ever be a ‘good’ idea. If the rules of the great game of life that the common man attempts to play by are wrong, then using these same rules to produce an argument that calls for the ultimate cessation of human life is spurious at best and outright malevolent at worst. The fact that there is a meta-archetype – a fundamental alignment of passive metaphysical traits that reside within the human psyche – that has existed for thousands of years (having been codified in the Bronze Age at the very latest) and stands as an example of the manner in which human beings can surpass the limitations of consciousness by directly engaging with Cosmic Panic stands as a curious testament to the idea that one can directly alter the asymmetry problem of Benatar through a correct engagement with the world-in-itself on its terms rather than those that we attempt to force upon it in a blinded state of distraction and terror.
The third of the ifs to contend with now is the idea that “the only way to truly enact free will – and thus, one may conclude, some form of virtue in a world where virtue cannot really exist in the manner we can conceptualise it within the bounds of the world-for-us – is to cease reproducing so as to end this continued generational suffering”. We have already dealt with the issue of whether or not Cosmic Panic will lead only to suffering once engaged with and whether or not human reproduction is purely an act of genetic selfishness or not, so let us focus here on that crucial issue of free will – volition. There is one element that stands out in the nihilistic rhetoric regarding volition, and that is yet another curious paradox: on the one hand, there is the assumption that we have no free will to defy our genetics and that this will forever cause us suffering, while on the other there is the ongoing idea that we have the free will to defy our genetics by choosing not to have children. If we are slaves to our nature, then we are slaves, and if we are free to resist our instincts, we are free – you simply cannot have your cake and eat it too by saying that we are in both of these states in whichever specific manner best befits your argument. But let us give this argument a little more thought and state that free will is, if not completely non-existent, then somehow limited by our perceptions and ability to understand that which influences us. In this case, the active engagement with Cosmic Panic leads us to a fuller understanding of the forces that pull our strings, and as such this realisation of our lack of free will lends itself towards the development and strengthening of the limited amount of free will that we have. Volition is not to be seen as an innate trait so much as a metaphysical muscle: if we can regularly strengthen it by engaging with the horror of the Abyss, we become more capable of resisting and circumventing the hidden puppet masters that guide our actions.
The Last Messiah finds himself cut off at the knees by the Competent Man.
If we are to accept that the world-in-itself does not obey the rules of man, then let man learn the rules of the world-in-itself and engage with it properly.
Let us grow: let us build the metaphysical muscles needed to bear the weight of the Abyss and emerge truly great.
THE PERILS OF POUND’S FACTIVE MAN
Part One: Ezra and Homer – The Poet’s Odyssey And The Factive Man
It was written once by the Irish Symbolist poet William Butler Yeats that:
…A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been nought.
His call for a production of beauty that seems effortless to the reader seems to have gone unheeded or even ignored by his contemporary, the infamous Imagist–turned–Vorticist poet and Fascist sympathizer Ezra Weston Loomis Pound. His most famous work, The Cantos, shows a borderline superhuman degree of intellectual effort on Pound’s part in his creation of 824 pages of stunning poetry in a staggering twenty-five languages – and he arguably demands the same degree of effort and rigour on the part of the reader, expecting them to be capable of the sort of dazzling insights and rigorous mental acrobatics that are needed in order to see the deepest truths that the work has to offer. Indeed, in his 105th Canto, he makes it abundantly clear that he is all too aware of the usually unspoken contest that takes place between the poet and the audience–as–interpreter, stating:
I shall have to learn a little greek to keep up with this
but so will you, drratt you.
However, despite the avant–garde literary pyrotechnics on display, this gargantuan poetic experiment ultimately has a strong and recognizable concept at its core: a constant link to the epic poems of the ancient Greeks and Romans, with the most prominent among all of them in this context being the Odyssey of Homer. The poem displays this strong connection from the outset, with the first of his Cantos being Pound’s retelling of the opening of the Nekuia (that is, the journey to the Underworld that takes place in Book 11) of the Odyssey (in which the original dactylic hexameters employed by those working in the ancient Greek bardic tradition are replaced by the same ancient Anglo–Saxon metre employed by Pound in his translation of The Seafarer in an attempt to bring the Homeric world closer to his inherited mythical sphere) in what might be considering by some to be a eulogy for the first true adventure story, with Odysseus travelling with his men to the Underworld to make contact with the blind prophet Tiresias. Even the very first word of this Canto, “And”, could be interpreted as a reference made by the polyglot Pound to the first word of the original Greek proem, “ἄνδρα” (“man”). Over the course of the Cantos, other figures such as the sorceress Circe and the maudlin spectre of the deceased drunken sailor Elpenor make
appearances throughout the work. However, we will focus now on the manner in which the figure of Odysseus in particular becomes far more than just the creative and violent protagonist of an ancient poem: through the Modernist lens, the Odyssean archetype of the developed Homeric hero becomes Pound’s eternally recurring protagonist, capable of slipping the bonds of time and space within the text to become the basis of what he called the ‘factive personality’ – the individual who acts upon the worlds of the mundane and the divine with an almost superhuman dynamism and combats the bureaucratic evils of the world in a direct manner, with the poet directly engaging with Nietzsche’s idea of the Dionysian element in humanity and poetry.
Pound’s decision to use the Odyssey – an epic poem concerned more with homecoming and survival – rather than a war epic such as the Iliad as the basis for the form and content of The Cantos could be considered to be almost inevitable once one takes into consideration his early exposure to the Odyssey in combination with his perception of himself as a ceaseless traveller of the world on an endless search for knowledge after being exiled from his home. His utilisation of and variation upon the phrase “pollon d’anthropon iden” draws upon the way in which both Odysseus and Ezra “saw the cities of many men, and knew their thought”, and his description of the decidedly ‘factive’ figure of Sigismundo Malatesta (in the second of the Cantos dedicated to him) as “being a bit too POLUMETIS” in the ninth Canto acts as an invocation of the key trait of Odysseus as “the man of many ways” or the “various-minded man” in the first line of his poem. There is also a strong thematic tie with the second half of the Odyssey, with Odysseus’ affinity for clever disguises (such as his divinely aided persona of an aged beggar in Book 12) being extrapolated on a massive tempo–spatial level, with the man of many turns becoming the hero of many faces through the manifold recursions of the ‘factive personality’.
The embodiments of the ‘factive personality’ or Odyssean archetype displayed throughout the Cantos can be summed up simply as the true actors within the world who, despite being stopped short of fulfilling their ultimate visions, nevertheless find their ways to move the culture they exist within at that time towards beauty and away from corruption. These figures are often anti–heroic in their somewhat futile struggles against the sinister forces of the times in which they incarnate and act, much like other Modernist heroes such as James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom (who himself is akin to a stunted variation of the Odyssean archetype, being a somewhat bumbling everyman who nevertheless retains some of his Homeric foundation’s core nature). Yet an unusual aspect of Pound’s ‘factive personality’ is that, unlike other artistically– inclined Modernist anti–heroes who try to change the world and fail, many of the figures shown in the Cantos wield a great deal more power and behave in a much more proactive way: the three most notable embodiments of the Odyssean (and thus Poundian) ideals beyond the figure of Odysseus himself are the Renaissance mercenary–cum–artist Sigismundo Malatesta, the Chinese philosopher Kung-Fu-Tseu (or Confucius), and the Fascist political leader Benito Mussolini. In the mind of Ezra Pound, each of these figures act as the embodiments of the beauty and order of the world that rebels against the shadowy, sinister and moronic forces behind the thrones of their times.
Sigismundo Malatesta – the Lord of Rimini, Fano, and Cesena in the 15th century – is the first truly significant incarnation of this archetypal figure to act within the poem beyond Odysseus himself, with Pound devoting four entire Cantos to detailing the life of this great Renaissance condottiero and patron of the arts. Despite Pound’s seeming distance from the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, it could be argued here that his connections with the ideals of the Fascist movement lead to his main protagonists taking on a warped set of traits highly reminiscent of the archetypal “artist–tyrant” that was set out in Nietzsche’s The Will To Power and his many preceding works, with these two halves of the great whole being shown through the two defining aspects of the obviously ‘factive’ Sigismundo Malatesta’s character. Both sides of the Odyssean archetype are demonstrated particularly clearly in the ninth Canto. The warlike and combative aspects are best displayed at the start:
One year floods rose,
One year they fought in the snows…
This sequence covers various battles won by Malatesta, and could be argued to mirror the possible origin of the factive personality, T. S. Eliot’s poem Gerontion:
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass…
Meanwhile, the artistic and creative aspects that are more befitting of a man assigned the epithet of polumetis by Pound are shown most clearly and lavishly through the construction of “a wooden castle set up for the fiesta” that took place in honour of his marriage and La Rocca, a fortress that took 9 years to build and was simultaneously artistically ornate enough and militaristically effective enough to be regarded as one of the great marvels of Italian architecture at that time. In this way, a man like Malatesta in which the roles of soldier, engineer, and intellectual are united is presented as a fitting host for the spirit of the hero who “sacked Troy’s holy citadel… saw the cities of many men, and… knew their thought”.
Beyond the simple link between Malatesta and the Odyssey formed through his ‘factive’ traits, there are also connections that can be found through Pound’s reception of and literary grappling with the Classical Muse and the concept of the epic nostos ( meaning ‘return’, and being the source of our word ‘nostalgia’). The former is addressed almost immediately within the sequence, with the first of the ‘Malatesta Cantos’ beginning with the embodied inspirations of Pound’s striving for the true nature of the world and Homer’s source of divine poetic inspiration engaging in battle by the second line:
”Slut!” “Bitch!” Truth and Calliope
Slanging each other sous les lauriers.
However, by the end of the eleventh Canto, this metaphysical conflict is ultimately resolved as the nature of the epic Muse is able to assert itself through the theme presented through the humanist Bartolomeo ‘Platina’ Sacchi, providing a direct connection between Malatesta (and, through him, both the poet and the audience) and the divine force of inspiration that drives the ‘factive’ personality: “de litteris et de armis, praestantibusque ingeniis” – that is to say, “about scholarship and war, and men of outstanding genius”). The latter issue of the epic nostos trope is harnessed metaphorically throughout The Cantos as a structure for both Pound’s “theory of history” and “journey of the mind”, with both approaches to the concept being geared towards the establishment of and return to a permanent world of truth based upon the foundation of the periplum (this being Pound’s own term for a great voyage perceived in the moment rather than in a posteriori fashion). Compared to the sequence of the first three Cantos – with the first being a synthesis of the Homeric katabasis and Pound’s own experiences, the second being a denial of the pure use of history without mythic influence, and the third snapping back to the present in a failure of a nostos that ends bleakly – the ‘Malatesta Cantos’ can be considered to be a far more successful experiment which moves towards the true nostos, which ultimately comes into effect in the seventeenth Canto which begins once again in medias res in a manner similar to the first Canto (i.e. the initial evocation of “And then” is transmuted into “So that”).
The second truly significant Odyssean figure is that of the Chinese philosopher Kung–Fu–Tseu (more commonly known to us as Confucius), who stands out as being a uniquely stable and balanced figure standing among the many manifestations of the factive personality in the Cantos – embodying the ethical maxims of modesty and wisdom over – who first appears in the thirteenth Canto and continues to appear throughout The Cantos as a peaceful bringer of order to the world, with his presence even altering the cadence of the poem in a reproachful attack on the noisier and more usurious Western world – an attack which dominates both the preceding ‘Malatesta Cantos’ and the ‘Hell Cantos’ that immediately follow it. In contrast to the directly Odyssean Malatesta (and the later figure of Benito Mussolini), then, Kung-Fu-Tseu appears to us as being a wiser and more enlightened alternative. Pound states in his Guide to Kulchur:
The sense of responsibility, the need for coordination of individuals expressed in Kung’s teaching differs radically… from the maritime adventure morals of Odysseus or the loose talk of argumentative greeks.
The manner in which Malatesta and Confucius recur throughout the Cantos gives an insight into the way Pound viewed and interpreted the explicitly Homeric and unwittingly Nietzschean structure that is provided by the poet through the figure of Odysseus. The former active embodiment of the artist–tyrant is ultimately destroyed by the powerful adversarial forces he opposed in life, leading to his appearance in the afterlife of the sixteenth Canto with his younger brother Domenico at the start of an epic catalogue of the dead akin to the Achaean heroines in the Nekuia (however, it appears to me that this catalogue is, while certainly evocative of Homeric epic, far more comparable to the Virgilian catalogue of heroes as displayed in the Aeneid). The latter and more controlled form of the ‘factive’ personality, however, recurs repeatedly and remains very much alive in the mind of Pound, being regarded by him as one of the two major pillars of thought in the world (along with the Eleusinian Mysteries) standing against sinister earthly forces such as usury that stand “CONTRA NATURAM”.
The last figure conflated with the Odyssean archetype within The Cantos is the infamous dictator Benito Mussolini, the founder of Italian Fascism and a borderline messianic figure in the eyes of Ezra Pound. He appears for the first time in the forty-first Canto in the scene showing his meeting with Pound in 1933 as shown from the latter’s perspective:
said the Boss, “è divertente.”
catching the point before the aesthetes had got
The offhand remark regarding A Draft of XXX Cantos as being divertente – “amusing” – led to Pound taking what was most likely a polite remark as an indication of the superhumanly quick comprehension by a true genius.. As such, we see a ‘factive’ entity with a great deal more power and a great deal more opposition: compared to the relatively minor noblemen and the Pope that stood against Malatesta and the overall lack of true resistance against Kung, Mussolini is shown as being plotted against by the Rothschild and Mond money barons (which, being both of Jewish stock and of usurious intent in the eyes of the poet, makes them the ideal embodiments for the evil forces of the world within The Cantos). I believe that, if Mussolini is the fascist–hero drawing from the ‘factive’ Odyssean archetype, then the Rothschilds and the Monds can be equated with the parasitic Homeric Suitors, whose nature is displayed clearly in the forty-seventth “Usura Canto”:
hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall
Usura is a murrain, usura
blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand
and stoppeth the spinner spinning”
…and the lisping, pathetic way in which these adversaries state that “it will not take uth 20 years to crwuth Mussolini” stands in stark contrast with the particular way in which this embodiment of the Odyssean archetype – wholly in the eyes of Pound – displayed the ultimate ideal of an intelligent political force in the world.
Part Two: Ezra and Ovid – The Fatality Of Metamorphosis And The Dionysian Apotheosis
Over the course of The Cantos, Ezra Pound repeatedly pays homage to the Roman epic poet Ovid and plays with some of the mythological characters from his Metamorphoses: for example, in the fourth Canto, Pound takes the story of Philemon and Baucis told by the river god Achelóüs (in which the eponymous elderly couple end up unwittingly showing hospitality to the disguised gods Jupiter and Mercury, and are then subsequently rewarded for their kind nature and hospitality by being allowed to transform into trees upon their simultaneous deaths so that they may be together forever) and draws a direct comparison from this story to that the traditional Japanese Nōh play Takasago (featuring a similar narrative structure in which a couple grow old together and are symbolized by the pines of Takasago and Sumiyoshi) However, the main subject that will be examined here is the divergence in the manner that Pound and Ovid perceive and display the nature of metamorphosis and divinely caused transformation within their epic works. In order to demonstrate the dichotomy between their approaches, we will be looking specifically at the way they convey narratives concerning Bacchus, Proserpina, Adonis, and Actaeon within The Cantos and the Metamorphoses as well as the ways in which they explore the function and purpose of divinely aided or caused transformation in a more overall fashion.
First and foremost, it is clear to the reader that the figure of Bacchus – the Roman god of wine, theatre, and altered states – looms large throughout The Cantos, specifically in the way in which he was displayed by Ovid within the recollections of the sailor Acoetes as told to King Pentheus. Within this story, the potent and divine arbiter of altered states takes on the guise of “a boy with a beautiful face like a girl’s” that is taken as an unwitting prize by the cruel sailors and recognized as something other than mortal only by the more pious Acoetes; when the rest of the crew ignore his pleas and attempt to trick the god, they end up faced with the full power of the divine. The force of divinely aided nature overwhelms the force of their ship: the oars and sails of the ship are tangled up in ivy that springs forth from nowhere; the crew members are transfixed by the sight of Bacchus himself and the “mirage of savage tigers, lynxes and spotted panthers” that appear around him; and finally, the cruel sailors undergo visceral and vivid transformations into dolphins, leaving the noble Acoetes as the only sailor left as a human. This episode is taken by Pound and inserted into The Cantos, with his Bacchus – “a young boy loggy with vine–must” – found alongside Proteus, the shape–shifting Old Man of the Sea who is initially hinted at through the mention of “seal sports in the spray–whited circles of cliff–wash” and more clearly introduced to the reader at the end of the Canto, and Tiresias, the archetypal blind seer subject to involuntary metamorphosis in regards to gender here presented as an example by Pound’s Acoetes to an ultimately ignorant and doomed Pentheus. Pound’s verse shows the transformations of the villainous sailors to be less violent than in the Metamoprhoses of Ovid – consider the difference, for example, between Pound focusing on “arms shrunk into fins” and Ovid describing a “spinal cord (bending) in the curve of a bow” – and in this way somewhat softens the figure of Dionysus–Bacchus as he is presented by the Modernist poet.
A large part of what may contribute to Pound’s softening of his depiction of Bacchus can be traced to the manner in which he links him to the Eleusinian Mysteries (thus connecting the god of altered states to Proserpina, the embodiment of the eternal shifting between the summer and winter months) and to the mythic figure of Adonis, the doomed young romantic interest of Venus herself. The most prominent conflation and extrapolation of all three of these aspects can be seen in 13 lines:
Night of the golden tiger,
And the dry flame in the air,
Voices of the procession,
Faint now, from below us,
And the sea with tin flash in the sun–dazzle,
Like dark wine in the shadows.
“Wind between the sea and the mountains”
The tree–spheres half dark against sea half clear against sunset
The sun’s keel freighted with cloud,
And after that hour, dry darkness
Floating flame in the air, gonads in organdy,
Dry flamelet, a petal borne in the wind.
In this segment, Pound starts by utilizing the symbol of the golden tiger (here being reminiscent of both the Bacchanalian, paradisal mirages of “savage tigers, lynxes, and spotted panthers” and the sun by way of Egyptian mythological connotation and segues into the faint “voices of the procession”, evoking both the procession of the Eleusinian Mysteries and the early vegetation rites in honour of the passing of Adonis. The “tin flash in the sun– dazzle” is considered by Carroll Terrell to be a marker for the “immanent advent of Dionysus”). However, I would be prepared to take this further and say that this is less the arrival of a god upon this paradisal scene so much as a man’s transformation into one as the climax of it, its completion signified by the words “gignetei kalon” – “a beautiful thing is born”. Here, in The Cantos, the romantic fixation of love itself manages to evade the annihilation set out for him in the Metamorphoses and manages to instead transform himself into a deity of transformative power. In regards to the connection with the Eleusinian Mysteries, Pound’s Cantos have the semi– chthonic figure of Proserpina recur throughout the work. The Cantos can be seen to begin in her domain of the dead and moving from there with her as a largely invisible entity at work – however, it is possible (to an extent) for one to trace the arc of Proserpina throughout The Cantos and observe her transformation through regaining that which Ovid displays her having lost to Pluto: her virginity.
Moving away from the transformations and transfigurations of the divine figures of these works, the more human story of the doomed mortal hunter Actaeon proves to be a prominent thematic presence in The Cantos of Ezra Pound. He is the man who observes that which must never be observed: he sees the goddess Diana bathing in a pool in the valley of Gargáphië, and she transforms him into a stag so that he may be ripped apart by his own hunting dogs in a (somewhat disproportionately harsh) case of divinely wrought
nemesis. Pound draws a connection between the doomed Ovidian hunter and the troubadour Pierre Vidal, who dressed in wolf skins to try and win the heart of the noble lady Loba and ended up savaged by her husband’s hunting dogs as a result, who seems to be connected to the ancient event and able to witness it himself as he wanders:
Stumbling, stumbling along in the wood,
Muttering, muttering Ovid:
‘Pergusa… pool… pool… Gargaphia,
‘Pool… pool of Salmacis.’
The Ovidian theme of metamorphosis and the Homeric factive personality come together clearest in the thirty-ninth Canto, with these two subjects are coalesced through the meeting of the sorceress Circe and the factive hero Odysseus. Circe is here shown to be a representative for the balance between violent, unbridled chaos and pure, noble order that only the divine can truly provide and only the worthy can truly harness. Her beauty carries with it an incredible destructive potential, much like that of Helen of Troy or the song of the Sirens, and her enchanting powers present the threat inherent in all fantasies and escapism, like the eaters of the Lotus. However, rather than just present the relationship between the dangerous divine and the factive personality as a simple dichotomy between evil chaos and good order, Pound uses two other members of Odysseus’ crew besides himself – namely Elpenor and Eurylochus – to demonstrate the necessity of controlled exposure to the power Circe represents. As it can be seen in the first Canto, Elpenor’s willingness to submit fully to the goddess leads to his death as shown by his appearance in the Underworld, and Eurilochus’ appearance is preceded with “Che mai da me non si parte il diletto” (“So that never will the delight part from me”), an allusion to a scene in Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy in which the souls of the redeemed end up forming a crown of light around the Virgin Mary. The true dichotomy presented to us by Pound, then, is not part of an external attempt to balance the divine universal forces at play, but rather an internal battle to maintain a healthy balance between the gluttonous and the ascetic instincts within the human soul.
In this way, the crucial difference between Ovidian metamorphosis and Poundian metamorphosis becomes apparent. The Ovidian perspective views almost every case of divinely caused transformation as being representative of both the death and escape (with said escapes often tending to be from sexual predators) of the individual undergoing transformation. The Poundian perspective, conversely, eschews the idea of metamorphosis–as–death and replaces it with the concept of metamorphosis–as–apotheosis: in the words of Leon Surette, whether the divine agent is Aphrodite for Adonis or Circe for Odysseus, “the image of apotheosis in the Cantos is to lie with the goddess and live to tell the tale, rather than an escape from sexual violation”. In a letter sent to his father, Homer L. Pound, in 1927, the Modernist poet outlined what he considered to be the fundamental theme of The Cantos as a unified whole:
A. A. Live man goes down into world of Dead
C. B. The ‘repeat in history’
B. C. The ‘magic moment’, or moment of metamorphosis, bust thru from quotidien into ‘divine or permanent world’. Gods, esc.
For typical Ovidian tragic protagonists such as Adonis, metamorphosis is a one–way ticket to annihilation, losing their nature as a sentient being with agency in order to avoid definite death – it is an attempt at immortality gone wrong, a wish ill–granted. The figure of Hercules stands out among the Ovidian catalogue of protagonists who undergo metamorphosis as one whose transformation is a little more optimistic: while the last of the stories detailing his life within the Metamorphoses shows his clear death atop Mount Oeta, it is shown as a painful and yet ultimately joyous event. His death is shown almost as a relief, in a sense, through the metaphor of “a snake which has shed old age with its sloughed–off skin”. Conversely, the Poundian factive personality is a purely human figure: unlike Hercules, he is not born with an inherently semi– divine nature that can be nurtured and then removed from the flesh to transition into the realm of the purely divine, but rather he is driven by his relentless willpower into the arms of the divine agent and able to balance his acceptance of that power with his maintenance of his own mind in order to break away from the bounds of the normal world and become something greater than a mere mortal. In Pound’s eyes, the factive hero must engage with the goddess in order to become great: Odysseus must lay with Circe without fully giving into her powers in order to emerge with knowledge of the Underworld, and Adonis must lay with Aphrodite in order to emerge from the night of death as the god Bacchus in “tin flash in the sun–dazzle”.
In conclusion, Ezra Pound takes the ancient Ovidian conceit of metamorphosis and elevates it in the same manner he elevates every Classical and Modernist motif he chooses to play with. Homer’s Odysseus was propelled back and forth beyond the boundaries of the map, and so Pound’s factive personality bounces in all directions beyond the boundaries of time itself. The Modernist anti–hero is usually driven by a superhuman will, but Pound’s heroes tend to have the political and supernatural ability needed to enforce lasting change through that same will. Ovid’s transformations are half– deaths brought about by those who would rather avoid the finality of the grave, while Pound’s are rebirths that bestow his champions with knowledge and abilities that no other can muster. But this combination of charisma, drive, power, and rebirth requires a foundation – a fundamental mission for the champion to strive for and achieve in order to improve his lot and the nature of the world as a result. For Pound, the answer was simple: nationalism and Fascism by way of Benito Mussolini, all under the banner of resurrecting the Roman Empire.
Part Three: Ezra and Virgil – The Externalised Priest–Hero And The Factive Father
In his ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound recalls an anecdote that had been told to him by his friend W. B. Yeats. The story followed a “plain sailor man” who took it upon himself to learn the language of Latin on a whim. His teacher decided to test his aptitude with some passages taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, and eventually he asked the sailor what his thoughts were about the hero of the poem. When it was made clear to the sailor that Aeneas was indeed the protagonist of the poem, he incredulously replied to the teacher:
Ach, a hero, him a hero? Bigob, I t’ought he waz a priest.
Indeed, the figure of Aeneas is not one that suits the nature of the Cantos: Pound’s Modernist epic, as we have already discussed, requires a protagonist who is neither willing to fully give themselves over to the powers that they face nor completely unwilling to accept the power that can be gained from such encounters. A factive hero must be able and willing to engage with the goddess without being destroyed in order to emerge from the experience a god himself, an act that seems beyond the ‘pious’ man that Aeneas represents. Pound’s Odysseus is “’very human’”, “downy”, and “hard–boiled” – he is “emphatically ‘the wise guy’” of the ancient epic tradition, while Aeneas is seen as being too akin to a preacher in his unswerving piety to be considered as a true factive hero by Pound. In fact, an explicit connection is made between Aeneas and Pope Pius II, one of the many antagonists of the Cantos whose “bear’s–greased latinity” was directed towards attacking the more Odyssean and heroic Sigismundo Malatesta. Even the original Latin text produced by Virgil is not given a favourable review by Pound: instead, he states that “Gavin Douglas had made something of the Aeneids (sic) that I, at any rate, like better than Virgil’s Latin”. However, while Pound does display a certain degree of dismissal within these works, and while the references made by the Cantos overwhelmingly lean towards the Odyssey of Homer and the Metamorphoses of Ovid, it would be folly to say that the Aeneid had no effect whatsoever upon The Cantos of Ezra Pound. In fact, the explicit and implicit references made to the Aeneid – specifically to the sixth book of the Aeneid, in which the hero travels to the Underworld to meet with his father and view the future of what will become Rome – may hold more overall weight than those made to the other two works combined, as it would seem that the Virgilian katabasis and the themes it places before the reader hold within them the secret ingredient that can transform the factive personality into the fascist personality.
Over the course of the Aeneid, the character of Aeneas is repeatedly defined by and glorified for his adherence to the four cardinal virtues that had been set forth in the time of Emperor Augustus Caesar. More so than the other three – virtus, iustitia, and clementia – he displays the virtue of pietas, or one’s duty towards one’s father, country, and gods. This quality is so intertwined with the moral core of Aeneas that it is repeatedly used as an epithet for him in the poem and dictates the universal reception of his every action in both positive and negative ways: his early hopes of locating the future site of Alba Longa are foiled through his father’s erroneous interpretation of an Apollonian prophecy; his most successful attempt to rebel against his fate and the will of the gods during his stay at the site of Carthage is ultimately short–lived and met with the brutal consequence of the death of Dido; his descent into the Underworld alongside the Sibyl of Cumae in the sixth book is only brought about by the dictation of his father Anchises – it is indeed fitting that the lasting image of Aeneas in art and literature is that of a man who “totes around his home– gods everywhere, and bore on his back a doddering father”. This overwhelming sense of pietas may be the thing that stops Aeneas from being a truly factive individual: he is not a driven man so much as he is a man driven by forces far beyond his control, leaving him helplessly kicking and screaming. To be an Aeneidean figure is to sacrifice oneself in the hope that those who will come after you will produce the greater good: to be an Odyssean, factive figure is to bring forth the greater good yourself and produce it through your own dynamic action. Odysseus is still a hero and a priest in a similar mode to Aeneas, but the manner in which he deals with the divine is far more dynamic and a great deal more assertive – he does not merely obey the divine in the manner of the subservient Roman hero, but engages with it directly. The figure of Aeneas is bound by the fact that his actions must ultimately lead to a tempo–spatially specific, divinely mandated future: the location must become Rome, the result must become an empire to which Jupiter will “set no bounds” and grant “unlimited power”. In direct contrast to this, the figure of Odysseus – at least in Pound’s Cantos – is completely unbound by space and time, jumping back and forth on an eternal odyssey experienced through various personae such as Sigismundo Malatesta, Kung–Fu–Tseu, and Benito Mussolini.
This drastic difference in the exercise of agency presented by these two epic protagonists is made even more distinct by the difference in their origins. Odysseus is a mortal chieftain, the son of Anticleia and Laertes of Ithaca: conversely, Aeneas is a demi–god, the son of the Trojan noble Anchises and the goddess Venus. The former is a human being who engages with the divine, while the latter is the product of such an engagement. Leon Surette takes this further, viewing both the union between Odysseus and Circe and the union between Anchises and Venus as being representative of the Eleusinian “sacred marriage of man and goddess… a union of perceiving intellect and perceived beauty in epistemological terms”. The figure of Anchises is held as a male analogue for mythological figures such as Tyro (the ‘bride’ of the god Poseidon and the mother of the divine twins Pelias and Neleus) and Alcmene (the ‘bride’ of the god Zeus and the mother of the demigod Heracles), being the groom of the goddess of love – as such, Odysseus could therefore be seen as being the ‘groom’ of the goddess Circe, whilst Aeneas would merely be the aftereffect of such a union in the manner of Telegonus. An alternative perspective would be to see Odysseus as being less of a divine ‘groom’ and more of a successor to Circe on a more occult level: Pound’s Odysseus becomes the transmitter of Circe’s power through the way in which her necromancy and magic is passed down from the divine feminine figure of the Cantos and the Odyssey to the dynamic masculine.
In either of these cases, it could be argued that one could extend these possible explanations for why Odysseus is so well–suited for the role of the recurring hero of the Cantos in order to determine why Aeneas is so ill–suited for it. If one were to explain it through the concept of Odysseus being made the ‘groom’ of a goddess, then it stands to reason that Aeneas – being the son of the goddess Venus and fated to become the husband of the Latian princess Lavinia – cannot engage in the same manner with the divine due to both the unstoppable force of his own destiny and the incestuous nature of consummating with the divine posing threats to the possibility of his true apotheosis. If one were to explain it through the idea of Odysseus being the true successor of the goddess Circe through learning the secrets of the occult from her, then it stands to reason that Aeneas – being the overly pure and almost comically noble figure that Yeats’ sailor mistook for a priest – could never be able to go to the same lengths of Odysseus in order to gain knowledge and understanding of the world around him. Both undergo a katabasis, but while Odysseus himself must perform a grotesque necromantic ritual of sacrifice to access the Underworld, Aeneas’ retrieval of the golden bough so that the Sibyl may let him access Elysium is given precedency over the act of sacrificing animals. Virgil’s hero must descend into an Underworld which is defined by the physicality of the afterlife, whilst Homer’s champion makes contact with an Underworld which flickers between the realms of the tangible and the intangible – in this way, Pound can be seen to favour the transmission of a narrative that acts as a transmission directly from an individual experiencing them and aiming to find truth (i.e. in periplum) rather than in the straightforward manner of the Aeneid (i.e. a posteriori).
It would seem that the character of Anchises is given more of a role to play in the Cantos than his Virgilian protagonist of a son, with only the father being given the chance to speak in the first scene they both appear properly:
And that was when Troy was down, all right,
And they were sailing along
Sitting in the stern sheets,
Under the lee of an island
And the wind drifting off from the island.
what is it?” said Anchises.
“Tethnéké,” said the helmsman, “I think they
“Are howling because Adonis died virgin.”
“Huh! tet…” said Anchises,
“well, they’ve made a bloody mess of that city.”
At first glance, this passage seems somewhat strange and contradictory to an observer who has some grounding in classical studies and the epic poems of ancient Greece and Rome. Pound presents us with an image of father and son travelling by sea after the fall of “proud Troy” (“superbo Illion”). The Trojan Anchises struggles for a word that he seems to hear being
said in the distance, and the “helmsman” (whom I would argue to be a reference made by Pound to the character of Palinurus, the man who was chosen by the gods as the sacrificial price of a divine toll in order to enable Aeneas safe passage to Cumae and the Underworld explains that the word he seeks is Greek in origin (with the word Tethnéké translated here by Carroll Terrell to mean “he is dead”). The word appears to be being said in mourning for Adonis, another of Aphrodite–Venus’ lovers, and Anchises ends the short sequence with a sharp–witted quip that is quite dissimilar to what would be typically expected from Virgil’s “doddering father” of the hero Aeneas. But when the reader approaches this sequence with the knowledge of how Aeneas is viewed in comparison to Odysseus, the sequence suddenly makes a great deal more sense: this is an episode of the Aeneid transformed by the power of the factive personality and brought into direct union with the other epic poems that influenced the creation of The Cantos of Ezra Pound. Aeneas is pushed to the background of this miniature episode, becoming just a thematic reminder of the overall focus of the scene (i.e. the process of moving from destruction to creation, and the eventual establishment of a new imperial force in the world) while Anchises is imbued with the more learned and witty personality of Odysseus, showing off some grasp of the Greek language beyond his own native tongue when faced with the effects of the distant aftermath of what would appear to be an Ovidian episode of fatal metamorphosis. However, combined with the concepts of Poundian metamorphosis and apotheosis (covered in the previous chapter), we achieve yet another level of understanding: the factive personality is removed by yet another degree from his immediate and distant surroundings and the voices he hears lamenting through his innate understanding of the act that Adonis is not a dead man, but a man transformed into Dionysus. The Odyssey, the Metamorphoses, and the Aeneid collide with the ever–moving man of many ways being shown as the lover of the divine and the father figure for those who will go forth and establish the great empire of the future: Odysseus’ transfiguration into the form of Anchises positions the factive personality as both the heroic undergoer of Homeric katabasis and the prophet of the Virgilian glory to come after said descent into the Underworld.
While it takes more cues from the Inferno of Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy than it does from the Aeneid, it would be remiss to not examine the specific katabasis presented by Pound himself in the immediate aftermath of the ‘Hell Cantos’. Here, after the description of his emergence into “Ήἑλιον τ’ Ήἑλιον” (“the sun, the sun”) out from Hell, Pound lays out a place that is half–Purgatory and half–Limbo in which the various iterations of the factive personality and their many allies from across the expanse of space and time have found themselves after their deaths. Among them, the English poet William Blake is seen “shouting, whirling his arms… howling against the evil”, Sigismundo and Dominico Malatesta are shown “gazing at the mounts of their cities”, and the Vorticists that Pound himself had known as friends and artistic colleagues (such as Henri Gaudier–Brzeska and Thomas Ernest Hulme) who had died in warfare make their appearances here too. This sequence does seem to share more with the Virgilian katabasis and the procession of the future heroes of Rome than with the more bittersweet Homeric katabasis and the catalogue of mythical heroines (however, the later shift in focus to figures such as Gaudier–Brzeska and Hulme does draw some comparison with Odysseus’ encounters with his old friends who perished in the Trojan War, though there is no communication between them and Pound himself) – while there is a definite sense of loss that is conveyed by Pound here, there is also a sense of defiance against death and sorrow that is mirrored by the promise of future glory put forth by Anchises. If the Odyssean theme within Pound makes the promise of a recurring champion who will bring about change and fight the usurious forces that wreak havoc upon the world and the Ovidian theme ensures the eternal nature of such a champion through his eventual and inevitable apotheosis, then the Aeneidean theme makes the bold statement that the factive personality will become the direct father of the new and glorious empire to come – a pater patriae of a kind that the world has never known before. In short, the classical epics aligned within Pound’s Cantos promise the rise of a great leader who will destroy the current order and establish a new era.
And in the eyes of this poet, this man’s name was Benito Mussolini.
Part Four: Ezra and Mussolini – The Perverse Resurrection Of The Epic And The Factive Spectacle
In his Mythologies, the French philosopher Roland Barthes states that the very idea of myth is, for the people who choose to stand on the far-right wing of the political spectrum, utterly essential:
…it takes hold of everything, all aspects of the law, of morality, of aesthetics, of diplomacy, of household equipment, of Literature, of entertainment… the oppressor is everything, his language is rich, multiform, supple, with all the possible degrees of dignity at its disposal: he has an exclusive right to metalanguage.
With this in mind, the true core of the Cantos can now be properly confronted. To actively engage with The Cantos of Ezra Pound is not merely an act of engaging with the incredible scope and scale of a truly Modernist epic, but also an act of engaging with the brutal, dynamic, and often contradictory nature of Fascist thought and mythic reception. At the core of such a strange and violent mythic worldview stands the ‘oppressor’ – in this case, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, otherwise known as Il Duce. The image that he cultivated of himself was that of a superhuman Renaissance man. He was shown to be a courageous individual who experimented with new sports and a master of modern mechanical vehicles: the people of Italy beheld an image of the man as a supreme aviator and driver of racecars, an avid skier, swimmer, and swordsman; an equestrian who had to change his horse four times in order to complete his daily ride, and a benevolent insomniac who worked constantly to ensure the power of the fledgling empire he was striving to establish. One elementary school student living under his regime wrote:
He always works and never, or almost never sleeps. He closes his eyes every ten minutes, then he wakes up, washes himself, and goes immediately back to work, fresh like a rose. Over time, his feats were exaggerated more and more: he was said to be capable of undergoing painful surgeries without the need of any form of anaesthetic, and during his eventful visit to Sicily in 1923, it was written in the newspapers that the volcanic Mount Etna erupted – but that “the river of flowing lava had to stop in the face of the fire, much more ardent, of the Duce’s eyes”. When faced with a dictator that carried around with him such a mythic image of a futuristic and innovative champion of his nation that could stop molten lava with a stare and take to any sport with panache and unstoppable energy, it is easier to understand how the poet Ezra Pound was completely consumed with admiration for this inhumanly factive man.
In the Cantos and some of his earlier works of poetry, Ezra Pound glorified the concept of men of action who were willing to blast their way through numerous obstacles in order to achieve their goals and, as a result, ended up exalting morally questionable individuals and characters such as Sigismundo Malatesta, El Cid, and the Greek epic hero Odysseus. Combined with a lack of consideration for some of the deeper and more malevolent implications behind a great deal of the policies that were put forward by Il Duce, Pound became a devout follower and willing creator working in the service of the Italian propaganda machine. An aforementioned early episode in the Cantos shows his initial worshipful reaction to Mussolini’s seemingly immediate comprehension of his text, and his striking ability to “(catch) the point before the aesthetes got there”, and the portrayal of Il Duce as having similar supernatural abilities beyond the power granted by his factive nature and eternal recurrence continues throughout the text. His adversaries – the various usurers and money barons of the world, all of them typically Jewish in Pound’s anti-Semitic version of reality – are simultaneously intimidatingly numerous and fundamentally doomed within the realm of the Cantos: they are mere mortals, pathetic little men with lisping voices who are forced to hold their meetings in secret out of fear of getting caught (“it will not take uth 20 years to crwuth Mussolini”) and resort to laying traps for Il Duce (that, of course, he has already deduced the nature of, as per the invincible nature of the true factive personality) rather than confront him face to face on the battlefield proper. While Mussolini is shown to be in the spiritual company of great men such as the mythic king Charlemagne, alongside him on both a moralistic and economic level – ““Perchè in ordine?” (vuol metter le sue idee)” (“Why in order [do you wish to put your ideas]?”) – his opponents are morally and economically bankrupt:
one had a safety–pin one had a
bit of string, one had a button all of
them so far beneath him half–baked
and amateur or mere scoundrels To
sell their country for half a million
hoping to cheat more out of the people
bought the place from the concierge
who could not deliver
In his Guide to Kulchur, Ezra Pound stated that the polumetis Odyssean factive personality knew things that were, for that time:
…the things a man then needed for living… the bow, the strong stroke in swimming, the how-to-provide and the high hat, the carriage of the man who knew how to rule… Weltmensch, with “ruling caste” stamped all over him.
In this way, Pound’s Odysseus is the perfect proto-fascist: through the wise teachings of Confucius and the raw power of Mussolini, the true potential of the Homeric hero could be brought into existence. For Pound, the modern Odysseus is the perfect balance of cosmopolitan aesthete and warrior–poet, with the latter aspect showing itself in both the dictatorial and Confucian aspects of the character of Odysseus as he himself perceived it: Great intelligence attains again and again to great verity. The Duce and Kung fu Tseu equally perceive that the people need poetry.
It is through this statement that we gain a sense of how Pound viewed the world and what he sought to achieve through his support of the Fascists: through his personal relationship with Benito Mussolini, he had developed the belief that his cultural capital translated into political power, and as such he developed the belief that Fascism’s victory would also be a victory for the artists of the world, with the ultimate hope of granting them the same apparent powers that he perceived himself to hold through his production of poetry and propaganda – as such, the poet’s idealism and gullibility proved to be crucial elements in his outright worship of Fascism.
Here we see the power that is granted by the ‘metalanguage’ of myth as set out by Barthes and the way in which such power can be illusory: Pound’s use of the ancient epic traditions within the Cantos – with such usage making full use of his knowledge of and various interpretive approaches to the Odyssey, the Metamorphoses and the Aeneid among many other works – and his belief that figures such as Jefferson, Mussolini and Odysseus were all shining examples of the discipline and social responsibility extolled by Confucius and that Mussolini in particular was similar to him in their ability to “strike to the root in any tangle” led to him becoming the unwitting puppet of the fascist movement and its Italian leader. We see within the Cantos that Pound’s creation of the Modernist epic is guided and shaped by the ‘metalanguage’ that was provided to him both by Mussolini himself and his new artistic compatriots such as the Futurist leader Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: much in the way that Marinetti sought to communicate to the public through his Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism that “a roaring motorcar, which seems to race on like machine gun–fire, is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace”, Pound attempts to convey his idea that Mussolini is the definitive modern Odysseus and that, as such, his adversaries – namely the conspiratorial usurers of the world, bankrolled and commanded by Jewish families of money barons such as the Rothschilds and the Monds – are the new embodiments of the bloodthirsty Cyclops and the implacable Poseidon.
Usury – “A charge for the use of purchasing power, levied without regard to production, often without regard to the possibilities of production” – is not merely a crooked method of making money at the expense of others in the eyes of Pound, but a cruel act that is utterly “CONTRA NATURAM” (“against nature”) and a representation of “the forces at work in human nature which prevent the human race from creating a paradise on earth” in Terrell’s words.
Through the lens of Barthes’ examinations, one can see that Pound’s Cantos display all the hallmarks of the typical politically right–wing reception of mythology. Barthes states that “Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History”, and Pound achieves this by rendering the temporality of the Cantos hopelessly entangled within itself, a twisted playground within which the factive personality can jump from point to point totally unimpeded – from Confucius’ China and Sigismundo Malatesta’s Italy to Jefferson’s America and Dante’s Aligheri’s Hell, there are no limits to the narrative and there are no limits placed upon the fascist mythology. Barthes’ concept of the right–wing philosophical tautology – “the accidental failure of language… magically identified with what one decides is a natural resistance of the object” – is harder to place until one takes his further corollary – “any refusal of language is a refusal of death” – into account with Pound’s replacement of the fatal metamorphosis of Ovid with his own transformative apotheosis that leads to life eternal. He blends all languages in the same way he blends all times, and every last one of them are employed in telling a story in which death is repeatedly overcome by factive fascist individuals of great will and potential. In this way, the epic becomes a vehicle for a totalitarian and warlike way of life that justifies itself through its self-perpetuation – it is a beautifully crafted and yet utterly monstrous fiction of an ideology that ends up becoming the ‘truth’ by virtue of telling itself over and over again within the form of an epic poem.
Some may argue that this use of the mythological tales of the ancient world is a misuse of them – a crass, ill– handled attempt to force a square peg into a round hole. The idea of taking a life–affirming and noble poem such as the Homeric Odyssey in the hopes of using it to promote the actions and beliefs of a self–aggrandizing murderer such as Mussolini may seem reprehensible and downright alien to some scholars, as would the use of the Ovidian Metamorphoses – a poem with a heavy focus on the emotion of love and the inevitability of death – as a vehicle for concepts such as immortality and warfare. However, I believe that the key to understanding this usage of these epic poems lies with Virgil – specifically, it lies with the audience he most sought to please: Emperor Augustus Caesar. Various episodes within the Aeneid are clearly written to appeal to Augustus’ ego, such as the scene in which Aeneas dedicates his weapons to the gods at the site of what will eventually be the Battle of Actium, the scene in which the future Augustus is declared by Anchises to be the “son of a god, destined to rule… and there bring back the age of gold” and the scene in which the shield adorned with prophetic vignettes of Rome’s history–to–be is bestowed upon Aeneas by his mother Venus. Much in the way that Virgil wrote an epic poem that glorified and lionized a totalitarian ruler (whose method of controlling Rome actually inspired and informed the ideology of Fascism a great deal), so too does Pound write an epic poem to achieve the same result with a similarly behaved dictator. This is not so much a manipulation and perversion of the ‘true’ nature of epic poetry and mythology so much as it is perceivable as an attempt to give the classics their teeth back and provide them with the potency they once had. This is a resurrection, though the result can often come across to the typical reader as being more akin to an unstable and ranting Frankenstein’s monster than a sublime and gloriously factive Lazarus or Christ.
It was indeed once written by the Irish Symbolist poet William Butler Yeats that:
…A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been nought.
And yet, through his rebellion against such practices of poetic sprezzatura and apparent literary nonchalance through his use of twenty-five languages over 824 pages of richly symbolic and deeply strange poetry to directly communicate his contradictory and chaotic ideology that preaches a perfect and peaceful Confucian order through violence and near–fatal transformation, Ezra Pound provides us with something far more intriguing and unusual than a mere Modernist take on the style and form of ancient epic poetry. He breaks down the space– time continuum with his reincarnating non–linearly protagonist and blends the languages of the human race with his own distinctively eccentric voice, and in doing so he provides a deeply rich and layered (if incredibly problematic at times) Modernist interpretation of the very nature of mythology and the epic style.