Pound’s Guide to Kulchur

Sometime in his later career after 1960, McLuhan wrote out a short description of Pound’s Guide to Kulchur. Perhaps it was for discussions with grad students working with him on The Cantos. Or he may have thought of using Pound in what was to be a new section on the history of Senecanism in his never-ending reconstruction of his PhD thesis. For McLuhan’s take on Pound was that he was a modern Seneca directing attention “to the idea of production and to the creative process rather than to consumer values and attitudes.”1 

Make It New!2

The note was left in McLuhan’s copy of Pound’s Spirit of Romance (now among McLuhan’s books preserved at Fisher Library, University of Toronto) and recently recovered from it after a gap of 50 years or so.

Guide to K

One way of stating the effect of Guide to Kulchur is to say that it is entirely related to the idea of production and to the creative process rather than to consumer values and attitudes. This directive is far more radical to our time than, say, Empson’s Seven Types [of Ambiguity]. Mathematical training had taught Empson that the homogeneities of Euclidean space were easy to translate into the pluralisms of nuclear space-time. Empson hoicked us out of the single level, lineal world of print culture. 

But in Guide to Kulchur Pound grappled with the entire cultural transition of the West. Faced with an electronic revolution which reduced the world to a global village as early as the telegraph, Pound sought for the structural dynamics of this change in Chinese culture. Centuries ago, the Chinese had discovered a basis of equilibrium between sight and sound, between the world of one-thing-at-a-time and the world of all-at-once. This inclusive unity of the senses and of consciousness was denied to the West whose abstract technologies began with the translation of sound into sight by the fragmentation of the phonetic alphabet. 

Guide to Kulchur is at all points a navigational chart for getting the west out of the segmental and static impasse molded by phonetic alphabet and print culture. Wyndham Lewis in all his work fought against this Pound strategy for culture. Lewis correctly diagnosed the trend of our time as being toward ear orientation and away from the eye-organization of experience.3  One major effect of the Guide to Kulchur was to intensify and clarify the Lewis polemic against his time. At the same time Pound enabled Joyce to shape his multisensuous world with more assurance of his bearings. The Guide is just what it insists that it is: a basic chart for the periplum of the cultural coasts of our time. It is of course the ultimate and indispensable handbook to the Cantos, and as such cannot readily be detached from the Pound corpus.

  1. McLuhan was very much aware that all thinkers worth our attention, like Pound, were both Senecan and Ciceronian. The key considerations are: 1) what is the ratio between the two? 2) how does that ratio change in different contexts? 3) how do these changing ratios build larger structures which demand focused investigation as much as, say, organic compounds and genes do as independent fields of physical science? (The deep ground of the complex structures studied in organic chemistry and genetics of course consists of elements, that is, of electrons and protons in varied ratios. But the movement from the study of the elementary structures of ground to the study of more complex combinations of elements is an essential feature of the physical sciences. Intelligibility is multi-levelled and multidimensional!)
  2. As McLuhan was very much aware, ‘new’ for Pound did not mean something fashionable à la mode, but something perennial: “Ezra Pound says ‘Poetry is news that stays news’. He invaded the oral sphere and became (lasting) news — an arduous metamorphosis.” (Explorations 8, #5, 1957)
  3. On the issue (actually issues, plural) of eye/ear interrelation McLuhan deeply disagreed with Lewis. As set out in his 1955 review of Hugh Kenner’s book on Lewis, he saw that Lewis’ position amounted to a kind of gnosticism. But he nevertheless took from Lewis the critical notion that ear orientation, if uncorrected, and especially when multiplied through technology, led to a dangerous irrationality, to totalitarianism and to wars. This sort of complex response characterized McLuhan’s reading of all thinkers — including Pound.