I teach modern literature, and I try and teach it with an eye to the political and social environments out of which it emerges. Two years ago, I introduced some extracts from Ezra Pound’s Radio Rome broadcasts into a university seminar discussion of modernist literature and politics. Students were, in turn, shocked, embarrassed and aghast at the visceral anti-Semitism and Fascist politics expressed in the speeches. But is it possible to find lessons in the disturbing quality of the rhetoric that emerges from Pound’s most awkward and unpleasant texts? What is the resonance for today, where ascendant nationalist/radical right movements appear to have renewed vigour in both Europe and the United States?
These questions are not easy to deal with in the classroom. In particular, it’s hard to find a way for students to understand the persistence of racist and radical right ideologies when its expressions often feel so deranged and distant from most people’s experience. Some students felt that, having read some of the most extreme parts of Pound’s writings, the whole of his corpus should be invalidated. It was, in other words, not worth studying.
This presents a problem on a number of levels. At the level of pure common sense, an approach that attempts to exclude authors on the basis of their political or moral failings leaves the teacher with large gaps in their syllabus. But another, political, problem is presented when I (or any other teacher) fail to show students the full range of what we’re up against when we study Pound (or Wyndham Lewis, or D.H. Lawrence, or Knut Hamsun, or Gabriele D’Annunzio). If I’d just shown them the broadcasts, it would be easy to dismiss Pound as a marginal crank. But part of the shock, the cognitive dissonance of my students’ reaction that day was at least partly created by the memory of the intricate and beautifully crafted poetry I’d shown them on another occasion – that the same hand could write one and the other.
If a new generation is to be trained to be able to recognise and decode the rhetoric of the radical right, it needs to be able to recognise its expression not simply in the crudest outbursts of racism and conspiratorial politics, but in its subtler forms. At this level, rightist politics engages: our nostalgic yearnings, our desire to assert ourselves, our fear of change, our desire for change, our idolisation of beauty, order, symmetry, or our desire to destroy such things. In this way, I’ve tried, for example, to get students to understand that comments about, say, ‘civilisation’ are never neutral. Whose ‘civilisation’ do we mean, and what does it mean to preserve it? Is beauty an objective ‘truth’ or will a pursuit of ‘beauty’ inevitably mean an anxious occlusion of that which is not deemed beautiful?
In getting students to grapple with these questions, we can get a bit deeper in our understanding of the power of radical right rhetoric, now and in the past.
Dr David Barnes is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford. See his profile here:
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