Ezra Pound: "Insanity," "Treason," and Care

Critical Inquiry 14 (1):134-141 (1987)

The British journalist Christopher Hitchens has recently noted that the extraordinary excitement created by l’affaire Pound, an excitement sustained for now some forty years, is partly the result of having no fewer than three debates going on whenever the poet’s legal situation and his consequent hospitalization are discussed. As Hitchens says, those questions are: “First, was Pound guilty of treason? If not, or even if so, was he mad? Third, was he given privileged treatment for either condition?”1 I propose to discuss all three issues in a way that fairly reflects the fact that I am neither a physician nor a lawyer. What I know of the state of medical expertise, both today and in the period of time from 1943 to 1958 , leads me, as a layman, to believe that there is an enormous latitude of understanding among medical professionals as to the precise meaning of “insanity.” At one extreme, for some distinguished physicians, the term means almost nothing. They see it as a legal term and as therefore irrelevant to them; some of them follow the line of reasoning developed by Thomas Szasz over his long writing career, namely that “mental illness” if not illness in any ordinary sense of the term.2 For other medical practitioners, it does mean something, but only when it is redefined into much smaller subcategories and enriched with much more precise terminology, and when the given patient and his full range of circumstances are considered.What I know of the legal understanding of insanity is that there has been and is now little firm agreement about “insanity” or “madness.” Equally competent juries and courts have been able to set down findings that are more or less plausible on their face but do not seem to comport at all with each other. I tentatively conclude that whatever “insanity” now is in the United States, and whatever it was when Pound was found unfit to stand trial in 1945, the standard is not the lucid simplicity of the M’Naghten test, namely, the ability of the accused to understand the difference between “right” and “wrong.” Human mind, self-awareness, and motivations are vastly more complicated than such a test would imply. 1. Christopher Hitchins, “American Notes,” Times Literary Supplement, 21 Oct. 1983, p. 1160.2. See Thomas Szasz, Insanity for a synthesis of his ideas as formulated in some eighteen books. William M. Chace is professor of English and Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Development at Stanford University. He is author of The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot , Lionel Trilling: Criticism and Politics , and scholarly essays on writers including Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, T. E. Lawrence, and James Joyce. He is now working on a study of the ways in which American culture in this century has been subjected to critical analysis
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DOI 10.1086/448431
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