Pound, Nietzsche, and the “Will to Power”

Though Ezra Pound said of Frederick Nietzsche’s “will to power” that “[n]othing more vulgar, in the worst sense of the word, has ever been sprung on a dallying intelligentsia” (Feng Lan, Ezra Pound and Confucianism 119), the true relationship between Nietzsche’s theory and Pound’s own “will toward order” belies the poet’s loud protestations. Pound desired a nation-state in which both individualism and social order could be peaceably maintained, and he posited the will toward order—which held that all great men were guided by a “determination to actualize self-values by serving the public” (120)—as the chief organizing principle of such a domain. Pound argued that humans desire a society in which to explore and express their individual natures without fear of unnecessary interference from neighbor or government, but that they could only achieve such a society through “the way to truth,” which is “the way to order” (120). Such a theory would, ostensibly, counteract Nietzsche’s claims about man as a seeker of power and authority, while also aligning quite nicely with Pound’s lines in Canto LXXVI: “woe to them that conquer with armies / and whose only right is their power” (Pound 163).

Yet if, as evidenced in Pound’s other Confucian writings, the path toward truth and order begins with zheng ming, or the rectification of names (Lan 43), then even the most localized human act—the righting of one’s own use of language—requires individuals to exercise power over the language they employ. To achieve order, one must exert power. Whether man’s telos is “order” or “power” has no bearing on the practical functioning of Pound’s ideal society; at each step along the “way to order,” the society’s inhabitants must decide if/how/why they want to exert power over the world in which they live. And once power enters the equation, issues of means and ends become paralytically fraught with ethical dilemmas:

Who is to decide right from wrong?

Why does this person/body have the right to do so?

How do we exert our power to limit the scope of this person’s/body’s adjudication?

And even if humans do desire order more than power, the process of securing order requires exertions of personal, familial, local, and national power—Pound says nearly as much in his interpretation of the cheng yi doctrine (Lan 74-75). Yet to assume that order can be either achieved or restored ex nihilo is to conceptualize the world in a very narrow fashion; order results from actions taken by subjects on/against/through objects, and such a relationship requires that we recognize the power dynamic(s) this process entails. Pound hints at these hierarchical difficulties in Canto LXXXVI, where he says of society’s success, “It may depend on one man” (Lan 128). Here, we see Pound ceding some of the ground between his “will to order” and Nietzsche’s “will to power” (not to mention Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch), and further elision of the differences between these two is not difficult to achieve.

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