I’ve actually thought about this a lot. I use Pound’s phrase in my bio mainly because it contains a concise, inspired definition of art (and its implied value) that I believe has been lost. To say whether I agree with it exactly, I have to break it into parts: what Pound meant by “art,” what he meant by “the sole means,” and what he meant by “ecstasy” or “the sensation of the soul in ascent.”
ART: People have proven time and again that the term “art” is very pliable, that there’s room for all sorts of products and practices to share it if these things emerge from passion rather than imperative. But I think it’s safe to say that here Pound is talking about culture’s conventional definition: fine arts, literature, drama, music. My definition tends to be broader – I am moved when I see people do even mundane tasks with love and flair – so we might disagree slightly here on that term.
THE SOLE MEANS: When he calls art ‘the sole means’ of transmuting a certain ecstasy to others, he is specifically contrasting art with religion. Later in this same passage* he calls religion an inferior subcategory of art, a “[failed] attempt to popularize” it, by which he probably meant to standardize it for the populace, i.e., to indiscriminately diffuse the sensation of the soul in ascent to religious devotees. He admits that a religion can sometimes convey this ecstasy to its members, but irregularly — and I might add, with more distressing consequences when it fails, in that it can too easily provide a false sense of having succeeded.
ECSTASY, or, THE SENSATION OF THE SOUL IN ASCENT: Forgive me while I speak with total authority about something I have not and can not confirm. Because I’m about to clarify, on Pound’s behalf, what this turn of phrase truly refers to:
Art has many functions that everyone knows about – provoking critical thought, emotional reactions, discussion, aesthetic pleasure – but ‘the soul in ascent’ is a specific phenomenon that not everyone experiences (although everyone could), so it’s not an inherent aspect of art appreciation. In other words, by “ascent” Pound is not simply talking about art’s potential to be “uplifting.” (For that matter, tons of great art can ruin your day.) His ecstasy is the quintessential spiritual experience: it is the feeling of growth on an arational psychic plane. It is the expansion (ascent) of the self (soul) into a broader understanding of reality, which cannot be achieved through studying or obeying parental guidance, governments, scholastics, or even, as Pound wishes to emphasize, religion.
There are a lot of other words for this awakening. Mystics tend to call it “Enlightenment.” Scientists might be more comfortable with “evolution.” What it means is in either case is transcending your paradigm, and since all language and institutions are produced by and for their paradigm and are so limited to its logic, they are not very effective at conveying its transcendence. That is why Pound calls art the sole means – or really, the best hope – for sharing (and therefore perpetuating) this phenomenon. It can do so by nature of its forms (stories and pictures), which forego pretentious/futile “explanations” of ecstasy, aiming instead to arouse the innate intuitions that, taken seriously and sincerely pursued, become ecstasy itself.
Now, I’m certain there are other ways that the seed of transcendence is passed on and planted. Falling in love with someone, for example, can mutually initiate such an adventure. (Although falling in love and appreciating a work of art are not so different; in both cases deriving meaning from and becoming attached to something beyond rational self-interest and/or its practical function.) But Pound was writing about social change, so I suspect he didn’t intend to rule such revelations out so much as focus on ways that ecstasy can be inspired remotely, and on a large scale. Here I do agree with him that art trumps anything formally organized for the good of the people. The appreciation of art is an emotional state, and only in such a state can epiphany take you over the threshold to ecstasy. Religion and politics are usually founded on the logical conclusions of somebody’s legitimate ascent, but they focus on canonizing and enforcing those conclusions rather than precipitating individual epiphany. Insofar as a religion or the like does inspire individual epiphany, Pound says, it does so as art.
So I guess that’s a rambling way of saying that I agree with Pound’s intended subtext, if not his actual statement. History seems to agree that even the most sincere attempts to transmute enlightenment are doomed to fail – to be exploited and misinterpreted, to generate propaganda, to brainwash, to disempower – if they do not intrinsically incite personal epiphany on the other end. Because the whole point of Enlightenment is that you can’t bum it off someone else like a cigarette or a pop quiz answer. You can only fully know the sensation of ascent if you actually ascend.
What do you think?
*In his 1907 letter to Viola Jordan, which I’ve admittedly not read in its entirety but only seen as fragments in secondary sources.