Overweening Generalist

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Meditation on "Paideuma"

Paideuma is a word I happened upon while reading Ezra Pound; I had never seen it, but thought I could tell what it meant from my first gloss within the word's context. Then Pound used it again, and it seemed to escape my previous gloss on it. Whatever it meant, it was a big-time wild idea, and it excited me intellectually. Then it happened again while reading Pound. Just when I thought I had a purchase on "paideuma," it slipped through.

How is it pronounced? I have asked two men - both FFUIs* - who had read Pound for a long time. Robert Anton Wilson said, "I'm...not sure...I think it's pronounced 'pah-DOY-mah'." Jack Foley said, "I say 'pie-DOO-mah'." Google searches haven't yielded much. I think I probably ought to call up an Anthropologist at Berkeley and ask.

What the hell IS this thing?

It turns out that Pound got the idea of paideuma from the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius. In Pound's Guide To Kulchur, he defines it as "the tangle or complex of the inrooted ideas of any period." (p.57) So I went with that.

When I asked Wilson what he thought paideuma meant, he said "It's the semantic unconscious." I liked that idea a lot, too. We feel an odd relief when we finally find out there exists a word for some idea we had been thinking about for a long time, but didn't know what to call it. Words being pegs to hang ideas on. Or at least that's one way to think of the function of a word...And Wilson's gloss of paideuma was no doubt merely one way to think of paideuma...

Now to Frobenius: He was so adept at discerning the unique styles of ceramics and other artefacts of long-gone peoples, that, when their pots or pitchers were unearthed, he could "read" a shard of pottery and give a hyper-educated guess as to what those long-dead peoples believed, the role of women, their view of the cosmos, gods, and other Big Ideas.

Frobenius's biographer, Janheinz Janz (Leo Frobenius: The Demonic Child) unpacked paideuma in this way: Frobenius thought there is an essence behind every culture, and that essence has a soul, and the soul of a given culture in history is its paideuma. Every culture has its own "shape," which includes its ideas and "mind." Frobenius also used the term kulturmorphologie. Curiouser...

This view seems in keeping with a German intellectual raised before 1914 and all that: very romantic, very organic, a mind steeped in Goethe, but not quite as "scientific" as I'd like. (Frobenius was one of the pioneers of Modern anthropology; let us cut him some slack.)

                              Leo Frobenius (1873-1938), German ethnographer, in Ethiopia

As I delved further, the idea acquired flesh, depth, and some distinction, yet it was on the whole murkier for me. (What sort of a person allows himself to be so enthusiastic about such ideas? A show of hands?)

I found out Joseph Campbell had been very much taken by Frobenius, too. As Robert Ellwood writes in  the section on Campbell in his book The Politics of Myth, "He was struck by Frobenius's comparable concept that every race had its own paideuma or soul, its own way of feeling and its own spectrum of significant knowledge. This spirit is expressed in its art and its mythology, and it may evolve over time, so that the paideuma of a Neolithic agricultural people may be different from what it was when they were hunters and gatherers, or that of Renaissance Europe different from that of Medieval Europe." (p.157)

I liked the part about "evolving" but the part about "race" worried me a bit.

In Campbell's own The Inner Reaches of Outer Space he seems to be using the term "monad" in place of paideuma. Perhaps he realized that odd word starting with the "p" alienated some of his listeners?

Well, Pound obviously thought the paideuma could be changed, evolve. He seemed to think it could be consciously changed! I direct the intrepid reader to Mad Ol' Ez's Selected Prose 1909-1965, pp.284-289, "For A New Paideuma." Call me weird (really: I won't mind!), but Pound is psychedelic there, to me. He's elliptical, he uses his occult ju-ju ideogrammic method, he's at times presenting something like a zen koan, he typically lambastes academics, who hadn't taken to Frobenius nearly as much as they ought to have - the academics had erred in paying too much attention to Freud! - probably because Frobenius was too "wild and poetic."

Long story short: for Ezra Pound, the "hidden" aspects of our own culture could not evolve toward something greater unless we re-thought how money worked, what money was, how we conducted our banking system, and economics in general.

I ask the reader: how "crazy" is that?

More on paideuma soon...

* = Free-Floating Unattached Intellectuals


Eric Wagner said...

Great post - my favorite so far. Paideuma also makes me think of the journal by that name. I used to haunt the ASU library looking for the new issue in the mid-80's.

michael said...

How did you pronounce it when you asked the librarian at ASU? "Do you happen to know if the new Paideuma has come in?"

Thanks, RAoR1132.

Eric Wagner said...

I've always pronouned it "pah-DOY-mah." I never talked to a librarian about it, though. I would just go to the Paideuma box in the periodicals section and see if a new issue had come it.

("I say 'pah-DOY-mah' and you say 'pie-DOO-mah.'
I say kallisti and you say korhisti.
'Pay-DOY-mah,' 'pie-DOO-mah,' kallisti, korhisti,
let's call the whole thing off.")

I learned about the Ezra Pound centennial celebration at the University of Maine, Orano, from reading Paideuma. Attnending that conference changed my life in 1985.

michael said...

Did you meet Guy Davenport at that 1985 meeting, and if so, what was he like? I love his writings on Pound, and some of his other interests dovetail with Kenner/RAW/Joyce.

I bought a used book via half.com called Escape From the Nineteenth Century, by Peter Lamborn Wilson (who wrote one of my favorite obits for RAW), and it turned out it was signed to Davenport from PLW. SCORE!

Languagehat said...

Just discovered this post through a Google search on "Paideuma" (wondering whether the new journal is the same as the old -- apparently so); as both a huge Pound fan and a linguist by training (if not by profession), perhaps my opinion on pronunciation will be of interest. I've always said either "pie-DOO-ma" or "PAI-doo-ma," depending on how classical I was feeling (the first is fully Americanized, the second keeps the ancient Greek accent); "pie-DOY-mah" is how Frobenius would have said it, but he spoke German and isn't a good guide for English (since it's not a German word, it's a Greek word he of course pronounced in the German fashion).

michael said...

Thanks for this, Languagehat. It points up the idea that the "one true only and best" pronunciation concept may be overrated. As long as we can get on with our communications with each other, who cares about being some Correct Pronunciation Maven?

Languagehat said...

I couldn't have said it better!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post. I think you've done a pretty good job of explaining the word. What I find interesting is that there seems to be little reference to the word across the net and that nobody has pointed out that it is Greek. It means "that which is reared up" or we might say rears up. It clearly has to do with education in the sense of rearing and that is were the soul of a culture is given its form. Hence Pounds view that without a clarification of money and usury we will not be able to bring about true change in this culture of ours.

Thanks again,

Languagehat said...

Um, I pointed out that it's Greek, just a couple of comments back. And I'm not sure what exactly you mean by "reared up"; paideuma is an abstract noun (a less common alternate to paideia) formed from the verb paideuein 'to bring up, train, teach, educate,' which in turn is derived from pais 'child, boy or girl.' In any case, I'm not sure what the Greek etymology has to tell us about either current use or Poundian philosphy.

Atelier da Escrita - RJ said...

I'm brazilian. My macarronical english doesn't allow me to say things here with the necessary fluency but i have written a literature thesis in which the concept of culture was based in Frobenius' Paideuma. That was about 10 years ago (!) and now I want to follow my understanding about poetics, literature, literacy and no formal education. Since you wrote this post years ago, did you ever returned to this subject?

michael said...

@Atelier da Escrita - RJ:

I sorta have. See these posts. I think I have an idiosyncratic take on "paideuma":

Joseph Fatur said...

Reading Kultur on the train, I was puzzled, too. No entry in the Oxford Dictionary, 1971. Frobenius's word comes from Greek?

Joseph Fatur said...

oops. Sorry. Question had been answered. (It's from Gr.)

Passerby said...

Thanks for this post. I saw this word "paideuma" used in a book and couldn't find the definition anywhere.

It was in this book that I was reading that i came across the word:

Traditionalism: the only radicalism: A new mythos for modern heretics

michael said...


I hadn't known about the Dunn book, so thanks for that. I read whatever is written about the contents at the link, and it reminded me of Douglas Rushkoff's findings on traditional local currencies and peer-to-peer trade and sharing, which was what the Internet was supposed to be, but even the cool people who invented...say this very platform, Blogger? Evan Williams. I love him for it, because it allows me to exercise more free speech with a wider audience, but then he went on to co-invent Twitter and become a multi-multi-millionaire...but that's only because trade on the Net is like capitalism on steroids: the software undergirding it is state/bank money: an outmoded form of software that's winner-take-all.

I'll have to see if Dunn hits on similar ideas.

R. E. Keeperman said...

A few ounces of a Pound of Paideuma can be found in NYRB of May 7, 2015. Reviewer, Mark Ford, tries to in vain (I think or I wouldn't be here) to elaborate on it while discussing A. David Moody's portrait of Pound, Vol. II (Oxford University Press). My interest is limited to the possibility of hanging the idea of it on a peg (as aforementioned). Problem is, it keeps slipping off the peg whenever I try to close the door the peg is screwed into.

michael said...

@R.E. Keeperman-

You commented on this old post of mine just as I'm finishing a second close reading of Pound's _Selected Prose 1909-65_. As I note the times Ez uses "paideuma" in this book and elsewhere, I now see the term as used by him as a sort of floating signifier: he wants to use it as a way of getting at what's "essential" yet too omnipresent in OUR culture (he really seems fixated in ours; he's no cultural relativist, to say the least; the only competition we have is with remote civs like Kung's China, or Sophocles's Athens and a few others), yet the deep cultural configurations that make up a paideuma seem paradoxically too apparent that only certain artists can "see" them...and apparently help to correct or change (!) the paideuma.

Pound uses Frobenius's term in too many different senses for me to get a handle on. If you find someone who seems to have a hot line on Pound/paideuma, please met me know. In one essay, it will be the money lent by banks on loan under usurious conditions that has a stranglehold on a vibrant, living paideuma.

Also, a paideuma can be "live" or "dead" as in 1933, in discussing critics who write books about other critics - which Pound saw as a conspiracy of stupidity and self-interest among second-rate professors - he's got a problem with his the direction his pal TSE had gone towards, and we see this paragraph (which doesn't stand alone due to the ideogrammic method):

"This kind of essay assumes the existence of a culture that no longer subsists and does nothing to prepare a better culture that must or ought to come into being. I say 'better,' for the new paideuma will at least be a live paideuma not a dead one." - p.393 _Selected Prose_

In 1942, Ez writes:


"A culture is an organism made up of:
1. a direction of the will;
2. certain ethical bases, or a general agreement on the relative importance of the various moral, intellectual, and material values;
3. details understood by specialists and members of the same profession."
-p.320 _Selected Prose_

I think this gives a clue as to why Pound saw Mussolini as in footsteps of Jefferson: for these 3 items to be vivified, we would need a sort of utopian radical decentralization. Direction voluntatis seems simply a value. But numbers 2 and 3 seem impossible under the current State and pluralism. After these 3 items, Ez castigates scholasticism for destroying images and for TSE's apparent infection with Jewish concepts.

Nonetheless, the concept of paideuma continues to fascinate me for - as you put it - a peg to hang ideas on. Does the Overton Window relate to paideuma? It seems to me it does. The so-called white nationalists in Unistat in Jan 2017 seem to want to "normalize" (<----very paideuma-ish word we're seeing a lot now) racist and gender-based ideas, while a libertarian left keeps fighting for legalization of "sex-work," for instance. A diverse ideological gallimaufry is slowly getting the idea of Universal Basic income closer to a mainstream idea, under the pressure of materialist and structural unemployment.

Do you have any thoughts on other social science thinkers and paideuma or the semantic unconscious? Not long ago I read Benjamin Lee Whorf's essay, "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language" and thought it isomorphic to these complex of in-rooted ideas in a culture.

Thanks for the comment!

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michael said...

Thanks for the very articulate comment, Mr. Weingrad. I agree with it all, but also think Pound's determination to cause a revolution in the Arts (esp. poetry) from a very early age (around age 15), and then seeing so many of his avant-garde Modernist friends die in WWI, had a lot to do with him going over the edge.

The idea of usury and economics as a potentially unifying aspect of his work is an interesting one. Have you read Daniel Swift's recent book on Pound's years at St. Elizabeth's, _The Bughouse_?

The most haunting idea about paideuma, for me, is the one you touch on here: that the deep structure of the American semantic unconscious is avarice. If so, and to whatever degree: WHY?

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rock_bustin said...


My now-deceased stepfather was a psychiatrist who practiced in the 50's to 70's. He knew the principal psychiatrist who helped get EP ensconced at St. E's. He told me plainly that Pound was placed there to avoid the possibilities of a treason trial. His digs, however Spartan they look to others, were far better than the average patient had there. However difficult it was for Pound, Old EP was effectively sheltered there for his own safety to the point that few if any of his clinicians thought he actually needed to be confined and none considered him truly, "non corpus menus."

Languagehat said...

In 1942, Ez writes:

Having reread that, I think a brief description of Ez's use of the word might be "unified, directed culture." It certainly captures something of what he wanted and found in Confucius and Mussolini. Thanks again for this eternally stimulating post!