The Making of “Make It New.”

Michael North does a splendid historical investigation at Guernica of Ezra Pound’s famous slogan; as I said at MetaFilter, where I got the link:

At first I thought smugly “Ha, I’m an old Poundian, I know where he got it,” but it turned out I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did (and I didn’t realize it was Hugh Kenner who called attention to it). And of course fais-le de nouveau means “do it again,” not “make it new,” so, as happened so often with Pound’s slapdash scholarship, an error sheds brilliant light. Here’s a nice bit from the essay:

The most significant fact to emerge from this history, though, is also the most obvious: Make It New was not itself new, nor was it ever meant to be. Given the nature of the novelty implied by the slogan, it is appropriate that it is itself the result of historical recycling. This was a fact that Pound himself always tried to keep in the forefront by using the original Chinese characters and letting his own translation tag along as a perpetual footnote. The complex nature of the new—its debt, even as revolution, to the past, and the way in which new works are often just recombinations of traditional elements—is not just confessed by this practice but insisted on. This is what makes the slogan exemplary of the larger modernist project, that by insisting on the new it brings to the surface all the latent difficulties in what seems such a simple and simplifying concept.

I wrote about a similar phenomenon, also involving Pound and ancient Chinese literature, here.


  1. I enjoyed this article too. The one thing I think it really needed was a close examination of the original phrase, by a modern-day expert. Not of course because it would make any difference to the history of the phrase in the context of modernism in the West, or tell us anything new about Pound even, but just because it would be interesting. The full original phrase, with an extra initial character Pound ignores (perhaps because it couldn’t plausibly be described as a drawing of a sun or fasces or something) was:


    That first character is understood by Legge (and, it seems to me, the mainstream of Chinese interpreters today), to mean “if”. Pulleyblank offers that meaning on p. 152 of his Outline, although he notes that it is more like “if, perchance.” In Japanese, this would be signified by reading the character iyashiku mo.

    But for this phrase in particular, the standard Japanese interpretation of that character is different — a meaning more like “each time” or “one by one”, read makoto ni (lit. “verily”.) So instead of an understanding “If you can, make it new”, the epigram becomes just a blunt instruction.

    I wonder if it’s possible to say definitively which interpretation of 苟 is correct. (I won’t embarrass myself by trying.) I bet the whole thing would make a great Victor Mair post at LanguageLog.

  2. The one thing I think it really needed was a close examination of the original phrase

    Now that you mention it, yes, that’s exactly what I want!

    I bet the whole thing would make a great Victor Mair post

    I bet it would; I’ll ask him.

  3. 日 in modern Chinese slang means ‘fuck’. Could it be interpreted as ‘Fuck fuck the new?’

  4. Sounds like a computer-generated punk song!

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