Features January 2007
On whether Ezra Pound will stand the tests of time.
Anyone who pronounced himself satisfied with the state of the world would be regarded either as an idiot or as an unfeeling and unthinking egotist, whose satisfaction with his own life had culpably blinded him to the misery of the generality of men. From this it would be easy, though nonetheless mistaken, to conclude that the louder and more vehement a man’s protests at the current state of affairs, the more genuinely and strongly he felt about it. Many men protest too loudly, however; and it should never be forgotten that hatred of injustice is generally far stronger than love of justice, if only because of a subliminal awareness that Hamlet was quite right: use every man after his desert and who should ’scape whipping? Justice is therefore easy to respect, hard to love.
One man who habitually protested too much, to the point of tiresomeness, was Ezra Pound. Of his poetry I shall say nothing: not being fluent in Greek, Chinese, Italian, Farsi, and so forth, I do not feel much qualified to comment on it. I shall not dispute what Basil Bunting (Pound’s friend, a poet, and a British spy) wrote in a poem—much better, incidentally, than anything I have read by Pound himself—about Pound’s poetry:
There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don’t make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and
I shall merely confess to a petit-bourgeois partiality for comprehensibility and to what Pound himself called, in the nearest he ever came to a mea culpa with regard to his own ferocious anti-Semitism at a time of genocide, “a vulgar suburban prejudice” against those who suppose that their thoughts are so profound that they justify a lifetime of exegesis if ever their meaning is to be even so much as glimpsed through a glass darkly. In my heart of hearts, I suspect, though of course I cannot prove, that Pound’s desire to play the poet—earrings, flowing capes, corduroy trousers, the admiration of others, etc.—was greater than his poetical talent.
It was by Ezra Pound, and I not only bought it for its curiosity value but read it for the same reason.
Quite a number of years ago, I happened in one of my trawls through dusty second-hand bookshops in search of enlightenment to come across a strange little blue volume with red lettering on its cover, published in 1933, whose title was ABC of Economics. It was by Ezra Pound, and I not only bought it for its curiosity value but read it for the same reason. Economics and poetry do not go together like love and marriage, as a now somewhat dated song would have had us believe; if I were a malign millionaire with an animus against poets, I would offer an immense prize for the best version of Mill’s Principles of Political Economy in iambic pentameters. Why did Pound, the ornament, the ne plus ultra, of bohemianism, write a short treatise on the dismal science?
This was a question to which I devoted no further attention until I happened, two months ago, on a short book by the Indian economist, now elevated to the House of Lords, Meghnad Desai, entitled The Route of All Evil: The Political Economy of Ezra Pound, published in this very year of grace, 2006. My curiosity was once more aroused.
In his admirably short and lucid book, Lord Desai maintains first that Pound was interested to the point of obsession with economics, and second that the economic ideas that he espoused can be separated from his pro-fascism and anti-Semitism. Indeed, says he, Pound’s economic ideas are perfectly consonant with much of the anti-globalist thought of present-day Third Worldists, for, he maintains, “Pound did not always hold bigoted, illiberal views,” but believed, along with many others, that “Western civilization was being ruined because of the financiers’ monopoly over credit.” Pound addressed such matters in print as “money and credit, unemployment and working time, bankers and arms dealers,” in short the usual suspects in a certain world-view that starts from the premise that it is poverty not wealth that needs to be explained, and the evil that men do rather than the good.
According to Lord Desai, there was a good Pound who, like the pound sterling, turned into the bad Pound; the transformation was not inherent in his manner of thought. The good Pound was kind and considerate, raised money for his friends, supported worthy causes, helped old ladies across the road, and so forth; the bad, devalued Pound broadcast Fascist propaganda from Rome, foamed at the mouth about Jews, and was rescued from execution for treason only by a blatantly political (though in this case humane) abuse of psychiatry.
That Pound was much pre-occupied with economics is clear from the Cantos: indeed, obsessed by it would hardly be too strong a word, for it is difficult to think of any other poet who put so much economics into poetry, or at least into chopped-up lines. It is a tribute to the complete unmemorability of his verse, its very lack of poetic quality in fact, that when I put this point to friends of mine who claimed to have read a lot of him (from a sense of literary duty, I hasten to add, not in the hope or expectation of any poetic pleasure), it surprised them. Not only could they not remember a single line of his hundreds of pages of work, but they couldn’t even remember what any of his poetry was about, despite the hours that they had devoted to it—admittedly in youth, when life seems endless and whole days may be wasted with impunity.
Yet open the Cantos at random, as I recently did in three places, and the economic obsession is apparent. For example, in Canto XIX, we read of an American inventor who was paid one and a half million dollars for his invention, and went to England with the proceeds:
Why don’t the fellers at home
Take it all off you?
How can you leave your big business?
“Oh,” he sez, “I ain’t had to rent any money...
“It’s a long time since I ain’t had tew rent any money.”
Nawthin’ more about Das Kapital,
Or credit, or distribution.
In Canto XXVI, we read:
“Albizi have sacked the Medici bank.”
“Venetians may stand, come, depart with their families
Free by land, free by sea,
in their galleys,
Ships, boats, and with merchandise.
2% on what’s actually sold. No tax above that.”
Canto XLIV begins:
And thou shalt not, Firenze 1766, and thou shalt not
sequestrate for debt any farm implement
nor any yoke ox nor
any peasant while he works with the same.
It continues in less than romantic vein:
Heavy grain crop unsold
never had the Mount
lacked for specie, cut rate to four and 1/3rd
creditors had always been paid,
that trade inside the Grand Duchy be free of impediments
shut down on grain imports
’83, four per cent maximum interest
’85, three on church investments, motu proprio
Is this pamphlet or poetry? At any rate, I think the point about Pound’s obsession with economics is established beyond reasonable doubt.
If Pound’s major claim to literary attention is so deeply saturated with political economy, it is hardly unjust that he should in large part be judged by the ideas his poetry expresses. It is reasonable in the circumstances to turn to his prose writings on the same subject matter. It cannot be said that even here he always writes with crystalline clarity: but enough meaning shines through his sometimes elliptical prose for us to get the general picture.
Lord Desai makes much of the change between his ABC of Economics, of 1933, and his What Is Money For? of 1939. The ABC contains no anti-Semitic jibes, the latter several remarks that could hardly be published now. The first is “rational,” the second spews hatred as a volcano spews lava. I think, however, that this is a distinction almost without a difference: that the hatred was always there, and that it is a natural consequence of the “rational” ideas contained in the ABC.
On the one hand, in extenuation of Pound, it might be said that he lived in times of profound dislocation.
On the one hand, in extenuation of Pound, it might be said that he lived in times of profound dislocation. On the other hand, most times seem to be those of profound dislocation: Mankind is never fully at home in the world, and in my view never will be. The young perennially lament that the world cleaves to the precepts of the past, the old that the world has foolishly abandoned them. If the unsatisfactory state of human existence is an excuse for egregiousness, then we shall have no defense against it.
Pound observed—as who could not?—certain paradoxes, and according to Lord Desai was generously incensed by them. In a world of immense technological progress, poverty co-existed with great wealth, and many people lived in discomfort and economic insecurity. Some lived in luxury, others in penury. Wealth appeared to be distributed capriciously rather than according to any principle of justice. In a world of surplus, people went without. Why, and what could be done about it?
Pound’s ideas seem to me, who am no economist, to be little better than those of an average bar-room philosopher after a few drinks. He was a convert, in the full religious sense of the word, to the economic theories of Major C. H. Douglas, a Scottish military engineer with a somewhat murky past who believed that all the economic and even political troubles in the world were caused by a population’s shortage of purchasing power by comparison with the cost of the goods that it produced. The government of every country should therefore create a National Credit Office to calculate, issue, and distribute the amount of money necessary to ensure that all goods produced in the country were distributed.
Under the present system, according to Douglas, people and governments alike are forced to borrow from the banks, who control money for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of society. It is they who keep the world short of purchasing power. They are the eminence grise of practically everything. It is obvious that such a theory would appeal to those inclined to conspiracy theories. Indeed, Major Douglas himself became a notorious anti-Semite, on one occasion (in an article written in 1942) quoting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion with regard to the conspiracy by bankers to deprive the gentiles of land by means of indebting them, and then remarking “The foregoing quotation is alleged by the People to whom it is attributed, to be a ‘forgery,’ so we will say that it is one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.”
Over and over again, almost obsessively, Pound quotes William Paterson, one of the founders of the Bank of England, to the effect that “the bank hath benefit of the interest on all moneys which it creates out of nothing.” By implication, this is the nefarious model for all banks and bankers since then. Lord Desai tells us that he has been unable to trace a primary source for the quotation, which is probably apocryphal, but this did not prevent Pound, in an article published in the same year as Major Douglas’s, though in Rome rather than in London, from continuing, “This swindle [the Bank of England’s], calculated to yield interest at the usurious rate of 60 percent was impartial. It hit friends and enemies alike.” It didn’t worry Pound that the Bank of England’s interest rates were never anything like 60 percent, and indeed interest rates fell after its establishment.
Pound’s bogeymen were those of fascists, socialists, and Third Worldists alike: bankers, middlemen, the marketplace, and money lent at interest, or usury. In his essay What Is Money For?, he quotes Robespierre on the limitation of private property rights by society’s claims upon it, and says that “the damned nineteenth century shows little else than the violation of [Robespierre’s principles] by demoliberal usurocracy. Indeed,” he continues, “USURY has become the dominant force in the modern world.”
According to Lenin and Hitler, both of whom he quotes with approval and admiration, international loans by bankers are responsible for the exploitation of poor countries by rich ones. On this view, credit never has had or could have a positive economic effect, no matter how well or wisely it was used. That his native United States could not have prospered so rapidly and mightily without importing capital from abroad never occurs to him.
Pound also objects to the operation of the market place with regard to reward for work.
Pound also objects to the operation of the market place with regard to reward for work. He, like communists, fascists, and Third Worldists, believes in the just price, which of course must be set by wise and incorruptible men taking cognizance of relative efforts, merits, skills, and time expended on work, all reduced to an indubitable formula. He writes, “Only the STATE can effectively fix the JUST PRICE of any commodity by means of state-controlled pools of raw products and the restoration of guild organisation in industry.” I do not think it requires much perspicacity to see where this would all end, indeed where it did all end when tried.
Pound parted company from the communists on two points, at least in theory. He was not opposed to private property as such: he did not believe in the nationalization of everything, though he believed in the abolition of the financial sector. But where there is no control over the price of what is produced, ownership of the means of production means little: it is not so much ownership as conditional stewardship, à la Robespierre.
The second difference was that he came to believe that the class of parasitic exploiters was co-terminous with the class of Jews. Where the communists (and Third Worldists) see only bankers and middlemen, Pound saw Jewish bankers and Jewish middle-men. In What Is Money For?, he wrote, “In the 1860s one of the Rothschilds was kind enough to admit that the banking system was contrary to public interest, and that was before the shadow of Hitler’s jails had fallen ACROSS the family fortunes.”
Why is the world not better apprised than it is of the situation? Pound has an answer: “Some facts are now known above parties, some perceptions are the common heritage of all men of good will, and only the Jewspapers and worse than Jewspapers try now to obscure them.” Perhaps one should add the Islamic fundamentalists to Pound’s ideological cousins.
The underlying misconception common to Pound, the communists, fascists, Third Worldists, and Islamic Fundamentalists is that an economy, be it on the national or an international scale, is a static thing, and therefore that one man’s wealth cannot but be another man’s poverty, or my crumb your hunger and vice versa. This is a common conceit of much writing about the Third World. Pound quotes Mussolini: “Problems of production solved, economists prodded on by the state should next solve the problem of distribution.” Or, as Marx put it, the role of the state would be the mere administration of plenty.
What was the psychological source of Pound’s ideas (if that is not to over-dignify them)? Is it reasonable or plausible to say of him, as Lord Desai does, that he was initially motivated by noble sentiments, that “his good sense on monetary reform while not fully analytically worked out . . . was still informed by a deep humanism in as much as he hated men and women being economically deprived”? Did he hate Jews, bankers, and middlemen because “he wanted full employment, shorter working hours, cheaper money, with the state being able to take over the money supply and perhaps even provide a national dividend”? Was it merely that he took a wrong turning after setting off on the right road?
Personally I rather doubt it. The source of Pound’s irritation lies elsewhere, fundamentally in America’s refusal, soon matched elsewhere, to take him at his own estimate, that is to say, as a great genius the equal of any that had so far appeared. (Lord Desai confers upon him a “genius brain.”)
In 1933, he wrote a short essay entitled Murder by Capital, as it happens in our illustrious predecessor, The Criterion. The very title is redolent of self-pity and self-dramatization.
What specific wrong has the present order done to writers and artists AS SUCH, not as an economic class or category, but specifically AS ARTISTS? And why should some of them be “driven” to all sorts of excessive opinion, or “into the arms of” groups who are highly unlikely to be of use to them?
Why, asked Pound, had he blood lust? “I have blood lust because of what I have seen done to, and attempted against, the arts in my time.” This is a far cry from Lord Desai’s attribution to Pound of “deep humanism.” Pound continues:
A publishing system existed and was tolerated almost without murmur, and its effect . . . was to erect barriers against the best writing. Concurrently, there rose barriers against the best sculpture, painting and music.
His resentment against his native America was of long date, and not unrelated to his other prejudices. In Patria Mia (1913), he wrote:
I had the good fortune to meet the distinguished American Author and he spoke to me of the American Academy, a body to which he belongs. He said, “It is strange how all taint of Art or letters seems to shun that continent.” It is not strange, for every man, or practically every man, with enough mental energy to make him interesting is engaged in either business or politics. And our politics are by now no more than a branch of business.
Not much use for a modernist poet of studied bohemian habits, then.
I confess that I too have felt irritated sometimes by the values of the market, that places so much higher a price on some trifling athletic skill—kicking, catching, hitting, or throwing a ball, for example—than on finely crafted literary essays. The market, like the sleep of reason, often brings forth monsters. And I know that the market is often rigged by the powerful against the powerless, so that small fry are often eliminated before they can compete.
And yet it is one of the duties of an intellectual to get things in proportion, and not to favor genocide because no one much cares for his poems—rightly, in the case of Pound. In my opinion, he is not worthy of Lord Desai’s partial rehabilitation. One should not give resentment a good name.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 5, on page 31
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