I’ve often heard it said that “there is no such thing as a communist Igbo”, a reference to our intense mercantile culture. Somewhat like stereotype of Lebanese, we’ve tended to structure our very existence around what we can sell, and in this 419 age, sometimes what we can con out of others. Ok, before I get an earful, of course that’s just in reference to a handful of petty thug “areaboy” “yahoozees.”
Sometimes in my disgust for the roaring Supercapitalism that exploded out of Reaganomics, and Clinton’s deregulation of capital markets, I’ve taken comfort in the adage about my birthright to capitalism. They got be the ones fucking it up because my market gods (led by the Goddess Ahiajioku) don’t make no mistakes. And yes, my market gods had about enough, and all you have to to is check the news for the overdue actuarial apocalypse. The derivatives deluge. Head for the arks! Or never mind, it’s not really that bad.
The public radio show Marketplace put out a call for poems with an economic theme for April (so-called “National Poetry Month”). But as April winds up, 6 months deep into the implosion of global capital, the one poem seems painfully obvious. It’s well enough known, but I believe it’s never been well enough understood.
“Canto XLV” (“With Usura”) — Ezra Pound
Possibly the greatest poem in English ever to make economics its central focus. It’s not as simplistic an anti-capitalist poem as Pounds enemies would have you think. True, Pound himself drew upon it while in the heights of his anti-capitalist fervor, while spreading propaganda for Mussolini during the war, but if you stick to the text, it has a clarity yet dexterity of theme that belies such blunt assessments.
With usura hath no man a house of good stone each block cut smooth and well fitting that delight might cover their face, with usura hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall harpes et luthes or where virgin receiveth message and halo projects from incision,
In general, Pound is decrying usurious motive (i.e. investment for profit) as a primary motivation for the sponsorship, creation and exchange of art. But he starts on shaky ground. He starts with one of the universal capital assets of humanity. I have to accept that Pound’s first stanza is a marvel of careful, persuasive stresses and pauses, but its core message is patently false. Investment drives the house of good stone as much as delight. On the other hand, in this April of 2009, with houses of all manner of stone collapsing around us, it’s hard not to reflect that a little more delight, and a little less usura might have spared us all a whole lot of trouble. Even in swinging wildly, Pound manages to land a resounding blow.
And from there he’s on to the church. By the very nature of most churches, Pound is unimpeachable in this stanza. It’s a bit of a fraidy-cat dodge to take refuge in the church after running through the construction site kicking down scaffolding, but its done, so we pass on.
with usura seeth no man Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines no picture is made to endure nor to live with but it is made to sell and sell quickly
The central theme of all Pound’s work is that the impulse to art should be what we require for fullness of life—what we “lovest well”, and not merely what might “sell, and sell quickly”. If we restrict analysis to fine arts, I think Pound’s is sound reasoning. But even if the Italian nobles and condottieri Pound so admired weren’t commissioning art for the promise of margin on sale, they were looking for the prestige that goes hand-in-hand with capital. Gonzaga, Medici and Malatesta, like Maecenas long before them, are once removed from the grubby world of artistic spectators, but only once.
with usura, sin against nature, is thy bread ever more of stale rags is thy bread dry as paper, with no mountain wheat, no strong flour with usura the line grows thick with usura is no clear demarcation and no man can find site for his dwelling Stone cutter is kept from his stone weaver is kept from his loom WITH USURA wool comes not to market sheep bringeth no gain with usura Usura is a murrain, usura blunteth the needle in the the maid's hand and stoppeth the spinner's cunning.
Here Pound extends his argument to ancient crafts. But notice how finely he balances it. It would be silly to say that the mason or the baker aren’t seeking a profit, but Pound argues that ideally their profit lies in direct commerce to the buyer, and not a mass production that drowns craft. When you are selling to ten thousand it is less about the personal palate, the long-negotiated boundaries of community or the carefully-measured cut of cloth. It’s all about the race to the average, to the mediocre, to the safe rather than the cunning. It’s not “commerce is evil”, but rather “petty commerce is the richest and most enduring commerce”.
The age of financial derivatives brought along something called “acceleration”From a broader, more basic perspective, this process starts with packaging up production in such an intricate manner that commerce expands from the modest living profits of small-holder commerce to modest growth supporting a workforce in a factory chain. As the process continues commerce expands to the towering heights of national and trans-national conglomerates, then to the truly inscrutable monster of global capital. At each phase, you apply as many levers, AKA instruments, or (call them what they are) debts and bets between production and eventual usage. When it works, you aggregate petty industry into billionaire poker chips. When it doesn’t work the sky falls on our heads, except for the billionaires who have large enough umbrellas for shelter.
This was Pound’s warning. You don’t have to be a communist to understand that there can easily be too much of even capitalism. Corruption germinates in our human perceptions and institutions the moment you start to stretch the space from the producer to the consumer beyond the reach of a handshake.
Pietro Lombardo came not by usura Duccio came not by usura nor Pier della Francesca; Zuan Bellin' not by usura nor was "La Callunia" painted. Came not by usura Angelico; came not Ambrogio Praedis, No church of cut stone signed: Adamo me fecit. Not by usura St. Trophime Not by usura St. Hilaire,
An aside to mention how eagerly I sought out St. Trophime the first and second times I visited Arles. The second time my wife was amazed at the reverence this battered old church held for her agnostic of a husband. But it was not just the church, but the idea that the church inspired. Then again, there is a lot of magic in the build of the church itself, so I highly recommend a visit if you’re ever nearby.
This is where Pound hits his stride. A vision of art nurtured in the quiet, plain room from which speculators are forbidden. And once again, what better safe zone from which to lob missiles than the nearest church?
Usura rusteth the chisel It rusteth the craft and the craftsman It gnaweth the thread in the loom None learneth to weave gold in her pattern; Azure hath a canker by usura; cramoisi is unbroidered Emerald findeth no Memling
Pound is swinging back to all his themes now, increasing the urgency of his music with each round. Now he’s back to traditional crafts.
Usura slayeth the child in the womb It stayeth the young man's courting It hath brought palsey to bed, lyeth between the young bride and her bridegroom CONTRA NATURAM They have brought whores for Eleusis Corpses are set to banquet at behest of usura.
He lands his gavel with a thunderous stroke. Here he pulls the threads of his lesson together into a noose for his nemesis, the “old bitch gone in the teeth”. Once again, this poem doesn’t inspire me to disparage capitalism, but rather to reflect that capitalism is the right way to manage truly scarce resources. Human ingenuity, creativity and the commons of our livelihood and production only become scarce resources when we distort them to fit that mold.
If you’re longing for an object lesson in less impressive form than Pound’s, think of the 20th century effort by big media to define intellect as property. Most of us who are not managers and lawyers of big media companies sense how wrong this is. Ideas and expression are not scarce until, seeking endless profit, we distort society to make them artificially scarce.
Another example, if you like, is as Mos Def puts it in “New World Water”
There are places where TB is common as TV 'Cause foreign-based companies go and get greedy The type of cats who pollute the whole shore line Have it purified, sell it for a dollar twenty-five
Fresh water isn’t inherently scarce in most parts of the world until our industrial distortions create a scarcity of water.
Pound may well have been classifying all investment as usura, and if so, he was a fool, and paid dearly for his foolishness. But why let such an assumption blind you to an important lesson? Usura to me means taking things that do not belong to speculative investment, and creating whatever distortions open up a path to profit, and eventually destroying the good.
Considering the clear, large-scale destruction of good unfolding right before our eyes, there may be no better time to reconsider Pound’s lesson.
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