Edizione Settimo Segillo, 1995.

Giano Accame

Translator’s note: Notes and quotations from English sources have been replaced with the originals; the author’s first name is supplied where Italian usage gives only the initial; and, where appropriate, cited authors are briefly identified (e.g., “the economist Guido Carli”). --Wayne Pounds

Ezra Pound Economista: Contro L'usura

Chapter 1: Art and Usury from Dante to Pound

I. The Modern Epic

      Ezra Pound is the poet who has most been concerned with economics, not only in a large number of his articles and essays, but also in his most important work, The Cantos. This poses for us the problem of the relationship between economics and poetry: whether the two should remain separate by a mutual and insuperable incompatability, or whether it might be legitimate instead to include one within the other. Are some subjects poetic (or more broadly artistic, fictional, pictorial) and some others not? The commonplace view is that economics is the exact opposite of poetry, not only because carmina non dant panem and the lives of the poets are, with some exceptions, associated with a destiny of meager profits at best mitigated by patronage; but also because economics as a subject is considered among the least poetic. The romantic Carlyle made it the antithesis of his cult of the hero, stamping it as the dismal science.

      As a rule, all that art asks of economics is a generous and non-interfering respect from the purchaser or patron. Too much advice is not wanted, neither the reflection nor much less the burden of economic debates. Likewise economists and businessmen, for their part, are not at all disposed to have poets teach them their job, as Pound wanted to do. [1]  

      At first glance, therefore, what is striking in the juxtaposition of art and economics is an impression of great distance, if not of an absolute incompatibility. Though themes like love, nature, war, myth, religion, and death have most often inspired lyric and epic poetry, their frequent repetition renders them stereotypes, difficult to treat for a poet who aspires to express something new. Thus the Futurist poet Marinetti incited artists to kill the moonlight and admit ugliness into literature: “There are no categories of images, noble or gross or vulgar, eccentric or natural. The intuition that grasps them has no preferences or parti-pris.” [2]   And Thomas E. Hulme, poet, philosopher, and a friend of Pound, said in a lecture on modern poetry: “I want to speak of verse in a plain way as I would of pigs: that is the only honest way.” [3]  

      In the search for the new, new things to say and new ways to say them, modern art is especially comprehensive: in contrast to ages in which the slowness of change gave the impression of immobility, security, and stability, modern art includes all the themes of a world in rapid change. And it is precisely economics which has been the most aggressive mobilizing factor in making a new epoch, arousing the most anxieties fears, frustrations, hopes, avidities, uncertainties, changes, passions, plans, utopias, doctrines, and satisfactions. The artist cannot ignore the economic element anymore than in the past he could ignore the troubles of theology, the topography of hell, or the struggles of religion. The economics of machines, factory chimneys, suburban landscapes, and advertising invades the manifestos and Futurist poetry of Thomas Marinetti, the painting of Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Mario Sironi (the celebrant of Fascist labor), and Fernand Léger (the communist painter of labor and a favorite of Pound). A new subject is thus imposed, one which is destined to become in its turn, some decades later, picturesque (in the commonly accepted sense of the term) with the social mannerism of Neorealism. Pound, without indulging in the threadbare philanthropic affectations still popular in his day, lays out the origins of social problems in the monetary system, finding in money a subject upon which to build a modern epic.

      In so doing, he is able to call on illustrious literary predecessors.

II. Dante

      We owe the greater part of what we know about the economy and the technology of ancient Greece not to archaeological excavations but to the Homeric poems and The Works and Days of Hesiod; and in 408 BC Aristophanes confronted the economic theme of injustice in the distribution of wealth in his comedy Plutus. The earliest forms of European poetry already contained economic material: Homer provides the basis of the work of Moses Finley, a contemporary historian of ancient economics,[4]   and classical literature provided the sources for Ferdinand Galiani, who as early as 1748, when he was hardly in his twenties, wrote “On the State of Money at the Time of the Trojan War.”

      The epic of the modern era, as Pound said in Make it New and repeated any number of times, could not but lead to economics: "An epic is a poem including history. I don’t see that anyone save a sap-head today can now think he knows any history until he understands economics."[5]   But Pound, who took the opening of The Cantos from Homer, found the model which encouraged him to attempt a modern epic in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Just as Dante had done, he included the problem of money, of its falsification and of usury considered (following a tradition that goes back to Aristotle) as a crime against nature and against art.

      It was in fact Dante who upheld that "usury offends / divine goodness" (Inf. xi.95-96), and that God is even more displeased by the monks' devouring avidity for monastic revenues:

But even heavy usury does not
offend the will of God as grievously
as the appropriation of that fruit
which makes the hearts of monks go mad with greed.(Par. xxii.78-81)[6]  

At the end of his life, Pound too will indicate greed as the root of evil and prior to usury. The punishments of the usurers, more than the analysis of their sins, occupies canto xvii of Dante’s Inferno, over which stands the monstrous figure of Geryon:

Behold the beast who bears the pointed tail,
who crosses mountains, shatters weapons, walls
Behold the one whose stench fills all the world! (xvii.1-3)

Geryon, "that filthy effigy of fraud" (7-8) reappears as the symbol of usury in Pound's Cantos 45 and 51. A common familial extraction unites the intolerance of Pound and Dante. Pound thought the new waves of immigrants had perverted the healthy and creative America of the pioneers by bringing in usury, or at least a speculative mentality, an inordinate thirst for money. Dante, conservator tied to an ancient class and noble customs, lamented:

Newcomers to the city and quick gains
have brought excess and arrogance to you,
O Florence, and you weep for it already. (Inf. xvi.73-75)

From his enforced exile, Dante thus anticipated by centuries the polemics with which the American poet, from his voluntary exile, reproached his country.

      Other analogies can be traced between the hegemony of the dollar and that of the florin, the most important currency in medieval Florence. Dante deplored the capitalistic degeneration of his city and the greed of the Church:

[Florence] produces and distributes the damned flower
that turns both sheep and lambs from the true course,
for of the shepherd it has made a wolf. (Par. ix.130-32)

Dante passed political sentence on simony: "You’ve made yourselves a god of gold and silver" (Inf. xix.112); and he placed the falsifiers of money in the tenth circle of hell (Inf. xxx). These verses scattered in Dante’s long poem are relatively few, but centuries would pass before another poet showed such acute sensitivity to the economic theme.

      In an article in the Meridiano di Roma for 27 August 1939 Pound insists on the liberty of the artist as comprising the right and duty to range where he chooses, even into economics, and he lists his predecessors:

      I repeat, the genius is not limited to one place or one intellectual department. When Flaubert was writing novels, novels were the most interesting politico-economic writing. When il Duce, Farinacci, Giovanni Ansaldo, de Stefani, Spinedi, Odon Por, G. Maranini (I could add General Fuller, Charles Hollis, McNair Wilson and a group of younger men) are writing about politics and economics, politics and economics are more interesting than the dilutions of the eighteenth century novel. The poets of my Active Anthology were all awake to the economic element, to the monetary question in the present. Awake as were Dante, Shakespeare, Hume, Bacon, Aristotle, Berkeley and many others, including Anthony Trollope who engages it directly in his novels.[7]  

Canto 38 opens with a distich cited from Dante’s invective against Philip the Fair of France and "the grief inflicted on / the Seine by him who falsifies his coins" (Par. xix.118-19). The lines from Dante, observes Pound’s daughter and translator Mary de Rachewiltz, "illumine, in a succession of close-up images, the links among high-level banks, secret services, industry, and politics.[8]  

      Canto 45, where Pound brands usury as "CONTRA NATURAM," reprises Dante, who had inherited the tradition from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Clearly for Pound the Dantean connotation of usury as a sin against art had great importance, and Canto 45 is imbued with it: "with usura / hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall."

      In his scorn for usury Pound appeals to literary sources even older, recalling how the Cid, needing to pay his "retinue" (his private army), out of necessity had fooled the money-lenders of Burgos:

And left his trunk with Raquel and Vidas That big box of sand, with the pawn-brokers,
To get pay for his menie;
Breaking his way to Valencia.[9]   (3/12)

III. Shakespeare

      Shakespeare, the second great poet concerned with economic themes, was also a fundamental point of reference for Pound. In Timon of Athens, Shakespeare showed the deceptions of riches and the falsity of the friendships it buys, as the wealthy man is abandoned by everyone when he loses the money which had made him attractive; he devoted The Merchant of Venice to the problem of usury, and returned to it in Measure for Measure. In an article in the Meridiano di Roma (18 June 1939) in which he recommends a rereading of the classics with attention to their economic contents, Pound writes:

It was only in the groveling age of usura and usuriocracy that literature was lowered to mean merely "belles lettres" and that the subject matter was gradually reduced to personal titillations. Ending in infantilism (vide Mr. Lewis' [W. L.'s] diatribes) and the "pale and obese young men led by an udder."
     A new awakening will mean that even youngish men will no longer read Dante and The Bard for an occasional adjective, that not only will Iago come to life after observance of living Iagos, but that the whole contents of great works will be read with a totally different critical spirit and with a comprehension of why Shxpr drags in the "two Usuries" whereof the lesser was put down and of why Dante included Philippe le Bel among the worst sovereigns because he minted false coin.[10]  

     For Pound, who was ignorant of the tragic quality that anti-Semitism would acquire at Auschwitz, the fact that the perfidious and then cruelly deceived usurer of The Merchant of Venice was Jewish, placed his own socialistizing [11]   and worldly anti-Semitism within a consolidated literary tradition. Dante had already exhorted, "be men, and not like sheep gone mad, so that / the Jew who lives among you not deride you! (Par. v.80-81). Shylock hates the generous Venetian merchant Antonio, who does not lend money at interest,

I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe,
If I forgive him![12]  

Shylock's hatred divides humanity just as Pound imagined it to be divided: between the usurers and "the man who wants to do a good job."

      There is another reason for Pound to appeal to this classic source. When Shakespeare has Antonio ask Shylock, "Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?" (I.iii.96), the Aristotelian and Thomistic prejudice against the sterility of coined metals, swept away by Calvinism and the exigencies of capitalism, lives on. Pound will develop this theme more seriously and more amply along the lines of the medieval Franciscan Montes Pietatis intended to oppose usury. [13]   (The Church was already convinced of the necessity of collecting a moderate recompense on its loans in order to pay its expenses).

IV. Balzac

      The irruption of economics and usury into the arts becomes massive in the European novel of the nineteenth century, a century dominated by the bourgeois, capitalist, and industrial revolutions. It is not those novelists who wrote most about economics -- Balzac , Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Verga --whom Pound values most, however. Ahead of these, he placed Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), a minor writer but one whose novels on nineteenth-century English society clearly opposed the new alliance between the traditional aristocracy and the emerging aristocracy of wealth with its "merchant princes" of Semitic traits. [14]   And yet the attention of the great novelists to economic affairs shows that modern art could no longer be content to orbit silently around economics or to merely treat the topic incidentally.

      Italo Calvino, in his preface to the Einaudi edition of Balzac's Les petits bourgeois, notes:

      Balzac furnishes us the investment figures and the income, as if the first requirement of verisimilitude were bookkeeping, and as though he wanted to show that all that is necessary to account for a person is to guess how much money he has: the rest will take care of itself.

      But it is Stefan Zweig who has examined at length the reasons why the first great modern novelist (in a society where secularization had left the power of the economic interests unchecked and the powerful minister Francois Guizot had invited one and all to enrich themselves) possessed such curiosity about money:

      But [Balzac] fed his novels with reality from an additional source: money. As portrayer of his contemporaries and as statistician of the relative, Balzac devoted the minutest study to the moral, political, and aesthetic values of things. Above all, he paid close attention to those values which today constitute an almost universal standard and are regarded as well nigh absolute. In a word, he investigated money values, and introduced them into his novels. Ever since the days when aristocratic privilege was abolished, ever since the vast differences of status were reduced to a general level of equality, money has come more and more to be the blood and the driving force of social life. Money value gradually came to determine all things; the worth of every passion was estimated in terms of the material sacrifices entailed; every human being was judged by what his income happened to be in hard cash. Money circulates in these novels. Balzac allows his heroes to accumulate vast fortunes, only to lose all in the end; he depicts frantic speculation on the stock exchange, mighty battles which entail as tremendous an expenditure of energy as did Leipzig or Waterloo; he presents us with a score of different types of money-grubber, those who are moved primarily by greed, or hate, or extravagance, or ambition, or what not; we see people who seek money for money's sake, others who love it because it is a symbol of something they greatly desire, and yet others who look upon it as a means to an end. Balzac was the first to demonstrate boldly and fearlessly that money dovetails into the noblest, the finest, the most spiritual of feelings.

      All the persons of his novels calculate the cost of their actions, just as we, likewise, willy-nilly have to do. His ingénues on their first arrival in Paris know exactly how much a call on a society dame will cost them; they know that an expensive costume is necessary, elegant footwear, a carriage, a suitable apartment, a manservant, and a thousand trifles and frivolities. All this must be paid for; experience costs money. They know how painfully embarrassing a coat which has not been well tailored may prove to be; they are fully aware that it is money alone, or the appearance of being wealthy, which will open the doors of society to them. The catastrophic possibility of being humiliated in the eyes of the world acts as a spur to their ambition, and arouses a passionate desire to make good. Balzac goes all the way with them. He calculates the total of the spendthrift's expenditure, reckons up the usurer's percentages, the merchant's profits, the dandy's debts, the amount of the bribe slipped into the hands of a venal politician.

      Since money is the material precipitate of a universally prevalent ambition, since it permeates every emotion, Balzac, the pathologist of social life, had to recognize when the crisis was likely to occur in the ailing body of society, had to examine its blood under the microscope, and learn its monetary content. For the life of all is permeated with money; it supplies oxygen to the exhausted lungs; none can do without it. The ambitious man needs it to gratify his ambition, the lover to serve his love. Least of all can the artist forgo it; and Balzac, burdened as he was for a lifetime with debts, knew this from bitter experience.[15]  

      This long quotation is a kind of manifesto stating the necessity for modern art to include the monetary economy with which our society is so irremediably imbued. Unlike Pound, Balzac personally underwent the worries of debt and persecution by usurers (as did Cervantes, Rembrandt, Defoe, Mozart, Goldoni, Walter Scott, Foscolo, Dostoyevsky, Twain, d’Annunzio, and Scott Fitzgerald), and thus he was able to penetrate further than had Shakespeare into the psychology of this ancient trade, a trade which continued to evolve and to develop within a dynamic society more and more based on a credit economy.

V. Dostoyevsky

      The distance grew ever wider between the small money-lender and the great. The former became the blood-leech of the poor, despite some improvement in dress and the abolition of the ancient infamy of debtors’ prison (Cervantes, who began Don Quixote in jail, died in one). Although the expansion of the great money lender in our own century has been partially controlled, he became one of the principal afflictions of the human race and a danger of global proportions. One thinks of the disasters caused by the Great Depression in the 1930s and the fears that arise at present regarding the growing monetary liquidity of an increasingly global economy.[16]  

      Dostoyevsky was a writer who suffered under small money lenders, but he had the genius to be able to render them artistically. If so many characters in the works of other novelists float in an existence apparently unconnected to economic conditions, to the point that we do not know by what means they live, in Dostoyevsky monetary annotation abounds, above all in connection with the problem of managing household expenses. In Crime and Punishment (1866) the figure of the usurer, even if only briefly sketched, has an important role as the victim of a crime Raskolnikov never repents.

      Although according to his Diary of a Writer Dostoyevsky was accused of anti-Semitism just as Pound was, he had avoided falling into the simplification of making his moneylender Jewish (but even Pound insistently noted that many usurers were Aryan). Already Balzac had made Gobseck, his usurer in the novel of that name, only half Jewish, though being on his mother's side it was the more important half. Out of coldness of heart, the narrator explains, Gobseck was more an atheist than a layman:

If being human and sociable, is a religion, we can consider him an atheist. And I have to confess that, even though I have made a study of him, his real nature remains for me, down to the last moment, impenetrable. I have also asked myself to what sex he belonged. If all usurers are like this one, I think they all belong to the neuter gender. Had he remained faithful to the religion of his mother? Did he consider Christians as his legitimate prey? Had he become Catholic, Mohammedan, Lutheran, a follower of Brahma? I never knew anything of his religious convictions. More than skeptical, he seemed to me indifferent.

     Aware of the complexity of life ("Oh, don't believe in the unity of man!" he writes in his Diaries), Dostoyevsky did not make his usurers Jewish: they are pure Russian. In "The Meek One" the moneylender husband of the woman who has committed suicide is even an ex-official who has had to abandon his career because he refused to fight a duel. The refusal was not out of cowardice. To repulse the obligation of accepting any challenge no matter how stupid requires a courage greater than to accept it in passive submission to a social custom. Though not particularly sensitive in his feelings, the husband, behind his stock of pledge goods, conserves noble traits. And Alyona Ivanovna, the loanshark in Crime and Punishment, belongs to the privileged class of the Tsarist bureaucracy, for she is the widow of a small clerk. For her, however, there is not a word of compassion in all the novel. The characters curse her and hope she will croak. The sympathies of the author are for Raskolnikov, the student assassin, who until the eve of the confession that will send him to Siberia refuses to believe it a crime to have "killed a vile, pernicious louse, a little old money-lending crone who was of no use to anyone, to kill whom is worth forty sins forgiven, who sucked the life-sap from the poor." Even the tribunal must have shared his view in part, for they condemned the killer of the loanshark and of her innocent sister Lizaveta to only eight years of forced labor.

VI. To Understand History

     The contribution of the novel to the economic history of the nineteenth century, a century still poor in statistics, must not be neglected. The economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron, whose debate with Rosario Romeo on industrial underdevelopment in Italy may be recalled, theorized the usefulness of Soviet fiction as a source of economic information, arguing that in the novels of socialist realism, despite their propagandistic intent, it was possible to glimpse certain truths which were concealed or distorted in the unreliable official statistics.[17]   Gerschenkron, however, doesn’t see the need to use this optic to reread Dickens, Balzac, Zola, Turgenev, or Tolstoy in order to understand the economic reality of England, France, or Russia in the nineteenth century, nor does he apply it to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in order to understand America in the period of the Depression.[18]   But how can we really understand how the reality of usury has continued to exist and to be suffered if along side the economic analysis of the taxes paid through interest we do not compare the testimony of art which we find in Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Verga, and Pound? Although we do not lack scientific studies of the human condition in nineteenth-century Sicily,[19]   the forceful veracity of Verga’s I Malavoglia [The House by the Medlar Tree], a novel about usury, is indispensable to complete our knowledge.

     Including economic observations in a literary work is useful for a more complete understanding of the economy’s effects on human fate and feeling, and it serves art by augmenting the quantity of truth. As Pound asserted in Guide to Kulchur: "Any real portrayal of modern life must deal with situations which are 80% monetary, though halfwitted writers may be ignorant even of this basic fact affecting their fictions."[20]   This descriptive exigency will become even stronger in the literature of the United States, a country whose traditions, still recent, arose in a modern framework where for good or ill, in creativity and in suffering, economic pride and economic worry had quickly assumed proportions of the first importance.

     It would be sufficient to recall how frequently the themes of banking and money surface in Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology (the failed banker, the complicit judge, the condemned but innocent cashier, the ruined depositors, the backers of the free-silver and bi-metal party). In the Egoist for January 1, 1915, Pound had greeted this work with enthusiasm, writing "FINALLY! Finally America discovers a poet," even before he himself had begun to include such themes in his poetry. One has only to think of the importance F. Scott Fitzgerald attaches to money in his two famous Saturday Evening Post stories of 1924, "How to Live on $36,000 a Year" and "How to Live on Practically Nothing," and the attention he pays to the income and the outgo of his characters in the Jazz Age. The irruption of economics in the poetry of Pound will be even more insistent.

     As if to confirm the greater communication between art and economics, the 1928 Pulitzer Prize was given to Vernon Parrington for his Main Currents in American Thought, a work structured by an "economic determinism" which saw American institutions as deriving from the liberal bourgeois revolutions of the Anglo-Saxon world. The spokesman of the money economy was John Locke, whom Parrington cites: "The great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property."[21]  

VII. Ruskin and Morris

     The foundations of economics and art, however, had already been joined for some time, above all in England, Pound’s first European base. Dickens clothed his denouncements of the looming social question in humor while the industrial revolution darkened the landscape with clouds of carbon dust, and Oscar Wilde, John Ruskin, and William Morris laid the basis of a critique which linked art to economics in order to challenge the latter's primacy and bend it to a wiser and more compassionate consideration of humanity.

     None of these is a writer for whom Pound had great love, although as a young man he went into transports reading Morris’s poetry to Hilda Doolittle. [22]  For Pound, the rediscoverer of distant voices to be used in the service of innovation, they were too close; rather than offering the taste of time, they merely smelled of old age. Nonetheless, these writers were saturated with the atmosphere of the Guild Socialism left in which Pound’s first political and economic convictions were formed as he collaborated with The New Age. Tim Redman calls Guild Socialism "a variant [of left syndicalism] deriving from the English craft tradition advocated by such writers as William Morris and John Ruskin." [23]   Wallace Martin, author of a monograph on The New Age under Orage, writes of its brilliant editor: "His assumption that political and economic problems were inseparable from the problems of culture as a whole was part of his nineteenth-century heritage, in the tradition of Carlyle, Ruskin, and William Morris."[24]  

     Ideas may circulate and be absorbed even when they are not cited verbatim. Though he did not parade it, Pound the heretic economist was the heir of Wilde, Ruskin and Morris. He had breathed in their influence with the air, along with something of Proudhon, Sorel, Péguy, and --from the American tradition-- Emerson, Thoreau, and Veblen.

     Pound learned from them all: from the medievalist utopia of Morris, bent on reconstituting within socialism the ancient unity of art and crafts; from the medievalist rebellion of Ruskin against the stupidity of modern wealth; and from the dandyism of Wilde, who descended from the ivory tower to test in prison the transformations of the spirit under socialism. Although Pound never explicitly recognized this line of descent, we catch at least a nod towards it in an article in the Meridiano di Roma for 2 June 1940:

In the bosom of the usurocracy, William Morris, Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and all the other useful and fertile groups of London and Paris formed a loose coalition to struggle for artistic autarchy. Although never clearly foreseeing that the arts could be fully incorporated in the body public, they fought against the usurocracy, against the hierarchy of filthy and fetid values in the mercantile century.[25]  

     With good reason Jean-Michel Rabaté observes that in Ruskin’s books, from The Stones of Venice to The Political Economy of Art, one already finds that "concept of an organic totality of life, of 'wholeness,' which has been impaired by usury."[26]   This is the view that forms the basis of Pound’s Canto 45.

     It is not just a question of being sympathetic to the problems of social justice, as many intellectuals were. These writers belong to a special vein of the English tradition in which philanthropy claims to speak ex cathedra and give lessons on economics from the perspective of aesthetics. John Ruskin, a student of aesthetics and art history, was profoundly influenced by Thomas Carlyle’s denunciation of banking practices, as was Morris. In 1857, seventy years after The Wealth of Nations, Ruskin published The Political Economy of Art, candidly warning his readers "I have never read any author on political economy except Adam Smith, twenty years ago." [27]   William Morris wrote Art and Plutocracy, although he only began his reading of the first book of Das Kapital in 1883 and confessed to have succeeded only with "agonies of confusion" and from a sense of duty to read “the pure economics of that great work." [28]   Morris then dedicated himself to writing The Society of the Future, without worrying himself much about the scientific background. Like Ruskin, he was more interested in the social function of the artist and the craftsman.

     Both Ruskin and Morris had powerful intuitions. Beginning in the middle of the century Ruskin proclaimed that the use of gold coin was a barbaric residue. Like Pound, he was convinced that it was not at all utopian to imagine an era of abundance and that only the poor organization of labor and distribution was the cause of poverty.

The world is so regulated by the laws of Providence, that a man's labour, well applied, is always amply sufficient to provide him during his life with all things needful to him, and not only with those, but with many pleasant objects of luxury . . . . Where you see want, or misery, or degradation, in this world about you, there, be sure, either industry has been wanting, or industry has been in error.

At the bottom of the page Ruskin quotes from Proverbs(xiii.23): "Much food is in the tillage of the poor, but there is that is destroyed for want of judgment."[29]   Ruskin was among the first to struggle to preserve the artistic heritage from the deterioration to which it was exposed. His principal work of critical history, The Stones of Venice, took account of the hearts of the stonecutters even before their hands, and the title itself seems a precursor of the poundian canto against usury ("with usura hath no man a house of good stone / each block cut smooth and well fitting"). Thus when Ruskin, standing before the ornament of a cathedral, asks himself whether "it was made with joy, whether the executor was happy in making it,"[30]   he welded the expressive felicity of the work of art to the economic-social context. Just as Pound would do later, he made freedom from usury one of the conditions of beauty. Ruskin went so far as to praise the imperfections of artisanal work, preferring it to the soulless uniformity of mass production.

     Morris, in his turn, condemned "the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny" --that is, as Lisa Formigari comments in her introduction to an Italian anthology of Morris’s work, "the system that produces for profit and not for need and use."[31]   As early as 1877 he anticipated with impressive lucidity the modern theme of the environment:

     Is money to be gathered? cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch; blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke and worse, and it’s nobody’s business to see to it or mend it; that is all that modern commerce, the counting-house forgetful of the workshop, will do for us herein.

     And Science—we have loved her well, and followed her diligently, what will she do? I fear she is so much in the pay of the counting-house, the counting-house and the drill-sergeant, that she is too busy, and will for the present do nothing. Yet there are matters which I should have thought easy for her; say for example teaching Manchester how to consume its own smoke, or Leeds how to get rid of its superfluous black dye without turning it into the river . . . [32]  

     In comparison to Ruskin and Morris, Pound’s reading in economics was more extensive, though indiscriminate and at bottom motivated by the same assumption that as an artist he knew better, considering himself and the poets “the antennae of the race.” Giorgio Lunghini reminds us that Joseph Schumpeter was more severe in judging Ruskin than Engels, Marx, and Trotsky: “Schumpeter’s opinion is just like the opinion that Ruskin would have had of anyone who attempted for example to criticize the paintings of Turner without having first obtained, through a morally neutral study, a sufficient mastery of the facts and the pertinent techniques.” [33]  

     The academic economist inevitably dismisses the artist as dilettante, while the revolutionaries are more indulgent towards dream and utopia. Morris also was considered an extravagant and an eccentric, if not actually like Pound a nutcase, for ecological ideas which were a century ahead of their time.

     Here, however, what is most important is to understand the English tradition to which Pound belongs, a tradition which goes beyond the general tendency of European literature to include socio-economic subjects, but mostly from a philanthropic rather than strictly economic perspective. In England we find precedents of writers and artists actually invading the field of economics: the sensibility of the artist and the topic of economics do not contradict or exclude each other; rather, they can be compared to communicating vessels in a hydraulic system, though at the price of an aggressive dilettantism, which usually is not appreciated, and in Pound’s case was punished with exceptional, furious severity.


1.   But sometimes their works blossom with poetic quotations. In his Preface to Capital Marx cited Dante in the Italian. He referred to Shakespeare’s Shylock and to the ambiguous power of gold in Timon of Athens; and he quotes Goethe, Schiller, and his friend Heine. Adam Smith cited Homer. A great financier like Walther Rathenau, according to Robert Musil’s description of him in The Man without Qualities (where he is called Arnheim), “was notorious for quoting poets at board meetings, and for insisting that the economy could not be separated from other human activities and should be dealt with only within the larger context of all vital problems, national, intellectual, and even spiritual.” [Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities, tr. Sophie Wilkins (NY: Vintage, 1996) 205.]     Following this same concept of the unity of mind and culture, “the humanist banker” Raffaele Mattioli translated sonnets of Shakespeare, poems by Coleridge, and introduced lengthy literary quotations in the proceedings of the Banca Commerciale Italiana. This habit was continued by the economist Guido Carli in connection with the Banca d’Italia. Piero Barucci (Minister of the Treasury in the Ciampi government), in the budget report of the Siena’s Monte dei Paschi bank for 1985, remembered “the brilliant and sometimes feverish genius of Ezra Pound” and was proud of the homage to the bank which the poet had made in his day.

2.   F. T. Marinetti, "Technical Manifesto of Futurst Literature" [11 May 1912 ] in Marinetti: Selected Writings, ed. R. W. Flint(London: Secker & Warburg, 1972) 86.

3.   T. E. Hulme, "A Lecture on Modern Poetry," Further Speculations, ed. Sam Hynes (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1955) 67.

4.   Ferdinando Galiani, Della moneta, (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1973) 351-79. [Galiani, 1728-1787, published Della Moneta (On Currency) in 1751. Moses I. Finley’s many volumes include the representative title The Ancient Economy (1973).]

5.   "Date Line" (1934), Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (NY: New Directions, 1968) 86.

6.   In Canto xi, where he explains the moral order of the Inferno, Dante asks Virgil why usury is violence against God. There follows a series of verses (97-111) in which Dante’s economic ideas are articulated. Every man, Virgil replies, appealing to the authority of Aristotle, finds his means of sustenance in nature and art, the latter understood as the sum of technological interventions in nature, and God prescribes work (or art, which is “God’s grandchild”) as a fundamental law. The usurer, profiting not from his own labor but from the exploitation of the labor of others, that is from the dishonest fruit of money lent at interest, offends art and thus God.     [The quotations from the Comedy here and throughout are taken from the translation by Allen Mandelbaum, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (NY: Bantam Books, 1982).]

7.   Ezra Pound, Idee fondamentali [ Fundamental Ideas], ed. Caterina Ricciardi (Rome: Lucarini, 1991) 17.

8.   Mary de Rachewiltz, “Translator’s Comments,” in Ezra Pound, I Cantos , ed. Mary de Rachewiltz (Milan: Mondadori, 1985) 1526.

9.   Il Cantar de Mio Cid, composed between 1140 and 1175, relates events which occurred in the previous century. In 1081 Ruy Diaz de Bivar, called il Cid, accused of having seized funds which belonged to the king, was exiled by Alfonso IV. In order to pay his small army, the Cid made two Jews believe he had actually stolen the tribute and was prepared to pledge it in return for 600 silver marks. He collected the silver after having consigned to the money-lenders two chests of sand made alluring by red leather covering studded with gilded nails. “I had recourse to a ruse, but against my will,” he said. In the poem the affair passes as a joke on the two Jewish usurers, who also appear to be receivers of stolen goods, and leaves no spot on Il Cid’s fair name. As he passes through Burgos, the people say, “God, what a good vassal, if only he had a good lord.”

10.   Idee fondamentali, p. 13 ["René Crevel," Criterion XVIII.71 (Jan. 1939) 235]. The editor of this anthology, Caterina Ricciardi, adds this note: “Shakespeare puts profit from interest on a level with the vice which saps vitality and notes that this latter form of usury, less diffused than the former, in its public form is opposed and checked by the law, while the usury which exhausts production and activity sucks our blood everywhere. The other usury is thus sodomy, also 'contra natura.' The passage to which Pound refers is Measure for Measure, III.ii.6-11: ''Twas never merry world, since, of two usuries, the merriest was put down, and the worser allowed by order of law a furred gown to keep him warm; and furred with fox and lamb skins too, to signify that craft, being richer than innnocency, stands for the facing.' On Shakespeare two usuries, see also Canto 52: 'of the two usuries, the lesser is now put down.'”

11.   [socialisteggiante: akin to the tendencies of European socialist parties.]

12.   Merchant of Venice, I.iii.40-53.

13.   [Montes (or funds) were “established in the mid 15th century to provide financial assistance to the poor in a temporary crisis, as protection against the exploitation of usurers." New Catholic Encyclopedia, IX.1085-86.]

14.   On Trollope's socio-economic conceptions and the eighteenth-century city, see Giuseppe Berta, Capitali in gioco (Venice: Marsilio, 1990) 3-8.

15.   Stefan Zweig, Three Masters: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoeffsky, tr. Eden and Cedar Paul (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1930) 45-47.

16.   For a vision that is concerned without being catastrophic, see H. P. Minsky, Potrebbe ripetersi? - Instabilità e finanza dopo la crisi del ’29 Can 'It' Happen Again? Essays on Instability and Finance] (Turin: Einaudi, 1982).

17.   Alexander Gerschenkron, Il problema storico dell’ arretratezza economica [The Historical Problem of Economic Underdevelopment] (Turin: Einaudi, 1965): Ch. 12 “Una fonte trascurata di informazione economic sulla Russia sovietica” [A Neglected Source of Economic Information about Soviet Russia]; Ch. 13 “Riflessioni su alcuni romanzi sovietici” [Reflections on Some Russian Novels]; and Ch. 14 “Osservazioni sul Doctor Zivago” [Observations on Doctor Zhivago].

18.   Pound believed that fiction and drama were useful for understanding economics. In "The Economic Nature of the United States,"he writes, “Novelists and playwrights, once in a while, give one a clearer idea than professors” (SP 152). Also Lucio Villari, in his recent La roulette del capitalismo [The Roulette Wheel of Capitalism] (Turin: Einaudi, 1995) has had ample recourse to literary citations to better understand economic questions.

19.   For an attempt at investigation in this direction, see Giano Accame, “Verga, De Roberto, Pirandello: il contributo della letteratura all’ interpretazione della transizione tra Borboni e Regno d’Italia” [Verga, De Roberto, Pirandello: The Contribution of Literature to the Interpretation of the Transition from the Bourbons to the Kingdom of Italy], in the collection Contributi per un bilancio del Regno borbonico [Contributions to a Reevaluation of the Bourbon Kingdom] (Palermo: Fondazione culturale Lauro Chiazzese della Sicilcassa, 1990).

20.   Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur (NY: New Directions, 1970) 288.

21.   Vernon Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought. Volume One: The Colonial Mind (New York: Harcourt, brace & World, 1927) 321.

22.   Humphrey Carpenter, A Serious Character (New York: Delta, 1988) 62.

23.   Tim Redman, Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991) 18.

24.   The New Age under Orage: Chapters in English Cultural History (Manchester UP, 1967) 14-15.

25.   Pound, Idee fondamentali 39.

26.   Jean-Michel Rabaté, Language, Sexuality, and Ideology in Ezra Pound's Cantos (London: Macmillan Press, 1986) 186.

27.   John Ruskin, "'A Joy for Ever'; (and Its Price in the Market)," The Complete Works of John Ruskin (London: George Allen, 1905) XVI.10. [The Manchester lectures of 1857, of which this is one, are also called The Political Economy of Art.]

28.   Morris, "How I Became a Socialist," The Collected Works of William Morris (New York: Russell & Russell, 1966) XXIII.278

29.   Ruskin, "'A Joy For Ever,'" 18-19. [The New International Version renders this, "A poor man's field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away."]

30.   The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings, ed. John D. Rosenberg (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979 ) 135n. The citation comes from Chapter V of The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

31.   William Morris, "Art and Its Producers," Works XXII.352. Lia Formigari, ed., Come potremmo vivere (Rome: Riuniti, 1979) 16.

32.   Morris, “The Lesser Arts", Works XXII.24-25. [This essay is also known by the title "Innate Socialism."]

33.   Giorgio Lunghini, “Un Manifesto nostalgico,” introduction to Lunghini’s anthology of Ruskin, Economia politica dell’arte [The Political Economy of Art] (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1991) xvii.


Giano Accame [1928 - 2009] was the author of several works including Ezra Pound Economista: Contro L'usura, Rome: Edizione Settimo Segillo, 1995.

Wayne Pounds, Ph.D. is a Professor of American Literature at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.

In Memoriam: Giano Accame, 1928-2009 by Massimo Bacigalupo
is reprinted in FlashPoint 13.