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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

RAW reviews Pound's prose

(Here I reprint Robert Anton Wilson's article from "Conspiracy Digest," Spring 1978, Vol. 3, No. 2. Thank you to Mike Gathers for supplying the piece.)


By Robert Anton Wilson

Selected Prose 1909-1965, by Ezra Pound. New Directions, New York, 1973. 475 pages. $4.75.

Ezra Pound, probably the greatest poet of the 20th Century, was obsessed with the injustices of modern banking which he characterized as a false-system of book-keeping which prevents the producers of wealth from buying back their own product. He wrote about this in essays which grew increasingly angry and "fanatical" in tone as the decades passed, because he found that, despite his recognized literary stature, he could not get anything on this subject printed in any of the major media but only in "little magazines" of limited circulations. Eventually he began to suspect that the major publishers were in collusion with the major bankers, and his writings grew even more angry and "fanatical." Contemporary literary opinion generally regards this whole aspect of Pound's life work as a mania or obsession, but those who think for themselves might form a more favorable impression from this volume which contains nearly half a century of serious research and documentation.

The much-derided "fanaticism" is there, yes; but it is relieved by wonderful humor (Pound was the funniest polemicist of his time, even surpassing Mencken) and by frequent flashes of the poetic visionary who co-existed with the angry moralist in Pound's complicated organism: "The enemy is ignorance (our own)." "Arguments are caused by the ignorance of all the disputants." "We think because we do not know."

The main reason for buying this book is that it gives you, for only $4.75, hundreds of significant historical details you could only obtain otherwise by spending a small fortune to dig up the sources Pound found in his half century of obsession with this subject: medieval histories of the Medici banks, relevant passages in the letters of Jefferson and Adams, the Autobiography of Martin Van Buren, Brooks Adams' Law of Civilization and Decay, Del Mar's History of Monetary Systems, etc.

Pound does not merely castigate the crimes of what he, following medieval theologians, called Usura (defined by him as "a charge for the use of purchasing power, levied without regard to production, sometimes without regard even to the possibilities of production.") He also suggests remedies, and he is remarkably impartial and non-fanatical and even ecumenical in this area. ("There may even be several economic solutions to any problem," he notes. "Gasoline and coal both serve as fuel.")

Among the solutions discussed by Pound are C.H. Douglas's National Dividend (currently revived, or diluted, in Friedman's Negative Income Tax plan), the stamp-script of Silvio Gesell (money which creates negative interest, i.e. favors the spender rather than the lender), shortening the working day (now inevitable as cybernetics advances) and reorganizing the Congress, guild-style, so that we would be represented by our labor unions or professional organizations rather than by politicians. He does not insist that any one of these would produce Utopia, and often discusses combinations or permutations among them. To my delight, he also admits, several times, that the ultimate escape from the tyranny of the present banking system must be "local control of local purchasing power," but he is uncharacteristically vague about how this might be managed, evidently never having discovered the People's Banks and alternative currency schemes of libertarians such as Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker.

As for Pound's notorious anti-Semitism: this book makes clear that, while he did slip into that idiocy on occasion as his temper rose, he very carefully avoided it on other occasions, scrupulously noting that racism is "the tool of the man defeated intellectually" (a confession of his own diminished intelligence when anger overcame him?). Culturally, as distinguished from racially, he is much harder on Christianity than on Judaism, noting for instance that "Inasmuch as the Jew has conducted no holy war for nearly two milennia, he is preferable to the Christian and the Mohammedan." Typical of the confusions of those who are both geniuses and very angry, he denounces Protestantism, into which he was born, more than Catholicism, which he knew only at a distance.

This book is not an easy pill to swallow; as the Buddha (whom Pound also detested) said, "There is nothing haters do to haters or enemies to enemies as bad as what an angry mind does to itself;" Pound's anger is as ugly and depressing as a fool's anger, even if he is a genius. He confessed, in old age, "I lost my center fighting the world," and the evidence of that loss of center is here. But there is also fantastic erudition about the whole history of money and banking, a contagious passion for justice, and a great wholesome, hearty, totally sane humor that saves even the most bitter passages from hatefulness.


Eric Wagner said...

Thanks for posting this. The recent finacial crisis has had me thinking about Pound's economic ideas. I remember seeing Pound's Selected Prose on a bookshelf in Portland in 1984 for the first time. I bought it because the essays on Confucius looked interesting.

I do disagree with Bob that Pound detested Buddha. I think he had mixed feelings.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Thanks...the book review seems valuable to me because it makes it clear where Wilson got some of his ideas on economics.

Eric Wagner said...

I think my two favorite parts of Pound's Selected Prose come at the beginning and the end. I love the brief forward and I really love Pound's moving obituary for his friend T. S. Eliot. Both these pieces come from the last twelve years of Pound's life. He wrote very little during that period, but I what he did write I find very powerful.

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