Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Ezra Pound, ‘Murder by Capital’

This essay first appeared in ‘Criterion’ magazine, July 1933; the text below is scanned from the Pound collection Impact (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1960):


TWENTY-FIVE years ago ‘one’ came to England to escape Ersatz; that is to say, whenever a British half-wit expressed an opinion, some American quarter-wit rehashed it in one of the ‘respectable’ American organs. Disease is more contagious than health. England may be growing American in the worst sense of that term. The flagrant example is that of receiving Spengler instead of Frobenius. I can’t conceive of Spengler’s being the faintest possible use in any constructive endeavour. Frobenius is a bitter pill for the Anglo-Saxon. He believes that when a thing exists it probably has a cause.

His most annoying tendency is to believe that bad art indicates something more than just bad art.

Twenty years ago, before ‘one,’ ‘we,’ ‘the present writer’ or his acquaintances had begun to think about ‘cold subjects like economics’ one began to notice that the social order hated any art of maximum intensity and preferred dilutations. The best artists were unemployed, they were unemployed long before, or at any rate appreciably before, the unemployment crises began to make the front page in the newspapers.

Capitalist society, or whatever you choose to call the social organization of 1905 to 1915 was not getting the most out of its available artistic ‘plant.’

‘I give myself Work,’ said Epstein when he was asked if he had any.

The best writers of my generation got into print or into


books mainly via small organizations initiated for that purpose and in defiance of the established publishing business of their time. This is true of Joyce, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and of the present writer, from the moment his intention of break with the immediate past was apparent. My one modern volume issued by Mathews was sent to the ineffable printer before dear old Elkin had read it. He wanted a ‘book by’ me. In the case of Quia Pauper Amavi, he again wanted a book by me, and suggested that I omit the Propertius and the Moeurs Contemporaines.

The story of getting Lustra into print is beyond the scope of this essay, it belongs to stage comedy not even to memoirs. If a new England or a new generation is being born, it can only know the wholly incredible island of those years if some genius who remembers them can be persuaded to devote himself wholly and exclusively to developing a comic technique.

You might put the question in the following form: What drives, or what can drive a man interested almost exclusively in the arts, into social theory or into a study of the ‘gross material aspects’ videlicet economic aspects of the present? What causes the ferocity and bad manners of revolutionaries?

We know that Lenin was annoyed by the execution of his older, admired brother. We mostly do not know or remember that George Washington greatly admired an elder brother who was, roughly speaking, sacrificed to official imbecility and ultimately died of it, i.e., after-affects of the ‘war of Jenkins’s ear.’

Why should a peace-loving writer of Quaker descent be quite ready to shoot certain persons whom he never laid eyes on? I mean to say, if it ever should come to the barricades in America (as England is not my specific business).

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? If Frobenius saw the inside of Schonbrunn he was not surprised by the fall of the Habsburgs.

I do not believe that any oligarchy can indefinitely survive continuous sin against the best art of its time. I certainly did not look forward to the Russian Revolution when I wrote my monograph on Gaudier-Brzeska, but I pointed out that the best conversation was to be found, 1912 to 1914, in quadriviis et angiportis, under a railway arch out by Putney, in cheap restaurants and not in official circles or in the offices of rich periodicals. The cleverness and quickness ‘in society’ was probably even then limited to the small segment actually concerned in governing. I mean to say that those who govern, govern on condition of being a beau monde of one sort or another. Their rule cannot indefinitely survive their abrogation of ‘culture’ in the decent sense of that word, if any decent sense still remain in it.


Hatred can be bred in the mind, it need not of necessity rise from the ‘heart.’ Head-born hate is possibly the most virulent. Leaving aside my present belief that economic order is possible and that the way to a commonly decent economic order is known. What has capital done that I should hate Andy Mellon as a symbol or a reality?

This article is per far ridere i polli among our Bolshevik friends. Many of them are, alas, as far from understanding as are the decadents.

I have grown, if not fat under the existing order, at least dangerously near it. I have no personal grievance. They tried


to break me and didn’t or couldn’t or, at any rate, chance and destiny, etc., gave me ‘a fairly good break.’ I was tough enough to escape or to stand the pressure. Personally. Why then have I blood lust?

I have blood lust because of what I have seen done to, and attempted against, the arts in my time.

A publishing system existed and was tolerated almost without a murmur, and its effect, whether due to conscious aim or blind muddling fear, was to erect barriers against the best writing. Concurrently, there rose barriers against the best sculpture, painting and music. Toward the end of my sojourn in London even an outcast editor of a rebellious paper, Mr. Orage of the New Age, as it then was, had to limit me to criticism of music as no other topic was safe. Contrary to general belief I did not arrive hastily at conclusions, but I observed facts with a patience that I can now regard as little short of miraculous. As a music critic I saw the best performers gradually driven off the platform. I saw a few desperate attempts and a still smaller number of successful attempts to put over something a bit better than was ‘wanted.’ A few years later the French musicians were parading the streets wanting work. This is not due to radio, and it was still less due to radio a decade and more ago.

It is perhaps only now that all these disagreeable phenomena can be traced to maladministration of credit. Artists are the race’s antennae. The effects of social evil show first in the arts. Most social evils are at root economic. I, personally, know of no social evil that cannot be cured, or very largely cured, economically.

The lack of printed and exchangeable slips of paper corresponding to extant goods is at the root of bad taste, it is at the root not of bad musical composition, but at the root of the non-performance of the best music, ancient, modern


and contemporary; it is at the root of the difficulty in printing good books when written.

The fear of change is very possibly a contributing cause. I don’t mean an honest and perspicacious fear of change, but a love of lolling and a cerebral fixation. But with a decent fiscal system the few hundred people who want work of first intensity could at any rate have it, whether it were supposed to leaven the mass or not.

The Unemployment Problem

Mussolini is the first head of state in our time to perceive and to proclaim quality as a dimension in national production. He is the first man in power to publish any such recognition since, since whom? - since Sigismond Malatesta, since Cosimo, since what’s-his-name, the Elector of Hanover or wherever it was, who was friendly with Leibnitz?

The unemployment problem that I have been faced with, for a quarter of a century, is not or has not been the unemployment of nine million or five million, or whatever I might be supposed to contemplate as a problem for those in authority or those responsible, etc., it has been the problem of the unemployment of Gaudier-Brzeska, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis the painter, E. P. the present writer, and of twenty or thirty musicians, and fifty or more other makers in stone, in paint, in verbal composition.

If there was (and I admit that there was) a time when I thought this problem could be solved without regard to the common man, humanity in general, the man in the street, the average citizen, etc., I retract, I sing palinode, I apologize.

One intelligent millionaire might have done a good deal - several people of moderate means have done ‘something’; i.e., a poultice or two and bit of plaster hither or yon.


The stupidity of great and much-advertised efforts and donations and endowments is now blatant and visible to anyone who has the patience to look at the facts. The ‘patron’ must be a live and knowledgeable patron, the entrusting of patronage to a group of bone-headed professors ignorant of art and writing, is and has been a most manifest failure. There is no reason to pity anyone. Millions of American dollars have been entrusted to incompetent persons, whose crime may not be incompetence but consists, definitely, in their failure to recognize their incompetence. I suppose no pig has ever felt the circumscription of pig-ness and that even the career of an Aydelotte cannot be ascribed to other than natural causes.

This is what American capitalism has offered us, and by its works stands condemned. The British parallel is probably that lord and publisher, X, who objected to colloquial language.

For the purpose of, and the duration of, this essay, I am trying to dissociate an objection or a hate based on specific effects of a system on a specific and limited area - i.e., I am examining the effects on art, in its social aspect; i.e., the opportunity given the artist to exist and practice his artistry in a given social order, as distinct from all questions of general social justice, economic justice, etc.

Autobiography if you like. Slovinsky looked at me in 1912: ‘Boundt, haff you gno bolidigal basshuntz?’ Whatever economic passions I now have, began ab initio from having crimes against living art thrust under my perceptions.

It is no answer to say that ‘my’ programme in art and letters has gradually been forced through, has, to some extent, grabbed its place in the sun. For one thing, I don’t care about ‘minority culture.’ I have never cared a damn about snobbisms or for writing ultimately for the few. Perhaps that is an


exaggeration. Perhaps I was a worse young man than I think I was.

Serious art is unpopular at its birth. But it ultimately forms the mass culture. Not perhaps at full strength? Perhaps at full strength. Yatter about art does not become a part of mass culture. Mass culture insists on the fundamental virtues which are common to Edgar Wallace and to Homer. It insists on the part of technique which is germane to both these authors. I believe that mass culture does not ultimately resist a great deal that Mr. Wallace omitted. I think it ultimately sifts out and consigns to the ash-can a great deal that the generation of accepted authors of Mr. Arnold Bennett’s period put in. I do not believe that mass culture makes any such specific and tenacious attack on good art as that which has been maintained during the last forty years of ‘capitalist, or whatever you call it,’ ci--or whatever you call it--vilization.

Mass culture probably contains an element present also in Christianity, I mean the demand for that which is hidden. This sometimes pans out as demand for colloquial; i.e., living language as distinct from the ridiculous dialect of the present Cambridge school of ‘critics’ who believe that their books about books about writing will breed a ‘better taste’ than would familiarity with the great poets.

You can probably do nothing for a man who has arrived at the cardboard cerebration of supposing that you read Homer and Villon in order to ‘collect a bag of tricks,’ or that you ‘train a sensibility’ by reading a book about Villon rather than by reading Villon himself. And when such men write criticism and tell you to read other critics we are carried back to the scarcity economist Mr. Smith, who remarked that men of the same trade never gather together without a conspiracy against the general public.

The bureaucracy of letters is no better than any other bu-


reaucracy, it injects its poison nearer to the vital nerves of the State.

Mr. Yeats’s criticism is so mixed up with his Celticism that it may be more confusing to cite it than not, but he gave a better reason for reading great poets.

When you read Homer you do not read him for tricks, but if you are engaged in the secondary activity of building up a critical faculty you might read him in order not to be fooled by tricks, by second-hand sleight of hand derivations.

To Recapitulate

The effects of capitalism on art and letters, apart from all questions of the relations of either capitalism, art, or letters, to the general public or the mass, have been: (1) the nonemployment of the best artists and writers; (2) the erection of an enormous and horrible bureaucracy of letters, supposed to act as curators, etc., which bureaucracy has almost uninterruptedly sabotaged intellectual life, obscuring the memory of the best work of the past and doing its villainous utmost to impede the work of contemporary creators.

As for proposed remedies, C. H. Douglas is the first economist to include creative art and writing in an economic scheme, and the first to give the painter or sculptor or poet a definite reason for being interested in economics; namely, that a better economic system would release more energy for invention and design.



MLJ said...
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WP said...

Truly excellent -- thank you very much for posting this article. I have quoted parts of it @ http://whitesurvival.wordpress.com/2009/11/28/ezra-pound-a-poem-a-radio-broadcast-quotes-and-further-reading/

fellist said...

MLJ, although money and art have come to mean something other than they should for us, for the people controlling money and art it is yet another thing, it is a tool to control us.

WP, that's a brave blog you link to by Cassie of the OUP. I'll be interested to see how long it stands with folk like us discussing it and people like Zsidozas in the comments section... but it's a fact - in good portion Pound was right about money, about it being the main problem, and about its chief villains.

James - The Green Chronicle said...
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MLJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
fellist said...

MLJ, the post from Quigley that preceded this one substantially accords with my reading of recent cultural history, but omits the question of agency and motive. I do not believe the generally middle class publishers and editors waged a cultural war on ‘the middle-class outlook’ - why would they?

I think there is evidence to show that financial and editorial control of culture largely passed into Jewish hands during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and that phenomena that to Quigley seemed a result of a crisis of cultural confidence within an elite is more accurately attributed to its replacement by a new and hostile elite.

This long ago stopped seeming a controversial idea to me, but I do not know what common ground you and I share on these issues. Where are you coming from on these questions?

MLJ said...

Sorry - I've made a right twit of myself.