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READING/ Ezra Pound, usury and gratuity

DANIELE GIGLI comments on Ezra Pound’s Canto XLV, on usury, how human nature and the nature of work is reduced, making an act of gratuity, and even the desire for one, impossible.

Ezra Pound Ezra Pound

1. With the publication in 1937 of ten new Cantos, for the first time Ezra Pound did not include the phrase Drafts in the title, which had accompanied the publication of the first forty-one. This was a minimal but indicative sign that the endless, shapeless poem began twenty years before was becoming sure in the author's view, a structure that no longer justified itself as just an attempt, but was instead called a work with a destiny, although still under construction.

In The Fifth Decade of Cantos, number XLV, one of the shortest, easiest to understand, and therefore also one of the ones that made more of a lasting impression among the non-Poundians, is the canto of usury. Placed at the center of the story of the economic reforms of the Grand Duke of Tuscany Peter Leopold, it is a prime example of what an allegory really is, defined by Eliot as “clear visual images”. It is a case in which the images and concepts are both literal and symbolic at the same time, operating on two planes that are not parallel, but that are necessary to one another.

What is the usury Pound describes? On the literal plane of the poem, it is financial interest, as the note appended to the text confirms, where usury is defined as “a tax on purchasing power”. At the same time, however, it is the embodiment and the root of all human evil, the decay that corrodes men with its warmth, annihilating his creative impulse and stifling his natural tendency toward self-giving.

2. If in the canto, then, usury is an action, it is nevertheless an action that denounces a mindset, a way of relating to things and to creation that makes man parasitic. These anthropological roots are the key to Pound’s invective today and always. For Pound, usury is the domination of the immediate. It crumbles the past and, as no one knew better than him, is hopeless about the future. In this miserable and stifling vision, not just all gratuity, but also the unattainable desire for gratuity is eroded, leaving space only for calculation. The first place where this can be seen is with work, which loses its meaning and its enjoyment of itself. It is no longer the expressiveness and collaboration desired by man in the world, but is a sentence to serve at a distance, without being involved and always waiting for the second end that bends its nature from the origin. Thus, for the goldsmiths “Usura rusteth the chisel", and “None learneth to weave gold in her pattern” (Canto XLV). All that requires patience and art is misunderstood, to have beauty and care for the gesture of work are no longer an honor, but a useless burden. Even artistic work becomes a subject of usury, since “no picture is made to endure nor to live with” but rather “to sell and sell quickly”.

3. But where work is merely a tool to reach a utilitarian end, already known and predictable, there is no possibility of novelty, and even a return to the past does not generate more than a mindless traditionalism that is devoid of fertility, if it is true that, according to the genial intuition of Rodolfo Quadrelli, the future is the time when tradition is conjugated: “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” (Canto XLV).