by Ezra Pound
Canto XLV Introduction
In A Nutshell
First question: who the heck is "Usura?"
Or is it what is usura?
If you've had a chance to look at this poem, then chances are you've already figured out that Ezra Pound wasn't the biggest fan of usura—whatever that is. When he uses the word "usura," Pound is actually using the Latin form of "usury," which is a word you can find in the dictionary (phew). It refers to the practice of lending money at a really high interest rate.
If that still has you head-scratching, think of it this way: let's say someone badly needs money to pay off their home mortgage. You say, "Sure, I'll lend you $1,500. But I want $3,000 when you pay me back." Basically, you're taking advantage of the fact that that person needs quick money, and you're coming out on top—way on top.
When he first published Canto XLV in 1936, Pound was 51 years old and living in Italy, where he supported the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Pound did not like modern free-market economics because he felt like they made everyone greedy and completely blind to beauty and great art. As most people know, though, the alternative of Fascism wasn't a good one, and Pound would ultimately be on the losing side of history when it came to Fascism vs. The Free Market.
Ultimately, Pound's support of Fascist Italy during World War II would get him convicted of treason in the good ol' U.S. of A. But instead of sending Pound to jail, the court declared Pound to be mentally insane and sentenced him to live in St. Elizabeth's Psychiatric Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he would stay for more than 12 years.
Okay, so yes—the guy was not exactly on the up and up. But with all that said, it's important that we don't completely dismiss everything Pound said just because some of his ideas were way off-base. The guy might have chosen a very scary alternative to Free Market Capitalism, but that doesn't mean that his criticisms of capitalist behavior were total nonsense. Just check out Canto XLV, and you'll see what we mean.
Why Should I Care?
Regardless of your political opinions, you have to be willing to entertain the possibility that Pound has a point when he criticizes usury as being bad for the world. And do you know why? Well for starters, modern business (and in some ways, the modern world) is almost completely dependent on moneylending. When a business needs to grow, for example, it needs to take out a loan from the bank to help hire more workers and build new facilities. Later on, the business will pay back more money than it borrowed because the expansion has increased its profits. Sounds fairly straightforward, right? And not necessarily bad?
Well according to Pound, this basic aspect of modern business was the scourge of humanity. And we're not exaggerating. A bank lending money to a well-off business is one thing. But the practice of moneylending looks a lot bleaker when you're Pound, and you spend all your time lamenting the fact that the borrower is totally at the mercy of the lender. For example, if the borrower needs money to keep his family from starving, the lender can basically say, "Sure, but you'll have to pay me back for the rest of your life." And what's the borrower to do but agree, since he won't let his family starve? See, that's where the dark side of moneylending comes in, according to Pound.
Sure, Pound's hatred of usury ultimately pushed him in a dangerous, radical direction. But that doesn't mean we should dismiss everything he says as total garbage. And there's a bigger picture at work here (no, this poem is not just about banks). Think of it this way: if we think of the free market as being the dominant force in our lives, then there's no such thing as good and bad anymore—at least, if we're following Pound's logic. There's only stuff that sells well and stuff that doesn't, and that's it.
According to Pound, when this happens, morality and the idea of beautiful art pretty much goes out the window, and all decisions get made by "the mob" of modern consumers. And it's this idea of the ugly mob that encouraged Pound's turn to Fascism (oh, the irony). You might be wondering if there's some sort of middle ground between total mob-rule and total Fascism. Pound didn't seem to think so, but that doesn't mean you have to.