Ezra Pound | Critical Essay by Cary Wolfe

This literature criticism consists of approximately 20 pages of analysis & critique of Ezra Pound.
This section contains 5,832 words
(approx. 20 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Cary Wolfe

Critical Essay by Cary Wolfe

SOURCE: "Ezra Pound and the Politics of Patronage," in American Literature, Vol. 63, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 26-42.

In the following essay, Wolfe examines contradictory aspects of Pound's democratic and elitist sentiments, particularly concerning the relationship between art and economics. Wolfe contends that "Pound's literary ideology has at least as much in common with Ralph Waldo Emerson's individualism as it does with Benito Mussolini's fascism."

Few writers, modern or otherwise, have inspired more criticism, and more of it theoretically polarized and mutually hostile, than Ezra Pound. The critic who would engage Pound's work finds himself or herself framed from the outset by a kind of critical Cold War, one which forces him into something resembling the role of Marc Antony at the funeral in Julius Caesar. Pound critics come time and again either to bury or to praise this strange and disturbing individual, who is seen by turns either as a fascist and anti-Semite in his very composition and genesis or as a literary genius whose "true" self (the self that produced the stalwart poetry of high modernism) can somehow be separated from the pathological embarrassment who penned and delivered the maniacal Rome Radio speeches.

If I've just glanced synoptically at the theoretical oversimplification of this well-nigh proverbial condition of Pound studies, then let me be a bit clearer about its critically disabling consequences. A politically engaged criticism of Pound would by definition need to move beyond this kind of displacement of broad economic, social, and ideological problems onto Pound the unique (so it goes) and therefore romanticized subject of admiration or revulsion. It is here, at this juncture and against this pressing critical necessity, that the either-orist imperative of Pound studies exerts its institutionally powerful and politically disabling force. If we want to come to terms with the ideological character of Pound's cultural project, we need to explore what is precisely ideological about it: namely, its internally contradictory, fractured, and self-conflicted nature, its capacity to attract subjects even as it repels others. But it is exactly this sort of contradiction—itself the very mark of ideological formations—that the current climate of Pound studies forestalls in advance.

In practical terms, the contradiction that the political critic of Pound needs to engage is that Pound's palpable attractions—his early defense of individual difference in the face of economic Taylorization and imperialism, his recognition that the aesthetic is at once fully social and even economic—are inextricably wedded to his reprehensible obsessions. And we need to be able to do all of this, moreover, without making the one a mere epiphenomenon of the other. Only by doing so can we provide an adequate picture of Pound's literary ideology in its power and complexity, instead of a facile caricature of it. And only by doing so can we dispel the politically naive impression that once we have unmasked Pound's ideological failures, we have once again made the world safe for literary democracy.

For my purposes, we need to recognize that Pound's literary ideology has at least as much in common with Ralph Waldo Emerson's individualism as it does with Benito Mussolini's fascism, and at the same time we need to realize that this isn't necessarily good news. Pound's liberationist Emersonian side cannot be separated from his authoritarian fascist side: that, it seems to me, is the powerful and disturbing political point that the polarization of Pound studies mitigates against.

In an exacting discussion of Pound's early aesthetic, Michael Levenson has recently argued that something like an abrupt change took place in Pound's position between the autumn of 1913 and the early months of 1914. During this period, Pound discovered Allan Upward's philosophy of radical egoism, and that discovery, Levenson argues, transformed what had been Pound's liberal humanism into a virulently antidemocratic and elitist egoism. The artist, Pound now declares in his essay "The New Sculpture" of February 1914, "has dabbled in democracy and he is now done with that folly."

Levenson's argument is perfectly correct in pointing up this dimension of Pound's individualism, but it does not go far enough. In Pound's letters of the period, for instance, we find not a break but rather a vacillation between the two positions, and throughout his career he would alternate between pronouncements which were both radically elitist and radically democratic. "Patria Mia," for instance (written in 1910–1911), staged its social critique on behalf of the individual "of whatever age or sex or condition," and in "Murder By Capital"—written in the same year as Jefferson and/or Mussolini—Pound declared, as if in reaction to his Blastian pronouncements: "If there was a time (and I admit that there was) when I thought this problem [of art's commodification] 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 apologise."

Pound's individualism, like Emerson's, never really abandoned either of its extremes, and as with Emerson's we can trace in it nothing like a clean linear development from one pole to the other. We find not a break, then (as even this brief survey suggests), but rather the uneasy and sometimes violent coexistence of two latent possibilities, two different—and finally irreconcilable—political vectors which the ideology of individualism might follow. In the career of Pound, nowhere are these conflicting and inseparable tendencies clearer than in his early writings on patronage. In these proposals—for they were proposals, motivated not a little by impinging economic desperation—we are able to glimpse the antinomies of Pound's literary ideology, contradictions which would in time enable, if not exactly produce, the disastrous political consequences of Pound's later and infamous career.

In a letter written to Margaret Anderson in 1917, Pound made clear his idea of a proper relation between the artist and his economic context: "My whole position," he wrote, "and the whole backing up of my statement that the artist is 'almost' independent goes with doing the thing as nearly as possible without 'money.'" Throughout the period 1910–1917 Pound had mounted in his critical prose a wide-ranging critique of what intellectual and literary work had become under capitalist modernization. In "Provincialism: The Enemy" (1917), for instance, he complained, as Emerson had in many places, that the university was chiefly in the business of "habituating men to consider themselves as bits of mechanism for one use or another." This supposed last bastion of the life of the mind had become, in Pound's estimation, "one with the idea that the man is the slave of the State, the 'unit', the piece of the machine." And things were no better for the writer who sought to make it outside the walls of academe. In "Patria Mia," Pound shrewdly observed that the extreme division of labor of the assembly line had found its way into the large-circulation magazines upon which aspiring writers in America were largely dependent for their sustenance. What Pound identified at the very outset of his career was nothing less than the Taylorization of literary production: "As the factory owner wants one man to make screws and one man to make wheels and each man in his employ to do some one mechanical thing that he can do almost without the expenditure of thought, so the magazine producer wants one man to provide one element, let us say one sort of story and another articles on Italian cities and above all, nothing personal."

So it is not so surprising, given his diagnosis of the conditions of literary production which dominated both sides of the Atlantic, that the ideal relation Pound envisions in his letter to Anderson is in essence no relation. A supportive economy for the artist was not in the cards, he thought, because his experience told him that the story of this unhappy marriage was mainly one of slavish repetition of formulae being rewarded by a commodity system which found experiment and invention too risky for investment. Doing the thing as nearly as possible without "money" meant taking oneself foremost as an artist, not as a producer of commodities. You cannot, Pound says here in so many words, be a good artist and a good capitalist subject at the same time. The artist can only be half a self so long as "The lute sounds like a cash register, and a cadence is weighed down with a 'job.'" But Pound well knew that if the artist was "almost" independent, a whole nightmare of poverty, repetition, and economic coercion (necessity) was contained in that "almost."

But this didn't mean, at this early juncture in his career, changing the basic structure of the economic system so that this sort of schizophrenia might no longer plague those who want to be artists. Instead, it seemed to indicate that the economic realm itself was unredeemable, a burden, at best, to be tolerated: not a job but a "job," and not money but "money." Not work, in other words, but the abstract labor it had become in a system ruled by the commodity.

Artists have to eat, however, and the truth Pound knew about capitalist economy was not, for all its truth, edible. In 1918, Pound would discover Social Credit economics, which would "include creative art and writing in an economic scheme" by issuing a national dividend to all citizens except the wealthy—and to those cultural producers, of course, whose work was not "as vendible as bath-tubs." But well before the turn to Social Credit, Pound had his own ideas about how artists and writers were going to survive in an economy that held out little promise for experiment and invention. At the very outset of his career, Pound provided a glimpse not only of the modernist mover and shaker he would become but also of the limitations of his ideological inheritance when pushed to address problems which were economic in origin.

In surprising detail and with the kind of passion that creeping poverty inspires, Pound in "Patria Mia" proposed a system of patronage as the only means by which the artist might be free enough from the law of the commodity long enough to achieve something which might outlast its economic context. Looking back over history and its periods of artistic energy and decline, he concluded that the lesson of that history was quite clear: "Art was lifted into Alexandria by subsidy," he declared, "and by no other means will it be established in the United States." The "free" market of literary enterprise had been given a fair shake, and it had summarily put the genteels and the Atlantic in the executive suite of American culture. (It had also returned Pound's work, from Harper's and other like-minded magazines, stamped "rejected.") So what now?

"Patria Mia" and "The Renaissance" (1914) both attempted to answer that question. Aware of the difficulty of his position—"I write barefacedly," he admitted, "call me an opportunist"—Pound nevertheless felt that somebody had to address the would be patron, and in "Patria Mia" he put his considerable rhetorical skills to the task. He reasoned that the current millionaire in early twentieth-century America was not that different, in economic power, from the feudal lord—and "no more a permanent evil" either. Both are on the earth for a short period, amass great wealth and power, and then shuffle off this mortal coil more or less in infamy. "Nevertheless," Pound reckoned, "there seems to be no reason why he should not confer upon society, during his reign, such benefits as he is able." "The centralisation of power in his hands," he continued, "makes it very easy for him to display a virtue if he have one." And just how might that virtue be displayed? How might that extraordinary concentration of economic potency be distributed so as to leave a mark which might testify to the virtue of the millionaire long after he is gone?

Pound shrewdly reasoned—foreshadowing here his later talents of negotiation and general avant-garde salesmanship—that the gifts of the patron might be thought of as really a sort of investment, but in a different kind of economy. The patron might be a big stick on Wall Street in 1910, but what about his place on the great balance sheet of the ages? The Medici, Pound reminds us, "retain honour among us not for their very able corruption of the city of Florence, but because they housed Ficino and various artists and in doing so even reaped certain credit due their forerunners, the Orsini." Our advance man of modernism says to the twentieth-century millionaire, in so many words, that you'll never make your mark until you can walk with the Medici, and the only way to do that is to find a way to make your capital continue to earn interest across the centuries, where real success is measured. And just for good measure he underscores the point with his punning play on the "credit" which has accrued to the name Medici—a kind of friendly takeover of the house of Orsini's posterity made possible by the Medici's zeal in artistic investment.

Having begun, first, by flattering the modern millionaire (by calling him a lord), and having then moved subtly to force him to question his own economic potency in the world-class league of the Medici, Pound then follows up with the rhetorical roundhouse of the carpe diem theme: "It is his function as it is the function of any aristocrat to die and to leave gifts. Die he must, and he may as well leave gifts, lest people spit upon his tomb and remember him solely for his iniquities." And then the final parry from this sometime fencer. There is still hope, Pound tells him, you may yet endure by doing the right thing—the only thing—which can save your otherwise cursed name: "Also his order must pass as all things pass from this earth, save masterwork in thought and in art. It is well, therefore"—the tone pontifical now—"that he leave behind him some record for consideration."

At this point, the would-be patron—if he has a virtuous bone in his body or the least self-doubt about his posterity—is ready for the details. Sold, he now has to face the bill of goods. First, the patron must not think that all he need do now is buy some famous art and wait for the accolades. "An old thing has a fixed sort of value," Pound admonishes; "One acquires property in acquiring it." It is not retention you must be concerned with, Pound tells our millionaire, but invention. If you support the established artist whose work is behind him, you may "bolster up your own self-respect," but "you do nothing to assist awakenings or liberations." What is wanted is not hero-worship or a fetish for masterpieces but an age, a "Risorgimento," which will, as the young Pound put it, "make the Italian Renaissance look like a tempest in a teapot."

Doubling back now to reassure the patron, who's beginning to wonder what he's gotten himself into, Pound brings his business sense to bear: "It is most economical to do this when they are in the energetic state, to wit, at the beginning of their course, in the years when they will work for least money. Any artist who is worth powder to blow him to Sheol wants, at the start, liberty to do his work and little beyond this." The patron, in other words, can get the most bang for his buck by giving a little money to a lot of struggling young artists—by enabling, as it were, the most invention per pound.

As "Patria Mia" unfolds, Pound will articulate his plans in greater detail, suggesting, for instance, that we should have a decent college of the arts in New York or San Francisco where the young artist might be housed and fed during "the impossible years." And this is reasonable enough; we can subsidize so-called "research," he reminds us, so why not what the researchers study? But these details can be taken up later—and indeed they are, here, in letters, and in "The Renaissance." For now, Pound's bottom line—and almost the last line of this long essay—is that "there should be a class of artist-workers free from necessity." Pound had done his rhetorical job. Would the millionaire now do his?

In 1915 Pound wrote to John Quinn, a New York lawyer whose support (mostly for other artists) he cultivated:

My whole drive is that if a patron buys from an artist who needs money (needs money to buy tools, time and food), the patron then makes himself equal to the artist: he is building art into the world; he creates.

If he buys even of living artists who are already famous or already making £12,000 per year, he ceases to create. He sinks back to the rank of a consumer.

A great age of painting, a renaissance in the arts, comes when there are a few patrons who back their own flair and who buy from unrecognized men. In every artist's life there is, if he be poor, and they mostly are, a period when £10 is a fortune and when £100 or £200 a year without worry (without spending their lime running to dealers, or editors) means a peace of mind that will let them work and not undermine them physically.

Among the many significant issues raised in this passage, one of the most striking has to be Pound's equation of the patron and the artist. Pound could have perhaps put this line to good use in his sales pitch in "Patria Mia," where he had admonished the patron not to think of his involvement as a matter of acquiring property for the sake of personal enrichment, but rather to look at it from the vantage of production and circulation. If money is purely instrumental (as it is here for Pound), then the real trick for the patron is to make money productive, to transform it from a thing frozen in the "fixed value" of the masterpiece hanging on the wall into a constructive agency at work in the world. By helping the struggling artist buy time, food, and tools, the patron creates not art, but what makes art possible. He creates, in other words, the conditions of invention which capitalist economy could not provide.

In fact, this hope was nothing new in American literary ideology. As Emerson put it, in almost identical terms, the men of capital "must drive their craft poetically." Their economy must be "inventive, alive" to be distinguished from "parsimony, which is a poor, dead, base thing." For Emerson, making capital poetic meant making it fluid, a circulating power channelled by the active soul toward the cultivation of men, not of more capital. Pound's distinction in the letter to Quinn between the productive and acquisitive patron might well be drawn in Emerson's terms, which are the same terms of "Patria Mia," where Pound had set the pioneering entrepreneur—"a man of dreams, in a time when dreams paid"—against the modern businessman whose fetish is "the nickel-plated cash register": "The first man," Pound wrote in an Emersonian moment, "deals with men, the latter deals with paper."

And just what might this "dealing" look like? Pound provides a clue in "Canto 8," where his model patron, Sigismundo Malatesta, writes of the Maestro di pentore:

     And in order that he may enter my service
     And also because you write me that he needs cash,
     I want to arrange with him to give him so much per year
     And to assure that he will get the sum agreed on.
     You may say that I will deposit security
     For him wherever he likes.
     And let me have a clear answer
     For I mean to give him good treatment
     So that he may come to live the rest
     Of his life in my lands—
     Unless you put him off it—
     And for this I mean to make due provision,
     So that he can work as he likes,
     Or waste his time as he likes….

The master painter, it seems, will have it considerably better than Pound's modern artist under patronage. But Malatesta is really a model, not an out-of-reach anachronism. Pound made this much clear in a less public moment, when he wrote to Harriet Monroe, "A decent system would give [the writer] time to loaf in a library. Which while perhaps less important than loafing in pubs, is still a part of the complete man's loafing." When we cast about for the sort of world implied in these whimsical lines, it is perhaps not so surprising that the Utopian world of art which Pound sketched in his early essay "The Serious Artist" seems to fit the bill perfectly. In that world, which art both envisions and promotes, "you can admire, you can sit in the shade … you can do as you jolly well please."

The pall of Pound's later politics makes it easy to miss the echo here of the almost identical world-after-capital which Marx and Engels imagined in The German Ideology, that new world which "makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic." Of course, Pound was no Marxist, but in his early career he wasn't sure what he was—he had been radicalized, we might say, but not yet, in any coherent sense, politicized. But through the window of the early, "romantic" Marx, we can sharpen our sense of Pound's challenge to the deadening effects of modern capitalist production. Pound too had seen too many "crippled" and "one-sided" people (as Marx called them) in a society which treated them as economic agents only. Like Marx's world after capital, Pound's world of art would promote instead what Marx called "the total life of the individual," and Pound's proposals for patronage register the force of Marx's diagnosis of the fundamental structure of the commodity: that where abstract exchange value is the rule, repetition is its cultural application.

Emerson, Marx's contemporary, had had a similar idea—with similar critical point—when he observed in his punning way, "'Tis very costly, this thinking for the market in books or lectures"—costly, that is, within exactly the same economy Pound had imagined in his letter to Margaret Anderson. Musing in his journals on the ideal conditions of literary production, Emerson envisioned, with a little guilt and in terms even more radical than Pound's just the right situation in which the unanalyzable, undisciplined self—what "Self-Reliance" called "Whim"—might be nurtured to creation: "If I judge from my own experience I should unsay all my fine things, I fear, concerning the manual labor of literary men. They ought to be released from every species of public or private responsibility. To them the grasshopper is a burden. I guard my moods as anxiously as a miser his money. For company, business, my own household-chores untune and disqualify me for writing." In his more poetic moods, Emerson had to admit that the relation between the writer and economies of all kinds save the whimsical was mostly antagonistic, that the whole man who tills at day and writes at night might not be, after all, the poetic man. And finally—to join the metaphors in these two passages from his journals—he had to admit that it is "costly" to fritter away the capital of "moods" on those quotidian things not worthy of its expenditure. (Apparently, a little parsimony is fine if one is close in the right kind of economy.) This poetic capital of the innermost self Emerson, like a miser, loves not for what it might buy or acquire but rather for its own sake. It is a kind of latent power kept shiny by his refusal to circulate it in any economy other than a lyric one.

Elsewhere in his journals, Emerson provides a passage which may therefore be seen to be pregnant with anticipation of Pound's modernist distinction between what he called, in an early review, the unique "lump gold" of individual expression and the repetitive, featureless "coin" or "paper money" of common knowledge and accepted convention. As Emerson put it: "We all lean on England, scarce a verse, a page, a newspaper but is writ in imitation of English forms … & sometimes the life seems dying out of all literature & this enormous paper currency of Words is accepted instead." Instead of dealing in the "paper currency of words," Emerson, like Pound, would have the American literary self pay in that nugget or lump gold which defines itself against all earthly economies. Only then could the work of art realize itself fully, not as a bearer of economic value but as what Emerson's metaphor tells us it is and what Pound thought it should be: a kind of "permanent property … given to the race at large."

The radical individualism of Pound and his ideological father Emerson may have led them both to reach many of the same conclusions about those institutions and practices which seemed an all-out assault on the first principle of their American politics, but what, exactly, did both envision as a more beneficent social and economic structure which might take that individual into just account? In his writings on patronage, Pound suggests something of what that world might look like, the kind of social and economic organization which might allow the self to get on with the business of being lyric.

For Pound's own part, nowhere is that picture clearer than in the essay "The State," written in 1927, which shows the aesthetic economy of the early essays very much alive and well in his later career. This essay makes the same sort of distinction between "transient" and "permanent" goods which Pound, in so many words, had been making all along. In the first category, "The State" places, more than a little eclectically, "fresh vegetables," "fake art," and "pseudobooks." Though he doesn't really say so, what holds this rather fanciful sampling together is not only the fact that these things for immediate consumption do not survive the momentary needs they fulfill, but mainly that they are produced for the purpose of being consumed.

"Permanent goods," however, are not economically determined by-products of the rule of the commodity. "Scientific discoveries," "works of art," and "classics" are produced with an eye toward not transient economic value but permanent aesthetic value and intellectual law. What makes Pound's economy in "The State" of signal interest, however, is his criterion for inclusion in this latter category. These sorts of things are, as he puts it, "never consumed; or they are, in jargon, 'consumed' but not destroyed by consumption." What this means, of course, is that the permanent goods of art are not really consumed at all; their value is not dissipated by use. Like gold, they still remain gold no matter what material form they take or the uses to which they are put.

But "The State" provides the opportunity to explore as well the sort of social configuration which this overarching economy might determine. In a passage rich in implication, Pound writes: "The capitalist imperialist state must be judged not only in comparison with unrealised utopias, but with past forms of the state; if it will not bear comparison with the feudal order; with the small city states both republican and despotic; either as to its 'social justice' or its permanent products, art, science, literature, the onus of proof goes against it."

It is clear, not only in this passage but in the essay as a whole, that the efficacy of the state is now to be judged largely by the extent to which it makes possible and encourages the permanent products of Pound's economic hierarchy. The state is now seen, in Pound's words, as a "convenience," itself a kind of transient commodity, and when it can no longer provide the conditions of invention for the enduring goods of culture, then it too is used up and can be discarded.

And when we ask, "Who shall judge the convenience of the State?," Pound responds: "The party that follows [the artist] wins; and the speed with which they set about it, is the measure of their practical capacity and intelligence." The aesthetic economy which derives from Pound's earliest work now determines the efficacy of political structures, and the artist—and only the artist—can measure them against the gold standard of art and "permanent property" to determine their value. "The State," then, fleshes out the disturbing contradictions embedded in Pound's early ideas about patronage and the sort of social organization they imply. In the passage which we just examined, Pound's examples (the feudal order, the pre-capitalist city-state) seem offhand, but in fact they are quite symptomatic of his fatal tendency, early and late, to dissociate ethical, economic, and political concerns, the better to assimilate all of these to an essentially ethical—and often strictly aesthetic—framework.

Of course, Pound didn't propose in his writings on patronage a return to a feudal economic order, but that's precisely the point. The dissociation of the ethical, political, and economic dimensions that allowed Pound early in his career to hold up the energetic entrepreneur as a model of democratic self-reliance—while at the same time attacking the conditions and effects of capitalism—is the same kind that could lead him to propose a system of patronage while at the same time arguing, as he did in "Patria Mia," that "There need be little actual change in the existing machinery," that what was needed was "simply a more conscious and more far-calculating application of forces already present." For Pound, it is not a question of the structure of economic relations which entrepreneurship, for example, reproduces and perpetuates. Rather, it is a matter of making an essentially ethical distinction between "good" entrepreneurs and bad, "good" uses of the existing economic structure and those which are more short-sighted.

This same kind of dissociation is at work in Pound's early proposal for patronage, and now, reading by the light of "The State," we are in a better position to judge the politics of that proposal. It is not only that Pound's patronage model depends upon the perpetuation of an aristocracy of the capitalist rich who are as remote from the exploited mass as the feudal lord. Pound's plan is also hopelessly naive; for all its seeming economic detail, it is finally a purely ethical matter. It is all noblesse oblige, it stands or falls by the good graces of the patron, and it has very little to do with basic structural changes in an economic mode of production whose effects Pound quite sincerely abhorred—effects not only on artists but also, as he wrote in the Cantos, on "folk of / ANY CONDITION." Pound's early social vision may be strong, as negative critique, for individual difference. But what Pound's writings on patronage reveal is that his early politics, when pushed to pragmatic, positive application, are dangerously regressive and undisturbed about the binding logic of political structures and the way in which cultural practices reproduce those structures.

If, as Jean-Paul Sartre (a very different modernist) put it in Search for a Method, praxis must always be viewed in terms of the future social organization it implies and suggests, then Pound's patronage model appears to he a kind of cultural practice in reverse. But of course this sort of practice, at least in Sartre's terms, is no practice at all; it is a repetition of the past, not a transformation of it. How true this is of Pound's later career, of his growing attraction to ancient China and to an essentially Populist vision of a pre-capitalist past free of plutocratic machination and Taylorized production. And Pound's model of patronage is an early sign as well of his increasing tendency (again like the Populists) to address economic problems in terms of not production but distribution. For the artist, patronage may indeed be a kind of "solution," through distribution, to problems created by the mode of production which Pound never tired of attacking. But it is a solution, of course, only for those artists who receive the patron's good will and therefore his cash.

Finally, the ultimate irony and central contradiction of Pound's patronage model is that it makes the artist dependent on that very economic structure Pound deplored, only now it is not the artist but those democratic others who must pay the price commanded by the permanent property of art. For the economic fact is that the capital of the patron depends upon that very economic system, and upon the exploitation of those who create its wealth—and so, therefore, does the artist and the art which was supposed to be that system's antithesis. If no abstract labor, then no exchange value; if no exchange value, then no surplus value; if no surplus value, then no capital; if no capital, then no patron; and if no patron, then no "free" artist, no "permanent" aesthetic property. Under patronage, the artist isn't really independent; rather, it is simply another kind of dependence—dependence, in this case, upon the continued existence of an aristocracy of capital.

If Pound had read much Emerson he would have found that his ideological ancestor himself had struggled to find the same kind of balance of economy and culture. What does England do with its surplus value, Emerson asked in English Traits, what is the "compensation" for the fragmenting and exploitive effects of this mode of production? "A part of the money earned returns to the brain to buy schools, libraries, bishops, astronomers, chemists and artists with," he wrote. "But the antidotes are frightfully inadequate and the evil requires a deeper cure, which time and a simpler social organization must supply." Unlike the later Emerson, whose early agrarian critique had long since lost (even for him) its critical force, Pound would spend a good part of his later career looking back to the times of Confucius and Jefferson for that simpler social organization which might dictate the culturally beneficial commerce of the good state. And he would find its modern avatar in Benito Mussolini who, like "T.J." (or so Pound thought), was set against "machinery or at any rate the idea of cooping up men and making 'em all into UNITS, unit production, denting in the individual man, reducing him to a mere amalgam."

But Emerson, at age fifty, recognized the difficulty of being both democratic and aesthetic, and he saw that the permanent property of art had a price that not the artist but democracy would have to pay if it indulged patronage. As he put it in a letter to Thomas Carlyle: "America is incomplete. Room for us all, since it has not ended, nor given sign of ending, in bard or hero. 'Tis a wild democracy, the riot of mediocrities, & none of your selfish Italies and Englands, where an age sublimates into a genius, and the whole population is made into paddies to feed his porcelain veins, by transfusion from their brick arteries."

Porcelain veins and brick arteries, the body aesthetic and the body economic, Emerson's two types of clay to Pound's two kinds of gold. Emerson never really found a way to put them together in the body politic. And neither, despite the fearful political price, did Pound.

(read more)

This section contains 5,832 words
(approx. 20 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Cary Wolfe
Follow Us on Facebook