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Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

A review of Culture, by Ezra Pound.

A man does not have to agree with Pound to acknowledge the excellence of what he has written. For myself I disagree with him fundamentally and finally in what I believe he, as a man of responsibility, represents. But I cannot disagree with him when he says such things as “The magic of music is in its effect on volition. A sudden clearing of the mind of rubbish and the reestablishment of the sense of proportion.” That’s what can be got from this book.

I believe it to be one of those essential books. Though in itself it may seem to carry little weight, yet, so long as it is there and heeded,a writer will be bound to go right in his writing. There’s more good sense for him packed here than you will find in all the colleges of Christendom put end to end until they reach completely around the alphabet.

Pound begins with Confucius and the complete corrective to false knowledge inherent in the Chinese ideogram. Thence he sweeps zigzag through the entire field of culture … as only Pound would dare to do and get away with it. Aristotle comes next to Confucius, so far as I can see, though with all manner of texts and personalities between them. And the man continues—with enough damn silliness to purge a constipated mule by way of laughter. He flops about from lap to lap of some of the shoddiest fakirs of our time, frantically seeking to discover.He raves about his perverse preferences as though he were a pale schoolgirl with her first male teacher and then … brings himself back to seriousness by sheer muscle power of the understanding, raising his chin once again above the bar, for the hundredth time. It’s heartbreaking to watch him and a relief when he comes, as he always seems to, once more through.

What Pound is attempting brilliantly in his book, for all its follies, is to cut short the awful waste of life we suffer to gain knowledge. He is attempting to make it good form to find a way to the gist of learning; before we are crippled by age and cannot make use of it. The swiftness with which we get knowledge should be one of its major virtues.

The monumental futility of our schools, bolding a man back when, in the name of learning, be ought to be going forward as swiftly as be can in his short life, to knowledge, makes Pound mad. Delay, delay—until it is too late to do anything about it. He thinks that the reason for this delay lies in the economic impasse that usury has forced upon us. The reigning powers of what Pound calls “the bank and gun business” are afraid that people will see through them. They say to themselves, “Don’t let knowledge increase too fast; don’t let them find out while they may still be of a mind for action.” Usura is the devil of Pound’s story, the mark of the destroyer in our age. The schools hold that knowledge and action are of different natures. Pound shows them united into one.

And his conclusion from all this is totalitarianism! The failure of the book is that by its tests Mussolini is a great man; and the failure of Pound, that be thinks him so. The book should be read for its style, its wide view of learning, its enlightenment as to the causes of many of our present ills. The rest can be forgiven as the misfortune of a brave man who took the risk of making a bloody fool of himself and—lost.