Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bolidigal Basshuntz I

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 perception. (Ezra Pound, "Murder by Capital", SP, p. 200-1)

I'm not much for biography, actually. But in this case the date (i.e., pre-1920) is important. It situates Slovinsky's remark (his real name was Henry Slonimsky, an old classmate of Pound's, see also Canto 77/483) in Pound's "aesthetic" period, before Mauberley. We assume that Slonimsky had (accurately) noticed that Pound didn't take much of interest in politics at that time.

So, in 1933, Pound, who was now not only interested in politics but was also a declared fascist living in the Duce's Italy, phrased the question as follows:

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? (SP, 198)

That is a good question. The short is answer is that Capital turned out to be an utterly incompetent patron of the arts.

Pound says specifically that scarcity economics is to blame for the paucity of the "bureaucracy of letters"; I am sure we could add the labour theory of value. These theories were part of the "specific and tenacious attack on good art ... which has been maintained during the last forty years of 'capitalist, or whatever you call it', ci—or whatever you call it—vilization" (SP, 201).

Concretely, Pound blamed "maladministration of credit": "The lack of printed and exchangeable slips of paper corresponding to extant goods is at the root of bad taste" (SP, 199). He wrote this, like I say, in 1933:

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 ever felt the circumscription of pig-ness and that even the career of an Aydelotte cannot be ascribed to other than natural causes.

This what American capitalism has offered us, and by its works stands condemned. (SP, 200)

I suppose it's been all lipstick since then.


Kirby Olson said...

Communism was worse.

The old aristocracy was the best for the arts.

Some kings were incredibly good patrons of the arts: especially Charles I of England, Francois I of France.

There were some Popes who did a lot for the arts. Leo, for whom Michelangelo worked, was a good patron of the arts.

Luther thought he was Satan himself.

Lutheranism in general has been good for philosophy (Hegel, Kant, Kierkegaard) but not for the arts.

A king can be good for the arts but nevertheless have disastrous policy.

Thomas Basbøll said...

On the whole and in the long run, what's good for the arts is good for the nation.

That qualifying "on the whole and in the long run" is also needed in the defense of the pragramtist's criterion of truth: the truth is what works ... on the whole and in the long run.

A bad policy, foreign or domestic, will eventually be evident in bad art. A good policy will eventually lead to good art.

There is simply no difference between life in the polity and the cultural conditions of art production.

Laura Carter said...

Do you think it's possible to write good art under bad policy, or is this desire somehow an exercise of a) wishful thinking or b) bad faith? Like, sometimes one wants to "leave the state" without leaving the state? Maybe I'm just dreaming....

Thomas Basbøll said...

I'll take this up in "Bolidigal Basshuntz III". Pound's view is that there is an "unemployment problem". Misgovernment makes it impossible (or very difficult) to earn a living at making good art. It also makes the publication of good writing unlikely. You can still write a good poem; it just won't enter cultural life. It will not contribute to "the arts".

I think Hemingway's comments on this are interesting. Interestingly, it is the OPPOSITE of Pound's view. (Pound almost believed that ONLY fascism could provide the appropriate fiscal and monetary framework for art.)

Laura Carter said...

I guess I just suspect that one can write honestly in spite of who's in charge. I see this as an outgrowth of good old-fashioned intellectual independence. But it all depends on what you think a writer's relationship to the zeitgeist ought to be, if there is indeed such a thing.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I'm sure that's true. But the broader question of whether or not you will be rewarded for your honesty remains.

If the state shoots all honest writers, that does not make it impossible to write honestly. But it makes an honest national literature unlikely.

Somewhere between granting every aspiring writer a lifetime stipend and shooting anyone who would put pen to paper we find Pound's "decent fiscal system", which would ensure that "the few hundred people who want work of first intensity could at any rate have it".

Thomas Basbøll said...

As to Zeitgeist, I guess Pound's answer is paideuma, which is distinctly not the Zeitgeist.

Laura Carter said...