Thursday, March 29, 2012

£ian economics, & where not to learn about them

Like most people who've read & worked on Ezra Pound, I've always found the economic side of his writings pretty tough going. Sure, I can understand and sympathize with his outrage at how capitalism was working itself out in the first part of the century. And needless to say, I've always found the "Jewish-banker-&-financier-conspiracy" place he arrived at in his later thought to be just plain obscene. But in between Ruskinian outrage and anti-Semitic madness, there's Social Credit, the economic scheme hatched by Major Clifford H. Douglas in the early part of the century, passed on to Pound by AR Orage, and ominipresent in Pound's thought and correspondence form the mid-30s on; and I've always found Social Credit a hard business to understand, even in the relatively lucid exposition Hugh Kenner offers in The Pound Era.

So I was mightily pleased when I discovered, a year or so back, that Meghnad Desai, former LSE professor of economics & the author of Marx's Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism (Verso 2002) had written a book on Pound's economics. Desai (that's Baron Desai to you commoners) is, in the words of one reviewer, a "mild sort of heretic himself who has written sympathetically about Karl Marx, but who, whether he admits it or not, is now a mainstream economist." That's certainly my impression of Marx's Revenge; not at all a Marxist text (despite coming from Verso), but one of the most lucid and impressive histories of economic analysis I've encountered. I had high hopes that the Baron would be able to untangle and usefully contextualize Social Credit, Silvio Gesell, and all those other economic "heresies" that figure so largely in the mature Pound's thought.

The Route of All Evil: The Political Economy of Ezra Pound (Faber 2006) is not an easy book to come by, and I finally got my hands on a copy, thanks to the magic of internet shopping, early last week. It proves to be quite the disappointment. I don't mind that Desai doesn't really address the poetry; it's not his bailiwick, after all. And I suppose I don't really mind that he doesn't even attempt to tackle the mountain of Pound secondary literature. I do mind, however, that the secondary material he tackles feels like what happened to be on his shelves at the moment: we get The Pound Era, we get Paul Morrison's and Peter Nicholls's books on Pound's politics. But for biographical reference, we get Noel Stock's ancient (1970) biography (he's "Nigel" stock on the first page of the Preface, a clue to how well copy-edited this book is) and John Tytell's 1987 rehash of Stock (not to mention E. Fuller Torrey's psychological slash-job The Roots of Treason). Where, pray tell, is Humphrey Carpenter's huge and (for better or worse) state-of-the-art 1988 A Serious Character?

And why, if Desai's proposing to write on Pound's political economy, hasn't he dipped into some of the more recent excellent studies: Alec Marsh's prize-winning Money and Modernity: Pound, Williams, and The Spirit of Jefferson (University of Alabama Press 1998), or Tim Redman's Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism (Cambridge 1991), or Leon Surette's Pound in Purgatory (Indiana 2003)? Desai doesn't even cite Earle Davis's Vision Fugitive: Ezra Pound and Economics (Kansas 1968), which flawed as it is is far more careful and thoughtful than The Route of All Evil.

The problems of Desai's book go beyond the copy-editing blips of misremembered names, dropped commas, and multiple outright repetitions. Events are given as taking place at one date on one page, a different date on the next. Paragraphs veer off course into name-dropping digressions. Sentences metastasize into ungainly, well-nigh ungrammatical blobs. Explications of abstruse economic theory take us out to the deep end of the terminological pool (and this in a book explicitly pitched for the general reader) then, just as they seem to be nearing climax, abruptly break off into biographical notes.

This is in short one of the most ill-edited, ill-written books I've encountered in ages. It's not merely a work "of the left hand," as Milton famously called his own prose tracts, but it seems to have been written in snatches, dashed off in airport lounges between flights, or scribbled at in the twenty minutes before lights-out that we call "story-time" around here. Desai claims that his book will elucidate the roots of Pound's economic theory, situate it within the context of other "money cranks," and show that Pound's ideas have relevance to the age of globalism. Score: #1, C-; #2, D; #3, F (I count maybe three sentences in the book that assert – not demonstrate – the relevance of EP's economics to the contemporary).

What does The Route of All Evil offer the Pound scholar? nothing. What does it offer the general reader? nothing she or he can't get more lucidly, and more elegantly, from a half-hour's nosing around in The Pound Era. So why, for the love of Pete, did Faber of all people publish this thing? There's a clue in the Preface, where Baron Desai recalls an evening in "House of Lords in the Peers' Guest Room (the only bar where peers can entertain guests," and a conversation with his friends (Baron) Robert Skidelsky, Keynes's biographer, and Matthew Evans, Baron Evans of Temple Guiting, in which the topic of Pound's politics came up. Yes, that Matthew Evans – managing director of Faber, who of course encouraged Desai to put up a proposal & write the book. And they say small press publishing is an insider's game.


Archambeau said...

I think you mean Alfred Richard Orage. W.H. Orage was a horrible creation unleashed on the world by a young Robert Lowell in the laboratories under Kenyon College, where he tried to splice the DNA of A.R. Orage and W.H. Auden.

Mark Scroggins said...

Good eye, Bob! Keepin' me honest...

mongibeddu said...

Thanks for this! Ben F.

Archambeau said...

I forgot to thank you for introducing me to Meghnad Desai's hair. I had no idea. Best 'fro this side of Questlove.