Guide to Kulchur

by Edgar Eduardo Garcia

The difficulty of summarizing a book like Ezra Pound’s Guide to Kulchur is brought about by the already highly condensed summary it gives of its subjects, 2,500 years of “ideas going into action.”[1] The martial undertones of the metaphor, “going into action,” might lead the reader to reckon that Pound is going to give a dramatic, highly combative reinterpretation of history’s cultural artifacts. But Pound emphasizes throughout the book that his contractual obligation is not to guide “through” human culture but to guide “to” it.[2] The anti-handholding, pro-indexical model nonetheless seems to render “culture” a thing abstracted from the book’s readers. That we, diligent readers that we are, should have to be directed “to” it seems to insinuate that we are apart from it. In order to evade the trap of unscrambling “kulchur” from “culture” merely to create a set of subjects to be learned or re-learned, Pound injects the enthnologist Leo Frobenius’ term and concept of “Paideuma,” or “the tangle or complex of the inrooted ideas of any period,” into his definition of “culture.”[3] Reading history as “thought going into action,” when thought has been naturalized so as to give the impression of being unthought, the project of guiding the reader “to” that thought is to guide the thinker to thoughts as they have become active, albeit naturalized, in the world. And Pound identifies the chief activating force for thinking to be economic conditions, especially in relation to usury.

Written in 1938, when Pound’s absorption in economics was nearing fanaticism, the book unites the various and unwieldy definitions of “culture” under the common rubric of examining culture as a direct result of economic conditions, especially in relation to the practice or non-practice of usury. Pound claims in Guide to Kulchur that he could teach a future group of critics to deduce the monetary specifics of an artist’s world by examining their art’s compositional detail.

“I suggest that finer and future critics of art will be able to tell from the quality of a painting the degree of tolerance or intolerance of usury extant in the age and milieu that produced it… That perhaps is the first clue the reader has had that these are notes for a totalitarian treatise and that I am in fact considering the New Learning or the New Paideuma… not simply abridging extant encyclopedias or condensing two dozen more detailed volumes… May I suggest (not to prove anything, but perhaps to open the reader’s thought) that I have a certain real knowledge which wd. enable me to tell a Goya from a Velasquez, a Velasquez from an Ambrogio Praedis, a Praedis from an Ingres or a Moreau…”[4]

Pound’s main point is that an artist’s economics and their morals threaded together create the matrix for their productions. “Nowt novel” (as Pound puts it), but he throws his observations in a novel direction by aiming to illustrate how the knowledge of this—of economics cum morals become art—becomes action. In “ZWECK or the AIM,” the fifth chapter of the book, a reviewer’s assessment of Pound’s rhetorical style is praised for its perception that Pound’s elliptical thrust from phrase to phrase does not lose its subject in the leaps, but instead creates a kind of horizontal effect whereby all the phrases are aligned until one snaps out to the reader and “reveals the whole subject [or range] from a new angle.”[5] In order to snap a person out of “desensitized” familiarity with a subject, Pound argues, it is necessary to strike from a different angle. By deploying what he calls the “ideogramic method” he is able to present “one facet and then another until at some point one gets off the desensitized surface of the reader’s mind, onto a part that will register;” and not only register the subject but additionally reveal that it had remained unregistered to the reader.[6] In other words, Pound’s process of revealing his subjects is itself a teaching device intended to instruct the reader in seeing the whole from particular angles.

“To put it another way: it does not matter a two-penny damn whether you load up your memory with the chronological sequence of what has happened, or the names of protagonists, or authors of books, or generals and leading political spouters, so long as you understand the process now going on, or the processes biological, social, economic now going on, enveloping you as an individual, in a social order, and quite unlikely to be very “new” in themselves however fresh or stale to the participant.”[7]

Pound’s guide to exploring a Paideuma, which he considered titling “The New Learning,” would expose that which is known in order to process it, to digest “culture” so that its reader might learn to do the same. The methodology, as it is explained in the first section, “DIGEST OF THE ANALECTS that is, of the Philosophic Conversations,” remarks that Confucius’ call for an exact terminology is the single principle that might prevent mental “becloudings—” or disassociations of action from clear thought. The search for an exact terminology is driven by a desire for rigor in thinking, a “love of learning” that is represented by the Chinese symbol for mortar, or “knowledge ground into a fine powder.”[8] Learning (the grinding down of knowledge bits) in such a depiction is an activity that must understand its purpose to be the building of something (the use of mortar as a workable paste in construction) and that must bring raw elements together into a mix to produce the paste for aggregate structures. The book is, in other words, not analytical (in the Greek sense) but constructivist (somewhat in the Soviet arts movement sense). Pound describes the distinction in a letter to Japanese poet Katsue Kitasono.

“Ideogram is essential to the exposition of certain kinds of thought. Greek philosophy was mostly a mere splitting, an impoverishment of understanding, though it ultimately led to the development of particular sciences. Socrates a distinguished gas-bag in comparison with Confucius and Mencius… At any rate, I need ideogram. I mean I need it for my own job…”[9]

Thought, to get Pound’s “job” done, needed to be impacted by a multifaceted method troped in the idea of one ideogram, having various intersecting lines of meaning. But the webbing together of seemingly disparate examples to an understated idea could become entangling to the reader, if the reader doesn’t get why these webs are even being spun. The basis of Pound’s cultural program, by this point in his career, is “anti-usura.” The “Usura Canto,” Canto LXV, written in 1937, metaphorizes money-lending at exorbitant rates as a voracious monster that devours the foundations of a civilization:

“Usura rusteth the chisel It rusteth the craft and the craftsman It gnaweth the thread in the loom None learneth to weave gold in her pattern; Azure hath a canker by usura; cramoisi is unbroidered Emerald findeth no Memling… Usura slayeth the child in the womb”[10]

Ending the poem with the medieval “CONTRA NATURAM” clarion against usury, Pound argues that the root evil of societies is not sexual transgression but the unnatural harvesting of money from money for money’s sake—without production (“often without regard to the possibilities of production”) of food or craft.[11] In the logic of this metaphor, the “The New Learning” represented by the mortar and construction would enliven the arts by a rich intermixing or, we might say, natural interbreeding of the materials of culture, including its technologies, philosophies, poetics, and so forth. As Pound brings these together in stating a point, however, the linkages between his supporting statements can be difficult to spot except by intuition. Although getting at the gut instinct of intelligence is a core message of the Guide to Kulchur (Pound claims, for example, that he has “not deflected a hair’s breadth from [his] lists of beautiful objects made in [his] own head and held before [he] ever thought of usura as a murrain and a marasmus;” suggesting that one could sense health without knowing why or how something is healthy), it is nonetheless trying at times to put the pieces in place as one reads.[12] The book is divided into 58 loosely sequenced topics, ranging from the Sophists, neo-Platonists, Tone, Bass and John Adams to an extended critique of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and a song of praise for the freewheeling “Buck-Hare.” Within the thematic chapters the variables are no less rangy. Page by page the program would include, he wrote in a letter to F.V. Morley, the “economic element in history… history of thought… hist. of action… Licherchoor and deh Awts… Racial elefunts necessary fer the whole of Kulchur.”[13] This hyper-hybridity of the project is evident in a passage excerpted from Pound’s critique of Aristotle.

“Dante uses che sanno in his passage on Aristotle in limbo. He uses intendendo for the angels moving the third heaven… Our Teutonic friend, what’s his name (Vossler is it?), talks about schwankenden Terminologie des Cavalcanti’s. I believe because he hasn’t examined it. Till proof to the contrary overwhelms me, I shall hold that our mediaevals took much more care of their terms than the greeks of the decadence.”[14]

Essentially Pound is demoting Aristotle from somebody who understands to somebody who merely knows by using as evidence Dante’s having said that it was so, “maestro di color che sanno,” and additionally using as evidence the fact that, in demonstrating that he could discern the difference between the two, Dante proved the entire demotion of Aristotle to be valid—while securing his own promotion on account of his acute sense of terminology.[15] And, in making the issue one of terminology, Pound can then include an attack on the German Romanistik Karl Vossler’s claim that Cavalcanti has varying terminology. He then introduces his main claim as tentative observation, as if it were all along the axiomatic hub of the spinning parts. But does the hub actually hold up the comparison? It seems that often the axiomatic point is struck for the sake of the comparison—in order to grind one against the other, in effect digesting the topics into values, such as clear thinking or the seeking after exact terminology.

Values, as they are embedded in the methodology of Pound’s Guide to Kulchur, can be difficult to harvest because they might seem tangled amid other growths, other subjects, other stuff. But this is not a book that requires a straight walk through. There is no progressive arc of civilization here. Civilization, it can be argued, occurs after culture in Pound’s setup. Culture, or that knowledge which has become physical through a person’s naturalization of its use, seems to be an immanent possibility that Pound intends to direct his reader toward. The aporia, however, arises when the reader is forced to consider the degree of enculturation necessary for following Pound. He believes, one must imagine, that a guide to the root ideas driving the activity of our civilization will necessarily be a lesson in clarifying which of those ideas should remain and which should be uprooted. He offers a proviso at the beginning of the work.

“This book is not written for the over-fed. It is written for men who have not been able to afford a university education or for young men, whether or not threatened with universities, who want to know more at the age of fifty than I know today, and whom I might conceivably aid to that object.”[16]

One might charge Pound with attempted indoctrination of the youth if it weren’t a fact that most youth could not comprehend Pound’s arguments until they are very old. Does this mean that civilization indeed precedes culture? This was what Pound was attempting to combat. “Man is not an end-product, Maggot asserts,” he begins his book by quoting Basil Bunting, to whom along with Louis Zukofsky the book was dedicated.[17] It was intended for the poets of futurity.

  1. ↑ Guide to Kulchur (New York 1970), 44.
  2. ↑ Guide to Kulchur (New York 1970), 343.
  3. ↑ Guide to Kulchur (New York 1970), 57.
  4. ↑ Guide to Kulchur (New York 1970), 27-8.
  5. ↑ Guide to Kulchur (New York 1970), 51.
  6. ↑ Guide to Kulchur (New York 1970), 51.
  7. ↑ Letters of Ezra Pound, ed. D.D. Paige (New York 1950), 288.
  8. ↑ Guide to Kulchur (New York 1970), 21.
  9. ↑ Letters of Ezra Pound, ed. D.D. Paige (New York 1950), 347.
  10. ↑ The Cantos (New York 1993), 229-30.
  11. ↑ The Cantos (New York 1993), 230.
  12. ↑ Guide to Kulchur (New York 1970), 109.
  13. ↑ Letters of Ezra Pound (New York 1950), 288.
  14. ↑ Guide to Kulchur (New York 1970), 315.
  15. ↑ Opere, “Inferno,” Canto IV, ed. E Moore (London 1904), line 131.
  16. ↑ Guide to Kulchur (New York 1970), 6.
  17. ↑ Guide to Kulchur (New York 1970), 8, 5.