The exact year in which Dante started the Inferno is unclear. What is certain is that by the time of Dante’s birth, Florence was a burgeoning city-state, prospering from trade and commerce. The lending of money to and from private individuals for profit was regarded by the papacy as immoral, leading Pope Clement V to decree belief in the right to usury heretical in 1311. Nevertheless the loaning of money to businesses, with interest relative to the risk of the transaction, was the basis for growing mercantilism in the age.
Dante, for his part, seems unmoved by the distinction implicit between the two practices and condemns them equally, albeit for different reasons, for the Comedy is not only theological but a tract concerning political governance, echoing a changing focus of his work after exile. Of the two, Dante’s political reasoning is much the weakest; a reaction against the nouveau riche and petit bourgeoisie springing up in Florence and the growing political influence that new money brought. Like many a fundamentalist (and a fundamentalist he undoubtedly was), his religious zeal translated into a nostalgic desire for prelapsarian innocence, and he was by no means a progressive. That he held extreme religious contempt for the usurious is indicated most clearly in their place within the topography of the Inferno, which should now be elaborated.
The Inferno is subdivided into nine descending circles, each one corresponding to a worse offence and a greater punishment: the ‘virtuous heathen’ occupies the first circle, the ‘treacherous’ the ninth, closest to Lucifer and furthest from God. These nine circles and their populace are grouped by family resemblance regarding the type of sin committed, these being: the ‘virtuous heathen’ (1), the incontinent (2-5), heretics (6), the violent (7) and the fraudulent (8-9). Within circles 7 to 9 there are still a further 13 subdivisions, but these need not concern us here; what is of note is that the usurer is placed in the third section of the seventh circle; closest to the fraudulent; below the murderers and the suicides; and on a par with the blasphemer and the sodomite, in a group labelled ‘violent against God, nature and art’.
The relationship between usury and art will become apparent again in the later discussion of Pound’s Cantos, though in a slightly different interpretation. Regardless, the basis of Pound’s treatment of usury would seem to be influenced greatly by that found in the Inferno. What, then, is ‘art’ in this sense? Virgil, Dante’s guide through the nine circles of hell lays out a genealogy of ‘art’ towards the end of Canto XI, noting that ‘nature takes her course from the divine mind and its art,’ and that furthermore, ‘[man’s] art, as far as it can, follows nature as the pupil the master, so that your art is to God, as it were, a grandchild.’ (Inferno, Canto XI l. 25-30) In this sense therefore it would seem that ‘art’ becomes synonymous with ‘labour’ or man’s cultivation of nature before, (Genesis 1:28 ‘And God said unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it”’, and after expulsion from Eden, (Genesis 3:22 ‘Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken’).
Acquiring money through the needs and misfortunes of others directly contravenes the Biblical precept of industry and hard work; ‘it behoves mankind to gain their livelihood and their advancement, and because the usurer takes another way he despises nature both in herself and in her followers, setting his hope elsewhere.’ (Inferno, Canto XI l. 32-35) That the usurer is also closest to the fraudulent is no coincidence.
But there is a further tension within the Divine Comedy which informs the place of usury in Dante’s cosmology. As already noted, this religious epic is also deeply political and quasi-Platonic in nature: echoing the Republic in its inferences on the shape and form of just political life and governance. To this end, much of Dante’s later works would take up the theme of human reason in much the same way as his earlier ones were preoccupied with his beloved Beatrice; it represents a shift from the donna gentile of his love poetry to the lady philosophy of his exilliteratur, which, in this case, is a distinct brand of Aristotelianism. The tension then, becomes quite clear: to reconcile ‘reason and Revelation’ in one work, which, as anyone with an eye on the political situation today will know, is quite an undertaking.
Much of the bizarre (to modern eyes) structure of the Inferno is predicated on this interplay between reason and faith which Dante’s sees as a divine gift. This explains, for example, why fraudulence is placed below murder and those treacherous to their lords are the lowest of all. If reason is the greatest of divine gifts, then the perversion of that reason to immoral ends is the ultimate betrayal, especially when turned against the divine order incarnate in the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. In this way then, the act of usury is not only in direct contradiction of biblical doctrine, but also an affront to the goodness of God and the faculties He bestowed on man.
Tellingly, Dante does not need instruction from Virgil as to the nature of the usurer’s crime, nor as to the reasons why it is a crime. For an abstract, socially (more or less) acceptable concept it would seem its severity is self evident to the author. No doubt this position is in no small part due to Dante’s extraordinary political situation and was not shared by those for whom the lending of money provided the basis for greater social mobility. But Dante’s social conservatism is neither particularly novel, nor confined to him alone. His aversion to predatory loan-sharking, is morally commendable, but the lack of distinction between this and commercial lending is troubling and reductive in the extreme. On balance it would seem that the repulsion he felt towards the masses got the better of his moralism and in the end his moralism fed into it. This though will be a recurring motif of the artistic treatment of usury.
This is turning out to be a little too long for one post, so it’s coming as two (I hope).
When I first thought of this piece, the intention was to provide a historical look at prevailing historical attitudes towards usury through an analysis of the Inferno. This is still my intention, but it is done with an important caveat.
There are two mottos every self-respecting literature student should hold dear when it comes to textual analysis: ‘no man is an island’ and ‘there is nothing outside the text’. Art is fundamentally contextual in its creation and its interpretation. Of no author is this truer than Dante, and of no author’s work is interpretation more complicated. The extant biographical information on Dante, whether from contemporary accounts or his own poems, is extremely patchy; his wife and children (the number is still contested) for example, are never mentioned in his poetry, while Beatrice, his muse and objet d’amour with whom he was not on particularly intimate terms, is obsessively elevated to mythic standing in his early dolce stil novo works. Regardless, one of the few facts agreed upon by all scholars is that some time between late 1301 and early1302, Dante was exiled from his native Florence, and remained in exile until his death in 1321. The events of these years form the most pertinent backdrop with which to contextualise The Divine Comedy, the work that secured Dante’s place in the Western canon.
So where is the problem? All good art is a fascinating interaction between the creative individual and wider society, and, as this terribly brief biography highlights, Dante’s was particularly fraught. To read the Comedy in light of this singular event exposes its extraordinarily polemical nature. We think of the Comedy primarily as a fictional-theological work; as a startlingly imaginative cosmology delineating hell, purgatory and heaven; perhaps even as a theodicy of sorts, justifying the ways of God to man. But while it may be all of the above, it is also testament to the anger and bitterness the author felt regarding the political, social and religious situation of the day.
Therefore the caveat: like Milton’s Paradise Lost 300 years later, Dante’s epic religious poem is also an intensely personal sublimation of his politics, and, like Milton, politically he may not have been in the majority. To describe Dante’s politics as self-serving would overstep the mark; to describe it as coloured by a set of extraordinary circumstances and a desire for recrimination would, I think, be accurate. The Comedy is densely populated not only with mythical and historical figures, but also with the great and the good of Florentine society and one cannot help but feel that he had a score to settle. This may seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious: art is always a subjective endeavour. Nevertheless, personal circumstance seems to seep into The Divine Comedy on such an all-encompassing scale that it was a statement of the blindingly obvious I felt duty bound to make.
Those of us who place ourselves on the political left, love nothing more than to denounce the insane, right wing zealotry of movements like the Tea Party. It makes us feel better, it gives vent to our frustrations about the dire state of society, it gives us a villain to deride, it allows us the rueful smile of smug satisfaction. In a recent, highly patronising, article for the Guardian, George Monbiot highlighted a Canadian study which has found a connection between low intelligence and the more extreme end of the right wing political spectrum. ‘Nothing new there then’ you might say; remember this, or this, or even this? Regardless, when Monbiot finishes debunking some of the crazier aspects of right wing doctrine, the article does touch upon something far more important: where are the left in all of this?
All politics demands faith. We judge our elected representatives on the things they say and the policies they promise to push. Once they have been elected, barring serious misdemeanours, they have their term regardless of whether they live up to their promises in parliament or not. Just look at the discontent amongst both sides of the coalition government in the UK, where some Tories feel they are being emasculated by the Lib Dems and some Lib Dems feel that they are aiding the Tories in the implementation of regressive social policies. To a greater or lesser extent, we too take what we read in the media or hear from politicians as truth; we too are coloured by ideological convictions which we are unwilling to give up. As much as we may like to think that politics is the preserve of reason and logical argumentation, this is simply not enough; the pragmatist is always devoid of principle, and the principled always devoid of pragmatism. More than that, democratic politics is a communicative business, and statistics and reason, rarely seduce us in the same way as a bit of good, old fashioned rabble-rousing. We quickly forget the double standards that mean the skilled orator of the Republican right is more often than not seen as a populist tub-thumper, while when Obama makes Democrats swoon with a rhetorical flourish he is the reincarnation of Cicero.
Politics should sell us hope, and this is what movements like the Tea Party have done. Yes their policies are often bigoted and narrow-minded, and they have utilised, with stunning success, the politics of fear, so well developed on both sides of the Atlantic during the war on terror. But the left has utterly failed to create an equally seductive alternative.
The left has always had its problems. Since the very beginning it has been marred by the sort of schisms that religion would be proud of. Perestroika though, was the tipping point. Once all could see the body count of communist dictatorship, it busied itself with the humble hand-wringing that befits a rudderless ideology. Now it is the far right that has the answers. The left has backed itself into the corner of being able say only what it is against; it is remarkably negative in nature and allows the right to set the agenda. The left is still inside a moment of existential crisis like Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis, and therefore producing articles such as David Miliband’s for the New Statesman, trying to establish what the Labour Party are about. Instead of engaging with movements like the Tea Party it is too concerned with its own navel, and dismissively sniggers, telling itself that these people have lost touch with reality and are not worth the effort; they reject the very people they should be striving to help and wonder why they are in decline. Before we, on the left, smirk patronisingly at these groups, we should take a long hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘if these people really will believe anything, why don’t they believe us?’
Declarations on the death of literature in the electronic age seem to be a common strand of thought amongst pessimistic souls. But in reality, doubts about the place and value of literature have arisen ever since its beginning. When Terence proclaimed that ‘nothing is said that has not been said before’ in the 2nd Century BC, he hinted at a fundamental truth of art.
Earlier this morning I came across this article on Jonathan Franzen and the e-book. It struck me that in an age when novels like Freedom, (no more than an above average trouble-in-suburbia yarn) are decisive moments in Western civilisation, (between the discerning reader and I, Revolver was always the real masterpiece), comparable to Proust or Kafka, the temporality of the medium is the least of our concerns. For me, like Franzen, a real page-turner rather than a virtual one is a necessity, because a book is a physical and aesthetic experience as well. But the words are always more important. A far more interesting question, I think, is how literature needs to evolve to make sense to a reader in a digital medium.
Only six years ago I used to write everything by hand; I have an aversion to computers to this day. Now when I switch back to pen and paper it is a completely different experience. The writer’s fear of the blank page is all the more acute somehow when there are no distractions; no excuses. There is an overpowering need for accuracy and immediacy at the same time, coexisting within the individual hand across virginal paper. Of course writing is writing and words are words, but the act of writing on a computer comes with a change in the mental process of writing. To write long pieces by hand becomes almost impossible, for me at least, because it requires a great deal of patience and forethought, which have all but gone.
This logic can be extended to reading in a different medium. E-books provide a different experience to the printed word, which cannot be reduced to equivalency. Moreover, e-books may well be the future of literature. As ever greater parts of our daily life become digitised, who is to say that in fifty years the book as we know it may be extinct?
Novels have always projected theories of self. We can see this if we compare ancient literature such as Beowulf with the forms of today. What becomes clear is that in literary forms such as Beowulf, character does not exist as such; they are wholly secondary, ciphers exploring broad themes. With the advent of the European novel, the representation of character becomes holistic, meaning that the story works on two levels: on the level of plot and the level of the individual. Even the most basic, plot-driven thriller requires a character with a personal life and inner feelings.
Gradually, this process of evolution has displaced plot in modern literature. Think for example, of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway where the plot, insofar as we can call it that, is simply Mrs Dalloway’s preparation for a party; or Kafka’s The Castle in which the hapless land surveyor K, is sent to the castle only to find that due to a bureaucratic error, (or rather the lack of one), he has no job to perform. Even the realist novels of the nineteenth century, concern themselves far less with plot, which tends to be formulaic, in return for a greater realism of setting and self.
If, then, the job of the novel is to represent an individual’s inner-life, how does this translate to the twenty-first century? Who are the practitioners and in what form do they work?
The pace of change into digitisation has been remarkable; perhaps too quick for the invention of a new literary style that can accommodate it. It is almost as if literature is waiting for it to settle before it dips its toe in the water. That is of course not to say that there have not been developments, but writers such as W.G. Sebald and Herta Müller read almost like a coda to a time long gone. Recent efforts to chronicle modern life such as Franzen’s Freedom have been commendable, but conventional works in the Great American Novel tradition of Philip Roth. To my mind no writer has begun to fully explore 21st Century man or the possibilities of 21st Century mediums; in short what great art should do. Could, for example, Satie’s musique d’ameublement have come to be without the availability of the gramophone or without an understanding of contemporary life?
The prolonged fin-de-siècle that we are currently experiencing has hung over some of the ‘classical arts’ far longer than any fin-de-siècle should. The flexibility, interactivity and even the disposability of digital mediums are all aspects of the modern landscape which need to be explored in order to rejuvenate modern literature.
‘If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury. […] And it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto me, that I will hear: for I am gracious.’
I’ve intended to write this post for a while, but always struggled with a structure. A few weeks ago I re-read Ezra Pound’s Canto XLV and began to think about the link between usury, (to loan money at excessive interest), and the financial crisis. It seems to me that the actions of the banks that facilitated the subprime mortgage crisis, and those which were so extraordinarily exposed to risk as to make any downturn almost unmanageable, were guilty of the deed which God forsook on Mount Sinai.
Usury has had a complex and remarkable history in Western culture. What was once the preserve of persecuted Jews, unable, by law, to undertake many jobs reserved for Christians, has become the very foundation of the modern world. When Zizek claimed that people now have a harder time envisioning the end of capitalism than an imminent, environmental apocalypse, how many of us could envision a world without debtor and creditor? Over the course of three posts I would like to trace the changing fortune of usury within European culture, focusing on three canonical texts of western literature: Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Pound’s Cantos. How has the depiction of, and attitude towards, usury changed in the years covered in these texts? This post then is a quick introduction of sorts, and we should start from the beginning.
The stigma historically attached to usury stems from the perception that it is an entirely avaricious endeavour, relying on the exploitation of others’ labour for personal gain; a mixture of greed and sloth. Money lending was not uncommon in antiquity and was the business of private individuals with massive personal wealth; but the lack of regulation of any kind meant that it was often times the road to serfdom. Church decrees imposed increasingly stringent measures to stamp the practice out, meaning that by the early 14th Century, to believe in the right to usury was an act of heresy and punishable as such.
But to chart a cultural history of usury is also implicitly a discussion of anti-semitism. The theme will crop up many times, in the examination of The Merchant of Venice and The Cantos especially, and has been well documented in academic literature. We should perhaps discuss this here.
The key link between usury and anti-semitism is evident in the quotation which started this post: ‘If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer.’ Ever since this point, the stereotype of the ‘shylock’ has been at the forefront of European bigotry. Take for example, these famous lines from T.S. Eliot’s Gerontion (1920):
My house is a decayed house,
And the Jew squats on the window-sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.’
The juxtaposition of civilisation’s ruin, (a theme which would later be developed in The Waste Land (1922) and The Hollow Men (1925) and his sublime religious poetry, especially Ash Wednesday and The Four Quartets), with the motif of the Jewish landlord (read IMF official, hedge fund manager, ratings agency, national government) presiding over the carnage, are evident, and also of note is that in London and Brussels we have two of the highest seats in western colonialism; the very darkest form of acquisition through exploitation. In its way the lines resemble the reactionary thinking of the German right during the decadence of the Weimar years.
But usury, more than merely the business of lending money, also creates a hierarchy of relationships, as can be seen above. Finally then, discussions of usury are also implicitly of insider and outsider. The lines from Exodus clearly delineate ‘my people’ from others; the anti-semite the same logic; usury, the rich from the poor and so on.
We’ll pay attention to these aspects when we start with The Inferno. For now though a quick question: Dante was Florentine, The Merchant of Venice is set in Italy and The Cantos were written in Italy. Any ideas?
The rules of coalition politics are much the same as those of a functioning relationship*: avoid commitment while generating a narrative, (if need be indulging in a little well intentioned deceit). Why, when a general election is a maximum of three years away, make commitments which will in all likelihood be redundant by the time you are asked to account for them? One moment’s sweet nothings are another moment’s canon fodder. The answer given by any commitment-shy individual to the question ‘where is this going?’ is almost always essentially along the lines of, ‘somewhere good.’ While Ed Miliband may have mastered the art of connubial bliss, politically he has a long way to go.
Of course non-committal-commitment is easier in theory than it is in practice, and, like most things in politics, (and perhaps relationships too come to think of it), its success relies to a large extent on a great deal charisma and a winning smile, (it certainly wasn’t his attention to detail that won Tony Blair ten years in office). But if that golden balance can’t be maintained, as a rule of thumb, flimsy policies are preferable to none. Perhaps people will forget, or better, be too caught up in the ineptitude of others to take much notice. ‘Of course we can’t afford to give each pensioner a yacht in the Maldives, but look at his costly war in Iran!’ (I, for one, would not put it past them).
The wrong way to go about it, is to have no policies and then try to compensate by suddenly endorsing public sector pay freezes, alienating what conservative estimates put at just under half, and slightly more ambitious one’s put at around 80%, of your funding. I’m certainly yet to find that remarkably successful couple in which an individual who refuses to tell their partner ‘what they want from this relationship’, suddenly announces that it is to put them on a drastic diet for the New Year.
This surprising development was, of course, not so surprising. Since the heyday of Thatcherism, the British public have been decidedly uncomfortable with unions. No wonder then that once Ed procured for himself a union mistress to better his brother in the Labour party leadership race, (out of 635 Labour constituencies he won first-preference votes in only 72, but managed to secure 19.9% of the union’s first-preferences votes to David Miliband’s 13.4%), he wasn’t so keen on being seen in public with her, and, as Betty Wright well knew, being the other woman comes with conditions. The TUC isn’t getting any TLC from Ed.
Some within Labour see this as a godsend. If the electorate sees economic viability as incompatible with union demands, then loosening ties is no bad thing. In response to Len McCluskey’s predictably incendiary (yet no less hilarious for it) letter to the Guardian, Alan Johnson replied in the same paper with an article warning against the unions’ return to the ‘fantasy utopianism’ of the 1970’s and a ‘delusional left who will never gain the public’s trust.’ Regardless, Miliband runs the risk of seeming fickle and without substance, especially as he previously described public sector pay freezes as an ‘ideological attack’ and ‘wrong’. As Mitt Romney is quickly learning in the GOP candidacy race: in politics, being seen as a ‘politician’ is not necessarily a good thing.
The next three years are going to be a test for Miliband’s political skills. Balancing the demands of the unions with those of the electorate will become increasingly difficult the more prominent industrial action becomes, and regardless of what he may say, he needs the unions’ support. Add to that his glaring lack of charisma and the lingering feeling of fratricide and 2012 could be his making or breaking. But at least his wife still loves him.
*Disclaimer: Relationship advise from this contributor may be damaging to actual relationships. Please consult a professional before use.