“With usura,” wrote Ezra Pound:
hath no man a house of good stone each block cut smooth and well fitting that design might cover their face.
By usura, Pound meant usury, or the lending of money at an interest—not just an exorbitantly high rate of interest, as in the modern usage of the word usury, but any interest at all. He goes on:
with usura hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall no picture is made to endure nor to live with but it is made to sell and sell quickly with usura, sin against nature.
In the 1920s, Pound had come to believe, as many still do, that international banking was a source of great evil. He used the Italian word usura because it was in Italy that the story had begun. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a web of credit was spun out across Europe, northward to London, east as far as Constantinople, west to Barcelona, south to Naples and Cyprus. At the heart of this dark web of usura lay Florence. But in the same period, and above all in the century that followed, the Tuscan city also produced some of the finest painting and architecture the world has ever seen. Never had stone blocks been cut more smoothly, never were finer paradises painted on church walls. Pound, it seems, got it wrong. With usura we have the Renaissance, no less.
Usury alters things. With interest rates, money is no longer a simple and stable metal commodity that just happens to have been chosen as a means of exchange. Projected through time, it multiplies, and this without any toil on the part of the usurer. Everything becomes more fluid. A man can borrow money, buy a loom, sell his wool at a high price, change his station in life. Another man can borrow money, buy the first man’s wool, ship it abroad, and sell it at an even higher price. He moves up the social scale. Or if he is unlucky, or foolish, he is ruined. Meanwhile, the usurer, the banker, grows richer and richer. We can’t even know how rich, because money can be moved and hidden, and gains on financial transactions are hard to trace. It’s pointless to count his sheep and cattle or to measure how much land he owns. Who will make him pay his tithe? Who will make him pay his taxes? Who will persuade him to pay some attention to his soul when life has become so interesting? With usury, things are getting out of hand.
Contro natura! thunders the Church—against nature. In Dante’s hell, sodomites and usurers are punished in the same place, the third ditch of the seventh circle where flakes of burning ash sift on an unnatural landscape of scorching sand for all eternity. The sodomites are forced to exist (how can we say live?) in an unnatural perpetual motion. The usurers are forced to sit unnaturally still, as they did at their accounts. Only their hands move rapidly and unnaturally, as once they moved counting coins or writing bills that have no currency beyond the grave.
The other inmates of that infernal ditch are the blasphemers; it is unnatural to take the name of your Creator in vain. None of these three sins is considered such today. If a man, today, negotiates a mortgage with a client in the afternoon, has sex with his male lover in the evening, and blurts out, “Christ Almighty!” when the alarm starts him from sleep in the morning, we have no difficulty thinking of him as a decent kind of fellow. Or at least not in the West. In an Islamic state, all three actions are punishable. For the Qur’an will no more permit the lending of money at an interest than it will allow Salman Rushdie to deride the name of Muhammad, or two consenting males to make love. Usury makes money “copulate,” said the theologians, quoting Aristotle. Which is unnatural.
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