“Great bulk, huge mass, thesaurus;
Ecbatan, the clock ticks and fades out
The bride awaiting the god’s touch; Ecbatan,
City of patterned streets; again the vision:” –
Ezra Pound, Canto V
Is it possible to present a fully formed Eschatology in four lines of verse? After all, great works like Revelation require half a thousand verses to tell their tale. But surprisingly, the answer is, “Yes!” And Ezra Pound has done it (above)…once you unpack all the allusions and references contained in those four lines.
Ecbatan (‘Ecbatana’) is an ancient city on the Silk Road, located in modern day Iran. It was the capital city of the Empire of the Medes. In Canto LXXIV, Pound refers to Ecbatan as “the city of Dioce”, the first ruler of the Medes.
It is at least remotely possible that this is also the city that the authors of Genesis attributed to Cain and his sons when Cain became a ‘wanderer’ and ‘settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden’ and ‘became the founder of a city’.
But what makes Ecbatan so important is not primarily its great age, nor its role in history and mythology; what makes Ecbatan important is its layout. Ecbatan consists of 7 concentric rings, demarcated by walls. Each wall is higher than the next and each a different color. The penultimate wall is silver and the final wall gold; and within that wall, the Palace.
“Ecbatan, City of patterned streets…”
Inside these walls run those “patterned streets”. The 7 rings of Ecbatan call to mind the 7 rings of the then known solar system. In Canto LXXIV, the first of the so-called Pisan Cantos, Pound confirms that association when he sets forth in a single line of verse his entire cosmo-political platform: “To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of stars.”
Ezra Pound’s Cantos are at least ab initio modeled after the 100 cantos that form Dante’s Divine Comedy. To understand Pound’s project, it is essential to understand Dante’s.
Unlike Pound, Dante is the hero of his own epic. His ‘odyssey’ begins “in the middle of the journey of our life…within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” He is then conducted by a series of ‘guides’ through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and finally Heaven (Paradiso).
Along the way, Dante encounters persons from early Renaissance Italy, the classical world, salvation history and the church. Their life stories supply the stuff of his epic. Pound likewise weaves cultural and historical events on an eschatological loom. But compared to Dante, Pound casts a much, much wider net. There is hardly a region of the globe or a period of history that does not contribute content to Pound’s epic.
And while Dante tells the story of ‘Earth as it is in Heaven’, Pound tells the story of ‘Heaven as it is on Earth’. For Dante, the 7 rings of the solar system were patterned after the 7 rings of Paradise; but Pound turns that relationship upside down…and inside out. Ecbatan may share the 7 ringed pattern of the solar system but Paradise shares the 7 ringed pattern of Ecbatan!
If Ecbatan is ‘Enoch’, the city of Cain, that would make Cain the world’s first urban planner. But even if there is no such association, being the first ‘founder of a city’ makes Cain responsible for developing and introducing the technology that would ultimately have made Ecbatan possible. Either way, Ecbatan (like all cities) traces back to Cain.
The theological implications of this are enormous. In Genesis, Cain is presented as committing the first great sin in historical time (i.e. post-Eden). How fitting then, from the perspective of Judeo-Christian eschatology, that Cain be responsible, directly or indirectly, for building the post-historical Eden, Ecbatan, Paradise!
This is the Judeo-Christian message of salvation in a nutshell. God does not just passively forgive the sinner; God empowers the sinner to become a co-creator of Paradise. We partner with God in the redemption of the world and we are led in this venture by Jesus, aka Christ, aka Redeemer. This is the essence of the theological virtue of hope: not just that our sins will be wiped away but that our lives will actually be redeemed. “I know that my Redeemer lives and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust…(and) I will see God.” (Job 19: 25 – 26)
The Judeo-Christian tradition (including Dante) understands God as “the creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible” (Nicene Creed). Pound joins Alfred North Whitehead, perhaps Carl Jung, and a very few others in reversing that process. For these visionaries, the world in some sense ‘creates God’; or at least there is a mutually creative relationship between the two!
Ecbatan of the Cantos is Pound’s version of Dante’s Paradise. It is not a model for Paradise, it IS Paradise. There are no ‘models’ in Pound! The concept of a model necessarily introduces the notion of an ontological hierarchy (“the map is not the territory”). Pound rejects that idea categorically. In Cantos the mythological, the historical, the fictional, the experiential, the theological and the eschatological share a common ontological status and co-exist on one great ontologically democratic plane of being.
Of course, Ecbatan is Paradise seen from an eschatological perspective. Pity the lowly camel driver resting on the star colored terraces of the Median capital, not understanding that he is living in Paradise; pity the frenzied investment banker racing across Manhattan in a cab, still not understanding. Some Christians are fond of saying, “Repent and hear the Good News!” Perhaps we might rephrase, “Read Pound and live the Good News!”
Of course, Ecbatan is a once and future city, a once and future Paradise. Throughout Cantos, Pound rhymes the historical Ecbatan with other cities; for example, Wagadu, capital of the Ghanian Empire, four times rebuilt. The message is clear and consistent. We all share a common eschatological imperative, “To build the city of Dioce…”
Canto V is the Cliff’s Notes version of Pound’s Paradiso; the Paradiso proper begins with the first Pisan Canto (Canto LXXIV), which refers back to Canto V, and occupies most of the rest of Pound’s work. But is it the case that these 4 lines from Canto V constitute by themselves a complete and fully developed eschatology? To make that case, we need to unpack each line, beginning with:
“Great bulk, huge mass, thesaurus;”
Parmenides, the first Western philosopher to leave extant a significant body of work, presented reality under two aspects, the aspect of Truth (Aletheia) and the aspect of Appearance (Doxa). These two complementary, but mutually exclusive, aspects are both required in order to build a viable model of reality. Aletheia is Parmenides’ Eschaton; Doxa, his History.
Parmenides describes ‘Aletheia’ as follows:
“It is not divisible…but it is full of what is…it is not lacking but if it were, it would lack everything…It is completed from every direction like the bulk of a well-rounded sphere, everywhere from the center equally matched…equal to itself from every direction.”
The mini-Paradiso found in Canto V immediately links Pound to the philosophical tradition of Parmenides. Like Aletheia, Ecbatan is massive and symmetrical. Parmenides says that Aletheia lacks nothing because, if it lacked anything, it would lack everything. The same may be said of Ecbatan; above all else, it is complete!
But while Aletheia is changeless, things according to the “way of appearance” (Doxa) “come to be and perish, be and not be, shift place and exchange bright color” (aka attributes). This behavior is at the root of all the dissonance and conflict in our everyday experience.
In the “Doxa” fragments of On Nature, Parmenides dwells on the role that “naming” plays in shattering the homogeneity of ‘Truth’ into the seemingly endless variety of ‘Appearance’. For example:
“Thus according to belief, these things were born and now are, and hereafter, having grown from this, they will come to an end. And for each of these did men establish a distinctive name.”
Certain African and Australasian cultures believe that the process of naming (Namo) can actually make things come to be. Pound cites the story of “Wanjina” (Wondjina) whose father sowed up his mouth because he was making too many things. Parmenides would agree wholeheartedly. The “thrusting forth” of things that “come to be” (Fragment 11) is either caused by or chronicled by the development of the dictionary. The size of a dictionary is a good measure of the immersion of its readers in Doxa.
Hence “Thesaurus”! Thesaurus is the antonym of Dictionary. A dictionary records distinctions; a thesaurus, on the other hand, resolves those distinctions by finding commonality.
On the one hand, Dictionary smashes the crystal vase of ‘Aletheia’ against the rocks of empiricism and pragmatism and reduces it to tiny shards of glass (doxa). Thesaurus, on the other hand, painstakingly matches those shards with one another until the vase is whole again (aletheia). Entropy…and negentropy.
But the reconstructed vase is not quite the same as the original vase. While the shape and volume are still the same, and while the vase can still hold water, now you can see the outline of each and every shard that makes it up. The new vase is vastly more beautiful and interesting…and much, much more valuable; it is the product of negentropy. This is why reality requires both Aletheia and Doxa in order to maximize coherence and intensity.
Compare this with the creation narrative in Genesis. Words play an important role in God’s creative process: “Let there be light…God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness he called ‘night’…God called the dome ‘sky’…God called the dry land ‘earth’ and the basin of water he called ‘sea’.”
Creation is the process of distinction; it is the living dictionary. Salvation reverses that process; it is a way of harmonizing apparent conflicts into mere contrasts. Salvation is the living thesaurus.
“Ecbatan, the clock ticks and fades out”
In Paradise there is no time; everything is a-temporal (or e-ternal). When the clock takes its final tick and fades out, eternity begins. Ecbatan, city of patterned streets, is timeless. It substitutes the pattern of its streets and terraces for the historical flow of time. Ecbatan is living proof that process does not require a temporal component.
When we speak of Ecbatan, we are not just talking about an historical city or some ‘kingdom (to) come’; Ecbatan is what it is, what there is, all there is, now and forever. Process is two dimensional. On one axis, process is change (Heraclitus), growth, evolution; on the other, process is harmonization (Whitehead), pattern building.
Today, we rely heavily on clocks to help us get where we’re supposed to be, when we were supposed to be there. But at the time of my childhood, kids didn’t always have ready access to clocks (or watches). No matter, you were still expected to be home on time. So without thinking about it, we built our own clocks. The progress of the sun in the sky, the changing colors on the horizon, the gas man lighting the street lamps every afternoon, the corporeal sense of time passing. These organic clocks worked just as well as Timex, often better.
Through all this, it never occurred to us that time might be nothing other than the clocks (natural or man made) we used to measure it. We took it for granted that time was something objective, that it formed the background of all things. In recent years, however, cosmologists have suggested that this might not be the case. Roger Penrose, for example, suggests that once we are unable to construct a ‘clock’ to measure time, time will cease to exist. Others have suggested that objective time is nothing other than an abstraction from the variable organic ‘durations’ of events superimposed on one another.
Pound predates Penrose by decades. Yet he uses Penrose’s imagery. When the last clock ticks its last tick, time ends and eternity begins: Ecbatan.
“The bride awaiting the god’s touch; Ecbatan…”
This evokes the image of Mary being touched by the Holy Spirit at the moment of Incarnation and of the Church as the “Bride of Christ”. Ecbatan is Mater Dei (mother of God), Ecbatan is Church. Ecbatan is the physical, corporeal substructure of Paradise.
Over and over again in Cantos Pound writes, “Le Paradis n’est pas artificiel.” It must be physical and historical…it is Mary’s womb, Christ’s Church, Ecbatan.
“City of patterned streets; again the vision:”
The ‘vision’ Pound refers to is Dante’s vision in Canto XXXIII, the final canto, of his Paradiso:
“O abounding grace by which I dared
to fix my look on the eternal light
so long that I spent all my sight upon it.
In its depth I saw that it contained,
bound by love in one volume
that which is scattered in leaves through the universe,
substances and accidents and their relations
as it were fused together in such a way
that what I tell of is a simple light.”
Dante rejects the Heraclitian model of continuous process. In Dante’s vision all of the events, entities and aspects of the world are organized as “leaves”. Pound’s Cantos recapitulate Dante’s vision using Pound’s own seemingly inexhaustible mine of ‘leaves…substances and accidents and their relations’.
Cantos consist entirely of such leaves, ‘fused together’, built into ‘a simple light’. Unique among authors, Pound avoids the temptation to add personal commentary, emotional shading, ideas, spin; instead, he literally lets the thing speak for itself (ipse loquitur).
In the visual arts, the 19th century saw objects dissolve into pure ‘impressions’. Starting with Cezanne, progressing through the Cubists and culminating in Surrealism and Dada, the 20th century reversed that process. It focused on the thing itself, releasing the object from its utilitarian context and allowing it to tell its own story. Pound performed a parallel function in the literary arena.
Ideally, to read the Cantos would be to have the ‘vision’, Dante’s vision. Both Dante and Pound fixed their looks on the eternal light and saw that it contained that which is scattered in leaves through the universe; both Dante and Pound attempt to bind these leaves “by love in one volume…in such a way that what I tell of is a simple light”.
Pound confirms: “I have tried to write Paradise.” (Canto CXX)
To write Paradise, to build light, is everyone’s highest calling. But it is the nature of the human condition that no one will ever succeed, at least not completely. It is for God alone to write Paradise, to build light (fiat lux)…but that does not mean that we are not all called to do everything we can do in pursuit of that elusive goal. Like Cain, we contribute what we can to the Eschaton. (Le Paradis n’est pas artificiel!) And we humbly beg forgiveness for what we fail to do.
In this context, Canto CXX is worth reproducing in its entirety:
I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
Let the wind speak
That is Paradise
Let the Gods forgive what I have made
Let those I love try to forgive what I have made.