Oct 15, 2022
Ecbatan may share the seven-ringed pattern of the solar system, but Paradise shares the seven-ringed pattern of Ecbatan!
“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 just 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 we’ll see that Ezra Pound has done it (above)…once we 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. It is the apex of City Planning.
Ecbatan consists of seven concentric rings, demarcated by walls. Moving inward, each wall is higher than the next and each a different color. The penultimate wall is silver, the final wall gold, and within that wall, the palace.
Inside these walls run those “patterned streets.” The seven rings of Ecbatan call to mind the seven 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 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 straightway 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.
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 seven rings of the solar system were patterned after the seven rings of Paradise; but Pound turns that relationship upside down…and inside out:
Ecbatan may share the seven-ringed pattern of the solar system, but Paradise shares the seven-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 a post-historical Eden, Ecbatan!
Ecbatan 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 the Christ, our Redeemer.
This is the essence of the theological virtue of hope: not only that our sins will be wiped away, but also that our lives will be redeemed. With Job, we affirm, “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)
In this context, it is useful to compare Cantos to another great work of literature, the New Testament Book of Revelation. Paul tells us that only three things will last: faith, hope, and love. Literature is full of books about faith and love, but hope sometimes gets short-shrift.
What it lacks in quantity, it makes up in quality; hope is the central theme of three of Western civilization’s greatest works: the Book of Revelation, The Divine Comedy, and the Cantos of Ezra Pound.
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.
Anthropologists report that many aboriginal societies do not distinguish what happens in history from what happens in dreams or in spiritual experiences. (Read “Speaking Piraha” for reference.) Like Pound, they are ontological democrats!
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. 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: Ecbatan is not just a place, it is a mission. Ultimately, we all share a common eschatological imperative, “To build the city of Dioce…” (Not ‘rebuild’ but ‘build!’) The city of Dioce (the Kingdom of Heaven) is only built once, for all time and eternity.
Pound’s ‘Paradiso’ begins in earnest with the first Pisan Canto (Canto LXXIV). We now see Canto V (above) as the Cliff’s Notes version of Pound’s later cantos. Note that the map (Canto V) precedes the territory (Canto LXXIV & ff).
But is it the case, stated above, that four lines from Canto V constitute a complete and fully developed eschatology? To make that case, we’ll 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, but that conflict is the raw material of contrast, which is the source of all intensity.
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 ‘Appearances.’ 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 sewed 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 common ground. On the one hand, dictionary smashes the crystal vase of Aletheia against the rocks of English Empiricism and American Pragmatism, reducing it to so many shards of glass (Doxa). Thesaurus, on the other hand, painstakingly matches those shards with one another until the vase is whole again (Aletheia).
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. Reality requires both Aletheia and Doxa to optimize coherence and maximize 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 atemporal (eternal). When the clock ticks for the final time, it fades out and eternity begins. Ecbatan, city of patterned streets, is that ‘final tick;’ it is the membrane between history and eternity. The pattern of its streets and terraces replaces the historical flow of events.
A vertical architecture replaces a horizontal flow. Ecbatan is proof that process is not dependent on time.
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 bi-directional. 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 when I was growing up, 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’ (sic) lighting the streetlamps every afternoon, the corporeal sense of time passing. For all the hours we spent each week in church, we were nothing but a bunch of pagans.
These organic clocks worked just as well as any Timex, often better. Through all this, it never occurred to us that time might be nothing other than the clocks (natural or man-made) that we use to measure it. We took it for granted that time was something objective, that it formed the background of all things, that events occur in time.
In recent years, however, cosmologists have suggested that this might not be the case. Roger Penrose, for example, suggests that when we are no longer able 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 folds into eternity.
“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 substructure of Paradise.
Over and over again, Pound writes, “Le Paradis n’est pas artificiel.” It must be physical and historical…it’s Mary’s womb, Christ’s Church, Ecbatan. While no Marxist, Pound wholeheartedly embraced materialism.
“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 Heraclitan 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 treasure trove.
Cantos consists entirely of such ‘leaves,’ ‘fused together’ into ‘a simple light.’ Rare among authors, Pound avoids the temptation to add personal commentary, emotional shading, ‘mere ideas,’ spin; instead, he literally lets the thing speak for itself (ipse loquitur).
In the visual arts, the 19th century saw objects dissolve into 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; 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 ‘create’ light, to build the City of Dioce, that’s 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 create light (fiat lux), to build Paradise, 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, 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.
Illustration taken from Buckingham, J.S. (1829). Travels in Assyria, Media and Persia. Page 159. London.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.