Ezra Pound's "I Gather the Limbs of Osiris" is explained and discussed; two lessons are synthesized.
Monday, 2010-01-04 | Literature, On Writing Well, The Limbs of Osiris
Permit me one more cumbersome simile, for I am trying to say something about the masterly use of words, and it is not easy.
I don't usually dedicate essays, but this one is dedicated to two anonymous essayists. The first is an old friend with whom I haven't had the privilege of speaking in a great while; he opposed the "symptomatic" to the "donative" on a recent call and, having not heard such language in what feels like a lifetime, I immediately recalled half a dozen unwritten essays and felt an urgent need to make some kind of amends. The second anonymous essayist has just started a new blog of his own; his inaugural post provided me with the punchline and pith of the following essay.
The inevitable glut of "reflection", "a look back", "in review" and top-N pieces that one encounters on the Internets as the new year approaches and begins reflects the a fact of the human experience: the "new year" bug is crazy infectious.
Even I've got the bug! But rather than a reflection on the 21st century so far, a look back on the naughts, a 2009 in review or anything like that, I've been reflecting in my private moments on the 20th century. Insofar as there now seems to be a genuine distance between us and the 1900's--the past 10 years have made us into serene, wizened survivors where we were once frantic, wide-eyed refugees--it seems appropriate to really look back at it and treat it like history, rather than memory.
And If you're looking for bright spots among the genocides, world wars and plagues that comprise the history of the uniquely bleak and disastrous 20th century, one that stands out and shines slightly brighter than any others is the literature. Rapid innovations in publishing and printing technology meant that more writing got into print; with more writing in general, came more good writing (by simple probability) and while gallons and gallons of ink were clearly wasted in the effort of realizing mankind's shared nightmare of fully-mechanized world-wide (atomic and conventional) warfare, at least a thimble-full of ink was spent on great manifestos, excellent drama and captivating essays. The essays, specifically, are some of the best that men ever wrote: there's a degree of historical self-awareness and perspicacity in the essays of the 20th century that you don't really see in the essays of previous centuries.
And, of course, one of the great essays from the period is Pound's I Gather the Limbs of Osiris. It's one of the great, undiscovered manifestos from the age of manifestos that, as I intend to demonstrate, offers both a timeless and a timely lesson. Moreover, it's an essay I've been meaning to write about for quite a while now, so what I've got to say has been incubating.
...and has been incubating (if I might lapse momentarily into the vernacular) for a minute.
Pound's essay, which actually began as a collection of essays (but which nowadays almost always appears in collections and anthologies as a single, unified work), recommends a certain method of scholarship which Pound suggests was not novel or new, but which simply was not the current (or previous, for that matter) fashion. The big idea is that scholarship should be more like artistic composition and, rather than presenting a synthesized point, e.g. a thesis or a dogma or a maxim, and rather than presenting all the details of a topic in full, effective scholarship should rely on what the author calls "luminous detail" to accomplish its goals.*
A luminous detail, to summarize Pound's position, is the sort of detail which conjures (and "conjure", while it is not a word he uses, is certainly a correct word) a whole universe or constellation of related ideas ("circumadjacent" is the word he uses to define the relationship) but which intentionally does not seek to name or define any or all of these related ideas. This luminous detail also does not summarize or seek to encapsulate an entire phenomenon. Rather than any of these things, a luminous detail is the sort of detail--represented by the scholar to the student as an anecdote, maybe, or a snippet of verse or a video clip or whatever--that lives very much in the moment, depending on what the scholar and the student for its instructional worth and educational value.
But this is starting to sound like a bunch of Hallmark Zen, so here it behooves us to briefly reconsider the Egyptian tale whence Pound arrives at his essay's name.
In the old story, Osiris is slain, hacked to pieces and scattered all over mythic Egypt. Isis, his widow, endeavors to give him a proper burial, even though she doesn't know where all of his pieces lie.† She must do this in order for him to pass into the afterlife; one could not pass into the Egyptian world of the dead unless he had all of his various bits and pieces. As Isis travels the land, rather than carrying around a bunch of corpse-chunks, she shrewdly buries each piece as she finds it. In so doing, she makes of Egypt a land of pyramids and obelisks, caryatids and sphinges. Each monument she erects during her journey, then, performs two epistemic functions: 1.) it anchors Osiris to his afterlife and 2.) it forms the famous Egyptian landscape where monuments and tombs endure forever (e.g. the Giza pyramids or the tomb of Tutankhamen) in the mind and in the real world while daily structures are transitory, fleeting and lost to the metaphorical sands of time and the literal sands of the desert.
In short, she makes Osiris' existence permanent by guaranteeing his passage to the afterlife and she also creates the image/ideal of Egypt, i.e. of a land where the permanence of death (as symbolized in those indomitable and ubiquitous death memorials) is its most important, potent and visible symbol.
And this is where we segue back into Pound's essay, for one of the big ideas in I Gather the Limbs of Osiris is that beyond mere factual honesty, i.e. a complete and total recounting of all facts, regardless of how irrelevant they may seem, there is a thing he calls "accuracy of sentiment" that characterizes the luminous detail.
Just as there is more to Osiris than the pieces of his body, there is certainly much more to Egyptian life and the Egyptian landscape than death monuments, but the monuments are the luminous detail that is able to convey so much more about the people, the landscape and the gods than a full reckoning of each could ever convey. And this is precisely because, since they are but a single detail that summons to mind a whole grip of circumadjacent details, they make fewer details explicit and allow more implications to suggest themselves.
And so, finally, the timeless lesson that I mentioned above is this: accuracy of sentiment comes, as Pound insists, from knowing one's task and understanding one's medium. He summarizes this point by contrast when he says that the "reasons why good description makes bad poetry, and why painters who insist on painting ideas instead of pictures offend so many, are not far to seek." Basically, if you don't know what you're doing because you don't care enough about the work to a.) use the language that pertains or b.) invent a new language where one is wanting, then your work will suffer: if you are in any wise disingenuous with yourself and anything less than totally aware of your tools and your medium, then your work is dishonest work and will illuminate little more than your own dishonesty.
And so, what Pound argues for is something that you might catch me referring to as "intellectual honesty", which is something that Paul Newman's "Fast" Eddie Felson says better than I could ever say it:
You know, like anything can be great: anything can be great. I don't care--bricklaying can be great, if a guy knows. If he knows what he's doing and why and if he can make it come off. When I'm going, I mean, when I'm really going I feel like a jockey must feel. He's sitting on his horse, he's got all that speed and that power underneath him, he's coming into the stretch, the pressure's on him, and he knows--just feels--when to let it go and how much. Because he's got everything working for him: timing, touch. It's a great feeling, boy: it's a real great feeling when you're right and you know you're right.When a guy knows "what he's doing and why" and if he knows exactly how to do it, that's a guy who is, at least for that moment in time, possess the kind of intellectual honesty required to muster the accuracy of sentiment required to present a truly luminous detail and say something that says more than you could ever hope to say (even if you spent all day tapping furiously at your keys).
That lesson is indeed timeless, for it applies to you, me and Fast Eddie through the universe and in perpetuity.
The timely lesson of Pound's essay has to do with the simple fact that the current season--the season of the New Year in the Western tradition--is a time of widespread dishonesty as, indeed, the most famous and widely observed traditions associated with the season of the New Year are famous for the dishonesty they encourage; New Year's Eve ("Amateur Night", as my grandfather calls it) celebrations and New Year's Resolutions both are good examples how the season is generally understood as a celebration of dishonesty, deception and the inevitability of personal vice.
Yes, the necessity and rarity of the honest pursuit of the luminous detail are both handily illustrated by the lolling heads and gurgling languor of amateur drunks and the fat asses of misshapen wage slaves yammering on about their personal fitness plans between fistfuls of malted corn snack: the timely lesson of Pound's I Gather the Limbs of Osiris is that even if you're as totally helpless as the next drunken fat-ass to be honest with your self about yourself, you can at least be honest in your work.
Indeed, honest work is the gift you give yourself.
* Which, obviously, are to "make a man more efficiently useful to the community", which grows increasingly sophisticated and increasingly capable of increasing its own sophistication: here, Pound is suggesting that there's a sort of intellectual/social Moore's Law in effect, and that in order to grapple successfully with the exponential growth of worldwide social and intellectual sophistication, a more effective means of education must be propagated. There is simply too much to know to study everything atomically; an intelligent and effective shorthand must be propagated.
† A thing worth noticing here is that in ancient Egypt, where participation in the afterlife required that one's entire Earthly remains be preserved and buried within close proximity to one another, it was imperative to commemorate and entomb each piece of the sundered god. Contrast this with, say, a Japanese Buddhist samurai taken in battle and allowed to perform ritual suicide: in the case of the samurai, only his head (or some other small memento: kamikaze pilots in later centuries sent finger and toe nail clippings along to loved ones) and the tale of his honorable death would be delivered to his next of kin, as the story of his good death was really all that was required for him to pass gracefully into the his next life. In the Egpytian case, there is a semiotics of ceremonial burial unlike the Japanese case that in and of itself illustrates the difference between Pound's theory of luminous detail. In the Egyptian case, there is a consonance between physical form (i.e. objective reality) and metaphorical impact; in the Japanese case, physical form is irrelevant and the metaphor is everything. A luminous detail, being an objective reality, argues forcefully for the existence of the things to which it is circumadjacent; pedagogies that do not rely upon luminous details, just like the Japanese memorial, do not depend so utterly upon a real, phenomenal relationship between the idea and its circumadjacent ideas.