Winter 2007–2008

Organized Water

On Agassiz’s flowing prose

Richard Sieburth

In his ABC of Reading (1934), Ezra Pound recounts the following Zen parable:

A post-graduate student equipped with honors and diplomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.

Post-Graduate Student: “That’s only a sunfish.”

Agassiz: “I know that. Write a description of it.”

After a few minutes the student returned with the description of the Ichthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.

Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish.

The student produced a four-page essay. Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it.

The Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) whom Pound revered was the Harvard professor of zoology and geology who insisted that “a physical fact is as sacred as a moral principle.” In other words, a radical empiricist or “magical positivist” (Theodor Adorno’s condescending term for Walter Benjamin) who understood that the truth inhered in the “luminous details” of the object or event at hand and not in the abstractions that might ultimately be derived from it. No ideas but in fish, to paraphrase Pound’s college friend William Carlos Williams. This at least is one way of reading the above parable.

On closer inspection, however, this parable (like the fish in question) decomposes rather quickly when one tries to figure out just how it might hold together as a theory of looking, writing, or knowing—or, for that matter, as a “METHOD for studying poetry and good letters” (which is how Pound allegorically presents it in the first place).

The scene of writing it evokes breaks down into a) the act of naming, b) the act of description. Two kinds of naming occur: “That’s only a sunfish” (as if the object could be exhausted by a common noun). Or the fancy classical proper naming which taxonomists engage in (“Ichthus Heliodiplodokus,” “family of Heliichtherinkus”) in order “to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge”—this is the populist Uncle Ez talking to us here, suspicious of the high-fallutin’ jargon that emanates from beaneries and impatient with all “textbook” knowledge in general, mere fossilizations of the “real” fish. (Was Pound aware that Agassiz made his European reputation by his bravura descriptions of dead fish from Brazil or of the petrified specimens of his Poissons fossiles?)

The grad student says, “That’s only a sunfish.” The master retorts, “I know that,” and then asks the postdoc to show him what he’s got by submitting a description of the fish in question. The student’s first impulse is purely academic and professional: he produces an ichthyological description of the species, genus, and class of the fish and has recourse to the appropriate Linnean binomials—description here merely functioning as an expansion or declension of the learned proper name. Sent back to the drawing boards by the master, the student returns with a four-page essay. Here we move from mere description or naming into something far more “literary”—an experiment in writing, a measuring or assaying of the natural object through the lens of language. But even this falls short. “Agassiz then told him to look at the fish.” And after three weeks of inspection and meditation (i.e. free from the need to name or describe instrumentally), the disciple achieves satori. True insight into fishdom has at last been attained (or, more modestly, the student now knows “something” about this fish)—even if this entails the “advanced decomposition” of the object of knowledge and, presumably, of its subject as well (which leaves us fish-flopping somewhere between Wittgenstein and Heisenberg).

This parable might serve as an introduction to the preceding text by Agassiz, drawn from his Contributions to the Natural History of the United States (1862) and reprinted in Guy Davenport’s The Intelligence of Louis Agassiz: A Specimen Book of Scientific Writings (1963). Davenport initially discovered the work of Agassiz during his visits to Ezra Pound while the latter was incarcerated in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC. Early in his captivity, Pound had supervised a small anthology of writings entitled Gists from Agassiz, or Passages on the Intelligence Working in Nature, published in 1953 as part of the Square Dollar Series edited by John Kasper, the most politically gonzo of Pound’s American disciples, later convicted for anti-integrationist Ku Klux Klan activities in Tennessee. Agassiz also figures prominently in the paradiso of Pound’s late Cantos as a visionary natural philosopher who had managed to decipher and transcribe the Book of Nature as lovingly as the Supreme Intelligence behind its script had intended it to be written and read. Ever the champion of lost causes, Pound chose Agassiz’s Creationism (or Cuvier’s Catastrophism) over Darwin’s Evolutionism for somewhat the same reasons that he preferred Major Douglas to Marx in the domain of economics: largely because his Cantos are more interested in the spatial poetics of fractal patterns of repetition (as discovered in nature or in history) than in Hegelian models of temporal progress or meliorist development.

Despite the animus against representation and mimesis that informs his parable of Agassiz and the Fish, Pound revered the former not only as a Naturphilosoph but as a great American writer (Ovid, Jean-Henri Fabre, Remy de Gourmont, and William Henry Hudson were among his other favorite “poets strayed into science”). In his view, just as Cavalcanti and Dante had brought the utmost precision to bear in describing the undescribable or in rendering visible the invisible, so in a text like the preceding one devoted to the giant jellyfish, Agassiz managed to give shape and energy to a form of life which in the eyes of one of his fellow Massachusetts transcendentalists seemed little more than “organized water.”

Jellyfish, together with turtles (snapping specimens of which his former student Thoreau sent him from Walden Pond), were the two kinds of organisms that most attracted Agassiz’s classificatory and descriptive interest upon his arrival in the United States in 1846 from the University of Neuchâtel in French Switzerland. The medusa (as he would have known it in Latin, or méduse in his native French) described above—a giant “arctic” version of the Cyanea capillata or Lion’s Mane jellyfish—was probably taken in the late 1840s during one of Agassiz’s cruises off Cape Cod and Nantucket on the US Coast Survey’s steamship Bibb and then subsequently examined more closely in one of the salt-water tanks he kept both as part of his laboratories at Harvard and near his home in East Boston.

If one looks at this textual jellyfish as long and as closely as the grad student looked at the sunfish, it too will tend to decompose—or, medusa-like, petrify the gaze of its intrusive observer. Take its name, for example. Phylum Cnidaria (Coelenterata), class Scyphozoa, species Cyanea. From the Greek adjective kuaneous, dark-blue or glossy-blue, as of a snake’s iridescent hues or the sea’s deep blue or the mournful veil of Thetis. The same dark blue informs the name of the nymph Cyane in whose eponymous pool in Sicily Kore was raped and abducted by Hades. So distraught was Cyane at having witnessed this violation of her friend that (according to Book V of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in Simpson’s recent translation) “completely consumed by her tears, she dissolved into those waters whose great goddess she had just now been. You would have seen her limbs soften, her bones become pliant, and her nails lose their hardness. First, the slenderest parts of her body became liquid, her sea-blue hair, fingers, legs, and feet. (For it doesn’t take long for the thinner parts to turn to water.) Next her shoulders, back sides, and breasts all melted away into rivulets. Then water ran in her dissolving veins instead of warm blood, and there was nothing left of her to grasp.” Thus Ovid, describing the decomposition of this sea-blue nymph into a jellyfish, and tracing her metamorphic devolution into little more than “organized water.”

In his description of his marine nymph Cyanea, Agassiz does the reverse of Ovid, gradually constructing this indeterminate floating circular disk of jelly into an ever more intricately defined object whose extensions in space and pulsations in time he unfolds before our very eyes. “Seen floating in the water” the description begins (who is the observer here? is this a translation of that permanent workman-like figure of French descriptions, [l’]on voit?), before telling us that “it exhibits...” This tendency of the real to “exhibit” itself is precisely what links nineteenth-century descriptive practice to emergent practices of museology. Agassiz’s great mentors and career models—Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Buffon, Lamarck, Jussieu, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Cuvier—were all associated with the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, where he himself worked at the outset of his career in the early 1830s. With Prussian funding (via Alexander von Humboldt’s patronage), Agassiz subsequently set up a museum of natural history in Neuchâtel and later went on to found the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge (1860) and to oversee the establishment of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.

Despite his deep museological impulses, however, Agassiz is committed to delivering a live specimen of the jellyfish for inspection in our imaginary aquarium. For someone who only started writing in English in the late 1840s (one of his biographers describes his stage fright when having to lecture in English in a heavy French accent before an audience of 1500 at the Lowell Institute in Boston shortly after his arrival in the New World), Agassiz’s command of the English participle (ongoing action, developing process) is quite remarkable: he observes the disk of his jellyfish “suddenly thinning out towards the edge,” “constantly heaving and falling, at regular intervals,” its tentacles “moving in every direction, sometimes extending … sometimes shortened … constantly rising and falling, stretching now in one direction and then in another, but generally spreading slantingly in a direction opposite to that of the onward movement of hair, encircling organs, which are farther inward upon the lower surface of the disk.” The jellyfish here functions as an emblem of the beauties of anaphoric, participial construction in English, its bunches “extending downwards, or shortening rapidly, recalling, to whose who have had an opportunity of witnessing the phenomenon, the play of streamers of an aurora borealis.” (Try translating that back into French). The particular ing-ness of this jellyfish—all process, little product—can be seen and heard in the particular constellation of short i’s that govern the first sentence of the description—“floating,” “exhibits,” “disk,” “thick,” “which”—and whose tendrils return in its final sentence: “is itself,” “disk” “to it,” “stitches,” “concentric,” etc. Graphically and phonetically, the medusa becomes audible (and visible) as a participial tangle of short wiggly i’s. Not much capital “I” (or male) self there.

As a specialist in description, Agassiz was a student of the great French tradition of naturalist writers—above all, Cuvier—the very writers who taught a Chateaubriand or a Balzac (or a Flaubert) how to describe. (Robbe-Grillet, trained as an agronomist, is also in this tradition, as is Ponge—for which, see Philippe Hamon’s various works on the theory and history of description). What we see, momentously, in Agassiz (and what a nose for these things crazy old fascist sonofabitch Ez had!) is the translation of this entire French tradition, via the French Swiss (but German-trained) Agassiz (born in Moitier, where Rousseau was lapidated by the locals) into the New England America of Emerson and Thoreau—both of whom (see Davenport) he taught to look and write. As an exercise in comparative literature: place the Ovidian transparencies of Agassiz’s jellyfish against the girth and gravitas of Melville’s whale (Moby-Dick dates from 1851; Agassiz’s essay “On the Naked-Eyed Medusae of the Shores of Massachusetts in the Perfect State of Development” is published the very same year). Or: situate Agassiz and Melville against Michelet’s La Mer (ten years later, 1861). And then set these all aswim in Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror (1868) or Rimbaud’s “Bateau ivre” (1871) where the sea (“Je te salue, viel océan”) provides the deep archaic reservoir for the decompositions of surrealist metaphor.

All of which we can already observe at work in Agassiz’s highly metaphorized jellyfish. Look at it long enough, and it turns into a weird Victorian item of apparel: “These motions [i.e. its erotic “heavings and fallings”] recall so strongly those of an umbrella, alternately opened and shut, that writers, who have described similar animals, have generally called this gelatinous disk the umbrella.” After which, it morphs into a Victorian nymph, with its “onward movement of hair” and its “waving ruffles [of skirts?] projecting in large clusters” or (now we move from fashion into the Louis Philippe intérieur analyzed by Benjamin) displaying “elegant sacks” which “might also be compared to bunches of grapes” alternating “with four masses of folds, hanging like rich curtains,” dominated by a major “sort of horizontal curtain” which is connected with the disk and “fastened to it as it were by ornamental stitches.” A description out of Mallarmé’s one-man zine, La Dernière Mode? What was that Hélène Cixous title? Le Rire de la Méduse? Perhaps, given Agassiz’s brave but futile attempts to peer into its interior, this might be here translated as The Laugh of the Jellyfish.

Richard Sieburth is a professor of French and comparative literature at New York University. Archipelago Books has recently issued his translation of Henri Michaux’s Stroke by Stroke (2006) and a paperback edition of his translation of Maurice Scève’s Délie (2007). He is currently preparing a new edition of Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems for New Directions.

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