Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Vortex

Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Vortex

Article excerpt


Canoes glided through the forest of dead trees. In the fourth month of the Aztec year, before the onset of the rainy season, they would go up to the Hill of Stars to find the tallest, straightest, most beautiful tree. They carefully tied its branches so that none would break, chopped down the tree without letting a leaf touch the ground, and carried it, singing and dancing, to the center of the city. There, in the courtyard of the Templo Mayor, it was stood erect, its branches unbound, before an image of Tlaloc, god of rain. Four smaller trees were placed at the four corners of the plaza, and ropes hanging with bright pennants were slung from each to the center tree, whose name was Our Father, or He Who Has a Heart. Around the trees they created an ephemeral garden of bushes, flowers, and rocks.

Into this garden the priests carried a shrouded litter containing a girl of seven or eight. She was dressed in blue, the color of the lake on which the city, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, had been built. She wore a headdress of red leather, with blue feathers sprouting from the top. Long songs were sung in her honor.

Then the tree Our Father was bound again, and carried to a canoe. The girl was carried to a canoe, and hundreds or thousands got in their plain or ornate canoes and set out on the lake, playing music, toward Pantitlan, a mysterious and dangerous whirlpool caused by an underground drain.

Near the whirlpool, they unbound the tree Our Father and thrust it standing into the lake, known as Our Mother. There it was left to stand until it rotted, and as the ceremony had been performed year after year, that part of the lake was a forest of dead trees. The priests took the girl from the litter, slit her throat with a small knife used for killing ducks, let her blood flow into the water, and then threw her into the whirlpool, with gifts of jewels, stones, necklaces, and bracelets. In silence, canoes glided through the dead trees home.


"The image is not an idea." In 1914, Ezra Pound names the tendency of certain avant-gardists in London: "It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing. In decency one can only call it a VORTEX. And from this necessity came the name 'vorticism.'"

Pound first used the word six years before, in a poem, "Plotinus": "As one that would draw back through the node of things, / Back sweeping to the vortex of the cone, / Cloistered about with memories, alone / In chaos... //1 was an atom on creations throne."

Plotinus says (in the Thomas Taylor translation that Pound read) that the enlightened soul returns to its origin, which is a whirlpool. It is suspended in the center "from which the circle proceeds," and is in bliss, for "life in the intelligible world consists in the energy of the intellect."

Allen Upward, 1922: "The physical basis of a whirlpool is water, or water and rocks. But no combination of water and rocks will produce a whirlpool unless there is also present an energy derived from neither.... It is on the question of energy that everything turns. The difference between a whirlpool and a pool is the whirl."


Pound wrote a note on the manuscript of the poem "Plotinus" that "the cone' is I presume the 'Vritta whirlpool, vortex-ring of the Yogi's cosmogony." The idea comes from "a certain Hindoo teacher whose name I have not found." The Hindoo teacher was Yogi Ramacharaka, whose books the young Ezra gave to his girlfriend Hilda Doolittle, and whose Hatha Yoga he mentioned in an early poem, "Moeurs Contemporaines V." Pound was still talking about those books fifty years later in the St. Elizabeths asylum; in old age H.D. still carried one of them in her purse as a talisman of her young love; a hundred years later the books are still in print in the same blue bindings.

Yogi Ramacharaka, the author of Advanced Course in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism, 14 Lessons in Yogi Philosophy, and eleven other books, did not exist. …

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