Arcs of Compressed Voltage: George Steiner on Heraclitus

Polymath George Steiner in his text entitled The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan, ambitiously seeks to explore the tension between philosophy and language that has occupied western thinkers for millennia.  The author begins his essay with his thoughts on Heraclitus, the Presocratic philosopher whose fragmentary writing is notoriously enigmatic.  The Presocratics, and Heraclitus in particular, fascinated me so much as a graduate student that I chose them as the topic for one of my specialized exams for my Master’s degree.  After reading Steiner’s first chapter I immediately, and enthusiastically, dug up my old Heraclitus texts which I am chagrined to say I have not looked at for many years.  I offer a translation here of a few of my favorite fragments:

Fragment 2:
τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοὶ ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν.

With the logos being common, many men live having their own personal purpose.

Fragment 7:
εἰ πάντα τὰ ὄντα καπνὸς γένοιτο, ῥῖνες ἂν διαγνοῖεν.

If all things would become smoke, then noses would discern them.

Fragment 12:
ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμϐαίνουσιν ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ.

Different things step into the same waters and different waters are flowing upon the surface.

Fragment 17:
οὐ γὰρ φρονέουσι τοιαῦτα πολλοί ὁκοίοις ἐγκυ­ρεῦσιν, οὐδὲ μαθόντες γινώσκουσιν, ἑωυτοῖσι δὲ δοκέουσι.

Many men do not think about the things, nor do they know the things they learn. But they think they do.

Fragment 31:
πυρὸς τροπαὶ πρῶτον θάλασσα, θαλάσσης δὲ τὸ μὲν ἥμισυ γῆ, τὸ δὲ ἥμισυ πρηστήρ.

The transformations of fire are first the sea, half of the sea is earth, half of the sea is a hurricane.

Fragment 43:
ὕϐριν χρὴ σϐεννύναι μᾶλλον ἢ πυρκαϊήν.

It is necessary to extinguish hubris more than a fire.

Fragment 64:
τὰ δὲ πὰντα οἰακίζει κεραυνός.

The thunderbolt steers all things.

George Steiner’s discussion of Heraclitus is equally as poetic and philosophical as that of the Presocratic whose work he is attempting to analyze. In Poetry of Thought he says about Heraclitus’s prominent place in the history of philosophy and language:

Together with Pindar, rules Heidegger, Heraclitus commands an idiom which exhibits the matchless ‘nobility of the beginning.’ Meaning at dawn.

Philologists, philosophers, historians of archaic Hellas, have labored to define, to circumscribe this auroral force. Heraclitus’s dicta are arcs of compressed voltage setting alight the space between words and things. His metaphoric concision suggests immediacies of existential encounter, primacies of experience largely unrecapturable to rationalities and sequential logic after Aristotle.

Steiner continues his own fiery, mesmerizing language to discuss Heraclitus:

Heraclitus ‘works in original manner with the raw material of human speech, where “original” signifies both the initial and the singular.’ (Clemence Ramnoux one of the most insightful commentators). He quarries language before it weakens into imagery, into eroded abstraction. His abstractions are radically sensory and concrete, but not in the opportunistic mode of allegory. They enact, they perform thought where it is still, as it were, incandescent—the trope of fire is unavoidable. Where it follows on a shock of discovery, of naked confrontation with its own dynamism, at once limitless and bounded. Heraclitus does not narrate. To him things are with an evidence and enigma of total presence like that of lightning (his own simile).

“Auroral,” “voltage,”  “setting alight,”  “incandescent,”  “lightning.”  No one does Heraclitus like Steiner.  Steiner’s discussion of Lucretius in the next section of his text is equally as fascinating. More to come…

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The Tongues of Eros: More Thoughts on George Steiner

There are some intriguing and surprising personal stories and anecdotes that George Steiner weaves into the essays in My Unwritten Books.  In his essay on his political and religious beliefs, for instance, he admits that he has never once in his life voted in any election, local or national.  He is an avid dog lover and the emotion he shows towards his pets, he admits in the essay “On Man and Beasts,”  sometimes runs deeper than that which he feels for his family.  And, perhaps the most intriguing statement in the book, comes in his writing about Eros: “I have been privileged to speak and make love in four languages.  Also in the interstices, sometimes inhibiting, sometimes playful, between them.”

Steiner begins with a general discussion of his thoughts on language and moves on to describe how Eros is a unique language in and of itself that has not been studied in any methodical way.

We have no systematic poetic or rhetoric of eros, of how the making of love is a making of words and syntax.  No Aristotle, no Saussure has taken up this pivotal challenge.  More specifically, we have, so far as I am aware, no study, even summary, of how sex is experienced, of how love is made in different languages and different language-sets (ethnic, economic, social, local).  Per se, the polyglot condition at varying levels of immediacy and proficiency is not all that rare.  It features in numerous communities, such as Sweden, Switzerland, Malaysia.  A multitude of men and women dispose of more than one “native” tongue, from very earliest childhood.  Yet we seem to have no valid account, no introspective or socialized record of what must be their metamorphic erotic lives.  How does lovemaking in Basque or Russian differ from that in Flemish or Korean?  What privileges or inhibitions arise between lovers with different first languages? Is coitus also, perhaps fundamentally, translation?

Steiner describes his sexual experiences with a German, Italian and French woman and gives specific details about how making love in each of these three languages was a unique experience.  Sex with a German woman he calls Ch. is described as an encounter in which the interplay of sex and sadism is prominent.  He concludes, “To make love in German can be taxing.”  It was an Italian woman, named A.M., he says that “instructed me in the litany of seduction.”  And he debunks the myth that the French culture is more amorous than any other.  He learns by having sex with a French woman that French erotic exchanges happen with formal language: “Gloriously astride me, my first teacher in the arts of orgasm, praise God, an older woman burnished by irony and compassion, bade me ‘come, come now and deep.’ But did so using the formal vous.”

I have to admit that I was disappointed that Steiner did not give equal time to describing his sexual experiences in English.  He argues that his own observations would not be able to capture any universal experiences because of the global pervasiveness of the English language: “How can any one person register more than an insignificant fraction of a sexual lexicon and grammar which stretch from the syncopations of Afro-Carribean pidgeons to the delicate love lyrics of Anglo-Bengalis, which comprise the creole of English hybrids in Southeast Asia and the worn passwords of the multinational dealer summoning his escort service to an anonymous hotel room in Istanbul or Valparaiso?” I think that at least some general statements about his lovemaking in English versus his experiences with other languages would have made the essay seem more complete.

Steiner’s concluding remarks in the essay, I suspect, are a better explanation for his omission of English sexual encounters: “Perhaps shared orgasm is an act of simultaneous translation.  I sense that I could have made a contribution, even pioneering.  But the hurt is would have done to that which is most precious and indispensable in my private life (this chapter comports risk) made this impossible.  Indiscretion much have its limits.”  Steiner’s wife, Zara, is the American-born, British historian…

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Chinoiserie and Invidia: My Unwritten Books by George Steiner

Each of the seven chapters in this book is an essay about a book that George Steiner did not write.  The first two chapters, “Chinoiserie” and “Invidia” are dedicated to Joseph Needham and Cecco d’Ascoli, authors whose works were just too large of a scope for Steiner to tackle.  But, in usual Steiner fashion, he uses the writings of Needham and d’Ascoli as a starting point to explore other ideas.  At times the level of erudition in his essays is astounding.

Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was a British scientist, historian and sinologist whose body of writing, even to someone as erudite as George Steiner, is overwhelming:

So far as I am aware, there is no definitive bibliography of Needham’s opera omnia.  The catalogue of lectures, articles, monographs and books extends well beyond three hundred.  Their range is awesome.  It comprises technical publications in biochemistry, in biology and comparative morphology, in crystallography by one of the ranking members of the Royal Society.  There are voluminous studies, both monographic and summarizing, on the history of the natural sciences, theoretical and applied, on instrumentation and technology, from antiquity to present.

In addition, Needham published historical novels that dealt with the Cromwellian period.  And Needham’s largest work, begun in 1937 and carried on until his death in 1995,  is Science and Civilization in China.  Steiner discusses and tries to grapple with Needham’s difficult-to-categorize, massive work on Chinese science and culture:

By 1948, Needham had outlined seven volumes.  These were to range from Chinese contributions to physics and mechanical engineering all the way to Chinese medical botany, navigation and physiological alchemy.  Before long, the proposals for SCC, as it became known internationally, ran to ten monumental parts (some in double volumes).  Soon even this manifold blueprint was overtaken by the plethora of new materials and queries.  The eighteen volumes which Needham intended to write himself—several installments being simultaneously in the pipeline—would require an estimated sixty years of unbroken labor plus the immense task of preliminary research and bibliography.  Literally hundreds of sources, many recondite and difficult to locate, would have to be combed.

Needham would have had to live to the age of one-hundred and seven to finish SCC according to this schedule.  It is said that he worked on it up until two days before his death at the ripe, old age of ninety-four.  Steiner compares the literary style and scope of the SCC to a number of authors whose work is equally as erudite, comprehensive and voluminous as Needham’s magnum opus.  Pieces of A.E. Housman’s body of work, Nabokov’s four volume translation and commentary of Eugene Onegin, Proust’s Recherché and Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy  are all discussed in relation to the SCC.  But none of these other narratives in their entirety, however, is exactly like the SCC.  Steiner concludes, “SCC, however, belongs to a more special genre.  One that has not, so far as I can tell, been properly identified, let alone elucidated.”  It is no wonder why this project defeated Steiner.

The other author whose writing that Steiner felt was too daunting a task to analyze is Francesco degli Stabili (Cecco d’Ascoli) (1257-1327).  The only pieces of d’Ascoli’s writing that has survived is an incomplete epic entitled l’Acerba, two astrological treaties, and a handful of sonnets.  Steiner says of d’Ascoli’s literary reputation: “During the sixteenth century, the theme which surfaces is that of Cecco’s intellectual boldness, of an unyielding proto-scientific integrity which makes of him a true predecessor to Giordano Bruno and Galileo.” In later centuries De Sanctis, Carducci, Petrarch and Goethe all praise Cecco’s intellectual and literary merits.  So why, then, was Cecco burned at the stake along with all of his writings in 1327 and why has he not obtained the same level of fame as Dante, his literary contemporary?

Steiner speculates that invidia (envy) was at the core of Cecco’s failures and he uses Cecco’s life as a starting point for a fascinating discussion of invidia as it has been portrayed in mythology and literature.  Steiner argues that Cecco’s fate, when matched up against Dante’s, was doomed from the start:

What is it like to be an epic poet with philosophic aspirations when Dante, as it were, in the neighborhood?  To be a contemporary playwright when Shakespeare is out to lunch?  ‘How can I be if another is’ asks Goethe.  Outside my door at the Institute for Advanced study in Princeton I heard J. Robert Oppenheimer fling at a junior physicist the demand, ‘You are so young and already have done so little.’ After which, the logical option is suicide.  Themes of rivalry, of jealousy, of envy have been perennially cited and dramatized.  They are as ancient as Saul’s rage of David’s meteoric ascent and the venomous derisions spat out by Homer’s Thersites.

Steiner ends his essay on Cecco’s life and the theme of invidia on a personal note and gives us the reason for not writing this book: “I did not write the study of Cecco d’Ascoli.  It might have been of some interest.  But it came too near the bone.”

I’ve only highlighted the first two essays in this collection; Steiner’s level of knowledge and scholarship is astounding.  My favorite passages are those in which he inserts personal anecdotes.  His chapter on sex, eros, and language are intriguing, to say the least.  I have to gather my thoughts first and process his writing if I am going to write about that chapter…

 

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Errata by George Steiner

Errata is a Latin perfect passive participle, neuter, nominative plural that means “these things having been done in error” or “these things having been done by mistake.”  Errata are oftentimes issued as corrections to a published text and are not a usual part of a book.  George Steiner’s Errata, an usual book itself being part memoir and part essay,  is a reflection of and commentary on those accidents of fate that launched him on the path of being a teacher, polyglot, critic and scholar.  There is an underlying tone of gratitude for the fortuitous errata that have made up what he humbly considers to be happy accidents in his life.

Steiner was born in Paris in 1929 to Jewish Viennese parents who escaped Austria just as Nazism was taking hold.  His words about his father’s perceptions of Austria in the early twentieth century are chilling:  “With gram clairvoyance, my father perceived the nearing disaster.  A systematic, doctrinal Jew-hatred seethed and stank below the glittering liberalities of Viennese culture.”  Steiner’s father, whom he fondly calls “Papa” in his narrative,  moved the family once again to America in 1940, one month before the Germans invaded Paris.  Of the many Jewish children in Steiner’s Lycee in Paris, there were only two that survived.  Steiner’s parents not only had the foresight to save his life, but they also had a profound effect on his education and his passions.

There is a beautiful passage in Errata that I’ve already written about which describes Steiner being introduced to Ancient Greek and the Iliad by his father.  An enthusiasm for learning that goes even deeper is instilled in Steiner by his father from a young age:

I accepted, with unquestioning zest, the idea that study and a hunger for understanding were the most natural, the determinant ideals.  Consciously or not, the skeptical ironist had set out for his son a secular Talmud.  I was to learn how to read, how to internalize word and commentary in the hope, however chancy, that I might one day add to that commentary, to the survival of the text, a further hint of light.  My childhood was made a demanding festival.

Steiner’s mother was also a great influence on him as he was brought up in a truly trilingual household: “My radiant Mama would habitually begin a sentence in one tongue and end it in another.”  He uses this as a background for a beautiful discussion on language.  These are some of my favorite passages about Steiner’s observations on the errata of language:

It is my conviction that these liberations from the constraints of the physical, from the blank wall of our own death and a seeming eternity of personal and collective disappointment, are in crucial measure linguistic.  Bio-socially we are indeed a short-lived mammal made for extinction, as are all other kinds.  But we are a language-animal, and it is this one endowment which, more than any other, makes bearable and fruitful our ephemeral state.  The evolution in human speech—it may have come late—of subjunctives, optatives, counter-factual conditionals and of the futurities of the verb (not all languages have tenses) has defined and safeguarded our humanity.  It is  because we tell stories, fictive or mathematical-cosmological, about a universe a billion years hence; it is because we can, as I mentioned, discuss, conceptualize the Monday morning after our cremation; it is because “if”-sentences (“If I won the lottery,”  “If Shubert had lived to a ripe age,” “If a vaccine is developed against AIDS”) can, spoken at will, deny, reconstruct, alter past, present, and future, mapping otherwise the determinants of pragmatic reality, that existence continues to be worth expecting.  Hope is grammar.

One final thought I had about Errata is that the Latin verb Erro also means to wander or to roam  Steiner’s life also involves a lot of wandering, not just between languages but between countries.  He has a wonderful chapter that describes his favorite places in France, England and The United States.  He also discusses the many teachers and memorable students he has met in the various places he has taught and held academic chairs.  When Steiner says, “I have scattered and, thus, wasted my strength” he is, in my opinion, being humble to the extreme.

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The Bachelors by Adalbert Stifter

Victor has been raised in the gentle and loving home of his foster mother and now that he has come of age,  he will travel far from home to take a post as a civil servant.  Stifter spends the first half of the book describing the tender relationship between foster mother and child and the arduous journey that Victor takes through scenic mountains and valleys.  The author’s language is fittingly simple for the sentimental departure scenes he describes between Victor and his family.

Victor’s first stop on his journey is to an island where his uncle, his father’s brother,  has lived in solitude for many years.  The uncle’s life has been the antithesis of Victor’s; he does not trust anyone and keeps his house and his island locked down like a fortress.  At first the two exchange very few words, but as these bachelors get used to one another’s company they slowly begin to talk.  Victor’s uncle has some very important and surprising advice for him: “The greatest and most important thing you have to do now is this: you must marry.”

Victor’s uncle goes on to explain his advice:

When an ancient old man stands on top of a hill made up of a whole welter of his life’s deeds, what good is that to him?  I have done many and various things and have nothing to show for them.  Everything falls apart in a moment if you haven’t created a life that lasts beyond the grave.  That man around whom, in his old age, sons, grandsons and great-grandsons stand will often live to be a thousand.  There is a diversity of life there but of the same stamp and when he is gone, then that same life continues—indeed you don’t even notice that a small part of that life has stepped to one side and is no longer there.  At my death everything that I have been, that I am, will perish….which is why you must marry, Victor, marry very young.

Stifter’s thoughts on marriage and leaving a legacy reminded me of the Greek concept of  kleos that is a central theme of the Iliad.  The heroes go to Troy and fight  bravely so that they will be remembered well after they are gone from this earth.  The uncle’s advice, to surround oneself with a wife, children and a loving family,  seems more practical to be remembered for those of us not living in the Bronze Age.

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