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…


Filed under British Literature, Classics, Essay, Nonfiction, Philosophy

6 responses to “Arcs of Compressed Voltage: George Steiner on Heraclitus

  1. The more I read of George Steiner-and I intend to keep reading to completion-the more I’m convinced that he is the Montaigne or Dr. Johnson of the twentieth century (although one hopes his output continues a little longer). Might he be the Modern critic to which we come to attribute ‘greatness’? I suspect so, though to use the term ‘critic’ is to diminish his work. I’d argue he is perhaps the most acutely sensitive living reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree with you. His level of erudition is astounding. He has made me excited about authors I haven’t read in years and my TBR pile of new authors has grow significantly because of him. I am not sure what to read after Poetry of thought. I have Grammars of Creation but I was thinking about trying The Death of Tragedy. Suggestions?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Heraclitus is hard, and has given me a headache. And it set buzzing in the back of my mind the title of a Hopkins poem I’d never read, ‘That Nature is a Heraclitean fire…’. So I looked up the poem, and that is also going to need a deal of study. But I’m following your explorations of Steiner with great interest, only having read occasional pieces by him.

    Liked by 1 person

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