Category Archives: Nonfiction

A Drowning Man: Stach’s Insights on Kafka and World War I

The final installment of Reiner Stach’s expansive and compelling biography of Kafka begins with The Great War. I had mentioned on Twitter the other day that one of the most surprising revelations for me from Stach’s narrative is the fact that Kafka desperately wanted to enlist for the war, but his bosses at the Insurance Institute kept exempting him from service. His weak, frail constitution initially spared him from service, but as the war dragged on and more men were needed on the Austro-Hungarian front lines, Kafka was given a second medical evaluation that cleared him for the military. But his supervisors, whose staff had been wiped out by the draft, insisted that Kafka was indispensable to the continued operation of their business. He argued with the president on a couple of occasions to release him but to no avail.

Chad Post, the publisher of Open Letter Books, left an interesting comment on Twitter in response to my reaction about Kafka’s desire for military service: “Knausgaard details a number of reactions of intellectuals to WWI in My Struggle Volume 6, and it seems so crazy knowing what WWI actually was. They didn’t get modern warfare until it was actually happening.” To prove his point, Chad sent me a quote from Thomas Mann that he aptly calls “wild”: “War! It was purification, liberation that we experienced, and an enormous hope…it set the hearts of poets aflame…how should the artist, the soldier in the artist not have praised God for the collapse of a world of peace that he had his fill, so completely his fill of?”

Stach argues that Kafka never showed this same amount of patriotic fervor as Mann and other writers, even at the beginning of the war. Kafka’s diary about this topic mixes the personal and mundane with the global and tragic: “Germany declared war on Russia—Swimming in the afternoon.” Because of his job at the Insurance Agency which become responsible for founding a sanatorium for wounded veterans, Kafka knew more horrific details about the physical and mental consequences of war than any other writer of his day. Stach argues that Kafka was neither naïve nor oblivious to the gruesome realities of modern warfare. So why the insistence on joining this catastrophe firsthand? Even Stach is flummoxed by this: “Kafka’s insistence on joining the military is one of the most baffling decisions of his life; psychologically motivated empathy will not get us very far. We would have an easier time understanding an act of desperation of a fleeting indifference to his own fate—and Kafka would not have been the first to seek refuge in barracks. But that was not the case. His endeavors to serve in the military were well thought out, purposeful, and spirited, and they were repeated for years on end.”

Even though Kafka fell into a deep depression during the winter of 1915 and 1916, Stach rules out suicide. So what is left? Kafka is greatly susceptible to guilt and as Kafka witnesses friends, family members, and fellow writers succumb to the tragedies of war, it is certainly possible that he felt terribly guilty for his continued exemptions. But the most compelling reason that Stach makes, I think, for Kafka’s desire for military service is also the simplest—he wanted to escape, even if it meant going to war:

He found himself careening down an inclined plane whose slope kept steepening, and everything was tugging him in the same direction. He was cooped up in the office for fifty-hour workweeks, his desire to write stifled by headaches, insomnia, and increasing isolation. Kafka welcomed any prospect at all of making a fundamental change and warding off the psychological decline he was experiencing with the agonizingly intensified sense of time of a drowning man. Vacation, marriage, military service…it mad almost no difference which one.

Vacation, marriage, World War I….whatever, any one will do! Oh Kafka! I know I keep going on and on about how extraordinary Stach’s biography of Kafka is. But I really must say it again. Stach has set a new, very high bar for writing intense, exhaustive, interesting and compelling stories. Kakfa, who loved to read biographies, would have most definitely approved of this one!

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Filed under German Literature, History, Kafka, Nonfiction, World War I

The Eternally Dithering Kafka: Some Final Thoughts on Stach’s The Decisive Years

The Metamorphosis. First Edition cover, 1916.

So far I have read over 1,000 pages, about two-thirds, of Stach’s three volume biography of Kafka.  To be perfectly honest, I thought I would grow tired of such a long work and would want a break in between volumes, but this has not been the case.  I am completely absorbed in Stach’s narrative and I have been thinking about what, exactly, sets this extraordinary biography apart from not only other biographies of Kafka, but from other books in this genre as a whole.  Stach, in his preface to the second volume of his Kafka biography (which was actually the first to be published) answers this question for me.  He writes (trans. Shelley Frisch):

The magic word of biographers is empathy.  Empathy comes into play when psychology and experience fall short.  Even a life that is empirically very well documented remains elusive if the biographer fails to rouse the reader’s willingness to identify with a character, a situation, and a milieu.  Hence the curious sterility of some massive biographies that are bloated by data and references.  They purport to say everything that can be said but completely miss their subject and therefore fail to satisfy our curiosity.

There are two themes that consume Kafka and Stach’s biography between the years 1912 and 1914: Literature and Felice.  Stach progresses in his story by building on these themes layer by careful layer and the result is a riveting, impressive, stunning work;  Stach elicits empathy by highlighting Kafka’s indecision, inner turmoil and self-doubt in relation to his writing and his engagement with Felice.

Felice Bauer is a middle-class, Jewish woman from Berlin whom Kafka meets just once before he engages in an intense, personal relationship with her through letters.  Other biographers have tended to depict Felice as a woman who is intellectually unworthy of Kafka’s attentions, but Stach’s discussion of her family and her own life is much  more balanced than this.  Not only do we feel empathy for Kafka’s indecision about marriage, but we also feel great sorrow for this woman to whom he was engaged twice. In addition to  an emotionally sensitive and unstable fiancé who writes her lengthy, daily letters, she was also dealing with working full-time, a sister who got pregnant out of wedlock and a profligate brother who was caught stealing money from his future father-in-law.  Stach writes beautifully and poignantly about Felice and Kafka’s extensive exchange of letters (wonderfully translated by Shelly Frisch):

When we try to get an overview of the tangled correspondence between Kafka and Felice Bauer, from their first attempts to establish a relationship in September 1912 to the “reception day” in Berlin, the official engagement celebration on Whitsunday 1914, we encounter an enormous emotional and mental ground swell.  The motif of repetition predominates: a kind of minimal music in which new elements are introduced with slight variations, while the main melody remains audible.  Still, it is fascinating to read these letters, because Kafka’s metaphoric richness and humor never fade, even in  moments of torpor.

The reading is also painful.  What is the source of our sympathetic torment?  Are we embarrassed at playing the voyeur?  Is it the disaster, the helplessness, the failure witnessed up close? These are people who walk over an abyss of psychosocial pathology. Yet procrastination, repression, the mix of emotion and cold calculation, regression, the alternation of advances and retreats, narcissism, undignified quarrels, fantasizing, and lost opportunities were all common phenomena in relationships in bourgeois society, which advocated an exceedingly binding ideal of love.

After writing Felice detailed and intimate letters for the better part of a year Kafka realizes that there are only two ways that this could end: in marriage or in the complete loss of this woman from his life.  The eighteen-page letter (or “treatise”—his own word for it) that describes the discontented, socially awkward, physically fragile, lonely man whom she would be marrying serves as his proposal to Felice and is a testament to his anguish over these choices.   It’s hard to believe that it took her less than two days to say yes to all of this!  Once again, Stach’s insights into this complex situation and Kafka’s paralyzing indecisions are incisive and balanced:

A biographer cannot dispense advice, and perfunctory long-distance diagnoses of human relationships that go back generations or even epochs, are among the vilest side effects of the historical leveling that has become prevalent among with the discursive predominance of psychology.  Nonetheless, if we work our way along the cascade of fears that plagued and eventually overwhelmed Kafka, more and more insistently once Felice and he had decided to marry, it is difficult to refrain from considering the could haves and should haves.  They ought to have met more often, on neutral territory, far away from their parents, bosses and guardians.  They needed to share experiences, define their common past, and somehow find a way of testing the waters of marriage.

But Kafka’s inability to make a decision and move forward prevented him from doing these most basic, logical things with Felice during both of their doomed engagements.

The period of his relationship and correspondence with Felice also coincides with his most productive phases of writing.  After meeting her, he sits down at his desk and in a single, overnight sitting writes “The Judgement.”  He also works on, but never finishes, his novel The Man Who Disappeared.  While writing larges pieces of this novel he takes a break and creates his masterpiece, “The Metamorphosis.”  After he breaks off his second engagement with Felice, he begins his second novel, The Trial, which will also remain unfinished,  and composes his short story “In the Penal Colony.”  But even as far as literature is concerned, his self-doubt and hesitation sabotage his chances for publication.  He had an agreement from Wolff, his publisher, to release three of his stories in one volume but Kafka failed to pull together this project and never sent the manuscripts to the publisher who eventually lost interest.  Stach writes, “We can imagine the advice Brod, Pick and Weiss gave the eternally dithering Kafka: If your major novel is not finished yet, get “The Metamorphosis” out of your drawer! Three-quarters of a year had passed since Kafka had promised his publisher a serviceable typescript of the story…”  It is no wonder that any of Kafka’s writing saw the light of day under these circumstances.

Finally, I have to mention one additional, pleasant side-effect of reading this second volume Stach’s biography.  He discusses, especially in relation to Kafka’s engagements, the author’s interest in the lives, failed love affairs and writings of  Flaubert, Grillparzer and Kierkegaard.  I have obtained some of the writings from these authors which I will also explore since they were so important to Kafka.  After reading Kierkegaard’s diaries Kafka writes, “As I suspected, his case, despite vital differences, is very similar to mine; he is on the same side of the world.  He supports me like a friend.”  How can we not experience sympathy, compassion or even empathy for this lonely, tormented man who identifies a long-dead, Danish philosopher as more of a “friend” than anyone who is actually around him?

On to the final volume…

 

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Filed under German Literature, Kafka, Nonfiction

The Bachelor of World Literature: Kafka-The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach

In a letter written while in his twenties, Rainer Maria Rilke describes his vision of what a good marriage ought to be (trans. John J.L. Mood):

It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of is fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closet human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

This is one of the most beautiful descriptions I have ever read of what a good, supportive and loving marriage could be. I keep thinking about Rilke’s thoughts as I make my way through the second volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka. Stach begins The Decisive Years in 1910 when a twenty-eight-year-old Kafka is still a bachelor, is still living at home with his parents and sisters, and is still trying to find enough solitude to write. Even though he is the only member of the family to have his own room, the constant noise in the apartment and the proximity of his family hinders his writing during daylight hours. Kafka’s closest friends—Max Brod, Oscar Baum and Felix Weltsch—as well as his sisters have gotten married or are making plans to get married. As Stach points out, Kafka is certainly neither innocent nor sexually neutral—he visits prostitutes to satisfy his physical needs. But the thread we see running throughout his diaries and letters is an intense, obsessive, and urgent desire to write; a wife, and family would certainly not give him the solitude he needs for his literary endeavors. In the chapter entitled “Bachelors, Young and Old” Stach writes (translated Shelley Frisch): “Franz Kafka is the bachelor of world literature. No one, not even the most open-minded reader, can imagine him at the side of a Frau Doktor Kafka, and the image of a white-haired family man surrounded by grandchildren at play is irreconcilable with the gaunt figure and self-conscious smile of the man we know as Kafka, who blossomed and wilted at an early age.”

Kafka has two “relationships” of sorts before he meets Felice Bauer, the woman to whom he will become engaged. Hedwig Weller is his first girlfriend in his early twenties and he exchanges letters with her between 1907 and 1909. She lives in Berlin and so most of their contact is only through letters. In 1912, Kafka and Max Brod take a trip to Weimar to meet with publishers and visit Goethe’s home which has been turned into a museum. The caretaker of Goethe’s estate has a teenage daughter with whom Kafka becomes obsessed. It is sweet and endearing how he eagerly awaits for her outside of local shops and taverns to catch fleeting glimpses of her. He even has Brod run interference with her father so he can have a stolen moment with her in the orchard on the Goethe property. (This moment is captured in a blurry photograph that Wagenbach includes in his biography of Kafka.) He is sad when he has to leave her, but it’s interesting to note that Kafka keeps choosing women that live quite a distance from him and with whom there is never a realistic chance of pursuing a serious courtship. As Stach is leading up to the chapters on Felice Bauer in this second volume, these earlier precedents will serve to shed more light on his later, failed engagements.

Marriage and the distinct possibility of not having a partner for the rest of his life also weighs heavily on Kafka. In November 1911, in a fragment of a story called “The Bachelor’s Unhappiness” he depicts a pathetic, lonely, joyless, unmarried, older man: “It seems so strange to remain a bachelor, to become an old man struggling hard to preserve his dignity while pleading for an invitation when he wants to spend an evening with people, being ill and spending weeks staring into an empty room from the corner of his bed, always saying good night at the gate, never running up the stairs beside his wife…” Kafka’s diaries entries just two years later in which he lists the pros and cons of marriage reiterate this fear of perpetual loneliness: “I am incapable, alone, of bearing the assault of my own life, the demands of my own person, the attacks of time and old age, the vague presence of the desire to write, sleeplessness, the nearness of insanity—I cannot bear all this alone.” But sacrificing his solitude to write, even if it eases his loneliness, is not something is his willing to do. Not, at least, at this point in his life.

And so my mind returns to that lovely Rilke quote which, I think, is something that Kafka might have appreciated. If he could only find a wife that would have been that “guardian of his solitude,” It is tragic that this concept of marriage is something that would have been completely alien to him, especially given his social and religious upbringing. Even more than his relationships with Felice and Milena, I am eager to read Stach’s description of the last months of Kafka’s life when he doesn’t marry but does live with a woman named Dora Diamant, which is the closet he will ever get to a domestic life. Did she protect his solitude? Or did he finally decide that he didn’t want to die alone?

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Musaeus Dulcis Mel: A Handbook of Disappointed Fate by Anne Boyer

Cesare Maccari. Cicero Denounces Catiline. 1888.

The essays in Anne Boyer’s collection are fierce, poetic, erudite, engrossing and melodic. The first piece of writing is simply and strongly entitled “No.” “History is full of people who just didn’t,” she begins. A common theme throughout the essays is the multitude of ways that people and animals refuse. Her discussion about silence as resistance, however, resonated with me the most:

Saying nothing is a preliminary method of no. To practice unspeaking is to practice being unbending, more so in a crowd. Cicero wrote cum tacent, clamant—‘in silence they clamor”—and he was right: never mistake silence for agreement. Silence is as often conspiracy as it is consent. A room of otherwise lively people saying nothing, staring at a figure of authority, is silence as the inchoate of a now-initiated we won’t.

The Latin that Boyer cites is from Cicero’s Speech against Catiline who has been accused of plotting to overthrow the Roman government in an open meeting of the Senate. Cicero is attempting to persuade Catiline that, instead of being convicted of his crimes and put to death, it would be better for him to leave the city and take his band of thieves with him. When Catiline walks into the Senate to face Cicero and hear the changes against him, Cicero points out the deafening silence with which the alleged criminal is met. The two verbs in Cicero’s Latin can be translated even more strongly to reflect better the contrast that Cicero is attempting to make in his speech. “When they (The Senate) are silent, they are shouting.” Cesare Maccari, in his painting “Cicero Denounces Catiline” depicts the dejected, lonely Catiline who has been the target of this silence. Nothing is more hurtful to me than when I am ignored, stood up, ghosted; I would rather be yelled at by someone than given the silent treatment.

I detected another type of silence-as-resistance in her essays entitled Erotology.  Boyer hints at unsuccessful love affairs and unrequited love in other essays, but in Erotology the longing one experiences for another person is shrouded in the lonely silence of the night:

Night performs a difference operation: you want what you want which isn’t what you want at all, but a desire formed by processes, by having had, then having no more.  It is as if in matters of heartbreak the night world and the day work take on different planets with different axes or in different courts with different testimonies, different warrants, different judges, different sentences, different prisons, different laws.  The night contests the day, then the day contests the night.  The clarity and ordinary pace of the day is suspicious to the heartbroken person in the night: what if what the day says about the longing at night is slander?

Who among us hasn’t spend a long, solitary night contemplating an unrequited love, a lost love, an impossible love?

Many of her other essays are also a struggle, her own and others, a resistance, against all of the harsh ugliness that we are forced to endure in this strange world. The way that Boyer engages with and makes connections among different texts is engrossing. Her essay, entitled “Kansas City,” for instance, includes a reflection on that Midwestern city by drawing on the music of Fats Domino and a quote from Socrates:

When Fats Domino sings his version of the song ‘Kansas City,’ he is like Socrates who says of his ideal city: ‘Let me feast my mind with the dream as day dreamers are in the habit of feasting themselves when they are walking alone; for before they have discovered any means of effecting their wishes…they proceed with their plan, and delight in detailing what they mean to do when their wish has come true.’

Fats Domino might take a plane to the ideal city, he might take a train, but even if he has to walk there, he will get to it the same.

Kansas City becomes, for Boyer, one of the first places that she associates with resistance. The city resists or defies real description or categorization; depending on who one asks, it is a utopia—like the Kansas City of Fats Domino, it is the façade of a city that was erected for the set of the Robert Altman film, or it is the difference between freedom or slavery for black people in the 1850’s. Boyer herself moves to Kansas City in 1996 and lives there for four years and the city becomes a source of personal resistance:

What I knew when I got to Kansas City was I couldn’t be a poet—that I refused to be one—and I was soon inside whatever was not a poem, working in the shelters and community centers of Kansas City and thinking the only possible life was a life of politics, and the only possible politics was a politics for women and children and the poor. When I think of telling you what was in Kansas City the year the facades of Kansas City were built, my thoughts turn red and what I see is a field of feeling: sorrow, rage.

Her work with the poor women and children of Kansas City is one of many passionate and poignant reflections of the real struggle it is to be female in this world.  In “The Dead Woman,” she writes, “But women become dead women every minute and always have, so I’m more surprised the whole world is not on fire every minute, that the winds are not roaring, that the earth hasn’t shaken open, that everyone hasn’t felt like they could die.  There’s a line in Alice Notley’s epic poem Alma that I can’t find now but remember and need: something like ‘women are born dead.'”  In “Shotgun Willie” she describes barely making ends meet as a single parent when her daughter was young, living in a small apartment and only listening to the A-side of a Willie Nelsen album which she bought at the Goodwill for a dime:  “I didn’t like whiskey, but wanted, like Willie Nelson, for a river to take my mind, to take my memory, not from the torture of unattainable, unrequited love, but my failures, how I’d basically just let myself be nothing at all, and for years then, and treated poorly, and barely rebelling against my own poor treatment.”

One of my favorite essays (although it’s really difficult to choose) is entitled “My Life” in which she writes about three strong, talented, and resilient women who resist the struggles they face as women—the singer Mary J. Blige, the poet Lyn Hejinian and Anne Boyer herself.  She begins the essay with a powerful statement that reminded me of the line about women from Notley’s epic poem cited above: “This is about calling what isn’t a life a life and calling what isn’t one’s own life one’s own, about the embellishment of any ‘my’ on a life that isn’t and can’t be or isn’t quite living, at least not all the time.” Similar to the Kansas City essay, she reads, interprets, quotes the singer and the poet and creates her own poetry through her reactions:

Mary J. Blige at the opening for the Mary J. Blige Center for Women…Blige removed her sunglasses to wipe away her tears. ‘When I was 5 years old there was a lot that happened to me …that I carry…all my life…  And when…I was growing up after that, I saw so many women beaten to death, almost to their death, by men.’  LH: ‘As for we who love to be astonished, we close our eyes to remain for a little while longer within the realm of the imaginary, the mind, so as to avoid having to recognize our utter separateness from each other.’  Mary J: ‘I still love you/You know I’ll never live without you/ I wish you’d change your ways soon enough/ So we an be together.’ Mary J. Blige made a perfume.  It is called My Life.  The thing about My Life is almost anyone can wear it.  Though a perfume is not an album and an album is not a life and a life is not a book of poetry and a book of poetry is not an essay written for a journal of music and experimental politics, one might mistake one for the other when My Life is, for so many of us, so difficult to find.

There is a struggle throughout the essays with her writing, her craft.  In “Clickbait Thanatos,” Boyer laments the surfeit of poetry available online which drains the entire body of 21st century verse of its uniqueness.  (In the next essay she has several humorous and, sometimes disgusting, ways of making poetry more difficult to publish.) It is full of “TMI and OMG—just like anyone’s Facebook feed.”  Boyer’s thoughts about her art remind her of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, which Epicurean, Roman, epic poem, written during the last years of the Republic,  ends with a horrifying description of the plague.  The meter of the poem, no doubt, has helped it last for centuries, but the poem’s baffling and gruesome ending probably also has something to do with its preservation: “…what is also in the work of Lucretius is that everything, and nothing, lasts forever.”

Anne Boyer’s collection of writing also ends with her own description of a plague, of sorts; the last several essays have heartbreaking descriptions of her long struggle with cancer.  I like to think that Lucretius ends his epic with a description of disease in order to test his readers; he has spent hundreds of lines of poetry convincing us that since life is short,  we must avoid pain and do things in this life that bring us pleasure.  He also believes, unlike the Stoics, that there is no afterlife, so once we are dead then that’s the end of it—no more worries, no more pain, no more resistance.  Lucretius explains in Book 4 that his poetry is the equivalent of putting honey on the rim of a cup of medicine so that a child will be tricked into taking something that is good for her.  If De Rerum Natura has successfully served as a type of didactic honey with which to trick people into learning his Epicurean lesson, then no one will be upset by a silly plague, will they?  Although Boyer’s last few essays are especially tough to read, they, too, are a test to see if we are paying attention to her poetry, her writing on resistance, her resilient spirit.  A Handbook of Disappointed Fate,  is what Lucretius would call musaeus dulcis mel (the sweet honey of the muses.)

I’ve made a playlist on Spotify of the music that Boyer writes about in her essays.  I found that listening to the music and rereading some of the essays as I listened made them even more meaningful:

As the week comes to a close, I’ve been basking in the afterglow of my reading experience with these essays and listening to the playlist. Please do give Boyer’s essay a try and also look at Ugly Duckling Presse for other brave, smart, riveting literature.

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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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