This is an edition well-named. In fact, when I saw how sketchy the fragments were, I was ready to send this book back. They look more like marginalia than a work of philosophy. Like Heraclitus was hanging out at the lyceum one day and was bored and doodling on his papyrus or whatever.
Then…THEN, I started reading. It was like…like…going backwards in time, shuffling my mental rolodex through poets, essayists, novelists, philosophers, teachers that I had met in my past lives. So powerful was the familiarity of the ideas presented in this svelte, chic volume.
Some of it sounds like it came from the Bible. Some of it sounds like it came from “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. The rhythm (as much as it can be rhythmic) feels like “The Hollow Men” by Eliot. The moments of transmutation mimic Ovid. Or did Ovid mimic Heraclitus? If the tidbits are this good, the complete works must probably constitute the Atlantis of ancient literature.
Between FRAGMENTS, and “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, the Bible – as a work of literature – sounds modern. I can appreciate even more, what a stupendous collection of genres it constitutes now that I have seen what came before.
If you have followed this blog over the last couple of years, you know how I feel about introductory elements. Introductions, forewords, afterwords, tables of content, etc. Most of the time, they are just there to make the page count. Very few have I considered useful. The Foreword by James Hillman is outstanding. It states its points clearly with out any Harold Bloom-style posturing from a LazyBoy up on Mt. Parnassus. Succinct, Spartan prose combined with luminous and illuminating perception. It was a pleasure to read, and it was interesting.
Hillman pretty much had me at “archetypal”. That’s from the first sentence. And thanks to his Foreword, I understand what “deconstructivist” means. Paragraph two contains a handy summing up of the pre-Socratics:
“Early Greek thinkers sought the stuff of which the world was made. For Thales it was water; for Anaximenes, air; for Anaximander, a combination of hot and cold. Empedocles expanded the stuff to four indestructible elemental principles, while Anaxagoras is said to have proposed innumerable generative seeds composing the nature of things.”
As a lover of words, I’m fascinated by the prefix “Anax-”. A prefix like that with its accompanying variations naturally leads me to wonder what it means. Is that a Hellenic prefix?
“Heraclitus took a different tack. His method is more psychological.”
Thank you. Seriously. Because of that introduction, everything that came after made sense and was easy to understand.
The first part of FRAGMENTS resonates with history and poetry – I am overwhelmed by a sense of familiarity, like that feeling you get when you walk in your front door after days away, except intensified because I did not expect to find something like this here. The same thing happened when I first read the beginning of Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES. (I found out from my English prof that the transmutation style was popular at the time and it was really no big deal that it sounded just like the Bible. It was like “duh!” Sigh…)
The word “fire” appears a lot in the frags. Hillman explains that it was, quite possibly, Heraclitus’s way of expressing “flux” – “a metaphor for the shifting meanings of all truth.” The idea of flux is the firing synapse that sparks memories of other writers, other literatures, other philosophies. For example, H. wrote “Just as the river where I step/is not the same, and is,/so I am as I am not.” (81) (See also frag 41.) Translation: you can’t go home again. (Thomas Wolfe). Someone else, I don’t remember, also said something along the lines of “you can’t step in the same river twice.”
Fragment #4: “People dull their wits with gibberish,/and cannot use their ears and eyes.”
Fragment #5: “Many fail to grasp what they have seen,/ and cannot judge what they have learned,/although they tell themselves they know.”
Eminem and Dr. Dre: in modern parlance…
Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got something to say
But nothin comes out when they move they lips
Just a buncha gibberish
And muthafuckas act like they forgot about Dre.
Yeah, I know. But why not???
“What was scattered/gathers./what was gathered /blows apart.
A good visualization of this idea is the Tao. One color is eternally in the process of becoming the other. The book’s most consistent theme is that of the convergence of opposites. They exist together, change together, not necessarily causing the other, but each creating space for the other to exist. Almost baroque in the way each force plays out its own melody in harmony with other forces, all going in the same direction, but in their own way.
Ø “Harmony needs low and high/as progeny needs/ man and woman.”
Ø “From the strain/ of binding opposites/ Comes harmony.”
Ø “The cosmos works/ by harmony and tensions/ like the lyre and bow.”
After the Bible, and alongside Gilgamesh, this is one of the most resonant works I’ve ever read. Even more so than “Prometheus Bound”. It’s magic!
Perseus Digital Library – awesome site for ancient documents including Greek, Latin and Germanic