Arno Schmidt’s Enthymesis

This is a brief post on a short and complex story. Where does one begin with as singular a writer as Arno Schmidt? I chose to start with M. A. Orthofer’s very good dialogic introduction. Thus primed, I was ready to invest in Schmidt’s Collected Novellas, specifically the first of the collection, Enthymesis or H.I.H.Y.A. Schmidt’s story is twenty-one pages long. My notes run to six pages.

“Not by virtue of wisdom do poets create what they create,” write Plato in his Apology, “but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers , who also say many fine things but do not understand their meanings.”

Plato thought poets of all sorts inspired, not skilled, capable of little more than rousing empty emotions. Aristotle agreed that poetry arouses emotions but argued that poetry represents objects and actions in the world precisely as language represents ideas.

I suspect Schmidt was in Aristotle’s camp. In Enthymesis his narrator writes in his diary, “I have never understood what is supposed to so great about Plato; true, he does write elegantly at times, but his books are often page upon page of stylistic and philosophical banalities that one would hardly excuse from a schoolboy.” Schmidt’s narrator argues that Plato’s Republic is a proto-fascist state in which the masses are compelled to fight unjust wars that serve the interest of a ruling class.

It would be easy to glide through a surface-reading of Enthymesis but to do so would be to miss a richness of imagery and allusion so great that even DFW’s footnotes would scarcely do justice to all its complexity. Reading of Schmidt’s narrator denouncing Rome via Plato’s Republic, it is also useful to know that Enthymesis was the first story he wrote after the Second World War. The allusion is inescapable when writing of his narrator Philostratos leaving home for this expedition: “I’ll never forget that, how I stood before my books for the last time and looked through all the rooms, lost in thought; luckily there was still some schnapps in the locker, and my body did not torment me, I didn’t feel it, nor my light burden, and even the inferior part of my mind, the one that gives orders to this body draped shabbily over it, was separate from me.”

The NYT refers to the “obscurely entitled” Enthymesis: Or H.I.H.Y.A. and I can offer no accounting for a term that appears to refer to a Pauline doctrine taken from a passage in his Epistle to the Colossians.

Enthymesis is the diary of a disciple of Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-195 BC), one of a team of bematists sent out to calculate the distance between Syene and Alexandria in order to determine the circumference of the Earth. Tensions develop within the expeditionary team leaving the delirious narrator diarist Philostratos following a vision to a silver city in the African desert. Schmidt overlays that simple story with a layer of myth and dream, a condemnation of expansionist ideologies that undoubtedly references both the Roman Empire and Nazi Germany (and speaks to our present times), using exceedingly rich and beautiful language that will have the curious reader diving deeply into dictionaries, and reference books and sites.

Beyond that surface description of Enthymesis and my precursory rambling I’ll say no more. This story, though short, is too broad for an adequate treatment, to say nothing of my limitations. I cannot think of no better initiation to this powerfully erudite writer. I consider myself a neophyte of the cult.

3 thoughts on “Arno Schmidt’s Enthymesis

  1. I like Arno Schmidt’s stories, but I may not be as enthusiastic about his writing as you are. Perhaps that’s because my first exposure to Schmidt’s work in the early ‘80s took the form of Evening Edged in Gold, his final novel, which I assumed was an exorbitantly priced, agonizingly protracted parody…but that’s another topic.

    “Enthymesis or H.I.H.Y.A.” made a better impression on me; I liked it a lot. On the other hand, I probably glided through a surface-reading because I’m usually too lazy to drag out dictionaries and reference works unless I’m being paid (and there were no good websites yet back then). Nevertheless, despite its undeniable richness, I’m absolutely certain that neither this nor any other text in the history of civilization deserves to be encumbered by poor DFW’s pathological footnoting. 😀

    Still, I don’t get why Jeremy Adler refers to it as the obscurely entitled “Enthymesis: Or H.I.H.Y.A.,” especially given Adler’s background and the depth of his review, not to mention several rather obscure references of his own. Why not just explain the title, then, as he does Schmidt’s “etyms”?

    I’m not sure which term you were wondering about, but “H.I.H.Y.A.” stands for “How I Hate You All,” a direct translation of the German title’s abbreviation, “W.I.E.H” (Wie Ich Euch Hasse). And enthymesis simply means remembrance, although it’s likely that Schmidt was also incorporating its Gnostic usage (considering his Leviathan-as-Creator trope), in which enthymesis is a state of strong, focused desire and intention, and/or the projection of mental imagery, that produces actual effects in objective reality (similar to the concept of himma in Ibn ʼArabi’s Sufism).

    So now I’m wondering how that might apply to the story, which means I’ll probably have to read it again soon. Thanks for another curiosity-provoking blog post, Anthony.

    • Enthymesis was my first Schmidt story but I enjoyed Leviathan as much or more, for his ability to beget entire worlds (in just a few pages), but also because I enjoy all the side-reading I must do in order to comprehend what he is trying to do. I’ve now spent time reading a couple of different treatments of the Book of Job, and understand the Leviathan references a little better. I had figured out the meaning of enthymemsis from one of St Paul’s epistles, along the lines of the Gnostic interpretation but am not entirely sure how it fits, though I can speculate. The H.I.H.Y.A. makes more sense in context, as does the Best of Worlds subtitle to Leviathan.

  2. Pingback: Arno Schmidt’s Leviathan | Time's Flow Stemmed

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