Heraclitus at the Edge of Language

“The truth is that Heraclitus attracts exegetes as an empty jam pot wasps; and each new wasp discerns traces of his own favourite flavour.” Jonathan Barnes, from The Presocratic Philosophers. He goes on to say, “The existence of such diverse interpretations of Heraclitus’ philosophy will sow seeds of despair in the mind of any honest scholar …”

I posted a few excerpts of Richard Geldard’s Remembering Heraclitus, and thought it a lucid exposition, but with a strong personal flavour, portraying Heraclitus as a mystic, likely influenced by the Vedics and a forerunner of Marcilio Ficino, the Gnostics, up to and including the American Transcendentalists. With Barnes’ caution in mind I’ll admit to seeds of despair (as much as I’d like to follow Geldard wholeheartedly with his arguments), preferring to side with Nietzsche that Heraclitus was neither mystic nor materialist. Geldard’s parallels in the epilogue between Heraclitus, Roger Penrose, and the quantum consciousness hypothesis probably whistled way over my head but didn’t strengthen Geldard’s broader contentions.

Next I’m reading Charles Kahn’s drier (more sober) interpretation of Heraclitus’ fragments that interest me by treating Heraclitus not only as a first-rate philosophical thinker but also as a brilliant literary artist. This is the Heraclitus of George Steiner, who wrote so beautifully:

It is the most “stylish’ of philosophers, those most alert to the expressive constraints and resources of stated thought, to its implicit cadence, such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who look to Heraclitus. It is Novalis, practitioner of the Orphic fragment, and Heidegger the neologist, the craftsman of tautology. Rhapsodic and oracular intellects recognise in Heraclitus the fundamental, generative collision between the elusive opacity of the word and the equally elusive but compelling clarity and evidence of things. Immediate or hurried apprehension, the colloquial, misses this decisive tension, that, in Heraclitus’s celebrated duality, of the bow and the lyre. To listen closely-Nietzsche defined philology as “reading slowly”-is to experience, always imperfectly, the possibility that the order of words, notably in metrics and the metrical nerve-structure within good prose, reflects, perhaps sustains the hidden yet manifest coherence of the cosmos.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi by Alex Stein

Alex Stein, essayist and aphorist, is the author of Made-Up Interviews With Imaginary Artists. In The Artist as Mystic, Stein interviews Yahia Lababidi, essayist, aphorist and poet. Does Lababidi exist? Is the interviewer imaginary? In these post-postmodern (or neo-modern) times, do such distinctions matter? As David Shields wrote in his manifesto, “Once upon a time there will be readers who won’t care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, and for its formal originality.”

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #565: On three walls, continuous forms with alternating… (1988)

As Sol Lewitt said, “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” Or as Alex Stein puts it, they “hold something more dear than one’s own happiness.” With one exception, the artists chosen as subjects for these literary interviews are those that have accompanied me from early on: Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke and Kierkegaard.

Beyond Stein’s introductory essay the book is structured, as the title suggests, as a series of interviews with Yahia Lababidi. Stein fades away, as Lababidi discourses about literature. Lababidi wears his erudition lightly during these interviews with a discursive style that is undemanding but whose allusions circle a fraternity of Modernist thinkers. Of Kafka, Lababidi says:

Kafka is us, without lying.

Shouldn’t that change the way I read him? It should. And it does. It ups the volume on everything. Even if he only clears his throat, it rings like thunder. Because the fact of the matter is he has something thunderous in him to say, and the fact of the matter is we know that he does. That is the point. Some of this stuff, sure, it can be more navel gazing, more convolutions, but what we cannot fail to recognise in Kafka is that this is a guy who is wrestling with his angel, and that commands our attention. What he is up against, so are we up against.

The passion that Lababidi brings to his reflections on what he terms The Exquisites revitalizes and never fails to offer some fresh perspective. This is a short text, that I read in a single sitting, which I hope generates a sequel.

Vilhelm Ekelund

I left hanging above the exception, Vilhelm Ekelund, of whom Lababidi says:

He practised a kind of literary soul-gazing. “Books must be lived to be read,” he writes. He saw into the writers he read in ways that others don’t. He composed essays and aphorisms.

Another essayist and aphorist? Having verified that Ekelund is not imaginary I shall seek out his work.

My Life by Chekhov

How to live? Is enlightenment  found in hard labour and austerity, or through acquiring knowledge? What is it to live a meaningful existence? These perpetual concerns are Chekhov’s theme in My Life.

Rejecting a professional career, Misail Poloznev, a young nobleman, turns to a life of manual labour and poverty. Censured by his father and derided by small-minded townsfolk, only ‘plump, fair beauty,’ Masha Dolzhikov encourages Misail’s alternative lifestyle. Masha and Misail fall in love, marry, and move to her family’s derelict country home. Though Misail finds a degree of contentment, Masha grows to despise the unruly peasantry and abandons the life that was for her a temporary adventure. Embittered, Misail remains committed to his austere life as a manual labourer.

Chekhov’s response to the questions that underpin this story seem to be that disillusion is at the end of either path. What matters is the choice. Is it possible that Chekhov had access to Kierkegaard?

One must work for a living in order to live – that’s just the way life is – it’s the shabby side of existence. We sleep seven hours out of twenty-four; its wasted time, but it has to be that way. We work five hours our of the twenty-four; it is wasted time, but it has to be that way. By working five hours, a person has his livelihood, and when he has that he begins to live. Now, a person’s work should preferably be as boring and meaningless as possible, just so he has his livelihood from it.

Longer than many of his stories, in My Life Chekhov also demonstrates his tendency to write strong women characters. Both Masha and Misail’s sister, Kleopatra, are every bit as developed as the main protagonist.

This story was new to me, though I have read very many of Chekhov’s shorter stories, and immediately establishes itself as one of my favourites.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

Influential Books

List time: books that influenced me. Influence is defined as either life-changing or transformative in reading patterns (which equates to the same thing). These are roughly in time order. Later I may explain what changed as a consequence. Here’s the list:

  • Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson
  • Dicken’s Great Expectations
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
  • Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source
  • Winston Graham’s Angell, Pearl and Little God
  • Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London
  • Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment
  • Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums
  • J. P. Donleavy’s The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman
  • Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
  • Bruce Sterling’s Artificial Kid
  • Sartre’s Nausea and Being and Nothingness
  • Kierkegaard’s Either/Or
  • Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past
  • Roger Deakin’s Wildwood
  • Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night
  • Mann’s The Magic Mountain
  • Woolf’s The Lighthouse
  • Joyce’s Ulysses
  • Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?