Ted, Heraclitus, and the dead
But mass production does not always equal mass influence, at least in the long term. Over the last week Libyans have been busy ransacking and torching the many special institutes Moamar Gadhafi set up for the benefit of scholars of his seminal work of political philosophy, The Green Book. Millions of copies of Gadhafi's opus have been printed, and the text has been ballasted by hundreds of long-winded speeches; one doubts, nevertheless, the longevity of Gaddafi's influence as a political theorist. Bulgaria's long-time Stalinist leader Todor Zhivkov published his Collected Works in a series of big volumes in the 1980s; by the beginning of the next decade, though, his texts were being discarded by libraries, and Bulgarians suffering severe shortages of paper-based necessities were discovering that their lengthy essays and speeches did reasonable service as toilet paper. Perhaps Zhivkov and Gaddafi need not have worked quite so hard for immortality. The strange intellectual afterlife of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus suggests that a tiny, fragmentary body of work can be improbably influential, not only hundreds but thousands of years after it was produced.
A prototypical philosophical snob, Heraclitus wrote a book called On Nature and placed it in one of the temples of his hometown, where the priests could protect it from the attentions of ignorant common people. Heraclitus' tome emphasised the fluidity of the world and the universe, and the way that substances and forces which seem like opposites can interact or interpenetrate. The text also speculated about the size of the sun, demanded fealty to the law, and mocked Greek funerals.
Heraclitus' book was soon copied out by other scholars, and eventually made its influence felt in Italy and in Egypt, where a copy almost certainly adorned the shelves of Alexandria's great library. After the destruction of that institution by haughtily anti-intellectual Copts in the fourth century AD and long centuries of smaller misfortunes, Heraclitus' book and the books of the other pre-Socratic philosophers were declared extinct by melancholy medieval philologists. But fragments of Heraclitus survived the demise of his book, because the philosopher's work had been quoted by other thinkers and exegetes in tomes which did manage to survive. Heraclitus liked to express himself in aphoristic, paradoxical language, and the fragmentation of his book into a series of decontextualised phrases has only reinforced his obscurity. For all the obstacles it seems to present, though, Heraclitus' surviving body of work has found readers amongst every new generation of Western intellectuals. In our own age, a couple of Heraclitus' phrases - 'One does not step into the same river twice' and 'The way up is the way down' - have become popular axioms, and are perhaps even in danger of becoming cliches.
Late last year I blogged about the 'Atenisi Institute, the private university established in Tonga by Futa Helu, a man who had learned a love of Heraclitus from the Australian philosopher and social commentator John Anderson. In the book he wrote on Heraclitus near the end of his life, Helu argued, on the basis of extraordinarily suggestive readings of a few fragments, that his hero was a godfather of Einsteinian physics and Freudian psychology, as well as the man behind many older intellectual projects.
Heraclitus has played an important part in the shaping of Marxist thought. Exiled in conservative Britain and dreaming of overturning the apparently immoveable regimes of nineteenth century Europe, Marx turned to Heraclitus, the prophet of sudden and often violent transformation, for inspiration. Struggling to understand an unprecedented war and the disintegration of the international socialist movement he had wanted to lead, Lenin spent many hours studying Heraclitus in the Zurich public library in 1915 and 1916.
Poet and classicist Ted Jenner is one of New Zealand's relatively few authorities on Heraclitus. As both a scholar and a poet, Ted has a very Heraclitean liking for concentration: though they are based on wide reading and patient thinking, both Jenner's literary and scholarly texts tend to be short and intense. Like a Heraclitean fragment, a Jenner poem or article is at once striking and recondite, and needs to be read both carefully and boldly. I was privileged to write the introduction to Writers in Residence and Other Captive Fauna, the collection of Jenner's literary texts published by Titus Books in 2009. Since he got Writers in Residence out of the way, Ted's preoccupation has been a book he has given the working title Gold Leaves. Ted's new book will be built around a set of translations of short poems engraved on tiny pieces of gold foil found in ancient tombs by archaeologists. Ted has laboured over his translations of the rare and strange texts, but he has also sought to understand their meaning and purpose. Gold Leaves will be an exercise in explanation, as well as in translation.
In an article which will appear in the next issue of Percutio, the Franco-Kiwi literary journal founded and edited by Bill Direen, Ted outlines the beginnings of an explanation for the brief mysterious poems found amidst piles of ancient bones. Like several previous scholars, Ted believes the poems were messages written for members of a religious sect influenced by Orphic and Dionysian ideas. He argues that many of the texts instruct their readers on how to behave in the afterlife. He goes on to suggest that the wildly paradoxical language of some of the poems may indicate the influence of Heraclitus (or Herakleitos!) on their bearers.
Ted has given me permission to post this excerpt from his remarkable article:
The eschatology of the Gold Leaves belongs apparently to cults established especially in Southern Italy. Their rites of initiation can be described as Bacchic, i.e. centred around the worship of Dionysos Bakkhios and involving states of ecstasy induced by wine and the frenzied dancing of mainly(?) female devotees known as bacchants or maenads; other rituals and their books and doctrines can be described as Orphic...
Archaeological evidence for Bacchic cults honouring Orpheus as their founding prophet can be adduced. Situated beside the estuary of the River Bug on the north coast of the Black Sea, the town of Olbia was among the most northerly of all the Greek colonies. Soviet excavations here in 1951 uncovered a number of bone tablets c. 5-7 cm. in length, half a centimetre thick, and dated to the fifth century B.C. Most of these rectangular objects have no writing or designs on them, but a few bear legends such as the following:
a) LIFE DEATH LIFE TRUTH DIO[NYSOS] ORPHIK[
b) PEACE WAR TRUTH FALSEHOOD DION[YSOS
c) DIO[NYSOS TRUTH [ ]...SOUL
DIO or DION are known abbreviations of Dionysos. The word ‘Orphic’ may refer to ‘Orphic Dionysos’ or to a community of Orphics, in which case, as West (1982) asserts, ‘this is the first piece of evidence for the application of the term to a religious community in antiquity’ (p.21).
But to return to our three bone tablets and their inscriptions: we are obviously dealing here with an eschatology, perhaps of the most basic kind in which life is followed by death which in turn is followed by rebirth into a new blissful state of existence for those initiates to whom the ‘truth’ has been revealed. But what are we to make of the second inscription? It resembles the Pythagorean tables of opposites (e.g. ‘light and dark’, ‘right and left’, ‘good and bad’), and may have been intended to differentiate between the realm of the gods and that of mortals...
And yet no student of the Ionian philosopher Herakleitos of Ephesos (fl. late sixth century B.C) can fail to be reminded of his famous pronouncement, ‘God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, surfeit and hunger’ (fr.67), a typically gnomic statement of the idea that opposites are united in that they alternate in a law (Logos) inherent in the process of being. This is the same Herakleitos who despised Pythagoras and Bacchic cults, the latter for their licentious worship of the phallus.
The worship of Dionysos and the ‘secret rites’...could otherwise lead people to an understanding of the immanent God (or Logos) in which all opposites are reconciled: ‘if they didn’t sing these hymns to Dionysos, they would be committing shameless acts; but Hades and Dionysos, for whom they dance in frenzy and celebrate the Lenaian rites, are one and the same’. This juxtaposition of the god of death and the god of renewal and rebirth reminds us of the inscription on the first bone tablet: ‘Life Death Dionysos’.
Did the haughty and aloof philosopher of Ephesos accept that the principle of unity (the Logos) within the world might vaguely be apprehended by celebrants in the Bacchic/Orphic mysteries who believed that life is death and death is life? We can go further. Many years ago, WKC Guthrie referred to ‘an “Orphic” strain’ in Herakleitos. Among the fragments that can be adduced in favour of such an idea is fr.62: ‘immortal mortals, mortal immortals, living their death and dying their life.’
Ted's new essay builds on his earlier text 'Ritual Performance and the Gold Leaves', which was published in Percutio in 2009, and can be read online here.