Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What is the past tense of fire? George Steiner on the Poetry of Thought

Ancient bust of Parmenides,
5th century BC founder of the Eleatic school

On another tour to the center with George Steiner as intrepid guide. This time it’s his 2014 book The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan. Some paragraphs:

The definition of men and women as “language animals” put forward by the ancient Greeks, the nomination of language and linguistic communication as the defining attribute of what is human, are no arbitrary tropes. Sentences, oral and written (the mute can be taught to read and write), are the enabling organ of our being, of that dialogue with the self and with others which assembles and stabilizes our identity. Words, imprecise, time-bound as they are, construct remembrance and articulate futurity. Hope is the future tense. Even when naively figurative and unexamined, the substantives we attach to concepts such as life and death, to the ego and the other are bred of words. Hamlet to Polonius. The force of silence is that of a denying echo of language. It is possible to love silently, but perhaps only up to a point. Authentic speechlessness comes with death. To die is to stop chattering. I have tried to show that the incident at Babel was a blessing. Each and every language maps a possible world, a possible calendar and landscape. To learn a language is to expand incommensurably the parochialism of the self. . . .

I have suggested that the “discovery” of metaphor ignited abstract, disinterested thought. Does any animal metaphorize? It is not only language which is saturated with metaphor. It is our compulsion, our capacity to devise and examine alternative worlds, to construe logical and narrative possibilities beyond any empirical constraints. Metaphor defies, surmounts death--as in the tale of Orpheus out of Thrace--even as it transcends time and space. . . .

It is out of a metaphoric magma that Pre-Socratic philosophy seems to erupt (the volcanic is not far off). Once a traveler in Argos had perceived the shepherds on the stony hills as “herdsmen of the winds,” once a mariner out of the Piraeus had sensed that his keel was “plowing the sea,” the road to Plato and to Immanuel Kant lay open. It began in poetry and has never been far from it.

Natural language is the ineluctable medium of philosophy. . . [I]n essence and, as we have seen, barring the symbolism of formal logic, language must do. As R.G. Collingwood puts it in his Essay on Philosophic Method (1933): “If language cannot explain itself, nothing else can.” Thus the language of philosophy is “as every careful reader of the great philosophers already knows, a literary language and not a technical.”

From his first chapter treating the Pre-Socratics:

“The power of Heraclitus’s thought and style is so overwhelming that it is apt to carry away the imagination of his readers . . . beyond the limits of sober interpretation.” So remarked Hermann Fränkel, soberest of scholars. . . . For Nietzsche [Heraclitus’s] “legacy will never age.” Together with Pindar, rules Heidegger, Heraclitus commands an idiom which exhibits the matchless “nobility of the beginning.” Meaning at dawn.

. . . 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. The Logos is at once performative enunciation and a principle inherent in that which it signifies. Thus enunciation, the decoding of thought, takes on a substantive reality somehow external to the speaker (Heidegger’s die Sprache spright). In some respects, Heraclitus bears witness to the origins of intelligible consciousness (Bruno Snell). Thus Heraclitus both celebrates and wrestles with--all celebration is agonistic--the terrible power of language to deceive, to demean, to mock, to plunge deserved renown into the dark of oblivion. Dialectically, the capacity of language to ornament and enshrine memory also entails its faculties of forgetting, of ostracism from recall.

Heraclitus “works in original manner which the raw material of human speech, where ‘original’ signifies both the initial and the singular” (Clémence 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 limited 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). What would be the past tense of fire?

. . . Already to the ancients Heraclitus was proverbially obscure. A proponent of dark riddles . . . [As for us, we] know next to nothing of Heraclitus’s idiom and terrain of allusion. We cannot “look things up.” . . . We simply do not know enough about oracular, mantic and Orphic conventions to assess their influence on Heraclitus. Famously, Fragment XXXIII professes that Apollo “whose oracle is in Delphi neither declares nor conceals, but gives a sign” (a Wittgensteinian move). Contrary to an Adamic nomination, Heraclitus does not label or define substance but infers its contradictory essence. Semantic ambiguities, a second order of difficulty, both relate the internal to the external and signal their dissociation.

. . . .

[In Heraclitus we recognize] 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.

. . . .

As do poets, Heraclitus follows language where it leads him, where he is receptive to its inward and autonomous authority, with somnambular yet acutely lucid trust.

. . . .

When Beckett bids us fail, fail again but “fail better,” he locates the synapse at which thought and poetry, doxa and literature mesh. “It’s the start that’s difficult.”

That inception, that tenor of thought at dawn, is emphasized by Heidegger in his lectures on Parmenides of 1942-43. Editorial, exegetic attempts to discriminate between poem and cosmology in Parmenides are anachronistic. No such dissociation is valid. Instead of Lehrgedicht or didactic verse, Heidegger proposes sagen, a “Totality of the enunciated,” as the only category appropriate to what we can make out of Parmenides’ vision and intent.

. . . .

The mythological lineaments of [Parmenides’] poem are not vestment or masque in the baroque sense. The mythological embodies, allows, the only direct access to the invocation and articulation of the abstract where language, prior to Aristotle, has not yet evolved key modes of logical predication. . . . For Parmenides, the world is nothing but the mirror of my thought--a proposal whose enormity across the millennia should never escape us. Thus poetic form becomes the natural configuration for the most radical, overwhelming yet also strange and perhaps counterintuitive of assertions: that of the identity of thought and being. This existential identity will be a determinant in the genesis and pilgrimage of western consciousness. In a sense, Descartes and Hegel are footnotes.

Steiner the polymath has often been accused of losing his footing on this or that path, but no one else has the breadth and energy to lead this kind of tour. Some of his pages are precious for their rugged vigor. Reading for those who want “to go toward the beginning.”

Eric Mader

Check The Poetry of Thought at Amazon.

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