09 August, 2008

The Weeping Philosopher

Scholars do like to spout off. The subject of the Delphic oracle is no exception: it has attracted the usual charivari of feminists and postpostposts. What else would you expect? The oracle is given by the Pythia—a woman—who is 'played like an instrument' or else sexually violated by Apollo, whose words she is made to speak, from a dark cave, in a state of hysterical frenzy—can you conceive any image more inevitably bound for the chair and drill of the derridista?

Giulia Sissa, in a 1987 book on Greek Virginity, tells us in her preface that by the end of the work she will have 'woven around [the Pythia], mysterious in the middle of the world, a web of analogies, similes, and suggestions'. Is this all we want from a scholarly tome? Is it enough? Such a line as this is typical:
Given that the concepts of enthusiasm and inspiration are indispensable for thinking about divination, the unique sense of Pythian utterance needs to be looked at with alertness to what was always unspoken, and perhaps indecent, in the image of a woman who opened her mouth to speak the truth while her body was penetrated by currents and vapors.
Similarly, Page duBois, a singularly pious and irritating writer, whose footnotes consist largely of references to her own books, writes in 1991:
The Apollonian truth, pure and uncontaminated, after passing through the material body of earth and woman, takes on a distorting residue of corporeality that separates and distances the divine word from the mortal seeker.
Again: 'These images of interiority [oracle, temple, etc.] are associated in ancient culture with female space, with the containment and potentiality of the female body.' The reasoning is that because we, with our hyper-associative modernist mentality, can make the analogy between cunt and cave, so the two objects (titivated up, of course, in hackneyed spatial metaphors) must have been 'associated'—whatever that might mean—by the ancient Greeks. It is sort of a magical realism, the most flaccid of modern literary modes, that has pervaded the academy: a sickly obsession with analogies and similarities.


And if scholars love the oracle, so they love Heraclitus on the oracle even more. Heraclitus, quoted in Plutarch, writes, 'cο αναξ, cου το μαντειον εστι το εν Δελφοις, ουτε λεγει ουτε κρυπτει αλλα σημαινει' (H93). The lord whose oracle is in Delphi neither legei nor kryptei, but semainei. You see I have not translated the key words. Legei is usually 'speaks', kryptei 'conceals', and semainei 'indicates' or 'gives a sign'. Philemon Holland in 1603 had 'doth neither speake, nor conceale, but signifie onely and give signe'. Frank Babbitt's Loeb has 'neither tells nor conceals, but indicates'. G. S. Kirk, in the standard English guide to the pre-Socratic philosophers (1957), explains the line:
The method adopted by Apollo in his Delphic pronouncements is praised, because a sign may accord better than a misleadingly explicit statement with the nature of the underlying truth, that of the Logos.
Similarly, Charles Kahn in 1979: 'There is no doubt that Heraclitus is referring to the Delphic practice of giving advice in indirect form, by imagery, riddle, and ambiguity, so that it was obvious to a man of sense than an oracle required an interpretation. . . The Delphic mode of utterance presents a plurality or complexity of meaning, so that reflection is required, and unusual insight, if the proper interpretation is to be discovered.'

For Kirk, 'Probably Heraclitus intended by this kind of parallel to justify his own oracular and obscure style.' For Kahn, 'This parallel between Heraclitus' style and the obscurity of the nature of things, between the difficulty of understanding him and the difficulty in human perception, is not arbitrary: to speak plainly about such a subject would be to falsify it in the telling, for no genuine understanding would be communicated. The only hope of 'getting through' to the audience is to puzzle and provoke them into reflection. Hence the only appropriate mode of explanation is allusive and indirect: Heraclitus is consciously and unavoidably 'obscure'.' For Jonathan Barnes, in the same year, 'Heraclitus the Obscure, the Riddler, the oracular prophet, stands dark and majestic in the early history of philosophy. He set out to imitate 'the king whose is the oracle at Delphi', who, in Heraclitus' own words, 'neither states nor conceals, but gives signs'.'

Robert Lamberton, generally an excellent scholar, gets a little over-excited by this charming maxim; in his 2001 Plutarch he gushes, 'It is no exaggeration to say that semiotics, in the tradition of European thought, starts here, with this notorious, sententious claim'. But it is an exaggeration.

Still, this maxim on meaning and interpretation was clearly ripe for the greedy fingers of the Continentals, and, sure enough, we find the wrangling begins with Heidegger. In his 1939 essay on the concept of physis (nature) in Aristotle, he observes that legei is best translated by contrast to kryptei, 'conceals'—he opts for 'reveals' or even 'unconceals'. Thus:
The oracle does not directly unconceal nor does it simply conceal, but it points out. This means: it unconceals while it conceals, and it conceals while it unconceals.
As my new friend would be quick to remind me, the notion of 'unconcealment' is central to Heidegger's reading of the pre-Socratics—and, indeed, to his entire philosophical project—for as he delights to observe, the Greek word for truth, aletheia, means 'not-hidden'. Legein, 'to speak', is given etymologically as 'to gather', identical to Latin legere, which also means 'to read, choose', whence select and lecture. Legein is thus to gather together and make manifest, a Heideggerian description of the function of language. As some guy called Brian Bard has put it,
This making manifest is the unconcealing of physis which for humans occurs in discourse and language; legein comes to mean 'to say' because language provides the collected space in which beings arise and become manifest.
There is no little joy to be had in playing these etymological games with Greek. No doubt Heidegger also noticed associations between phōnē (voice), phanai (to speak), on the one hand, and phōs (light), phainein (to reveal, appear, bring to light), on the other. The connection is a distinguished one: it is found, just to give three examples, in August Schlegel's 1820 Indische Bibliothek, John Donaldson's 1839 New Cratylus, and Georg Curtius' 1858 Grundzüge. Watkins, on the other hand, lists two distinct but identical roots.

It is hardly surprising that Heidegger, with his own notoriously oracular style, should be fascinated by the oracular Heraclitus, just as Heraclitus praised the oracle itself. (Between Heraclitus and Heidegger stretches a long line of great oracular philosophers whose names begin with 'H'—Hamann, Humboldt, Hegel and Husserl, not to mention Hierkegaard himself.) Hence the pronounced tone of mystical nostalgia for the oral, pre-Socratic mind:
If the Greeks conceive of saying as legein, then this implies an interpretation of the essence of word and of saying so unique that no later 'philosophy of language' can ever begin to imagine its as yet unplumbed depths. Only when language has been debased to a means of commerce and organization, as is the case with us, does thought rooted in language appear to be a mere 'philosophy of words,' no longer adequate to the 'pressing realities of life'.
Paradoxically, Heidegger's friend and interlocutor, Eugen Fink, insists in their published conversation that 'In his fragments, Heraclitus does not speak in any veiled manner like the god in Delphi'. Nonetheless, the weeping philosopher has always attracted, since Heidegger, scholars with a penchant for the oracular style; one of the most recent examples being the gorgeous and monumental Sunbowl or Symbol (1998) by G. L. J. Schönbeck. More well-known and more influential, on the other hand, is a book by Jean Bollack and his student Heinz Wismann, Héraclite ou la séparation (1972), based on Bollack's lectures of the late 60s. Unlike Heidegger, Kirk, Kahn or Barnes, Bollack sees no consistent philosophy, cosmology or metaphysics in Heraclitus, all that being the product of the Stoics or Platonists (such as Plutarch) who transmitted his fragments. A priori the thesis attracts me, but alas, its exposition is pure turgid bullshit in the French style. Here is a sample of their two pages on H93:
Applying to the oracle's ambiguity the categories of their own discourse, men would interpret it as true (speaking) or false (concealing), so that it accords or not with the outcome which they await or have experienced. The equivocal oracular word seems here to remain a determinate affirmation, whether truthful or mendacious. In fact, it transcends the opposition and escapes the dilemma. Divine discourse neither speaks nor conceals because it speaks-and-conceals, indicating by what it says that which it does not say.
Bollack has clearly inherited Heidegger's taste for concluding a paragraph of over-inflated and jargonistic waffle with an over-compressed koan—as if hoping to compensate Scylla with Charybdis. He succeeds in sounding profound without actually making any contribution to the fragment's interpretation.

And what of the feminists?
Sissa: the god does not speak; he does not press his seal into a totally impressionable and malleable substance. Nor does the god conceal, as if he wished to deceive in the manner of a distorting mirror. Rather, using the soul as an instrument, Apollo reveals his truth in a "mixed," confused, pallid form. The Pythia's psyche, though not false to the truth, inevitably diminishes its brilliance.

And duBois: The word semainei demands our attention here because it is sometimes used synonymously with sphragizo, 'to stamp with a sign or mark, to seal'. This metaphor for the relationship between the god, the medium, and the consultant of the oracle bears echoes of the earlier discussion of inscription on the body as a marker of truth, of the contents, the nature of the thing marked. Here the body of the woman is stamped, sealed, with the god's truth: the body itself becomes a sign, with its acoustic rendition of the ineffable divine truth.
So the one says the Pythia is stamped and sealed, the other says she isn't. One describes the soul (psyche), the other the body. Both are equally meaningless: 'not even wrong'. Of the two, duBois is the worse simply because she is the more hackneyed. Her pathological but wholly typical obsession with the body is just not warranted by the material, nor is the fact that a given word can be used in other senses. Sissa's reading, while inarticulate, is at least rooted in Plutarch's text, which continues, '[Apollo] makes known and reveals his own thoughts, but he makes them known through the associated medium of a mortal body and a soul that is unable to keep quiet'. Lamberton, likewise, writes that 'if Heraclitus pointed to a tertium quid for the pair 'speak—conceal', he must have meant this projection of meaning down the hierarchy, with the attendant necessary distortion introduced by the medium'. Is that a pun on 'medium'?

We seem to have wound up with a very pretty modern allegory for the mouth betraying the brain, or else for the différance of the sign. Heraclitus weeps.


pedroeferrari said...

A wide assortment of subjects close to my heart. I'm not all too fond of Kahn and Kirk on Heraclitus, but I await eagerly for some more anglophile contributions on our obscure friend from Daniel Graham. Since this is the place to share byzantinisms, it ocurrs me that there is a little trasure written by a brazilian philologist educated in Germany called ''O Logos Heraclítico'', which received very high praise from Mondolfo and some others. It is intelligent and ambitious wortphilologische close reading of the fragments, taking a closer look at Origen than is usual, finalizing with full translation (straight out of DK, not the Marcovich maior and minor, neither the, alas, incomplete Mouraviev). It has a very learned recension of Heraclitus' reception classical and modern, something Mouraviev interestingly enough did too.

Now, wait until the french discover Parmnides (on which subject, have you read Peter Kingsley's books? They might interest you. ''Reality'' reads like Paulo Coelho with half a brain, but it still makes very interesting points.)

Matt McIntosh said...

Wheelwright and Guthrie are both not-bad Heraclitus exegetes. You may as well read them to complete the set.

Greg Afinogenov said...

Conrad, you're way too hard on the (de)r(rid/ien)istas. Sure, most of them are derivative flimflam-peddlers, but so are half the scholars in every period.

Do you really prefer Parsonian nonsense? Or Marxist nonsense? Or the new kind of nonsense that appears to be coming down the pike--"evolutionary criticism"?

have you read Peter Kingsley's books?

Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic is not bad, even if it does wander into Carlos Castaneda territory at times.

Peony said...

Peony weeps too.
For I fear that one cannot step into the same Conrad river twice as well....

Regarding your grumble, first what, in your opinion, is the project of the scholar? I'm sure you would agree that it is beyond the lonely scholar's project to "get it right" about the text. I mean, not even my beloved Dreyfus gets it right about Heidegger *all* the time and on every level right? So just think what that means for something like the pre-Socratic oral tradition with all its "mystical nostalgic possibilities?" (now THAT is intriguing!)

I am guessing that you think the scholar's task is to make a contribution to the interpretation of the text? I agree-- well, even your DuBois is making contribution, right? And do conflicting interpretations make everything null and void? Not even the physicists can get it perfectly straight, it seems…

Carlos Castaneda territory indeed...

Looking forward to your next grumble

Conrad H. Roth said...

Damião Berge, I have not read it, nor have I read Mondolfo, nor Graham, nor Mouraviev, nor Kingsley, nor Wheelwright, (I have read Guthrie), but then I have only read a tiny fraction of a bibliography like this. I mean, Heraclitus is interesting, but not that interesting. I wonder if Popper has something interesting to say, though; his book on the Presocratics had some merit, even if it was patently ideological--albeit no more than Heidegger, his arch-nemesis, of course.

Greg: Am I too hard on the American ewes? Of course it is always best to stick to bellwethers; but one tries to satirize or raillerize the follies of one's own time. Who are the Parsonians? Kingsley has now been compared to both Coelho and Castaneda; I can't say this is a big sell for me.

Peony: "I am guessing that you think the scholar's task is to make a contribution to the interpretation of the text?"

The scholar's task is to make a contribution to the interpretation of the text. A good scholar makes a good contribution. duBois is no such scholar, though scholar she is, by default.

James Ashley said...

In Husserl's defense, I don't think he was trying to conceal as he revealed, and his early works make clear his devotion to the principle of trying to bring light to philosophical issues. He just seems to have had a lot of trouble (an awful lot) making himself clear.

Anonymous said...

Glad you liked my phrasing, new link is:


Legein is thus to gather together and make manifest, a Heideggerian description of the function of language. As some guy called Brian Bard has put it,
This making manifest is the unconcealing of physis which for humans occurs in discourse and language; legein comes to mean 'to say' because language provides the collected space in which beings arise and become manifest.
There is no little joy to be had in playing these etymological games with Greek.

Anonymous said...

For those who can read French, there is a wonderful rebuttal of Jean Bollack's handling of Greek texts : http://eruditionis-causa.blogspot.com/2010/04/polemique-la-philologie-de-jean-bollack.html.