Saturday, September 11, 2010

To Speak of Fire

Philosophers from Ionia (Asia Minor) such as Heraclitus, Thales and Anaximander in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE sought to understand the coherence and continuity of existence, sought to understand what moves through the “all” and also makes everything we see, hear, touch and taste.  For Heraclitus, that meant here was a reason common to all; and as well, a movement and a measure constituting all, and that was fire.  Here are a couple of fragments which have survived:
This world-order [the same of all] did none of the gods or men make, but it always was and is and shall be: an everlasting fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.

Thunderbolt steers all things. 
        [translated by Kirk, Raven and Schofield]

Reading these words immediately makes me think of the world called forth by the poet’s invocation at the beginning of the Iliad—a world constituted, coherent and continuous through rage.  Such an elemental force in human nature suits well the breath and words necessary for an epic poem.  Achilles’ rage moves through other characters, moves up to the gods, moves against a river and finally, moves into death much as Heraclitus’ fire offers an energy and an account of the world and how it works.
    Then Achilles began to close ground quickly.

    A marauding lion has been hunted down
    By an entire village determined to kill him.
    At first he ignores them and goes his way,
    But then one of the young men wounds him
    With a spearcast, and he gathers himself,
    Crouching with mouth open, foam
    Flecking his teeth, and, growling deep in his chest,
    He lashes his flanks and ribs with his tail,
    Working himself into a frenzy.  Eyes glaring,
    He charges, carried forward by sheer passion,
    And no one can tell if he will kill or be killed.

    Thus were Achilles’ mood and temper
    As he closed in on great Aeneas.
            [translated by Stanley Lombardo]

Here the metaphor transforms Achilles into a lion in order to reveal the natural force this warrior brings to battle.  Follow these metaphors carefully for they are constructing an argument about what is natural, what is a force that compels and moves the world.  Certainly in this example and elsewhere in the Iliad, we can answer—rage. 

Within this quote there resides another powerful emotion, another powerful experience of existence: passion.  If Heraclitus serves as a philosophical example of seeking an understanding of what creates the world, and if the Iliad brings a mythic answer, then Sappho in her lyrical poetry offers an intimate voice telling us of its life with passion.
He seems to me equal to gods that man
    whoever he is who opposite you
    wits and listens close
        to your sweet speaking

    and lovely laughing-oh it
    puts the heart in my chest on wings
    for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
        is left in me

    no: tongue breaks and thin
    fire is racing under skin
    and in eyes no sight and drumming
        fills ears
                [translated by Anne Carson]

Here the 7th century BCE poet from the isle of Lesbos tells how passion, how desire for another alters and transforms the body of the one who gazes with longing.  The experience of desire is not lived in the object, but under the skin of the one who watches.  Passion reasons and overwhelms, figures rationally and irrationally and becomes a force that can feel like death.  In fragment 130 Sappho will call this desire an “unmanageable creature” who “steals in.”  The experience of passion calls forth a narrative “sweet-bitter” which can “melt” our limbs. 

As with Heraclitus’ fire, as with Achilles’ rage, passion constitutes, coheres and continues the world inside and outside the human body.  We can learn from these ancient Greek voices speaking to us in fragments and poems about the experience of becoming human and how it involves detecting what makes us tick, what pushes us forward, and despite all, keeps us going.
—John Harvey

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