Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Three New Volumes of Serge Mouraviev's Heraclitea, Part 1

Serge Mouraviev's Heraclitea
Cover of Serge Mouraviev's Heraclitea volume III.3.B/i, published by Academia Verlag
Dear Reader,

I last discussed Serge Mouraviev's magnum opus, Heraclitea, in my blog entry of 27 May 2006. Much to my surprise and in the highlight so far of my blogging endeavor, on 10 February of this year (2007), Mr. Mouraviev himself contacted me by email to thank me for my discussion of his work. He also wanted to add to that discussion:
another very important reason of the difficulty in understanding Heraclitus: the present fashion, very widespread among scholars, to cast doubt on the genuineness and/or credibility of any non corroborated or "suspicious" piece of information. I call this the presumption of guilt and consider it to be the methodological original sin of many a student of Ancient Greek philosophy as such.
I quite agree with Mr. Mouraviev. Any serious effort to understand Heraclitus from the second and third-hand fragments that remain must involve at least two quite distinct phases—analysis and synthesis—and the analysis phase must begin with the gathering of all fragments attributed to him regardless of the analyst's judgment about their authenticity. Mr. Mouraviev is the only Heraclitean analyst to date I have encountered who has done this.

Also very much to my surprise and delight, he arranged to send me review copies of the three Heraclitea volumes published in 2006, all part of section III.3.B of the series (the pertinent texts of the fragments of Heraclitus's book):

Heraclitea Volume III.3.b/i: Texts, Translations, and Materials (ISBN 3-89665-368-7)
Heraclitea Volume III.3.b/ii: Language and Poetics (ISBN 3-89665-369-5)
Heraclitea Volume III.3.b/iii: Critical Notes (ISBN 3-89665-370-9)

Even for someone like me whose French is tres rusty the value of these volumes to the serious student of Heraclitus makes the slow work of translation easily worthwhile. These volumes are concise, systematically organized, and thorough in their exploration of the fragments. This is the most complete collection of Heraclitean fragments I have seen to date, since Mr. Mouraviev includes not only relatively unknown authentic fragments but even every spurious fragment attributed to Heraclitus. He uses a simple three-part ranking system for each fragment to rate (1) the reliability of its attribution to Heraclitus, (2) its fidelity to Heraclitus's text, and (3) its fidelity—if correctly interpreted—to Heraclitus's message.

This is all in French and Greek, except that the first of these three volumes, which translates the fragments themselves, also translates them into English and Russsian. The Greek is presented not only in the form familiar to students of classical Greek (which is actually taught using the bicameral, polytonic Greek alphabet invented by Byzantine scholars in the Middle Ages, and thus only tenuously related to Classical Greek) but also in the actual Classical Greek (unicameral, unspaced form of the words in both Old Ionian and Old Attic) matching as closely as possible the way Heraclitus would have written them; he includes the ancient Greek only for those fragments whose text we can trace back to the Greek. For fragments whose oldest remaining source is Latin, he offers the Latin with translation into polytonic Greek. Where the oldest sources are Medieval Greek, he offers the polytonic Greek but again not the genuine Classical. These choices are exactly what we would expect from a man who in every other way throughout this series shows the most serious concern with doing justice to the material, reconstructing as much as we can fairly reliably do but no more.

The English translations are eccentric and entertaining, set in Medieval blackletter with a King James Bible approach to the language (conspicuous use of "evadeth" and "'twas" and "whate'er" and such). The grammar is spun about because he is opting for a fairly literal translation, tying word order more closely to the original Greek than English grammar can successfully bear; this word order is a legitimate approach as a step between the two languages, but it does not make this the most accessible English translation of the fragments. Clearly the translation to French is his first priority here, but in addition he has indicated that in a separate volume he will make his attempt to synthesize all of this material into as close an approximation as he can of Heraclitus's original work. Given that, it is easy to see that in these volumes his priority in translation is not to bring the reader close to Heraclitus's thought but instead close to the raw fragments as we have them. That is, these volumes are primarily concerned with studying the vestiges.

To be continued in part 2 of this review.

Yours truly,

Sunday, October 14, 2007

How Quick in Temper and in Judgment Weak

Dear Reader,

Rudeness, aggression, rage, paranoia, and addiction to crises make a wretched brew, make it difficult to help or even be close to someone you care about. If these vices grow they too easily creep past unpleasant and become unacceptable. When intolerable behavior will not be mended you must separate yourself from it or risk your self-respect and sanity.

But how easy it is to confuse the mad with the bad! If a loved one drifts into irreality and you mistake it for sheer cussedness you risk abandoning the sick instead of healing them. Oh, but how easy too to confuse the other way around! If you coddle a jerk, you hurt yourself and only invite more.

No stones mark these bounds, only nuances that weave snag by fray by twist into benightedness. Our fevered culture and medicine respond clumsily, blind to the flowering of illness. Not until madness blooms into destruction does the penny drop. Until then we can only watch and grieve as a fair child unravels in fits and starts smeared across the slow passing of seasons.

Yours truly,

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Nonpersistence of Memory

Dear Reader,

I based my description of the picture in the previous entry on the photo's timestamp recorded by the camera, but Beverly pointed out that (1) the timestamp was wrong and (2) the kitties are wearing their collars. Surya hates to be restrained and escaped her collar within the first few days we had her home, and only a day or so later she got Rashid out of his. Hence, this photograph was probably taken the day we brought them home.

Once my brain is in the proper time framework, other elements of the photo corroborate the true timeframe. First, when we brought Rashid home his fur was wiry, but after a month on the good food we fed them it turned soft and glossy. In this picture, you can see how coarse it is. Second, knowing the size of the chair, the size of the kittens is revealed to be much smaller than I interpreted it when I first posted this picture, too small to be a month after we brought them home. A month of gorging themselves on yums helped them grow rapidly.

I had forgotten about Surya's immediate escape act, so the purple of Rashid's collar failed remind me of the timeframe, and the subtler clues escaped me, too.

This all illustrates a central tenet of Heraclitus's philosophy, that we look the cosmos in the face and fail to recognize it for what it is, that the truth is right in front of us and sometimes fully visible but we still fail to attend to it properly. When he wrote that the hidden harmony is best and that nature loves to hide, he was writing as much about the subjective as the objective; that is, it is not just that the deep principles that organize and power reality are often literally invisible, but also that when the meanings of things are overt and visible usually we still fail to recognize them.

Contrary to the fairy tale of objectivity, we perceive the world through the lenses of ourselves, with our minds packed with preconceptions and preoccupations before we even begin to perceive a situation, with every perception premolded to conform to the shape of our mind and its current concerns even before we begin to pay attention. The attending itself that we imagine involves a direct transfer of the complete reality before us into a reliable and continuously accessible memory instead consists of moving a laser-pinpoint spotlight of consciousness across the field of "perception" before us, haphazardly selecting isolated details and impressions according to whatever combination of mood, questions, and attractions has us in its thrall at the moment. Once the direct stimulus of perception has passed, when we turn away, every other element of the reality we faced vanishes from our "awareness" as though it had never been present, and of the isolated details we abstracted into our memories few survive more than a handful of minutes. When later we ponder what we "saw," in truth we use the few blurry points of detail we remember as an empty framework we fill to "remember" it; we connect the dots with our own idiosyncratic inner logic and flesh out the details with our imagination and expectations about how things work in the real world, and we call the result a reliable memory. With that chimera as a starting point, substituting for truth, we then begin to make associations and deductions, deriving meaningful conclusions that were we wise and awake enough we would realize carry more meaning about ourselves based on how we composed the memory than about the reality left so far behind.

All this activity involved in recollection is unconscious to us. For us memory is like magic: it just happens or it doesn't. Though we claim it as a deliberate act, its actual workings are never visible to us while we engage in it. This is why almost everyone believes more or less in the integrity and validity of his own memory, why so few of us attend to studies that demonstrate the radical unreliable of witness testimony, why the few who do attend so often fall into the religion of numbers, believing that if they can discipline and organize this horrifically unreliable process to generate numbers, that the resulting precision will somehow substitute for its lack of reality.

Also Heraclitean is the realization that man does not stand apart from nature but rather that we are of it, that it flows through us, creates us, develops us, erodes us, and disperses us. So we should not be too surprised that we can look directly into the face of human nature too and not see it for what it is either, "seeing" instead evidence of whatever faith we cling to, scientific or otherwise, proven by the details of human nature our own unconscious natures have selected to fit their own preconceptions and preoccupations.

In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul writes "for now we see through a glass darkly . . ." but he does not linger over this Heraclitean insight to explore why we do so, eager as he is to move on to his revolutionary vision of emancipation from human nature. But Heraclitus, skeptical of such self-escape, would linger over this, one of his favorite motifs, would stress that we see darkly through the glass of ourselves, that if we would see more clearly we must improve that glass, cultivate excellence in ourselves, struggle always toward wisdom. Where other men imagine wisdom to be an extravagance they can safely postpone until their end of days, when they can spare the time, as their last duty, Heraclitus realized that the cultivation of wisdom is man's first duty, the prerequisite for doing anything else, because without it we are fools who will do the wrong things, remember the wrong things, see the wrong things. Even with a photograph to help us remember.

This is why Heraclitus wrote "wisdom stands apart from all else."

Yours truly,