Saturday, February 20, 2010

Rusticus Expectat

What is it about rivers that gives rise to thoughts about time? Or is this purely a cultural artifact?

Rusticus expectat, go the lines of Horace alluded to by Immanuel Kant in his Prolegomena, dum defluat amnis, at ille labitur et labetur in omne volubilis aevum.

A light and loose rendering might be:

The rube waits for the river to flow away
But it keeps on rolling and rolling
Forever and a day.

But this misses the subtilty of in omne volubilis aevum—“flowing for all eternity”.

The aevum is by the way the origin of the English “eon” and kin to the Greek aion. All three denote both eternity and “life time or “age”.

In turn they are cognate with the Sanskrit ayu, “life”, as well as the Old Norse ævi "lifetime" and the German ewig "everlasting."

In Old English another cognate is “a”, “always, forever”.

In English “time” as a river is still a commonplace, but the figure of flowing in eternity and eternity in turn as ever flowing is not so patent nowadays perhaps as it once was.

One once taught English to a Chinese physicist who, trying to illustrate how “primitive” was his China even in the Twentieth Century, exclaimed, “Why my father believed that the earth stood still and the sun and stars moved around it!”

Somehow the concept of an earth revolving around the sun and turning on its axis in relation to a background of seemingly fixed stars makes the image of a moving, almost living eternity, rather more striking.

Horace’s eternity also gibes neatly with Heraclitus of Ephesus, whose panta rhei—“everything flows” characterizes a universe in flux.

G.W.F. Hegel, whose philosophy hinges on the coincidence of opposites, not surprisingly had a very high opinion of Heraclitus, or at least a very high opinion of whom he thought Heraclitus to be.

Dieser kühne Geist hat zuerst das tief Wort gesagt, ‘Das Seyn is nicht mehr als das Nichtseyn”, Hegel observed—“This bold spirit first made the profound statement, ‘Being is no more than Non-Being'”, a principle which is central to Hegel’s own philosophy.

It is not clear that Heraclitus ever said what Hegel says he said. There is a passage in Aristotle that seems to convict Heraclitus of holding “all things are and are not”(panta einai kai me einai). But even if this is genuinely Heraclitan in origin rather than a later extrapolation, the coexistence of is and is not is not quite the same thing as their being identical.

The closest an inarguably genuine fragment comes to postulating an identity of what is and what is not is: potamoisi toisi autoisi embainomen te kai ouk embainomen, eimen te ai ouk eimen—that is, “In the same rivers we both step and do not step, we both are and are not.”

The difficulty with taking this in wholly existential terms is that “are” and “are not” may refer only to being and not being in the same rivers in question rather than to a general being and not being at the same time.

From another perspective it is not until Parmenides, Heraclitus’ great critic, that a logical analysis of absolute being and non-being is accomplished. Heraclitus, then, seems rather wrapped up in opposites and their putative unity, which is indeed the whole thrust of the philosophy evidenced in the surviving fragments. He does not, for instance, ever seem to have separated these opposites into strictly logical events susceptible to authentic ontological analysis.

Among the most legended of Heraclitus’ fragments is, “You cannot step into the same river twice” (dis es ton auton potamon ouk an embaies) which survives in a quotation by Plato.

This makes immediate if perhaps all too superficial sense to many moderns seemingly because, as Heraclitus himself elaborates in other fragments, upon those who do step into a stream “ever different waters flow”, which is to say, that the river perforce of its movement is always in motion and thus no definite and completed thing.

A common apprehension in the ancient world is, then, that Heraclitus was undermining the unconscious identification of names with things both unchanging and existent simply because named.

This may not be wholly mistaken.

Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and the avowed Heraclitan, Cratylus, is a rollicking carnival of word play with a philosopher who, according to Aristotle, went his master Heraclitus one better with the argument that, if you cannot step in the same river twice, you cannot not step in it even once—oud’ hapax.

Also according to Aristotle, this Cratylus ended up by holding that he need not say anything at all but simply point his finger.

Plato tells us, specifically in the context of the river image, that Heraclitus’ context was that of a judgment to the effect that “everything goes forward and nothing stands still” (panta chorei kai ouden menei).

Whether or not Heraclitus put any emphasis on the point, the use of “go forward” (choreo) specifically conjoined with a river is in effect an implicit statement that the “flow” of time is unidirectional.

Plato also informs that Heraclitus’ river was a metaphor for all existence (ta onta).

Aristotle, pursuing the same metaphor, concluded that this view implied real motion in all things, even those that seemed to stay the same.

This is apparently going too far for many moderns. G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven ask, “Can Heraclitus really have thought a rock or a bronze cauldron, for example, was invariably undergoing invisible changes of material. Perhaps so; but nothing in the extent fragments suggests that he did, and his clearly expressed reliance on the senses suggests that he did not. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that before Parmenides…gross departures from common sense must only be accepted when the evidence for them is very strong.”

Ironically, the notable departure from common sense here seems to be that of Messrs. Kirk and Raven in thinking that an ancient Greek who relied on his senses would necessarily see a rock or a bronze cauldron as some determined and materially unchanging object. Bronze corrodes, as every Greek certainly knew, and over time even rock like marble undergoes subtle but clearly observable changes to those with a close eye and long attention span, both of which Heraclitus, along with most other Greeks of the time, surely had.

Kirk and Raven are fine and useful scholars. It is all the more significant, then, that they are the ones who seem to populate the world, even the ancient world, with sensuously unchanging “objects” undergoing “invisible changes”, which is, of course, exactly what the modern physicists and chemists and such would have the laity believe, to wit, both (1) that they qua “scientists” are initiates of a molecular and sub-atomic “invisible world” through their science, and (2) that this world is not obvious as a matter of sense and common sense to the rest of unscientific humanity.

Too, it seems, Kirk and Raven have taken the metaphor of the flowing river quite to heart and also in the context of modern physics. If common objects “flow” must they not flow as a river with ever different but unseen “matter” in motion through a seemingly unchanging form?

It may be that the most obvious conclusion to be reached from what Plato says is that Heraclitus was less interested in the materies of such things as rocks and pots than in all those kinds of changes that are only too visible over time—as the flow of rivers—but which are concretized in language as unchanging and definite “things” purely as a matter of names.

Admittedly this is a red herring, for there is every reason to conclude that Heraclitus was no materialist at all, and surely not in the grossest and most rudimentary of modern modes.

“The way up and down is one and the same way" (hodos ano kato mia kai houte)—another of Heraclitus' more famous fragments—seems on the surface the exact opposite of a material opposition, and as a matter of direction, is in kind a purely formal polarity.

What is this “one way”, then, and how can that “one way” be reconciled with the implied “going forward” of a river?

Descending again to the level of rocks and bronze cauldrons, that may be easily explicable if is recalled that the “same” river’s course may meander in many directions of the compass. The direction of the flow, on the other hand, is unidirectional along a continuous line away from each past locus and toward the next and future one, which is never the last.

Interestingly enough, the flow of a river as metaphor of reality in eternal flux through time corresponds almost eerily to the Buddhists’ view that the world is a multiplicity of objects imaged as “strings of events in one direction, "strings” in which every moment is seen as the cause of the one following (samantara-pratyaya).

Is it mere coincidence that Heraclitus and Gautama Buddha happen to be rough contemporaries?

To the “same” river in which we are and are not, the much later Roman Stoic philosopher (also tutor and advisor of the young Emperor Nero) Lucius Annaeus Seneca adds an intriguing dimension in one of his letters: et ego ipse, dum loquor mutari ista, mutatus sum. Hoc est quod ait Heraclitus: in idem flumen bis descendimus et non descendimus—manet enim idem fluminis nomen, aqua transmissa est. Hoc in amne manifestius est quam in homine, sed nos quoque non minus velox cursus praetervehit, to wit:

And I myself in the process of saying that these things change, change. This what Heraclitus says—in the same river we step twice and do not step at all, for while the name of the river is the same, the water has rolled on. This is clearer in the case of a river than it is in that of a human being, but nevertheless the swift stream carries us ever onward.

It has not been noticed, as far as one knows, how reminiscent Seneca’s figure of the swift stream—velox cursus—is of Horace’s fluent eon, “voluble for all time.” Is it then the most arbitrary of ideas to refer both to the Heraclitan image of all things in flux—panta rhei—as a river, including Heraclitus himself, who makes the observation?

And I myself in the process of saying these things change, change.” So far as it goes, that is simple logic. If all things change and Seneca is a thing, Seneca changes. Note, however, that according to Seneca the name of the river—nomen fluminis—stays the same. At one end, that takes us immediately back to Plato’s Cratylus, and at the other to Friedrich Hegel and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

But those are tales for another day.

[copyright E.A. Costa 1984/2010]

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Duchamp In America

Duchamp In America

Tertullian who had Tacitus
notes that in the Holy of Holies
at Jerusalem great Pompey
for all his perscrutiny saw:

nihil simulacri

Did you then in Philadelphia
view solely mummified artifacts fluted
in a room that smelled of

It is all by design:
as rose crystal in a pawn shop window
thoroughly exercised by dawn
broadcasts radioactive
to some other earth.

[copyright EAC 2010]

Monday, February 15, 2010

Dialogue In The Third Degree: Quelque Chose Qui Cloche

Castor: Are there different degrees of consciousness do you suppose?

Pollux: I am not sure what you mean.

Castor: What is unclear? You do not dispute what consciousness is, do you?

: Taking it as some sort of awareness, I suppose not.

Castor: Then where the problem?

: I am not sure what you mean by degrees, or whether it applies to consciousness.

: You surprise me. You don’t know what a degree is?

: Do you?

: Well, for example, a thermometer measures temperature in degrees.

: A very ill analogy, if I may say so, at least without considerable explanation.

Castor: How so? Now it is my turn not to follow what is meant.

Pollux: In saying that consciousness has degrees as a thermometer has degrees, are you saying that consciousness is, like heat, one thing and one thing only and that it is measurable, like temperature, and that the proper measurement is “degrees”?

: Apparently I must be saying that, yes.

Pollux: In saying that, however, you also say that consciousness, as one thing, is subject to quantification in degrees. Do you mean that in the sense of there being instances of greater and lesser consciousness or as a matter of intensification?

: Actually I was perhaps thinking in terms of levels, as a staircase.

: Ah, the etymology!

Castor: The etymology? Again I am now the one who does not follow.

: You are a gifted etymologist whether you know it or not then. In origin “degree” is French, from the Latin “degradus”, which means a “step”, as in a staircase or as a stage in the musical scale, ascending or descending, or the measure of blood relationship in terms of distance removed through generations. Interestingly, “degree” originates from exactly the same word as does “degrade.”

Castor: But staircase makes an apt metaphor, don't you think?

Pollux: For consciousness, you mean?

: Of course. Isn't that what we are discussing?

Pollux: I am not at all sure about its aptness. How is consciousness or awareness like a staircase?

Castor: There are different steps or levels of consciousness.

Pollux: Easy to say but perhaps not so easy to understand. The staircase itself is not an object apart from its steps, but the steps exist all at the same time in the same staircase. That sort of step or level is quite different from a step taken by a man when walking. In that case step seems to be, as most use it, a point in a sequence. Are you saying consciousness has its own levels or that one goes up or down steps on a staircase called consciousness? If the latter, it seems to me, you are positing consciousness or awareness as something different from the one who may be conscious, to wit, a distinct and separate reality that can be climbed. Or again, are you saying consciousness has steps in the way a creature with legs moves in steps?

Castor: I admit the difficulties of the metaphor. But recall, I began by speaking in terms of the degrees of a thermometer.

Pollux: Do you presume that consciousness is all of a piece or that it varies in measurable ways?

Castor: What sort of choice is that?

: A difficult one. Let us resolve it for you—is consciousness of a piece and does it vary?

Castor: Taken closely, I suppose that I have to say both to be consistent in the metaphor.

Pollux: Of a piece and varying, as you wish. Do you then use some scale to measure degrees of consciousness as with heat?

: Well, if there are different levels or degrees, I suppose there would be higher and lower levels of consciousness, greater or less, as with temperature.

Pollux: In other words, by positing different levels you do not compass consciousness purely as a threshold phenomenon, wherein one is either conscious or not conscious, like being pregnant or drunk?

: I see what you are getting at. You consider consciousness and awareness as either present or absent, then, with no levels in between?

Pollux: You jump to conclusions.

Castor: How so? What is the alternative?

: Let's leave that aside for the moment. There may be more alternatives than you seem to have considered. The idea of consciousness as a staircase, for example, and therefore as an externality in its steps is at least interesting enough to be considered. I suppose that would be a consciousness that exists apart from the individual, whatever the individual is.

: Again I do not follow. If it is a staircase, how can it be external to itself?

: Is being on one step of the staircase the same as or different from being on no step at all, or being on several steps or all steps at the same time?

Castor: The staircase image is your making. I have already said I prefer to refer to the degrees of a thermometer.

: On the contrary, you brought up staircase as metaphor for levels as I recall. Consciousness like heat is all one phenomenon, then? But graded and measurable?

Castor: I think we have established that is my gist. Do you deny it?

Pollux: I am not in a position to deny it or confirm until I understand what you mean.

Castor: That would suggest that you do not see consciousness as analogous to temperature.

: Let's pursue that aspect for a moment.

Castor: Certainly, that is the point of the discussion as far as I am concerned.

: .Even were consciousness admitted to be analogous to heat or temperature there seem to be difficulties. We call the physical phenomenon heat, and the measure of the degree of heat its temperature. So degree is a measure. But what is measure? Measure is a mark, is it not, whether the mark is a number on a scale or a physical sensation in consciousness as greater or lesser. Yet in order to posit greater and lesser heat, does not one need at least two events, contemporaneous or in sequence. I measure the temperature today, for example, as 70 degrees. But if the temperature never changed would I be measuring it at all?

Castor: True enough, unchanging temperature would be a ground of being, not able to be marked as greater or lesser. On the other hand, it surely might be sensed as a ground, don't you think? We see through air, for example, and in the act of seeing through consider air invisible, if not absolutely, in relative terms. Still, even the ancients realized there was an invisible physical substance which they could not see and called it air.

Pollux: But there were also sound and the wind. What is seen through the air is in some ways akin to what is heard through the air, but there are differences. And wind, which is air in movement, was discernible to touch. Still, that is all by the way and has nothing to do with what I am getting at.

Castor: Please hurry along—I am anxious to know just what it is you are getting at, if anything.

Pollux: Actually, I am surprised you did not bring up the matter of two hands in two different containers of water of different temperature. Is consciousness like that, do you suppose—so that the same person can measure two different levels of consciousness at the same time?

Castor: I had not thought of that.

Pollux: But again we digress.

: Well, get on with it, old chap—I cannot wait to hear what you are getting at.

Pollux: This consciousness which you say has degrees. May I ask where the degrees are marked?

Castor: What a strange question.

: Not strange at all. Does what we call heat have different marks on it that say 70 degrees or 120 degrees or hotter or colder, or is the degree of heat measured separately and externally to the heat itself?

: Ah, I see. That is a difficult question. There must be something about heat that allows it to be measured in distinct degrees. But I am not sure I would call whatever that may be its measurement or mark.

Pollux: Here again you stumble into a conundrum. Are you saying the changeability of heat unfolds in distinct steps and the steps are measured or that heat is a continuum, with no inherent stages or levels, but which may be measured by marks that are different from what is measured?

Castor: I see now--as with a clock.

Pollux: Most clocks have hands or digital numerals that tick off in steps. But what is measured by the clock is not just the ticks.

Castor: Time you mean? You mean to say, then, time is a continuum measured by distinct marks, and that the marks are not what is measured.

Pollux: Actually with clocks I don't consider we have to go that far.

Castor: Again you lose me. You are not referring to time as a continuum?

Pollux: You brought up clocks and time, not I.

Castor: It seems a rather good analogy to heat insofar as the question of continuum is concerned, don't you think?

Pollux: Perhaps. But one need not bring time into it at all. The hands of the clock are in movement, it is true. And the distinct intervals of movement are mechanical or electronic. But the movement behind the movement is not necessarily in distinct steps.

Castor: The movement behind the movement?

Pollux: Well, in the case of mechanical clocks the spring, or with a cuckoo clock the weight or what we call the force of gravity.

Castor: I see. Yes, that is a pertinent aspect.

: Indeed I am not sure that the concept of continuum must be physical at all. There seem to be continua that are physical but that is incidental. The mathematicians, for example, posit a continuum of quantity between numbers.

: Indeed they do. That is the origin of the continuum problem.

: Not the origin at all--in modern times, simply one of its later and clearest formulations. Parmenides and Zeno both phrased very precise problems based on an idea of the continuum and how continuum is supposed to be mensurable.

Castor: But where does that leave us, then, either in regard to heat or consciousness.

: I think we have made some progress. To say there are mensurable degrees of consciousness at the very least brings up the matter of whether consciousness is all one thing and a continuum.

Castor: Are you now saying then that there may be different kinds of consciousness?

Pollux: I leave that to you, dear fellow, who came up with the degrees in the first place. I am not even sure I want to use to the word, “consciousnesses”, however direly it may be needed in this discussion.

Castor: Well, I must be going. I will not mention modes of consciousness again lest you take the rest of the day distinguishing modes from kinds or steps or degrees or staircases or whatnot.

Pollux: More progress then.

: More progress? Now I truly have no idea what you mean.

: Perhaps neither of us does separately and without discussion. But you must be off, as you say.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Death Of Zeno

Diogenes Laertius, the late biographer whose namesake was the earlier Diogenes, famous in his search for an honest man, notes of Zeno, inventor of the famous paradoxes, that he was not only student of Parmenides, but the elder sage’s son by adoption.

Diogenes cites as his source Apollodorus’ Chronika.

There is nothing outlandish about the report.

Both Zeno and Parmenides were from Elea, and Zeno was a follower and companion of Parmenides.

Indeed, Zeno’s paradoxes are a systematic effort, still precisely unanswerable, supporting the validity of his master’s insight that all physical motion is an illusion and logically contradictory.

Plato mentions that Zeno was tall. Aristotle names him as the discoverer (heuretes) of dialectic. Diogenes Laertius also mentions that Zeno was distinguished both in philosophy and politics and cites Heraclides’ epitome of Satryus about Zeno’s end.

Zeno, the story goes, was implicated in a plot to overthrow the local tyrant. Some say the tyrant’s name was Nearchus, others Diomedon. Zeno seemingly was caught red-handed smuggling arms to Lipara as part of a plot. The dialectician was arrested and cross-examined under torture.

Unintimidated, he implicated all the tyrant’s own friends, aiming to strip him of support, then beckoned the tyrant himself to approach, as if to tell him something for his ears only.

Nearchus or Diomedon was fool enough to comply.

The tyrant likely had not read Zeno’s philosophical tracts and was unacquainted with his logic.

Zeno bit the tyrant’s ear and could not be removed until he had been thoroughly and definitively stabbed to death.

Also according to Diogenes, Demetrius in his Homonymoi says Zeno bit off Nearchus’ or Diomedon’s nose.

Another story is retailed by Antisthenes in his Diadochai, according to Diogenes.

Supposedly Nearchus or Diomedon asked Zeno who else was in the plot. Zeno shot back, “You, curse of the city!”

Zeno then addressed the bystanders and said he marveled at the cowardice of those who, for fear of enduring what he was going through in cross examination, were counted among the tyrant’s slaves.

Finally, according to Antisthenes though Diogenes, Zeno bit off his own tongue and spat it out in Nearchus’ or Diomedon’s face. At this point it is not clear whether Nearchus or Diomedon still had both ears and a nose. According to this last story Zeno’s fellow citizens were so exercised by his defiance they stoned the tyrant to death.

Does Zeno himself survive, tongueless, the story of his own execution?

It is worth noting that Diogenes Laertius retails this last version as that with which most of the authors he had read agreed.

Finally, Diogenes Laertius refers Hermippus, whose account is short and very unsweet: Zeno was cast into a mortar and beaten to death.

This establishes, not how small and inconsequential Zeno, but how large and formidable some ancient Greek mortars must have been.

Diogenes himself in his epitaph of Zeno accepts the story of the mortar:

Zeno, my man, you aimed at a noble deed
In trying to slay the tyrant and free Elea
He caught you and ground you up in a mortar, it is true,
But I say this: he pulverized body, not you.

For “body”. Diogenes Laertius uses soma, and the finish is fairly neat—“soma gar, ouchi de se”, more literally, “indeed body [he beat], but you not at all.”

Among moderns, it is not now fashionable to take Diogenes Laertius too seriously as stylist or critic, rather than as late and bustling collector of references about earlier, more seminal figures. This is true as far as it goes.

Interestingly, however, in this neat little play--soma gar, ouchi de se—Diogenes summarizes in five words the problem that became in another form the so-called body-mind dichotomy, most famously phrased in a much later age by Descartes.

The temptation for English speakers is perhaps to translate, “your body”.

The Greek bears this easily enough: the possessive pronoun need not be stated in regard to one’s own body parts to be understood.

On the other hand, the emphasis of ouchi and the particle de, which separates any emphatic pronoun “you” (su) from soma allow a more general “body” with person and personal possession left unstated.

Whatever it was the Nearchus or Diomedon pulverized, it was not Zeno in essence or anything included in his personhood, grammatical or otherwise.

Does the same apply to the tyrant’s ear or nose?

[copyright EAC 2010]

Monday, February 8, 2010

Deer Park (From Wang Wei)

Deer Park (From Wang Wei)

On the spare mountain no man seen
yet there echo voices about the peak.
Sun scissors sillhouettes on the forest floor
necklacing with diamonds the wet green moss.

[copyright EAC 1985-2010]
Click on image to view at full size

Thursday, February 4, 2010



She hears growling from invisible spirits.

He sees gray ghosts gesturing with their hands
and splitting their sides with laughter.

Old Professor Nicholson used to tell his story over and over:

"Did you hear, " he would say, "what the tailor from Italy
said to the classicist who brought him trousers to be mended?"

Rabelais, raising brown ale to face red like Santa Claus,
clouds over.

Mikhail Bakhtin on the other side of time pauses at his writing desk
staring into string theory.

Petronius dictating the true history of a werewolf
to fearful Trimalchio pauses at the crossroads with quizzical lips.

"Euripides?", says Professor Nicholson.

The question mark is lost in the howling.

[copyright EAC 2010]

Harvard Yard '65 (In Memoriam Jack D'Arcy)

Over the holidays the sun shines sherry—that is Jack.

He turns back to flash thumbs up in a tuxedo.

It is the year of a squadron of picked men assembled before dawn
and walked to Jack’s lookout to sip Kirsch and fly out of the sun
over Mount Ararat.

There is one order: show up.

“Codeword Bagratid”, Jack says and passes the cherry liqueur.

Norman to bone, Jack has the high ground on the ivied Yard wall, second floor.

On one side he reconnoiters dangerous Widener, on the other the Hayes Bick

where he gets his grilled cheese and tomato.

Who knows—would you prefer a prose resume
sequined in the commoditized time of Capitalism?

Harvard kept us together in the same tent, rent by war and flying apart.

That itself is fine art.

There is no end of tales save telephoning after death.

The new secretary says: “There is no Jack D’Arcy here.”

No Strongbow in Dublin? But this is the number to his office—no Jack?”

She would check and be right back.

I am very sorry to have to tell you this in this manner. You are his friend? Oh dear! Jack died suddenly of a heart attack. He no longer works here.

Don’t stay down long, Jack. On the Vineyard there's a bar with iced glass steins, high-frothed head,

and Patricia Irish-eyed brown to share a bed.

[EAC copyright 2010]

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Vitruvia Nova

Vitruvia Nova

This is the new temple,

four quadrants of sky still curious and blue.

Cloaked with leaves by the sea, mother of all,

be she of marble on the sere beach,

waxed nude in every crevice

and standing shy with glowing leaves.

She breathes devices so far distant now--

in the next step by a stranger

beyond the anger that fed us,

beyond the softness and smiles

that healed, beyond the bed

of every day myths, delighting

in wild and different notions.

Only yesterday is the line time of encircling ocean

smiling from here to here.

Some lives grow gold and that is a way of finding them.

Others rush forward in a mad crowd on the strand

when one tries to remember which day

appeared on the sand loveliest and far graced.

Was she youngest and most patient?

Was she wisest and most ancient?

Was she most treacherous and loyal,

straight-laced and most royal,

lecherous and most unspoiled?

This is a new temple,

four quadrants of still curious blue.

What shall we do?

[copyright EAC 2010]