I read it twice, in fact: first as an elegant little volume translated by the American poet Brooks Haxton, and then again on Wikisource, based on a 1912 translation and maintained by the website’s omninonymous hivemind.

The former put the fragments’ original Greek on facing pages, letting me feel smart as I sought and found “λόγος” or “Πυθαγόρας” or whatnot when their English counterparts appeared. Haxton also accompanies the work with notes about choices he made regarding ordering and omission, as well as straight translation.

Wikisource’s collection orders (and numbers) the fragments wholly differently; if it (or its original translator, John Burnet) followed any philosophy in doing so, it does not share it. To its credit, though, the Wikisource version included (in a very in-character flourish) a citation for every fragment, naming the post-Heraclitus work that originally embedded it, unwittingly saving that little piece of Mr. H’s work from the pre-Socratic oblivion that otherwise swallowed all his work whole.

This helped give me a deeper understanding of the Fragments’ true nature, at least as far as their physicality. Having watched a lot of movies and played a lot of games featuring tomb-robbing treasure-hunters and such, I read Haxton’s book with an ignorantly literal notion of the fragments: little bits of ancient parchment, no doubt crisped at the edges, that some brave priest had fished from the ashes of Alexandria and then stored in a cinematically appropriate strongbox, perhaps! But, no, what survives is not crumbling ancient artifacts but memes, in the original sense. Pure information poured from the original, long-lost vessel of Heraclitus’ On Nature, and put to work in other contexts — yet still retaining enough strength and coherence to maintain a single identity and source, despite its dilution across dozens of derivations, and hundreds of years.

That must have been some pretty powerful stuff!

In another sense, I don’t feel that I read the Fragments at all, so much as visited them for the first time, touring them for a bit. They don’t really strike me as something to fully comprehend by simply reading in sequence, no matter now much work translators past and present have put into tweaking and arranging them to juice up their thematic flow. The fact remains that each fragment has been removed from context twice over — first by the ancient writers who quoted the even-more-ancient Heraclitus in order to illustrate an example or prove a larger point in their own work, and then again by the act of gathering all these quotations into a single collection, heedless of the middlemen’s own various uses.

I can share a particular aspect that did stay with me. I loved glimpsing, through the Fragments’ cloudy window, a world that saw itself literally — not metaphorically — comprising the four classical elements. Heraclitus wrote much of the play among earth, air, water, and fire, but the latter element seemed to earn his fascination — or, at least, earned his most memorable writing, such that his intellectual descendants so often quoted his thoughts on fire. I squint through the fragments and I see one observing the human world as based on earth, spread out under air, and surrounded by water — but which fire consumes, and which consumes the fire in turn. Hints of fire as both ultimate motive and ultimate fate, as well as the fuel for the whole journey in between.

A proper reading, I reckon, would involve deep, slow interaction: meditating on one fragment per day, perhaps, or trying one’s own hand at reordering or even remixing them, seeing what new tones and meanings might emerge. Over one brief tour, I feel I spent enough time with the Fragments to feel a shadow of the power that’s kept them preserved for millennia. Probably worth owning my own copy of them; if I did it for aha! Insight I can do it with this too.

How to respond to this post.

Next post: Announcing BumpySkies

Previous post: I read _Time Travel: A History_

Loading responses...

Share a response

To share a response that links to this page from somewhere else on the web, paste its URL here.