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This article is taken from PN Review 210, Volume 39 Number 4, March - April 2013.

Fragments (Somewhat Charred) George Steiner
These aphorismic fragments have turned up on one of the charred scrolls recently unearthed in what is thought to have been a private library in a villa in Herculaneum.

Linguistic evidence and the tenor of argument point to the late second century BC. Some scholars have put forward the name of Epicharnus of Agra. But virtually nothing is known of this moralist and rhetorician (if that is what he was). At several points, moreover, the condition of the papyrus makes decipherment conjectural.


1. When lightning speaks it says darkness.

Numerous mythologies and cosmologies attach semantic values to lightning. Lightning bolts signal. They herald and give notice of impending storms. Their jagged but graphic forms solicit interpretation. They are a mute calligraphy, sometimes suggestive of Islamic lettering. They are a shorthand at once blindingly clear and enigmatically silent (even the fiercest flash is noiseless). Lightning seems most menacing when not followed by thunder. Heat lightning over a sea itself too calm. Lightning has been experienced as a hunter: ball lightning whips through the house or nails down the walker on the heath, the careless seeking shelter under a tree. Are these white or turquoise arrows the murderous prerogative of Zeus? Of the volcanic patriarch on Sinai? Arc lightning of high voltage can be generated in the laboratory. The poet (Hölderlin) knows that he may, at mortal risk, seek to trap lightning in his bewildered hands.

But more is implicit here. Note the distinction ...


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