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This article is taken from PN Review 129, Volume 26 Number 1, September - October 1999.

Absurdity and Poetry Adam Czerniawski


Philosophy becomes self-conscious about language - its instrument of operation - at is very beginnings. We have Heraclitus noting the significant oddity that bios means both 'bow' and 'life' (Diels-48)1. It's significant in that in a particular language a specific cluster of letters that forms a word may happen to refer to very different objects, here additionally significant, because these words stand for concepts that are in opposition to each other: the bow is an instrument of death. And that fact in turn takes us close to the theme of my essay; the concepts of contradiction, absurdity and nonsense. And again it is the apparent contradictoriness in the nature of things that most absorbs Heraclitus - or, at least, it is the dominant theme in the fragments of his thought that have survived. He derives his notion of contradictoriness or paradox from empirical observation: that sea-water sustains marine life, poisons humans (D-61); or that in order to cure patients, surgeons have to cause them injury by cutting them up (D-58). These observations seem to underlie Heraclitus's metaphysical conclusions that (1) the way up and the way down is the same (D-60); that (2) contradictories achieve agreement and that (3) an ideal harmony arises from dissonance (D-8). These conclusions lead him to the ultimate metaphysical truth that all the contradictory elements are one, but that only those people who listen not to him specifically but to the logos (D-50) are able to grasp that truth. Logos ...

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