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A Heraclitean Gloss on the Nature of Speech

The Heraclitean fragment cited in the previous post lends itself to a further explication as it bears on the nature of speech, as follows.

When Heraclitus says of palintropos harmoniē that it is “like that of the bow and lyre,” one can take it as a description of physical events that apply to these two “instruments” with respect to the movement of a string in each case: the string returns to a state of rest after being drawn or plucked, and harmony is thereby reestablished. Although this explanation is not countermanded by any other and does not itself contradict any figuratively oriented one, still the fragment might be more generally explicated by referring it to the cultural circumstances of a poetic competition. It would, in other words, represent a Heraclitean figuration of the polyphonic nature of speech—and, by extension, of men and the world—all of which are in their essence defined by a form of conflict that requires an ultimate resolution. If one were to say that Heraclitus is the first great master of artistic prose, then he might also be called the first polyphonic author.

For modern readers (let alone for Heraclitus) the word palintropos could allude to the figurative meaning of bow and lyre in virtue of its use of –tropos (‘turning’) to configure tropes or metaphors. “A thing at variance with itself” would be a particularly apt and profound way of describing the ontology of a trope, in which the opposition of figural and literal meaning must simultaneously be present and resolved. A text of this sort––no matter how fragmentary––requires the same approach.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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