metaphysics of paper 3

Viele Werke der Alten sind Fragmente geworden. Viele Werke der Neuern sind es gleich bei der Entstehung. - Schlegel

There’s a story in Strabo that runs like this: “Neleus succeeded to the possession of the library of Theophrastus, which included that of Aristotle; for Aristotle gave his library, and left his school, [379] to Theophrastus. Aristotle was the first person with whom we are acquainted who made a collection of books, and suggested to the kings of Egypt the formation of a library. Theophrastus left his library to Neleus, who carried it to Scepsis, and bequeathed it to some ignorant persons who kept the books locked up, lying in disorder. When the Scepsians understood that the Attalic kings, on whom the city was dependent, were in eager search for books, with which they intended to furnish the library at Pergamus, they hid theirs in an excavation under-ground; at length, but not before they had been injured by damp and worms, the descendants of Neleus sold the books of Aristotle and Theophrastus for a large sum of money to Apellicon of Teos. Apellicon was rather a lover of books than a philosopher; when therefore he attempted to restore the parts which had been eaten and corroded by worms, he made alterations in the original text and introduced them into new copies; he moreover supplied the defective parts unskilfully, and published the books full of errors. It was the misfortune of the ancient Peripatetics, those after Theophrastus, that being wholly unprovided with the books of Aristotle, with the exception of a few only, and those chiefly of the exoteric kind, they were unable to philosophize according [380] to the principles of the system, and merely occupied themselves in elaborate discussions on common places. Their successors however, from the time that these books were published, philosophized, and propounded the doctrine of Aristotle more successfully than their predecessors, but were under the necessity of advancing a great deal as probable only, on account of the multitude of errors contained in the copies.”

Strabo’s story has been criticized as inconsistent with the evidence we have about the distribution and reading of Aristotle’s works in the Hellenic world, notably in an essay by Jonathan Barnes. But I am fascinated by its mythic suggestion, not so much its empirical validity. One notices the myth right away in the activity of the Scepsians, who bury Aristotle’s manuscripts underground. Underground is the place of treasure. It is the opposite of heaven, as Jesus, that folk prophet, saw: “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal”. The transformation of texts into treasures, and the subsequent influence of rot upon the transmission of those texts – which are retrieved and patched together – is a small revenge extracted by the little tradition, of the folk, on the great tradition, where abstraction joins with power.

When matter emerges clumsily and definitively in the world of letters, it does so through certain favored modes and occasions: the fragment, the ruin, the lost. These expose the word’s entanglement in matter, the limit to its flights, the impossibility of the heaven of pure sense. The gnostic attitude begins with a deep appreciation of these seemingly accidental events. It is a revelation, one never to be gotten over by the prepared soul, that the text can be lost or patched, the copyist can mistake  or the copy be blotted, the letter lost, the word abandoned or interrupted. These events, in the great tradition, the mainstream, are waved away as contingencies, but the gnostic draws a different metaphysical conclusion, which is that these events are inherent to the pact between sound and sense, paper and text, and that the entanglement between matter and letter, or the code and the message,  ruins all the tower of Babel schemes for the one true metalanguage. This metaphysical conclusion, in modernity, strengthens the margins against the center, or the mainstream. The gnostic attitude flows into Marx’s dialectical materialism, which exploits the power of the negation of the negation, and into like enterprises that bet on the return of the repressed. It connects Marx with Michelet’s witch, who, in the dark night of the feudal claim to have represented the totality of the order of creation in the social order, registers her protest by reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards, in following the  grand principe satanique que tout doit se faire à rebours, exactement à l’envers de ce que fait le monde sacré” – “great satanic principle that everthing must be done backwards, exactly the reverse of what the sacred world does.”  More commonly, the gnostic appears, in modernity, in the guise of the clerk, bureaucrat, functionary who becomes aware, to a greater or lesser degree, of his non-productive function in the sphere of circulation. He becomes a metaphysical whistle-blower – a Kafka, a Pessoa, a Bartleby.