Nineteenth-Century Poetry – 2 (Heraclitus & Shelley)

Heraclitus (c. 535 BC – c. 475 BC)

Allen Ginsberg  – a transcript of his October 1981 Naropa class on “Nineteenth-Century Poetry” continues from here

AG: Well,  (the) first thing (that) I wanted to do was “Mutability,” which is a little short poem.  Heraclitus, pre-Socratic philosopher, whom Gregory (Corso) is going to cover when he gets here, has the phrase “All is flux,” or “Everything is flux.”  Flux means flowing or change.  And then that’s repeated in Heraclitus in another statement – “You can’t step in the same river twice.”  You’ve heard that?  You’ve heard that phrase?  That comes from Heraclitus.  Meaning, what does it mean?  Does anybody know?
Student:  The river is flowing.
AG:  Yeah.
Student:  So it’s not the same river.
AG:  Yeah.  It’s different water, so the river is never the same.  So existence is never the same at any minute –   (to Student)  You don’t have to take notes, it’s just sort of basic… unless you’re thinking, or somebody says something that’s so pretty that it’s worth noting down.  But I was just….)

The other thing he says is that, “Everything we look upon when  awake is death, and when asleep, dream.”  Meaning the same thing – everything we look upon when awake is dying, or is the process of change, or is a flowing river and is going to be dying sooner or later.  So everything we look upon when awake is death, and when asleep, dream.  Or is in the process of death – which is a hard one to swallow! –  And Pythagoras repeated that also.

AG:  What else did he (Heraclitus) say?  “Strife is the basis of creation.  Something (like) that…  saying there is no such thing as peace – strife is eternal, strife is the basis of creation.  Without strife, no creation – without strife, no universe – (without dialectic, no universe, if you want to put it in Marxist terms).  Without a dialectic, or without strife, there is no appearance.

Peter Orlovsky:  You mean struggle?  (class) struggle?

AG:  Contrast,  or I guess it would be things rubbing up against each other.  Without strife, no creation.  Things contrasting,  or, without two things fighting there wouldn’t be anything around at all.

Student:    …without pain you’d have no pleasure..

AG:  Yeah.  I guess without strife no movement.  Without push-pull no movement at all.  So that’s such a general thing that you can make anything out of it you want.  But it’s sort of something that struck me as being anti-pacifist at first, but then interesting and maybe real, psychologically, if not physically.

So, “Mutability.”  Then mutability is the same thing as “Everything is flux.”  Shelley read a lot of Heraclitus, he read a lot of Greek philosophy and he was interested in that particular shot of mutability, and Gregory is interested in that, too.  Just as a basic premise or a basic take on existence.  And it’s basic to Buddhist philosophy, too, under another name, (which is generally accused of being an Oriental idea that is alien to …) –  H-E-R-A-C-L-I-T-U-S  – Heraclitus.  Heraclitoris.  Heraclitoris.

In Buddhist theory the three marks of existence or three charateristics of existence or the three basic things you can say for real are that there is suffering in existence — or existence contains suffering – but the original Buddhist idea is that existence is suffering, and that’s very similar to without strife, no existence; without strife, no creation.  But suffering is basic to existence.

And the Buddhist idea of that is that because you’re born in a body and because the body is transitory and impermanent and mutable – and mutable – therefore, as a body changes and particularly as a body goes into old age and sickness and death, there is as much inevitable suffering compounded into the body as any pleasure of growing was compounded — not that growing is necessarily an unadulterated pleasure either.  It’s an un-American idea in a sense that I never heard of it until (Jack) Kerouac told me that and I thought he was just being mean and just taking a mean view of existence by saying that “Existence contains suffering.”  No, he said, “Existence is suffering,” which is the pure form.  And the American way of saying it was “Existence contains suffering” – because that’s obvious – everybody knows that.

Then the second premise, or second characteristic of existence the Buddhist presume is transitoriness –  that everything is moving, you can’t step in the same river twice – mutability.  But they say everything, as Shelley says, actually.  With the possible exception of empty space, which has nothing.  Since it is nothing or has nothing going on in it, therefore there’s no moving, it’s self that we move and it’s just there and it doesn’t change, doesn’t begin, doesn’t end, it’s unborn and undying.  Unborn because you don’t know where it came from and even if everybody died empty space would presumably be there, even though there’s nobody to look at it.  So except for space everything is changing.  Or mutability.

And I’m interested in that on account of in talking about Buddhist ideas if you say something like “transitoriness is the basis of existence, is the characteristic of existence,” everybody will point their finger and say, “That’s an Oriental idea.  That’s a Buddhist, Oriental, Hindu idea.”  Not realizing that it actually co-exists in Western culture from Heraclitus up through Shelley.

And the third was because everything is transitory..  everything is transitory, therefore there’s nothing permanent, or eternal, which cuts out God, if you accept the premise that everything is transitory, that all the constituents of being are transitory.  The Buddhist term is “all the constituents of being are transitory.”  All the building blocks, or all the atoms, or all of the waves, or all of the mesons or all of the gluons are all transitory.  That would eliminate any fixed point at all, if you take it to its conclusion.  And if God were to be considered the fixed reference point ,or the fixed point, in the universe.

In the Shelley-ean universe and in the Heraclitan universe and in the Buddhist universe there is no divine principle eternal, fixed, unmoving, with the exception of, in Buddhist thinking, and probably maybe even in the West, just open space itself, in which everything hangs.

to be continued

Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately eight-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately sixteen-and-three-quarter minutes in 

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