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Empedocles

As early as page 45, we see a reference to the presocratic philosopher Empedocles, who was responsible for things like the notion of the four elements and the idea that sight was the product of beams of light streaming out of our eyes. He also happened to basically go crazy and fling himself to his death in a volcano if the legends are to be believed. And he wrote about combatting forces Love and Strife, which basically battled to bring about mixtures of the four elements to form things in the world, many of which were strange and short-lived, but some of which were good combinations and stuck around to become things like human beings. I’m paraphrasing from the Wikipedia article here, though I confirmed some of it by skimming bits and pieces of The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts, available here.

The first mention of Empedocles in J R falls from the mouth of Jack Gibbs, who goes on as follows (ellipses both mine and Gaddis’s):

— I think it’s a fragment from the second generation of his cosmogony, maybe even the first . . .

— When limbs and parts of bodies were wandering around everywhere separately heads without necks, arms without shoulders, unattached eyes looking for foreheads . . .

— Never read it? In the second generation these parts are joining up by chance, form creatures with countless hands, faces looking in different directions . . .

This is in the midst of the chaos surrounding Bast’s televised lesson on Mozart, and that word chaos is really the crux of J R, both its content and its form. In fact, even earlier in the book, way back on pages 20 and 21, we have this from Gibbs:

Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from outside. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .

He goes on to try to define for his class the term “entropy,” which of course has a meaning specific to thermodynamics but also pertains to measurements of both disorder and loss of information in a transmitted message, both of which escalate to the point of hysteria in the book. (Curiously, the more fragmented information Gaddis flings at you in the mounting maelstrom, the more certain bits of the plot begin to come together in spite of it all.)

I’m reading ahead a bit and am going to go ahead and quote ahead a little, but not in a spoily way. On page 403, Gibbs again:

. . . read Wiener on communication, more complicated the message more God damned chance for errors, take a few years of marriage such a God damned complex of messages going both ways can’t get a God damned thing across, God damned much entropy going on . . .

And on 406:

. . . looks like the God damned dawn of the world in here necks without heads arms seeking shoulders, only God damned person live here’s Empedocles . . .

And again on 407:

— Point God damned point only audience sit through it’s Empedocles, shambling creatures with countless hands eyes wandering around looking for a God damned forehead parts joining up all wrong make a hell of a musical just telling Bast . . .

So, love and strife, chaos molded into a sort of order from a stew of disparate parts, and that cacophony of voices that we as readers begin over time to assemble into something meaningful. It’s neat how all of this comes together, and it makes me think that while I had previously figured a reading of the myths that informed Wagner’s Ring might be central to an even cursory understanding of J R, maybe it’s more important to go back to some of the old Greek philosophers.

  1. Judd
    July 16, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    Great stuff! So, when can we expect a post breaking down the Wagner stuff for us philistines?

    • July 16, 2012 at 12:31 pm

      Hmm, I dunno. Know any Wagner scholars? I had hoped to do a fair amount of pre-reading before doing a J R read here, but the LARB sort of rushed me to it, so I’m woefully underprepared

      It does occur to me that the Rhine (water) and its gold (earth?) may line up with a couple of the Empedoclean elements, and I wonder if there are more such correspondences in Wagner’s work or that of his sources.

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