The Roman poet-philosopher Lucretius, in his De rerum natura (‘On the Nature of Things’) introduces a discussion (and refutation) of Empedocles’ theory of the Four Elements (or Roots) – Earth, Water, Fire, Air – with a description of his predecessor’s homeland of Sicily (DRN 1. 716-725). David Sedley in his book Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom (Cambridge, 2003), following from an initial observation by Cyril Bailey, has convincingly shown how this vivid geographical description or travelogue acts as an ‘intricately reworked’ account of the Empedoclean theory of the Four Elements.
The 1963-4 series of work called Field Phalanxes by the Canadian artist David Rabinowitch is the focus of a chapter of Julia Otto’s book Skulptur als Feld (Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2001), called: ‘Das Feld als Inspiration – Flache Bodenskulptur als künstlerisches Äquivalent der Suche nach Grundprinzipien in der Physik’ (‘The field of inspiration – Flat floor sculpture as an artistic equivalent of the search for fundamental principles in physics’). When I visited the Chinati Foundation at Marfa, Texas in May this year, I encountered one of these works and in the discussion with Rabinowitch that ensured, the artist told me that Empedocles’ theory of the Four Elements was fundamental to this work.
Yet, here, rather than dwell on the issue of inspiration as a way of proving that Rabinowitch’s work demands that we engage with his (or our) reading of Empedocles (via Lucretius or another testimony, or directly), instead I wish to merely juxtapose Lucretius’ travelogue with my snapshots of Rabinowitch’s work. This juxtaposition is my modest attempt at a new way of asking the following fundamental question, for Empedocles, Lucretius and Rabinowitch: how are the Four Elements related to one another?
insula quem triquetris terrarum gessit in oris,
[Empedocles] was born within the three-cornered terrestrial coasts of the island [Sicily]
quam fluitans circum magnis anfractibus aequor
Ionium glaucis aspargit virus ab undis
angustoque fretu rapidum mare dividit undis
Aeoliae terrarum oras a finibus eius.
around which the Ionian sea, flowing with its great windings, sprays the brine from its green waves, and from whose boundaries the rushing sea with its narrow strait divides the coasts of the Aeolian land with its waves.
hic est vasta Charybdis et hic Aetnaea minantur
murmura flammarum rursum se colligere iras,
faucibus eruptos iterum vis ut vomat ignis
Here is the destructive Charybdis, and here the rumblings of Etna give warning that they are once more gathering the wrath of their flames so that her violence may again spew out the fire flung from her jaws
ad caelumque ferat flammai fulgura rursum.
and hurl once more to the sky the lightning flashes of flame.
For more on David Rabinowitch, see the Chinati Newsletter devoted to his work http://www.chinati.org/pdf/newsletter13.pdf