Flesh and the Perfect Form: The Art of Mistranslating Heraclitus

Fresh from my flying visit to Los Angeles for the opening of William E. Jones: Heralitus Fragment 124, Automatically Illustrated at the David Kordansky Gallery, I thought I would share with you a couple of thoughts about how I translated the fragment, which William E. Jones transformed into one of the works in the exhibition (below).

Flesh: of things discharged at random, the perfect form, 2013, archival solvent ink on paper, 3 panels, each: 80 x 58.66 inches (203.2 x 149 cm), unique

The text of the fragment I translated was not that emended by Diels – to include sarma ‘heap’ – and in many of the recent editions of Heraclitus, but that as transmitted by Theophrastus with sarx ‘flesh’, and accepted by Dimitri Gutas, after a series of variations given by others, including Heinrich Gomperz and John McDiarmid:

σάρξ, εἰκῇ κεχυμένων ὁ κάλλιστος κόσμος
(“Flesh: of things discharged at random, the perfect form.”) 

As I wrote in my essay ‘Spontaneously Resurrecting Flesh’ in the book that accompanied the exhibition called Flesh and the Cosmos, my decision to translate eikē kechumenōn (“of things discharged at random”) was based on Gomperz’s 1922 interpretation of the fragment as describing the role of sperm in human reproduction as the randomly dispersed origins of a beautifully ordered being (If you visit the exhibition, you will find that the very first image in the first panel shows a happy family, with mother and baby recently discharged from the maternity ward!). In addition, I wanted to emphasize the idea of ‘flesh’ as evoking not only living, but inanimate matter – the corpse – in choosing a word that would also contain some idea of death and destruction. I felt that ‘discharge’ would generate images of automatic weapons and their sprays of bullets. (Here I was also thinking of the pun at Heraclitus DK B48 – ‘The name of the bow (bios) is life (bios), but its work is death”).

However, what I did not explicitly comment on in my essay was my mistranslation of ho kallistos kosmos as ‘the perfect form’ and not ‘the most beautiful universe’. How did I get from the superlative of beauty to perfection and from the universe to form? These mistranslations are related to one another and are part of my interpretation of the Theophrastus passage in which these Heraclitean words were originally quoted, as argued in my essay. In his discussion of Heraclitus as a materialist who claimed that a determinate universe was generated out of indeterminate principles, Theophrastus inserts a formalist rephrasing of Heraclitus’ words, transforming his idea of ‘random discharge’ (eikē kechumenōn), with the phrase automatōs ginomenōn (“of things coming into being spontaneously”). It is specifically this distinction between random and spontaneous generation that I transposed into ‘perfect form’. As a translator, I wanted to mirror how Theophratus sowed a formalist seed into his materialist’s text, making ‘the most beautiful universe’ into the ‘perfect form’.

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