Confusion. How much can you take. Love turns to hate. Should you play with it. The night is a mess. Winds toss the window aside. Dark comes in at an angle. Everything tilts. What if matter jumped its tracks. What if rust sang or eyebrows shat. What if a headache became king. Not as an art project, not just weekends, not making us each a better person—but simply chaos ripping the sockets out of your arms. Empedokles thought about this. He thought down to the bottom. At the bottom of water he thought “famine.” This thought upset him and he gave it the name of an obscure Sicilian goddess (Nestis), hoping no one would ask more questions. But it continued to bite. In the foundations of things, he had to admit, in the living sources of increase and growth, he saw desertion, lack, lament. Of course it is true mortals never stop dying but that’s not what he means. Perhaps there was a night his lover turned on him in a bar, spitting with hate, threw a cup of wine at his head and said You damage my soul! That’s not what he’s talking about either. He wants to name a doubleness that inhabits all things and prevents them from ever actually coming into being or going out of being. Birth, death, these terms are inexact, he says,
but they are the convention so I use them myself.
(Empedokles, fragment 9.5)
Death, desertion, damage are not the point. Arising and existence are not the point. What runs at the bottom of everything is simply exchange. All that gathers will also disperse. Gather again. Disperse again. One thing becomes many and many become one. Peace turns to wrath and wrath to peace. Moons wax and wane. Cheese forms.
As when the sap of the fig tree has nailed white milk
and made it hard.
(Empedokles, fragment 33)
Reality is a tireless interchange, a mingling and separating, a forming and deforming, a yes and a no, of all the stuff that exists. And underlying it, driving every process and production through the whirlings of the cosmos, is a twofold motive principle, which he calls the energy of Love and Strife. Love and Strife are not material themselves, but they cause matter to be what it is and change how it changes. Neither Love nor Strife could exist without the other; they zipper back and forth inside everything like a vast necessary vibration.
This is perfectly clear in the burden of human limbs:
Sometimes all limbs that belong to a body
come together in Love, at a high edge of life in bloom,
other times, cut apart by evil Strife,
they wander asunder on the shore of life.
So it is too for bushes and fish in their watery halls
and mountain animals and flying gulls.
(Empedokles, fragment 20)
So when your lover wings a winecup at your head, don’t think You monster, think Necessity. I realize I’m being philosophically unfair. Empedokles is a cosmologist, not aiming to console me for the vagaries of love or its mortal pain. Still I take comfort from the images. A lover may become a monster. I need a way to think about that. Here are some lines from fragment 57 and fragment 61. Empedokles is describing a cosmic event, the moment of creation, when the One becomes Many. And entities begin to flare and float up from the ground into life:
Heads without necks sprouted up,
naked arms were wandering with no shoulders,
eyes strayed about in want of foreheads.
Many were produced with a face on both sides and breasts on both sides,
man-faced bulls and again bullheaded men,
or others mingled from men and female parts,
fitted with dark
sterile [the reading is disputed] bodies.
But I digress. I started to think about confusion because of something in Flannery O’Connor. She gave a talk at Notre Dame University in 1957 and said this:
I doubt if the texture of Southern life is any more grotesque
than that of the rest of the nation, but it does seem evident
that the Southern writer is particularly adept at recognizing
the grotesque; and to recognize the grotesque you have to
have some notion of what is not grotesque….
I was thinking about what is grotesque and what is not grotesque existing side-by-side in stories, side-by-side in a mother and son on the bus, side-by-side in one person’s head, and it seemed to me a smart calm way to view the situation. Empedokles, also a Southern writer, was able to reason calmly about these coexistences. And I regret that I am not. Love and hate coexist; they coexist in time, they coexist in other people, they coexist in me. I accept this but still I panic. It feels insane.
Flannery O’Connor’s characters do not get panicky, suffering love and hate in confusion, this burden of human limbs. They just go ahead with both. Think of Asbury Fox (in “The Enduring Chill”), a neurotic boy so bound to his mother he decides to come home and die in her house “because nothing would irritate her so much.” Or O.E. Parker (in “Parker’s Back”), whose contradictory feelings for Sarah Ruth hit up against one another in his actions. “He made up his mind then and there to have nothing further to do with her,” one paragraph ends and the next paragraph begins, “They were married in the County Ordinary’s office because Sarah Ruth thought churches idolatrous.” Sometimes Parker’s ambivalence fits into once sentence:
Every morning he decided he had had enough and would
not return that night; every night he returned.
And even when he does spend a night away from his wife, paradox persists:
Parker spent the night on a cot at the Haven of Light Christian
Mission. He found these the best places to stay in the city because
they were free and included a meal of sorts. He got the last available
cot and because he was still barefooted, he accepted a pair of second-
hand shoes which, in his confusion, he put on to go to bed….
The grotesque may take many forms. Poor Parker lying in bed with his shoes on seems a milder event than manheaded bulls or naked arms wandering the world apart from shoulders, but in practical terms, once your life has jumped the track, where is the way home? Once hatred blows up the law of love on your dear one’s face, how do you return to conversation? Fictionally. You make something resembling blood. If there were a way home it would be a mystery, Flannery O’Connor might say. No use trying to prattle your way into mystery. But tell what you see, tell what the blood was like, and maybe a gesture will form. Probably unbearable. Certainly unclean. And then you will go ahead with your exile.
Fictionally. Here arises, for Empedokles, the fiction of world itself. For it is important to notice that, in his cosmology, creation happens and a multiplicity of things arise into life as a consequence of Strife. He says that the forces of Love and Strife are immortal and uncreated, whereas matter (which consists of Fire Water Earth Air) is always dying and returning to life. When it dies, Love draws it upward into oneness. But when Strife tears the oneness apart again, then Fire Water Earth Air get separated and from their separation come monsters, animals, fish, bushes, girls, boys, and all the parts of the cosmos created from these. Also swans, of which the male is called a cob and the female a pen, according to Flannery O’Connor. Not a hen? No, a pen, she maintains. She kept swans.