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Textualization of Experience

Studies on Ancient Greek Literature


Paweł Majewski

The book is an analysis of Greek Hellenistic literature with the help of conceptual tools of cultural studies and media theory. Its main aim is to describe the cultural process during which Greek authors in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. made the “textualization of experience", that is, transferred phenomenalistically understood qualities of human sensory experience to the categories characteristic for textual description – as far as possible for them. This process is shown by examples from the works of Xenophon, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Philitas of Kos and Archimedes. The author also tries to show some of the consequences that the phenomenon of the Hellenistic textualization of experience had for the later epochs of European culture.

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In the second book of his treatise On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero criticizes the views of the Greek atomists from the school of Epicurus:

At this point must I not marvel that there should be anyone who can persuade himself that there are certain solid and indivisible particles of matter borne along by the force of gravity, and that the fortuitous collision of those particles produces this elaborate and beautiful world? I cannot understand why he who considers it possible for this to have occurred should not also think that, if a countless number of copies of the one-and-twenty letters of the alphabet, made of gold or what you will, were thrown together into some receptacle and then shaken out on to the ground, it would be possible that they should produce the Annals of Ennius, all ready for the reader. I doubt whether chance could possibly succeed in producing even a single verse! (De natura deorum II, 37, 93)1

Citing this passage of Cicero in a study on the ancient ideas concerning the notion of “element” (stoicheion), Hermann Diels emphasizes its similitude to the shape of fonts in the printing press invented by Johann Gutenberg, and points to the Democritean analogy between the atoms and the letters of the alphabet, enumerating other passages from ancient Greek and Latin texts, whose authors are using this representation too. But for Democritus or Lucretius, the comparison of the elements of matter to the letters of alphabet was nothing more than a visual illustration of their ontological and sometimes ethical views – and for Cicero such a comparison would be intolerable, since it is tantamount to a refutation of meaningfulness and purposefulness of the human world. It is very significant that Cicero mentions The Annals of Ennius – the most significant Roman historical epic before Virgil, of which he was also personally and intellectually fond – as an example of improbable coincidence which would be a random composition of scattered letters into just that poem. The vision of the world as a space of stochastic natural actions was utterly unacceptable for Cicero. In his terms, for the human mind desiring an order of things the world structured by ←9 | 10→chance from atoms and at the same time equipped with internal meaning is unbearable – equally as a text structured from aleatory letters and nevertheless equipped with internal meaning – because isolated atoms and isolated letters are equally nonsensical and meaningless. Through many centuries, in every culture of alphabetic writing, the users of this writing will look for sense and meaning in their world and in their texts, taking for granted – more or less consciously – that on some level of organization of the world and, respectively, of the text, the fundamental configuration of their components somehow obtains its internal cohesion, and that the discovery that cohesion is a crucial task of the human intellect. And when Marshall McLuhan in the middle of the twentieth century will stubbornly repeat that the alphabetic writing creates the modern man in a particular way because it consists of meaningless signs representing meaningless sounds – and at the same time, in its innumerable combinations, creates a canon of cultural texts defining the identity and self-consciousness of its users (who are also the users of culture) – he will also involuntarily repeat the idea of Cicero, though in an approbative context, like Lucretius in Roman antiquity.


This book is a separate intellectual enterprise, but it is also, to some extent, a continuation of my previous book, Writing, text, literature. The writing practices of ancient Greeks and the matrix of European cultural memory (Warszawa 2013), where, using achievements of diverse schools of the modern humanities, I try to sketch a scenario of the development of ancient Greek literacy to show how the mutual influences of the two main media of cultural communication, speaking and writing (in its alphabetical form), shaped the evolution of European culture. I was interested particularly in such influence that exists beyond intentional attitudes of creators and participants of cultural circulations of symbolic representations and nevertheless is not apprehended under the categories of “structure” and “system.” In that book, I considered various cultural phenomena, from Presocratic gnomas to the philological works of Alexandrians. But I omitted great number of textual phenomena, whose presence in ancient times may still contribute to the better understanding our present culture.

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Here, I would like to partially fulfil this gap by showing how the people from Greek antiquity have been undertaking the task of the textualization of experience.

The notion of “experience” becomes now very popular after a long time of oblivion in the epoch when anti-subjective modes of thinking about human world prevailed in the humanities. It is a very problematic and multifaceted term, a term which has – just in its scope affirmed today – a long history dating from David Hume or even Francis Bacon. In this book, I understand “experience” as a resource of sensual data reaching to the consciousness of a human being by his or her sensorium based on the biological apparatus of perception and further subjected to volitional, emotional, and reflexive categorization in his or her mind. The data processed in such a way are connecting with sets of symbolic representations and resources of cultural memory, from which every human being draws his or her knowledge of lifeworld and to which he or she can add his or her own particle of data as a member of a community that is endowed with history, tradition, and identity – and all that finally becomes the content of “experience”. It is not hard to see that this account diverges far from the division between naturalist and culturalist methods of anthropological thinking. Indeed, this divergence is fully intentional. As a matter of research, the most important stuff for me are the forms of cultural communication and its media: above all, the alphabetic writing, mainly in its social and cultural dimension of writing practices, and the text, mainly as product of these practices functioning between senders and recipients of messages. To some extent, also speech is a subject of my interest – but only insofar as its momentality allows any research about its practices – because the speech is always actually correlated with writing practices in literate cultures.

“Text” is a term ubiquitous in this book. Usually, it has no connection with any particular specimen of any concrete notation, but also it has no relations with semiotic and structural theories of the sign. “Text” is meant here as a historically determined medium of cultural communication, similarly to e.g. the phone in modern times. Because I am concerned mainly with the culture of ancient Greece, it is obvious that “text” almost always means here a chirographic notation, a manuscript written in a book in the shape of a roll. In many cases, however, its chirography and the form of its material medium play a minor role as it is not always possible nor desirable ←11 | 12→to have reasonable deliberations about the contribution of chirography in the epistemological and communicational functions of the text, which are the most important subject of my interest. I was trying not to hypostatize this term, not to make “The Text” from just “a text,” or turn it into some kind of interpretational fetish or a skeleton key in my inquiries. It is only a few times that I have decided to capitalize this word. And as for the difference between the text and writing, one may put it as follows: writing is a consequence of writing or sending practices, while the text is a consequence of the reading or receiving practices. In a purely material aspect, the text and writing are often, but not necessarily, the same thing.

In ancient Greece, these three media: speech, writing, and text – which, alongside image and performance, are the most fundamental media of communication in the human history hitherto – have determined, with their numerous mutual relations and influences, not only self-consciousness of man in his world of life, his understanding of his own existential position, but also the modes of articulation of that self-consciousness and understanding (together with experience as defined above, which is its crucial component) in symbolic messages that have informed subsequent phases of the development of the European culture. This statement is apparently self-evident, since it is hard to imagine any articulation of the human existential or symbolic data contained in a form other than verbal. In this case, there are only two possible alternatives: the image, a category which constitutes the second great field of symbolic communication, and the spectacle or performance which constitutes the third and last of these fields. It would be extremely difficult to indicate a phenomenon of any human culture in their historically recorded entirety, which in its intersubjective appearance and transmission would not be articulated in one of these fields or their various combinations – this is the only possible mode of making these data present in the reflective consciousness of human beings who participate in the system of culture. From my perspective, the most interesting issue is the evolutional and dynamical change of proportions between the “verbal” and “scribal” components in the process of transmission of experience between human beings. In this book, I have decided to analyze these ancient forms of this process (“ancient” means here also: primordial for our cultural circle, for our civilization), in which writing definitely prevailed over speech.

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Speech and writing report human experience for humans and toward humans. Here is another statement which seems to be trivial, but after a more detailed inspection becomes no less problematic than the antecedent one. For it quickly becomes clear that the word, spoken or written, communicates experience in a very ambiguous manner, and that is because – again, it is apparently trivial – neither the spoken nor written word is identical with the content and experiencing of real experience, unless it is experience of the word as such (the “power of the living word” or “intensely experienced lecture of a novel”), which, in turn, requires advanced reciprocal reflection concerning the medium of language or, on the contrary, a total lack of such a reflection, when the word and the thing designated by it are the same for the speaker and the listener (viz. the writer and the reader). The problems of mimesis, of reference of the signs of language or of relation “word-object,” and the historical and cultural motives such as “inexpressible,” “unnameable,” “the limits of language,” “Aleph” form Borges’ stories and its cabbalistic provenance, “zaumny yazik” (“zaum,” “the language beyond the mind”) of the Russian avant-garde, “universal language” as a goal of inquiries of whole cohorts of intellectuals and maniacs or “metalang” featured by Stanisław Lem in his Imaginary Magnitude – all these concepts and much more emerge from a fundamental, essential difference between experience as it is meant in this book and each possible expression of this experience regardless of the time, place, and mode of its articulation.

The textualization of the resource of immediate data of consciousness is a mean which enables their symbolical transmission toward the consciousness of others, who were beyond the scope of physical propagation of these data. To put it more simply, thanks to their writings and texts human beings are able to recount for other human beings their own sensual and existential experiences, observations, perceptions, and intellectual reflections derived from all this stuff. Furthermore, there is no need for personal interaction – as distinct from the use of living words, articulated with all riches of nonverbal means of communication. Conscious living, observation, and action – three great domains connecting and engaging the mental realm of the human being with his or her body, movements, and operations, which, taken as a whole, form the entire body of experience: in their verbal, reflective expressions, mediated by an apparatus of ←13 | 14→hierarchically structured notions and categories of language, they create what we are used to call “knowledge.”

In the European culture – and indeed all other human cultures, which accepted writing and its accompanying practices as the main medium for the transmission of cultural messages – the possibility of the transmission of experience (resulting from conscious living, observations and actions) at a distance, or the possibility of the creation of textual knowledge is so obvious that, for members of these cultures, it is extremely hard to imagine any alternative for such a state of human affairs. But, I repeat it once again, there is not a single element of this medial situation that would be obvious or self-evident; instead, all of these elements are the results of cultural processes which, at initial phases of their development, were only faintly made aware by human beings, while at more advanced phases were often just taken for granted by them – as phenomena which are natural, transparent, and neutral for the process of expression and the transfer of experience.

In order to stress the divergence between lived and transferred experience, I use in this book a term coined by Edmund Husserl in 1936 – Lebenswelt (lifeworld) – which became popular among philosophers and sociologists from the phenomenological school. Husserl’s term is especially helpful for my inquiries because it determines a whole complex of sensual experiences and feelings, together with their accompanying mental reactions and intellectual processes evoked in every human being by his or her immediate “here-and-now” experienced material environment. “Experience” which I am talking about is embedded exactly in Lebenswelt.

It must be strongly stressed that we draw each one element of our knowledge of the external world, which exceeds beyond Lebenswelt, from the communicational media. Before radio, cinema, and TV became globally widespread, the only medium suitable for the extension of human Lebenswelt – besides the living speech of others and a limited number of visual images that proliferated only in the era of their mechanical reproduction – was writing, which down to the middle of the fifteenth century circulated in the western civilization only in the form of manuscripts. That said, the main goal of this book is to answer the question how “experience,” as described above, has transformed into so conditioned forms of message.

In the twentieth century, the problem of the linguistic framing of experience preoccupied many thinkers from the phenomenological and ←14 | 15→hermeneutic schools. It also proved interesting for the structuralists and poststructuralists, even though they approached it from another, not subjective, standpoint, in which the object of deep thoughts becomes the problem of reference of linguistic signs in abstraction from the subjective-experiential realm.

In turn, the inheritors of positivism developed distinct theories of knowledge, founded on their obvious certitude about the “naturality” and absolute, non-relative status of its linguistic, especially textual, expressions. At the end of the previous century, besides the further development of all these modes of thinking, there was a rapid growth of new methods of thought concerning both experience as such and its linguistic expressions. Now these questions are dealt with by researchers from so different areas as: postcolonial studies, gender and queer studies, grounded theory in social sciences, cultural studies, memory studies, sensory studies, and so on. We are observing an intense reflection especially on experiences related to the negative aspects of human social and historical condition, such as: exclusion, marginalization, stigmatization, privation, traumatization, and victimization. It is hard to overestimate the role of Holocaust studies, where the problem of intersubjective (non)expressibility of the border experiences is putting and discussing with extreme acuity. Most of these academic investigations is diversely related to the current social and political problems of our civilization. Within this panoramic view the “pure” scientific knowledge turns out to be only one among many equivalent elements, highly dependent on non-scientific aspects of its creation and transmission. This knowledge is also no more – at least in the actual phase of our cultural evolution – the highest, most privileged form of learning. Moreover, it is impossible to attribute such a role to anyone other form of knowledge, except by virtue of an arbitrary decision.

So, the notion of experience – a notion extraordinarily important in our time, even, so to say, neuralgic for the contemporary cultural and political common consciousness – is present today in philosophy, historiography, social sciences, literary studies, and anthropology – and everywhere it is embedded (categorially and analytically) in the metacategories which are emerging from writing practices, from the textual thinking founded for the Europeans by the ancient Greeks, with Plato and Aristotle at the forefront.

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By formulating such a supposition (which was proved already in my previous book and here the proof is being continued), I am not intending to project some kind of escape or even withdrawal from this situation – a situation which would be labelled by more radical theorists as the prison of writing. We cannot get out form this prison for this would require us to exceeded the borders of language understood as a tool for the human communication. The only thing we can do is to try to make our utterances – verbal and textual – as meaningful and affecting as it is possible for us, even when these utterances say nothing about the reality as such; like this book which, to be sure, is composed only from interpretations of other books and texts, but which nonetheless strives in its content to get out of the brackets of text enclosing that part of our world which is not a text and which appeared within these brackets only in part and by way of contingency.

One can guess that part is pars maxima. For those of us who are not the inhabitants of textual world such guessing is obvious, but just because writing is not their natural environment, they are seldom able to articulate this obviousness. So, usually they are content with its silent experience.

1 Cicero in twenty-eight volumes, vol. XIX, De Natura Deorum, Academica, with an English translation by H. Rackham, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Harvard University Press, London, William Heinemann Ltd (Loeb Classical Library 268), MCMLXVII, p. 213.