Delos: Island of Islands OR More Beasts and Sovereigns
This picture is what erupted into view at the crest of the mountain on Delos that had previously hid itself entirely from view.
In his book, Sojourns, Heidegger journals his travels through Italy and Greece and the Greek islands. I have something of a love-hate relationship with Heidegger. I couldn’t think the way I do nor read ancient texts as I do without the influence of Heidegger. And yet, when he writes things like: “The Asiatic element once brought to the Greeks a dark fire, a flame for their poetry and thought to reorder with light and measure,” I want to scream. Heidegger holds a common prejudice that I tease my students for adopting so easily: the East is exotic, full of fire and passion and the West brings order and logic. When I read that line, I was put in mind of Foucault’s discussion of the Chinese encyclopedia in the Introduction to The Order of Things. Foucault writes:
This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.
While Heidegger looks to the East and sees passion without order, Foucault notes how the order of another order cannot be recognized by those who cannot see their own order as having a history. As I read Derrida on Heidegger’s lectures on whether animals share the world of humans, I see a similar inability to see another order in the order of another. Heidegger travels through Venice, Corfu and Crete and grows disappointed that he will ever find what he says is the fundamental insight of Greek thinking: aletheia, the Greek word for truth that he argues means a-lethe, non-forgetting where lethe, like the River Lethe on the entry to Hades is the word for forgetting and the a is a privative-a. Central to Heidegger’s account of truth is what can be hidden or revealed — and as I just read in Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign, Vol. 2, only those who can also conceal can speak the truth, and it is this capacity to hide, to conceal, to lie that makes us human (Derrida finds this in Heidegger in GA 29 / 30). Heidegger describes aletheia thus in Sojourns:
Every saying and, through it, every creation and work, every deed and action receives from aletheia and retains in it the determination of their type. For aletheia is this place: the open space that is taking place and gives place to every thing, that determines and liberates, that allows what is present and absent to come and last, to leave and err. (32)
He’s worried, though, that he might be wrong. So it is with great excitement that he explores Delos. Delos was an uninhabited island — and it remains uninhabited today. It was the island where the Delian League was formed in the early 5th century, after the Persian War when the Greeks decide it would be good to establish a Greek defense league of sorts. Delos was the island where they stored the common treasury of their league, and the powerful islands erected temples to signify their power. Naxos was the initial power and they erected temples and then Paros became more powerful, but eventually everyone was under the hand of Athens. Delos is the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. In this regard, it is a sacred site for Apollo like Delphi, but for Artemis it is a wild place — my legs were scratched by many wild thistles. When Heidegger arrives at Delos, he writes:
Delos, the sacred island, the center of the Greek land and its coasts and seas, reveals insofar as it conceals.
You can just imagine the fun that Heidegger has with this island, whose name, Delos, means, as Heidegger writes in his journal:
the manifest, the visible, the one that gathers every thing in its open, every thing to which she offers shelter through her appearing she gathers into one present.
I traveled through many tour groups, around many temple ruins, statues of lions around both Apollo and Artemis’ temples (on different ends of the island), through the Temple to Poseidon, and still had not yet seen that which was concealed reveal itself in the spirit of aletheia, until finally, climbing many stone stairs to the highest point of the island, I came to the peak and the other side of the island broke wide open — it had been hidden and revealed.
Part of what is revealed is Delos as an island that gathered all of Greece, an island that mixed — with statues of Cleopatra in the museum and a temple not only to Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis, but also to Isis and the Poseidoniasts of Beruit. What appears is multiple, mixed, an order that includes a confrontation of orders, but all this remained concealed to Heidegger, and too often, to us.
Heidegger indirectly calls Delos “the island of islands” when he says early on in the book, long before he finds what he seeks on Delos:
We, who are in greater need, in greater poverty for poetic thoughts, we need, perhaps, to pay a visit to the island of the islands, if only in order to set on its way the intimation that we have cherished for a long time. (4)
The island seems to be what stands alone, sufficient unto itself, and yet, as Derrida makes clear in these lectures, the human effort to stand alone against the animal or even as the civilized, the “true Greek” against the barbarian, is what produces the human as inhuman, as more like the beast than the beast. Importantly, this can’t mean saying that we are just animals, but that the conditions for the possibility of drawing and maintaining this distinction are also the conditions for the impossibility of maintaining such a distinction.