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Irene Vallejo-The First Book

A carved porphyry and marble bust of Herakleitos after the antic, Italian, 17TH century style. Christies.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Irene Vallejo’s ‘The infinity within a reed‘ (El infinito en un junco. La invención de los libros en el mundo antiguo) The invention of the book in the ancient world. At the moment, there is no English translation (!), so we will share in the coming days a few excerpts we will translate into English for you, good patrons and readers, so to behold an impression of Irene Vallejo’s story-telling talent and skillful scholarship. This one being the first excerpt. From the French translation of Anne Plantagenet, Editions de Belles Lettres, 2021.


The is nothing left of the ancient books of Europe. Papyrus is a perishable and fragile material, that does not survive over more than two hundred years in humid climates. We can just, nowadays, re-discover in the Greek texts the very first mentions of concrete books, actual, that someone could see and touch in a place he wanted to remember the name. The search brought me to the junction of the VIth and the Vft centuries B.C. . It is told that during that period the philosopher Herakleitos ceremoniously handed over as a present on the altar of the temple of Artemis in Ephesus his life’s work, ‘Upon Nature’.

Ephesus was a city-state located in Anatolia, the ancient Asia Minor, today Turkey. What we mean by ‘Philosophy’ surged at the beginning of the VIth century B.C. , all of a sudden without apparent reasons, within the slim costal band that was occupied by the Greeks, at the limits of the Asian world. The first philosophers were the children of the border, of the blending of blood, of the threshold. Whereas continental Greece was anchored in the past, the inhabitants of this cross-bred periphery ventured towards radical innovations.

The birth of Greek philosophy coincides with the beginning of books, and it is not a random fact. Facing the oral community-based upon traditional tales, known and easy to memorize- writing allows to create a complex language that the readers could assimilate and meditate quietly. To develop a critical mind is easier for who holds a book in his hands-and can interrupt his reading, re-read, pause to fathom-than the mesmerized auditor of a rhapsod.

Herakleitos was nick-named ‘the enigmatic’, then ‘the abstruse’. In his life’s work, the opacity of his life and its astonishing contradictions seem to pervade the text, to impregnate it. With him begins ‘difficult’ literature, that challenges the reader to grasp meaning. It’s Proust’s father, with his sentences full of circumvolutions; its Faulkner and his fuzzy monologs, often disarticulated; and also Joyce, who in ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ gives the impression to be writing a few languages at the same time-some of his invention. I am not saying that there is a kinship between them because their styles are similar. In fact, only a group of short maxims of Herakleitos, strange and powerful, were able to reach us. No, what they have in common is their attitude towards speech: if the world is mysterious, the adequate language must be dense, enigmatic and hard to understand.

Herakleitos thought that reality could be explained as a permanent tension. He called it ‘war’ or struggle of the opposites. Day and night; wake and sleep; life and death transform each other and only exist in their opposition; they are in fact the two sides of the same coin. (“It is disease that gives health pleasantness and goodness; hunger repletion; tiredness rest…Immortals, mortals; mortals, immortals; our lives is the death of the later, and their lives, our death.“).

Herakleitos inherited the honorific function of king of his city. He gave up this position, which since the advent of democracy, was in reality more like a priesthood, in favor of his little brother. Apparently, he considered as ‘pure smugglers of mysteries’ the magi, the preachers and the soothsayers. It is told that he refused to dictate laws for his fellow Ephesians, instead playing with children at the peristyle of the temple. It is also said that he became haughty and contemptuous. He couldn’t care less about honors and power; he was obsessed with his quest for the ‘logos’ of the universe, word that meant both ‘speech’ and ‘meaning’. In the very first sentence of the fourth gospel-“At the beginning was the ‘logos‘,- It is Herakleitos speaking.

For him, the key was in change. Nothing lasts. Everything flows. We do not bathe twice in the same river. This aquatic image of a world always in movement, that impressed Plato, is an integral part of ourselves. We had it re-written, re-formulated thousand of times. From Manrique-“Our lives are like rivers rushing towards the sea to die‘-to Bauman and his liquid modernity. Borges, fascinated by Herakleitos’ river, dedicated, among others, this poem: “Herakleitos is walking toward the evening in Ephesus. The evening left him-without his will to be accountable for it- by the bancs of a silent river…/… His voice utters: ‘Nobody walks down twice into the waters of the same river.’ He freezes. Feels with the shivering induced a sacred horror that he also was a river and an run-away. He wants to recover this very morning and its night and dusk. He cannot.

I believe that Herakleitos‘ strange sentences highlight the mystery and shiver that were the origin of philosophy. And also the present time. In order to write this chapter, i had to re-read a few fragments of his abstruse thoughts that have reached us today. They seem the explanation of the news that shake us like earth-quakes. At the border of violence, we struggle between two opposites: globalization and the law of borders; cross-breeding and the fear of minorities; the wish to welcome and the rage to expel; the thirst of freedom and the dream to build fortified strongholds; the desire of change and the nostalgy of forlorn might.

The tension of these contradiction can become almost unbearable. This is why we feel trapped. But, according to Herakleitos’ theses, a slight alteration in the balance of the forces’ dynamics upsets everything. This is why, also, the hope to change the world is always right.

Temple of Diana at Ephesus by Fedinand Knab (1886)
About the Author: 🌿About the French translation of ‘El_infinito_en_un_junco’: 🌿 More about the book’s other translations:
Irene Vallejo-The First Book

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