The Hair Cosmos: Ancient Greece Had a String Theory

The Greek word cosmos is related to the Greek word for comb. I stumbled on this curious little piece of etymology in a book on art appreciation from 1965 titled, The Book of Art: How to Look at Art (vol. 10, text by Bernard Myers, Grolier).

The following is from page 15 of that book:

A great deal of the history of philosophy has been the search for simple unchanging fundamental laws in an apparently everchanging world. These ideas are all the result of practical observation and experience. Something just happens. A tree is struck by lightning; we explain it in terms of a god hurling a thunderbolt, or as an electrical discharge. Someone is taken ill: he is described as being invaded by evil spirits, or by virus organisms. . . .

We use the word cosmos as name for the universal order of things . . . The word cosmos, or kosmos, was originally a craft word. It is the same word as ‘comb’ and was used to describe both the action of combing—carding—wool before spinning it into thread, or combing one’s hair. When we comb wool before spinning it into thread, or comb our hair, we straighten out tangled skeins. We set them in order. Homer calls the marshal of the Greek armies in the Iliad the Kosmetore—he who sets in order. We still comb our hair, and women still use cosmetics to set their faces in order.

What I find especially suggestive in the above quote is that, behind the tangled appearance of things, there is always an attempt to set things straight: to get beneath the surface and find an explanation, an order, a cosmos, not a chaos.

Humans rarely accept the given; we tend to theorize past the multiple, the confused. With rock, we break it; with metal, we blow heat on it till it glows or melts; with wood, we cut it; with the body, we open it; with a story, we give it a close reading; with the psyche, we excavate it. We find the patterns that lie beneath a thing, and we dig in it deeper or burn it hotter until some pure form on which all its other forms are based yields to interpretation and makes a coherent story of the whole.

Gnosis is violent.

John Donne (1572-1631) has a poem in which he begs God to rape him in a manner akin to acquiring gnosis:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I like an usurped town to another due,

Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end:

Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captived, and proves weak or untrue;

Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,

But am betrothed unto your enemy:

Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I

Except you enthral me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

One way to know something is to do violence to the appearance of it, and work its constituents until the fullness of knowledge that it contains yields. Once that happens, we can imaginatively reconfigure the thing into our image and likeness (or, at least, to what we like), as Adam (which, in Hebrew, means “clay”) was moulded by God from the dust of the earth. Adam, as a reconfiguration of bare earth, reflects the mind of God, the image of God, the theorizing of God. Like hydrogen at the beginning of the Big Bang universe, dust proved to have a surprising future; it was not all that it first seemed.

You are not what you appear to be, and are going someplace you can scarcely imagine.

If that sounds like a fortune cookie, it is.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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