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The White Pearl Rolls Back into the Sea

On page 23 of Gottfried Benn's poetry collection Statische Gedichte (Static Poems), one finds the concise and dense Welle der Nacht (Wave of Night). When in the last line the white pearl rolls back into the sea our thoughts are of the primordial; when discussing the poem with Jen and Christoph a few weeks ago our talk was of the primordial and the primeval.

What is obvious from the two words (primordial and primeval) is the common bond, the prim-, at first glance first, with the -eval in primeval reminiscent of medieval, and if the latter is the Middle Ages then is not the former the First Age?

1653, from L. primævus “early in life,” from primus “first” (see prime (adj.)) + ævum “an age.”

Our hunch is rewarded by a resounding round of applause, which does, however, ring hollow insofar as it was so obvious. Primordial likewise offers few mysteries; we retain the first and simple guesswork suggests something related to order for the second half. There is, however, no medordial.

1398, from L.L. primordialis “first of all, original,” from L. primordium “the beginning,” from primus “first” (see prime (adj.)) + stem of ordiri “to begin” (see order).

While not etymological synonyms they are practical synonyms, often interchangeable, both supplying a feeling or even concept of something first, ancient, or originary, yet they are perceived as different enough that one can be used to modify the other—I've seen examples along the lines of primordial primeval forest/life/sea. Yet the differences implied by the second part of each word can be exploited: -eval implies a temporal order to matters and suggests measurement or at least pre-established categories of ages or eras, whereas -ordial is the process of categorization itself. Primeval is the first of the ages; primoridal is the earliest drawing of distinctions, before beginnings, and can predate (time again) historical periods. Primordial ooze sounds right because ooze is already nebulous; I want my forests primeval not primordial because the primeval ones seem ancient, whereas the primordial ones seem conceptually uncertain, not quite forests at all, but perhaps something becoming a forest.

The German Ursprung is fascinating in this regard, as is Urteil, for the former indicates a leap, the latter a part or section. An Ursprung, or origin, is a leap into being and order, logically disconnected from that which predates it, for were it logically connected we could trace it back to that which came before, which would then be the Ursprung—this leap is so often the solution to troubling infinite regresses.

Urteil is even better. It is generally taken merely as Judgment, as in Kafka's short story “Das Urteil.” But it appears that Kant might have had the—pardon the pun—original (Ur-) meaning in mind when he named his third critical work Die Kritik der Urteilskraft, or Critique of Judgment. It is not the critique of Judgment—it is the critique of the power of judgment, and force or power, not faculty. Yet the German is not judgment insofar as it reminds us of justice, of jurisprudence, of balance—an Urteil is a primal distinction, a first part(ing); it is not the application of reason to the categories but the drawing of categories itself. It is not pure or practical reason, the application of rules, but the force (Kraft) in effect when the rules are not (yet) given.

c.1440, “gaping void,” from L. chaos, from Gk. khaos “abyss, that which gapes wide open, is vast and empty,” from *khnwos, from PIE base *gheu-, *gh(e)i- “to gape” (cf. Gk khaino “I yawn,” O.E. ginian, O.N. ginnunga-gap; see yawn). Meaning “utter confusion” (1606) is extended from theological use of chaos for “the void at the beginning of creation” in Vulgate version of Genesis. The Gk. for “disorder” was tarakhe, however the use of chaos here was rooted in Hesiod (“Theogony”), who describes khaos as the primeval emptiness of the Universe, begetter of Erebus and Nyx (“Night”), and in Ovid (“Metamorphoses”), who opposes Khaos to Kosmos, “the ordered Universe.” Chaotic is from 1713.

In the third grade I stayed home for a week because of walking pneumonia. We had some harsh winters in the early- and mid-80s, and also, as a result, had a number of “snow days.” I spent a number of those days away from school in my queen size bed with its green, padded, demonic-seeming headboard, and there was a time that I immersed myself in the wonders of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, the second of which was titled The Citadel of Chaos. At first I did not know how to pronounce chaos—having studied piano and classical music I had no such trouble with Chopin and Bach. I did not ask; I merely emulated, but this emulation was conscious. I did not just absorb from my environment, rather I was aware of not knowing what I wanted to know and so was on the lookout for the answer, even if it seemed that I was doing so passively.

I next encountered chaos or chaotic in the summer after the 5th grade when in Oregon, for I inherited a 1981 box set of the Basic and Expert Rules for Dungeons & Dragons, and so I was presented with lawful, neutral, and chaotic alignments in the context of a game that I never really ended up playing. I never read James Gleick's book; I later read a little on chaos theory, but non-linear differential equations were not really my thing.

Before leaving for Berlin I at some point came across Norbert Bolz's Die Welt als Chaos und als Simulation (München: Fink, 1992), the dense opening chapter to which provides a fascinating history of chaos.

order (n.)
c.1225, “body of persons living under a religious discipline,” from O.Fr. ordre (11c.), from earlier ordene, from L. ordinem (nom. ordo) “row, rank, series, arrangement,” originally “a row of threads in a loom,” from Italic root *ored(h)- “to arrange, arrangement” (cf. ordiri “to begin to weave,” e.g. in primordial), of unknown origin. Meaning “a rank in the (secular) community” is first recorded c.1300; meaning “command, directive” is first recorded 1548, from the notion of “to keep in order.” Military and honorary orders grew our of the fraternities of Crusader knights. Business and commerce sense is attested from 1837. In natural history, as a classification of living things, it is first recorded 1760. Meaning “condition of a community which is under the rule of law” is from 1483. Phrase in order to (1655) preserves etymological notion of “sequence.” The word reflects a very medieval notion: “a system of parts subject to certain uniform, established ranks or proportions,” and was used of everything from architecture to angels. The verb is c.1240, from the noun. In short order “without delay” is from 1834, Amer.Eng.; order of battle is from 1769.

Chaos and Order—Khaos & Kosmos—are so often set as opposites, but analytically that his hardly the case; etymologically and conceptually they belong to two entirely different realms, the former to yawning or gaping, the latter to the process of weaving or agriculture. One is tied to unstructured spaces, the other to line-drawing and relationships. In fact, it is this weaving aspect of order that is interesting, for text and dichten/Dichter (German for to compose poetry and poet, respectively) have similar origins; the similarity between text and textile is not to be overlooked. Likewise it is the weaving fates who order the Cosmos.

—January 27 2007